How Renewables are changing the landscape

In spite of the federal government’s bias towards traditional fossil fuels, and their continuing refusal to dismantle the subsidies to the fossil fuel industries (if you don’t believe me look at the $8 billion subsidies the federal government gives to the mining Industry per annum for diesel fuel, and the cost of non-indexation of excise on petrol –abolished in 2001 by John Howard in a desperate attempt to stay in office and estimated to have cost the treasury since then  an estimated $45billion), technologies are rapidly overtaking them.

Just this week it was revealed that the ACT government is on target to have 90% of its energy need fulfilled by wind and solar by 2020. This is in spite of Joe Hockey saying he is determined to withdraw all federal assistance to such a scheme, but lo and behold the ACT government says it doesn’t need any because these technologies are by themselves competitive with fossil fuels in the ACT. Whilst this is partly due to the special ACT environment, it is nevertheless a breakthrough.

I have always maintained that technology will in the end address successfully the climate change issue as long as sufficient money is poured into R&D and governments internationally insist on a level playing field i.e all subsidies for both fossil fuels and alternatives are withdrawn or at least be equivalent, which of course means also R&D money.

As an illustration of what can be done, it was announced last month there has been a breakthrough in solar energy technologies. The thing that has long held back the solar industry has been that it has in most cases only been possible to generate energy when the sun shines. But not at night and not when there is heavy cloud cover. Up until now there has also been a limited ability to store energy which could then be switched on at night. There have been various schemes to overcome this including new battery technologies and the use of hydro. For instance a scheme which is under serious consideration is to put 1000 square kilometres of solar panels in northern Australia and have some of the daylight power be directed to pump water up a hill to a mountain top lake and have it flow down again overnight to provide 24 hours of power. The intention of this scheme was then to distribute this power throughout south east asia via an underground cable and into the Asian power grids, thereby becoming a major source of foreign exchange.

Whilst this is a very interesting idea, it seems the latest technology announcement from researchers at MIT and Harvard may have made THE breakthrough which appears to make all this redundant.

Last month (April 2014), scientists at Harvard and MIT announced something extraordinary: they had found a way to create solar cells that can store accumulated energy from sunlight, and then, with no more than a burst of a few photons, release that energy in a steady and continuous form. These new types of solar cells, called photoswitches,  are made from a form of carbon nanotube called azobenzene, which can exist in two different configurations. One collects energy from the photons that hit it and stores it, another releases it. Because they can be switched from one form to another, the cell is essentially a battery, and this solves many of the problems of storage that arise with a weather-dependent system such as solar.

The great advantage of such a technology is that it would make possible solar cells that were an utterly stable continuous power supply. When you combine it with work being done elsewhere on solar cells that can perform in cloudy conditions, you have the plan for an entirely stable solar delivery system,  indeed, one that is more stable than the large-scale privatised power systems that we currently rely on, subject to mass technical failure, Enron-style credit events, and routine under-maintenance.

Such technology is small miracle, yet it’s only one example of dozens of advances occurring as renewable energy technology comes into contact with new materials and starts to be transformed by them. Thus, in the weeks and months before this announcement, news in renewables included: a new nanomaterial that can increase solar fuel cell efficiency by up to 80%, a solar-powered hybrid car that can charge up without needing to dock at a recharge station; and a plane the size of a 747 that will be able to fly around the world without refuelling. On every front, the renewables revolution is not merely gaining pace, but accelerating exponentially and the overwhelming reason for this is new materials.

The revolution is here. It is about time Joe Hockey and the Australian Federal Government got on board rather than making disparaging remarks about the ACT Government intentions, with Hockey in particular saying if he had his way he would shut down all wind turbines in the ACT because “he doesn’t like the look of them”. Got news for you Joe – they are here to stay. You’d better tell your fossil fuel mates the train is leaving the station and their horse and buggies won’t be able to catch up!

(Partially sourced from

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