Australian National University set Solar Efficiency Record
Australia could be a world leader in solar power. The entrenched interests of the powerful coal lobby have been a barrier preventing the government getting fully behind the conversion to a solar powered economy. However the tide is turning in favour of solar power as technical innovation progresses, prices come down and popular support grows. Today I want to write about two solar stories from Australia.
Tyalgum is small community of just 300 residents in the beautiful hilly county along the border between New South Wales and Queensland. They are proposing to disconnect themselves from the electricity grid and supply all their energy needs from ordinary rooftop photovoltaic (pv) solar panels with batteries in all the buildings to store electricity in the most distributed way possible. For relatively isolated small communities at the end of the electricity grid this makes perfect sense. Once Tyalgum achieve this many other similar communities are likely to follow them.
Meanwhile scientists at the Australian National University at Canberra have just announced 97% conversion efficiency for turning sunlight into steam. They use a huge 500 square metre parabolic mirrored dish to concentrate the sun’s energy onto a small central receiver. Water pumped through this receiver is heated to 500 degrees Celsius by the power of 2,100 Suns, creating steam to drive turbines and so make electricity, or to be stored in molten salt to generate electricity after the sun has set. Australia has long been good at research into concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) but unfortunately has never had the government vision and support to achieve large scale commercial deployment, so consequently Australia lags a long way behind Morocco, Chile, South Africa or the USA in terms of deployment of CSP. However as costs continue to fall, spurred on by innovation and increases in efficiency, the economics of concentrating solar power relative to coal continue to improve.
It makes sense for cities to be linked into power grids, but for isolated communities cutting themselves off from the grid makes increasingly good economic sense. Solar power could supply all of Australia’s power needs and both pv and CSP have a role to play. Australia now has a new government and it is high time they put the conversion to a solar powered economy as a top priority: there would be many benefits, including cheaper electricity and reduced carbon emissions.
A few weeks ago I blogged about Solar Impulse and speculated about the possibility of radically more sustainable air flight based on lighter than air airships. Little did I realise at the time that such craft were actually being developed and were pretty much ready to go. A few days ago the Airlander 10 took its maiden voyage over a field in Bedfordshire. This Airlander 10 is very impressive. It is huge: 92 m long and 43.5 m wide, a vast helium balloon encased in high-tech Vectran material. It is has been designed and built by Hybrid Air Vehicles and is a true hybrid, its lighter than air main body is like an Airship, its aerodynamic body and small fixed wings are more like an airplane and its multidirectional engines give it much of the functionality of a helicopter. It can land anywhere, on water, in fields, in deserts or on ice-sheets. This will give it tremendous advantages in delivering goods or people to remote locations, and also opens the possibility for smaller quieter city airports. It can travel at up to 100 mph and stay airborne for weeks at a time. The Airlander 10 comes with a £25 m price-tag, very much cheaper than an Airbus A380 at £287m. They expect to have one hundred of these craft operating within 5 years. The Airlander 10 can carry a payload of 10 tonnes, and plans are afoot to build an Airlander 50 to carry 50 tonnes, with much larger future possibilities, of anything up to 1000 tonne versions.
The Airlander already creates less environmental damage than other planes, but this might well be further improved by incorporating solar cells and batteries as pioneered by Solar Impulse. I wonder whether the two teams have been in touch, it might be of great mutual benefit. Together they hint towards a future with very much more sustainable air travel. Bring it on!
Professor Charlotte Williams, founder of Econic Technologies
Climate change dictates that we need to reduce carbon emissions to net zero or even to net negative emissions as fast as possible. There has been much talk of carbon capture and storage. However just pumping carbon dioxide into old oil and gas wells seems both a waste of a potentially valuable resource and a rather insecure method of storage. I’ve long argued that carbon capture and utilization was a much better path to explore. There are many methods of doing this, from very well known and old to the most innovative high tech fields of research.
Photosynthesis takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Using high quality timbers like oak and teak in construction locks this carbon up in the fabric of a building, potentially for many centuries. Algae grow rapidly and are potentially the basis of a whole range of sustainable renewable energy and chemical industries. In 2009 Scottish Bioenergy built a very interesting algal bioreactor at the Glenturret Whiskey Distillery in Crieff, turning industrial waste into energy and a range of useful products, including high protein fish food. Using photosynthesis to capture carbon in timber, algae and other useful plant materials has a powerful positive role to play in carbon sequestration and in modern industrial innovation.
