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Microscopic hydroelectrics and space-based solar: the renewable energy of the future



Going beyond wind turbines and solar panels, into the realms normally left to science fiction, what might be the clean energy technologies of the next generation?

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Clean Energy 2014.

The phrase renewable energy is synonymous with wind farms, solar panels, hydroelectric damns and – increasingly – bioenergy plants. But these are far from the only sources of clean power. In fact, some believe that it is not these familiar forms that will deliver the world to its low-carbon salvation, but the next generation.

This may be missing the point – the most important solutions to climate change and resource exhaustion are surely the ones we have, the ones that work now, the ones that might not turn out to be pie in the sky pursuits. Nonetheless, the appeal of some renewable energy pipedreams has endured through the decades, and it is easy to see why.

The loosely defined next generation of renewables includes things like geothermal sources, advanced energy storage technology but also more weird and wonderful ideas, ranging from mind-bogglingly small hydroelectric systems to colossal space stations. The question is, how realistic are these ideas and could they actually change the world?


Graphene. What can’t it do? The wonder material continues to fascinate scientists around the world, having only been discovered in 2004 at the University of Manchester. It is the strongest material known to exist, though it is only one atom thick. It is remarkably pliable, almost transparent and an excellent conductor of electricity and heat.   

In 2013, the EU made available a €1 billion grant to researchers investigating the potential uses of graphene, saying it could become as important as steel or plastics. Much of the excitement has focused on the possibility of making advanced, lightweight and superfast electronics, but other potential applications are many. Bill Gates’s philanthropic foundation has even paid for the development of a graphene-based condom.

Now, scientists believe the magical material can also revolutionise renewable energy. Researchers from the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China recently revealed that dragging small droplets of salt water along strips of graphene generates electricity.

The faster they dragged the droplet across the graphene strip, the higher the voltage they generated. Scaling up the experiment, the scientists found that placing a droplet of copper chloride on a tilted graphene surface generated a voltage of approximately 30 millivolts (mV) – a millivolt being one thousandth of a volt.

Though much more research is needed, the scientists say these nano-sized generators could power small devices. It is also believed that graphene could make batteries far more suitable for high capacity energy storage, potentially solving renewable energy’s biggest dilemma and helping sustainable power sources finally rival fossil fuel plants for stability and reliability.

Nuclear fusion

Its status as a renewable energy source may be contentious, but nuclear fusion theoretically offers carbon-free and, most significantly, risk-free clean energy.

Modern day nuclear reactors are powered by nuclear fission, where the nuclei of atoms split into smaller parts. Nuclear fusion, the same process that takes place in the hearts of the stars, occurs when two atomic nuclei fuse to form a heavier nucleus.

Controlling a nuclear fusion is the tricky part. An uncontrolled nuclear fusion is essentially a hydrogen bomb. Fusion reactors are many years from becoming anywhere near ready for commercial operation, but their promise is such that researchers around the world have dedicated their lives to the cause.

A fusion reactor would enjoy many advantages over conventional alternatives. While technically not limitless, fusion fuel – primarily the abundant deuterium – supplies would last for millions of years, and likely longer than civilisation itself. They would also be incredibly efficient, generating more energy for a given weight of fuel than any modern day technology. It has been estimated that one kilogram of fusion fuel could provide as much energy as 10 million kilograms of today’s fossil fuels.

Unlike fission reactors, with fusion reactors there would be no possibility of a devastating leak of radioactivity. Fusion only takes place in very specific circumstances, at a precise temperature and pressure and only within certain magnetic field parameters. This means that if a fusion reactor were to lose control, reactions would cease before any leak could occur.

However, some experts are concerned that the billions spent on researching nuclear fusion could be poured into more tangible renewables instead, bringing guaranteed benefits in the short-term. By the time nuclear fusion is ready to save the world, it may already be too late.

Space-based solar power

There are some weird and wonderful ideas in the world of clean technology, but none are quite so out of this world as the concept of space-based solar power.

It sounds like the domain of science fiction, and indeed, it is. Though the idea was not discussed academically for another two decades, in 1941, the iconic sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov set his short story Reason aboard a space station that beamed power to Earth in the form of microwaves. Since then, however, many governments and researchers have given the concept of space-based solar power installations serious thought. 

Theoretically, the system would be composed of three parts: a geostationary satellite colleting solar energy in space, some form of technology that could beam the energy down to Earth – a microwave or laser – and an antenna to gather the energy on the planet’s surface. All of the required technology does not yet exist, but some experts are optimistic.

Such projects would bring many advantages. In space, the sun’s energy is uninterrupted by obstacles such as the atmosphere and clouds, and would be available 24 hours a day. It’s always sunny in space. Therefore, space-based solar panels would be able to harness substantially more energy than their equivalents on Earth.

Serious progress has been thwarted by a number of difficulties, however, and many studies across the decades have concluded that while space-based solar power is technically possible, it remains economically impossible. The cost of such a mission would be huge, requiring many space launches and a terrestrial receiver many kilometres in diameter. There are also safety concerns – such a large satellite would be vulnerable to impacts from the manmade space debris that litters the heavens and would be incredibly difficult to repair.

But the fascination with space-based solar power refuses to die. Japan’s space agency recently shared a roadmap for space-based solar power, announcing its ambitions to make the fantastical concept a reality within 25 years.

