Apr 22, 2014

Renewables changing the nature of power

New technology has dramatically increased the possibilities of renewable energy. But the material revolution challenges those who want to preserve the existing relations of production, consumption and energy.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Halfway through April this year, 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.

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29 thoughts on “Renewables changing the nature of power

  1. danger_monkey

    I think that you meant Kansas, not Oklahoma, not that it makes a whole lot of difference.

  2. max

    Love your work, Guy, however a minor correction: the photoswitches are not a form of carbon nanotube called azobenzene, rather they are carbon nanotubes functionalized with azobenzene.

  3. paddy

    On a grey and miserable post-Easter Tuesday, it’s good to read something positive.
    Worth the price of admission yet again Guy.

  4. JohnB

    I mostly find Guy’s work lyrical, challenging and exciting.

    This article is, instead, fantasy, hollow and irrelevant.

    Simplistic in the extreme, it includes assumptions that today’s announcements from laboratory enthusiasts will be available immediately in commercial form and even that the results will include “solar cells that [are] an utterly stable continuous power supply”, which is simply impossible.

    Guy failed to define what he means by “utterly stable” or the many other terms with which he liberally larded this article liberally. He provided scant rational linkage between laboratory curiosity and practical application. How, exactly, does the “80% increase in efficiency” of some solar dream cells rate on a commercial basis? Or longevity? How does this become spun into a story about internal storage capacity of these stunning as-yet-not-proven and still nameless solar masterpieces?

    Guy may be a great wordsmith, but as a technical writer he is a dud.

    Hint for Guy: Take a leaf out of George Monbiot’s work. At the foot of his Guardian articles he provides a full listing of references. Without references Guy’s article is meaningless and useless. Worse, it draws attention away from the achievable art of the possible to the unachievable wish for the impossible.

    Crikey can do much better than to misdirect the talents of one of its best in this manner.

  5. mikeb

    Guy is highlighting some exciting new possibilities – not laying out a blueprint for the future. It’s a concept that some find hard to grasp.

  6. Mary-Ann Lovejoy

    A fascinating article. Thank you, Guy. For me, it explains the rising interest of the Palmers, Reinhardts, et al, in media and politics – these developments, in time, will prove to be huge profit-killers for the existing fossil fuel and power generation industries, unless those people also control the wheels of government…

  7. archibald

    The increase in efficiency of photovoltaic cells Guy alluded to is covered in more detail here.

    Very interesting stuff, Guy. This article points the way to some astonishing future developments.

  8. Gratton Wilson

    I find it incredible that the Abbott Government has set its mind against exploiting these new technologies with gusto thereby creating new industries in Australia and new jobs.

  9. Electric Lardyland

    Yes, Gratton, and of course, Abbott and his cronies are spending a massive amount of public money, to build the infrastructure, to sell coal, to countries who are spending a massive amount on investing in renewables.
    Somehow, I don’t think history is going to judge this government kindly.

  10. David Hand

    Necessity is the mother of invention.

    There has been such a committed move towards renewables that inventions like those Guy has outlined should be expected and welcomed.

    If these inventions deliver on their promise, the energy challenge facing western civilisation will be solved.

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