Carbon can also be directly captured from the atmosphere, or from flue gases, and used in a whole range of other useful products, from cement to plastics. A few years ago I got very excited at the prospect of carbon negative cements, which have great potential but which unfortunately cannot yet compete on price with ordinary Portland cement. Currently there is a lot of interest in making the plastics industry more sustainable. One of my favourite examples of this is Econic Technologies.
Econic Technologies is an amazing UK start-up. It was founded in 2011 by Professor Charlotte Williams to use carbon dioxide as a feedstock in the production of polymers. These are used in an extraordinarily wide range of products from trainers to mattresses, coatings and adhesives to appliances and in construction. The process they use will help reduce the energy use and ecological footprint of this whole range of industrial products. Econic Technologies, like MeshPower that I blogged about last week, was started by people from Imperial Collage in London. They have now grown due to investment from Imperial Innovations, Jetstream Capital, Norner and most recently Woodford Investment Management. This has allowed them to hire more staff and to open a new Application Development site at Alderley Park in Cheshire. This small start up seems to be growing well, and the technologies they have developed may have a huge role in helping reduce the pollution caused by the global chemical industry. I wish them every success.
MeshPower brings electricity to another family in rural Rwanda
About 1.2 billion people, or 17% of the world’s population, don’t have access to electricity. Most of them live in rural parts of Africa and southern Asia. One of the UN Sustainable Development goals is that everyone should have access to electricity. Once communities have electricity literacy rates tend to increase, new businesses spring up and gradually people become a little better off so other aspects of poverty can be more easily remedied. Solar panels, batteries and a range of other Cleantech innovations are bringing electricity to these people in new ways that are less polluting and cheaper than traditional power stations and electricity grids.
One excellent example of this process is MeshPower, a small UK company started in 2012 by students from Imperial Collage in London. MeshPower connect whole communities, rather than just single properties, to their bespoke nanogrids, and they sell electricity rather than solar panels, batteries or other expensive equipment, so members of the community can just pay for exactly the amount of electricity they use. MeshPower use solar panels connected to a single battery base-station, located in the centre of a village and with a nanogrid system of cables connecting about 50 to 100 houses, usually within a 200 metre radius, to this battery. A low voltage DC system is used with USB ports instead of normal plugs and sockets. This is very much safer and also extremely energy efficient and perfect for LED lighting and mobile phone chargers, but also suitable for televisions and many other devices. Each nanogrid, and each household’s energy use, can be monitored remotely via the internet, so problems can be rapidly fixed and the whole system tweaked to improve performance.
MeshPower have their headquarters in the Imperial Collage Incubator in London and are working with communities in Bugesera District in southern Rwanda. In June 2016 they connected their 1,000th customer, and by the end of 2016 are planning to have 10,000 customers connected. Currently they employ 25 people in Rwanda, but envisage this figure to have grown to 40 in a few months. In 2014 I blogged about Solar Aid, an excellent charity come business that has now sold its one millionth solar powered light in Africa. I think MeshPower may have an even better solution than Solar Aid, and together they show that dirty old kerosene lamps will soon be consigned to history. Here is yet another aspect of the transition out of ‘The Fossil-Fuel Age’ and into ‘The Solar Age’.
The Fold, a lovely organic market garden and care farm. Good for people and for wildlife, yet will it benefit from Brexit?
For more than four decades UK food and farming policies and practices have been hugely influenced by policies and funding stemming from the European Union. The whole Brexit process will be slow to implement and could further damage rural Britain as many good schemes come to an end. However Brexit provides a massive opportunity to create new policies and practices. A group of 88 organisations have written to David Davis, the Secretary of State overseeing Brexit, and to Theresa May. The letter stresses that many positive outcomes, in terms of public health, wellbeing, rural employment, biodiversity and global poverty can all be achieved with the right policies. I hope this government listens to this group and recognises their collective wisdom.
The number of farms has been declining in Britain for many decades. The EU Area-based payment system, as interpreted by the British government, has intensified this trend. Big, already wealthy farmers, mainly farming in ways that are not ecologically sustainable have received huge subsidies. Many of the most innovative, socially inclusive and ecologically sustainable farming systems are being pioneered on tiny land holdings that have been below the radar of these payment systems. I hope that these smaller scale projects get more support in future. The Landworkers’ Alliance, one of the 88 organisations behind the letter to David Davis, makes the case on their website.
Last week Colette and I went to visit The Fold, a small organic market garden and care farm selling a great variety of vegetables directly to the public through a few local shops and markets. It is typical of the farms that enhance biodiversity, sustainability and social inclusion yet have found grant assistance difficult to obtain, and which would stand to benefit if David Davis and Theresa May listen to the organisations behind that letter.