The Future of Solar Energy


Travelling Through Morocco

20 years ago my father retired from work, and to celebrate he gave me and my brothers £1000 each. I went to university and sat next to my buddy Sam, and asked her if she fancied going to spend the money on a holiday. I skateboarded to my favourite travel agents and booked flights to Morocco.

6 weeks, a long road trip. We divided the remaining money into daily allowance, $20 US per day. Not really enough. Well enough to eat, or travel, but not eat and travel. So on days that we travelled we only ate once, and on other days we ate twice. Not a lot though.

Anyway we wanted to go and see the sahara. We went from Casablanca via Radat and Meknes, down through Azru and all the way to Merzuga. It’s quite a thing to see. Then to Ouarzazate.

Now the Marocco of 20 years ago is not the country of today. And we were poor. We did not have enough money to take the national bus lines, we took the local buses, no windows, animals on the roof tied into canvas bags, goats inside. Today Ouarzazate is a world leader in solar energy.

Desert Solar Energy

Morocco wants to become a world leader in solar energy production. The development that is underway and newly online will eventually provide 20% of the country’s energy needs. It will be the largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in the world. The mirror technology it uses is different from the photovoltaic panels that we see on roofs the world over, but it will have the advantage of being able to continue producing power even after the sun goes down.

The system uses mirrors to heat an oil, known as heat transfer solution (HTF). Each parabolic mirror is 12 metres high and focussed on a steel pipeline carrying HTF that is warmed to 393C. It then goes into a heat transfer plant, is mixed with water that turns into steam and drives turbines.

In order to operate after dark excess heat is used to turn sand molten, the heat being released overnight allowing the plant to function for a few hours longer, and the plan is that in a couple of years time it will be able to operate 24 hours a day.


If Morocco becomes self sufficient through solar wind and hydro, they will look towards exporting. There have been several projects involving laying power lines from North Africa into europe (Libia to italy comes to mind) but as far as I know nothing is currently operational.

For more details check out this article in the Guardian.

World Wide Views on Climate and Energy

world wide views

Public Participation

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, I found myself in Brussels in a beautiful Palace. I was at a conference about public participation, and went to a presentation of a very interesting project called World Wide Views on Climate Change and Energy.

The project as the name suggests involved a kind of world wide survey, involving 10 000 people and covering a large portion of the globe. It involved 97 day long debates spread over 76 countries, just to give you an idea, and the incredible thing is that they all happened on the same day. Not only that, but the results were uploaded live, and so could all be seen as they happened, a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest but without Terry Wogan.

The conference was not really about the results of the project, but the methodology and how it was actually conducted. The system has been used twice before, and was designed by the Danish Board of Technology and a host of other National and International organizations. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change were one of the initiators, so as you can see it was a large project.

The Results

The results are aimed at providing policy-makers with world views. The participants were selected in order to represent the make up of each individual country and gathered for a day long experience. They were all shown the same videos, presented with the same written materials and asked the same questions.

Democratic debate and deliberation are central to the project, and it looks like an interesting use of the web to me. Obviously you can pick holes in the methodology if you wish, how representative can 10 000 people be? But I don’t think that was the point of the exercise. It is a large scale global survey of how people feel about climate change and energy transition, and the fact that countries and areas can be compared, as well as other groups taken across the globe, is a really interesting development.

The results are all posted on the website, find them here, there are also user friendly analysis tools for anyone to use.

In the report however an analysis has been done of some of the findings. As a brief outline, we can say that citizens want their governments to act, that action should be on the basis of the individual county’s emissions and wealth, and the private sector should participate.

Citizens are also expected to take part in decision-making and to participate in the process of lowering emissions.

This is an interesting project, and if you have time I highly recommend a look at the website and a play with the figures.

Continuity in Renewable Energy


Renewable Energy

Here at Technology Bloggers we are all great fans of renewable energy developments, so I was extremely interested in a project that has just received funding on the Northern Irish coast.

As we all know there are problems with wind and tidal electricity generation, not least due to the weather, lack of wind, sun and sea swell being the obvious thoughts. But developers have an interesting proposal that may work towards alleviating some of these problems.

The idea is to use excess power to compress air and store it in huge caverns underground, to then use it to drive turbines when the wind drops. Sounds like a great idea, but of course there are always pros and contras for these things.

The caverns have to be mined, about 1.5 km below ground, and this will be done using a salt water erosion process. Simply put, a bore is drilled down, water pumped in that will circulate as if in a bottle, erode the surrounding rock salt and be washed out of a drain hole into the sea. The salt solution that comes out with then disperse into the wider sea.

When the cavern is ready, wind turbines will be used to force air into them, which can then be released in a controlled manner to turn turbines on days when you couldn’t dry a handkerchief in the back garden.

Environmental Concerns

So it sounds great, but there are of course those who argue that it is not a good idea. What will the impact be of pumping all of this salt solution into the sea? I think everyone concerned realizes that it will kill wildlife over an area, but how big that area might be, how long it will take to recover and how much damage it will do seems to be under debate.

Some locals suggest that it might lead to an industrial wasteland.

More is explained on this BBC report. Once again a new and possibly extremely positive power development brings the many complexities surrounding renewable energy sources. Issues of responsibility loom large, as do issues of public engagement and risk.

One to follow.

A Drinkable Book

drinkable book


Water Filters in a Book

Dr Teri Dankovich, a researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh USA has developed and tested a book whose pages can be torn out and used to filter drinking water. Trails are impressive, with the process bringing the water up to US drinking water standards.

The book’s pages contain nanoparticles of silver or copper, which kill bacteria in the water as it passes through. Some of the particles do remain in the water however, but they remain within the legal limits.


Now here I have to add my own input to the debate. As readers might know I have written several posts about nanomaterials and it is one of the fields that I work in, and I would question how legal limits are defined.

Nanoparticles are treated like any other particles, and their scale is not taken in account, but this seems to raise some questions. The fact that they are so small means that they can pass easily into the blood stream, so their effects may not be the same as larger particles of the same materials.

So I have to leave an open question mark over the legal issue, but the fact that the water is drinkable is a great advantage. And this leads me to ponder the fact that innovation, and its level of responsibility and ethical justification, must be local. An invention or innovation that brings drinkable water to millions, is portable and cheap and could save many lives, must be seen within its context. Nanoparticles in the water in this situation, may not be same an nano particles found in water because of factory pollution or deliberate addition when other processes might be readily available.

An article on the BBC explains that “All you need to do is tear out a paper, put it in a simple filter holder and pour water into it from rivers, streams, wells etc and out comes clean water – and dead bacteria as well”. And one page can clean up to 100 litres of water. A book could filter one person’s water supply for four years.

The project is looking for funding, so if you are interested and have some money to spare click on the link at the start of the post and pass them over your pocket money.

As a final thought, nanotechnology has come in for criticism from the academic community for its lack of regulation, and rightly so. But it also brings a world of possibilities, many of which like the story above that could transform people’s lives. This is the fine line that interests me in my work, how to make the most of scientific developments at the least environmental and social costs, and for the highest number of people.