The Future of Solar Energy

Sol-Term

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.

Distribution

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.

Continuity in Renewable Energy

air

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 lunar base

You may be wondering whether we have the ability to have a permanent base on the Moon. In the late 1960s and early 70s twelve men set foot on the Moon. Nobody has set foot on the Moon since… but why?

The answer is quite unfortunate really. People got bored.

In the 60s the Soviet Union and the United States – arguably the two most powerful nations at the time – were racing to the Moon. Russia won the race to send a man into space – and return him safely. Russia also won the race to construct a space station. America however won the all important race to the Moon.

For a space explorer looking up into the night sky in the 50s and 60s, the goal was always to get to the Moon. So what happened when America got there? The space race lost public support. People started questioning why there was a need to go into space, why money wasn’t being (better) spent elsewhere. The US had shown that it could get to the Moon, and it could get there first, so why carry on?

Today

As the recent crash of the Virgin Galactic test flight and the ISS destined rocket which exploded show, going into space can still be dangerous. That said however with today’s technology we are more than capable of travelling into space reasonably safely.

It is thought that the Moon has a lot of water buried within its surface. Water is a critical element required by us to live. Water can also be used to make rocket fuel. Rocket fuel uses hydrogen and oxygen – the key components of water.

Rockets on Earth need huge amounts of fuel to escape the reaches of Earth’s gravity. The Moon is significantly lighter than Earth, and therefore rockets would need much less fuel to take off. This makes flights into space (to Mars for example) much more viable, if they take off from the Moon.

A manufacturing plant on the MoonNow, you may be thinking that we would need to get the rockets to the Moon in the first place, so why waste time relaunching them from the Moon? Well maybe we wouldn’t. The Moon has many of the resources we would need to build rockets. We would be able to create manufacturing bases on the Moon, with very little supplies from Earth. Progress would only be accelerated by the use of our new friend (or foe?) 3D printers.

All electrical power could be provided by solar panels – which we could build on the Moon. Lunar sun is very predictable, and with no atmosphere, the energy we could generate would be much greater than here on Earth.

Moon Base

A permanently manned Moon base is not a new idea. The US has had many plans over time to create a Moon base – originally for military reasons, however now for other reasons like energy and space travel. Japan, Russia and India are also currently all exploring the concept of establishing a base on the Moon within the next few decades.

What a Moon base could look like

The Moon could be a great service station for rockets. Missions into outer space could use the Moon as a pit stop to pick up supplies and refuel, before going on their way.

The Moon’s potential for solar energy could also be another interesting use for a Moon base. If we could cover vast areas of the Moon in solar panels and then transmit the energy back to Earth, we would be able to solve the global energy crisis. Naturally you would have to somehow persuade fossil fuel companies that it is a good idea first – and considering the power and influence they have, this could be difficult.

We currently have the technology and capabilities to create a permanent lunar base, now all we need is the enthusiasm and funding to make it happen.

Integrated Network for Social Sustainability

This weekend I am going to the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability Annual Meeting in Charlotte, USA, where I will present a poster co-produced with anthropologist Cristina Grasseni. The poster title is Food Sovereignty and Social Sustainability Through Solidarity Economy Networks, and it fits into a meeting whose focus is to prioritize challenges for social sustainability.

A possible sustainability diagram?

A possible sustainability diagram?

Our poster presents work-in-progress insights into solidarity economies. We are looking at provisioning activism, or different ways people go about sourcing and buying the products they need in their daily lives. If you read my food series you might have seen references to this work, particularly the review of Cristina’s book about Italian food provisioning networks.

Through the poster I will be talking about groups of people who get together and form collectives or food coops, or run urban community gardens or community-supported agriculture. Other projects also include the development of small workers’ cooperatives with ambitious plans to create “green” jobs for marginalized youth in post-industrial wastelands.

These groups are organizing themselves in an attempt to replace supply chain consumerism in many fields with locally controlled networks. Although it was initially limited to food, “provisioning activism” increasingly focuses on clothing, IT, renewable energy, green construction, recycling, mutual insurance, cooperative credit and local currency exchange.

Here in Massachusetts for example we have the town of Worcester that acts as an informal focus point for groups that produce and distribute food, invest in locally owned and produced solar energy and are constructing a bio-fuel plant where they can produce bio-diesel from used vegetable oil collected from local restaurants.

There are other examples in the energy sector, take a look at this post I wrote years ago about a similar plant that opened in the UK. Sundance Renewables is the name.

And this is not just a fringe market. The main energy coop in Worcester takes $1.3 million a year in income, while in Italy a loose network of solidarity buying groups spends about 80 million Euro per annum, mainly on locally produced food.

The meeting also includes a tour of Charlotte’s renewable energy manufacturing base, so I should discover a lot more about this sector of the economy across the USA. I will report back next week.