The country now seems to be the leader in the space (pun not intended), motivated by a desperate need for clean energy alternatives in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. The scale of investment required means no one nation can achieve space-based solar alone, but perhaps Japan can be the catalyst – the leader to finally realise the mad ambitions of so many scientists and the outlandish dreams of Isaac Asimov.

Photo: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

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Further reading:

Financing the future of renewable energy

Green ‘energy duck’ to bring clean, solar energy to Copenhagen

Renewable energy through the ages

Poll: UK voters think renewable energy is best way to secure energy supply

The Guide to Sustainable Clean Energy 2014


New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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5 Easy Things You Can Do to Make Your Home More Sustainable




sustainable homes
Shutterstock Licensed Photot - By Diyana Dimitrova

Increasing your home’s energy efficiency is one of the smartest moves you can make as a homeowner. It will lower your bills, increase the resale value of your property, and help minimize our planet’s fast-approaching climate crisis. While major home retrofits can seem daunting, there are plenty of quick and cost-effective ways to start reducing your carbon footprint today. Here are five easy projects to make your home more sustainable.

1. Weather stripping

If you’re looking to make your home more energy efficient, an energy audit is a highly recommended first step. This will reveal where your home is lacking in regards to sustainability suggests the best plan of attack.

Some form of weather stripping is nearly always advised because it is so easy and inexpensive yet can yield such transformative results. The audit will provide information about air leaks which you can couple with your own knowledge of your home’s ventilation needs to develop a strategic plan.

Make sure you choose the appropriate type of weather stripping for each location in your home. Areas that receive a lot of wear and tear, like popular doorways, are best served by slightly more expensive vinyl or metal options. Immobile cracks or infrequently opened windows can be treated with inexpensive foams or caulking. Depending on the age and quality of your home, the resulting energy savings can be as much as 20 percent.

2. Programmable thermostats

Programmable thermostats

Shutterstock Licensed Photo – By Olivier Le Moal

Programmable thermostats have tremendous potential to save money and minimize unnecessary energy usage. About 45 percent of a home’s energy is earmarked for heating and cooling needs with a large fraction of that wasted on unoccupied spaces. Programmable thermostats can automatically lower the heat overnight or shut off the air conditioning when you go to work.

Every degree Fahrenheit you lower the thermostat equates to 1 percent less energy use, which amounts to considerable savings over the course of a year. When used correctly, programmable thermostats reduce heating and cooling bills by 10 to 30 percent. Of course, the same result can be achieved by manually adjusting your thermostats to coincide with your activities, just make sure you remember to do it!

3. Low-flow water hardware

With the current focus on carbon emissions and climate change, we typically equate environmental stability to lower energy use, but fresh water shortage is an equal threat. Installing low-flow hardware for toilets and showers, particularly in drought prone areas, is an inexpensive and easy way to cut water consumption by 50 percent and save as much as $145 per year.

Older toilets use up to 6 gallons of water per flush, the equivalent of an astounding 20.1 gallons per person each day. This makes them the biggest consumer of indoor water. New low-flow toilets are standardized at 1.6 gallons per flush and can save more than 20,000 gallons a year in a 4-member household.

Similarly, low-flow shower heads can decrease water consumption by 40 percent or more while also lowering water heating bills and reducing CO2 emissions. Unlike early versions, new low-flow models are equipped with excellent pressure technology so your shower will be no less satisfying.

4. Energy efficient light bulbs

An average household dedicates about 5 percent of its energy use to lighting, but this value is dropping thanks to new lighting technology. Incandescent bulbs are quickly becoming a thing of the past. These inefficient light sources give off 90 percent of their energy as heat which is not only impractical from a lighting standpoint, but also raises energy bills even further during hot weather.

New LED and compact fluorescent options are far more efficient and longer lasting. Though the upfront costs are higher, the long term environmental and financial benefits are well worth it. Energy efficient light bulbs use as much as 80 percent less energy than traditional incandescent and last 3 to 25 times longer producing savings of about $6 per year per bulb.

5. Installing solar panels

Adding solar panels may not be the easiest, or least expensive, sustainability upgrade for your home, but it will certainly have the greatest impact on both your energy bills and your environmental footprint. Installing solar panels can run about $15,000 – $20,000 upfront, though a number of government incentives are bringing these numbers down. Alternatively, panels can also be leased for a much lower initial investment.

Once operational, a solar system saves about $600 per year over the course of its 25 to 30-year lifespan, and this figure will grow as energy prices rise. Solar installations require little to no maintenance and increase the value of your home.

From an environmental standpoint, the average five-kilowatt residential system can reduce household CO2 emissions by 15,000 pounds every year. Using your solar system to power an electric vehicle is the ultimate sustainable solution serving to reduce total CO2 emissions by as much as 70%!

These days, being environmentally responsible is the hallmark of a good global citizen and it need not require major sacrifices in regards to your lifestyle or your wallet. In fact, increasing your home’s sustainability is apt to make your residence more livable and save you money in the long run. The five projects listed here are just a few of the easy ways to reduce both your environmental footprint and your energy bills. So, give one or more of them a try; with a small budget and a little know-how, there is no reason you can’t start today.

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