A ray of light or a false dawn?

It’s a refrain I’ve heard too many times in the past 10 years: an affordable, efficient new technology to harvest the sun’s energy. Silicon wafers, artificial leaves, fake trees, solar chips: a veritable bounty of cliches shining brightly then fading into the darkness of failed commercialisation.

Forgive me for sounding cynical. I have huge optimism for solar technology to replace fossil fuels as a key source of energy in the 21st century, and scientific innovation will be required for that change. It’s only a matter of time and investment before the cost-effectiveness and simplicity of these units becomes commercially viable. The latest in the long string of announcements came two days ago, when MIT scientist Daniel Nocera described a new, ‘photosynthetic’ chip capable of converting sunlight into energy ten times more efficiently than a plant leaf.

That huge ball of power in the sky...

Hard details are yet to be released and I doubt they will be any time soon, as commercialisation of such technology is both sensitive and necessary. Interestingly, the rhetoric surrounding the new technology was aimed at supplying the developing world with energy. It’s a noble ambition, and one I applaud, but I also question the practicality of the rollout. Yes, putting developing countries onto a cleaner energy trajectory with higher living standards is noble, but will they really be the target market? Perhaps the energy consumption of such houses is currently modest enough that a single unit can meet their needs, but a similar statement would not be true for an Australian or American household whose energy needs, and carbon footprint, is much higher.

I wait eagerly for these products to start making their way onto the market, and I’d be surprised if there aren’t affordable and efficient ‘artificial leaves’ in the next 10 years. Until I see them on the shelves, though, I will take each of these press releases with a grain of salt.

Don’t put the salt in your water tank, though. If you do, your artificial leaf won’t work.

Categories: environmentalism, Problems, Science | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “A ray of light or a false dawn?

  1. We are putting solar panels, insulation, triple glazed windows etc in the Italian house we are building. We would like to make it as eco friendly as possible.

  2. Great! Yes, building in such features from the outset is ideal. It’s interesting looking at some housing design back before cheap air conditioners and the like; they typically used much more effective natural systems of heating and cooling, better insulation and natural lighting etc. I expect we’ll see a shift back that way eventually: it makes sense.

  3. A topic close to my heart! There are several issues which I would like to touch upon in your post.

    1. I think it is more beneficial to put the technology to use in the developing countries. A single light bulb in a rural house would give enough light for children to read. The advantage of this extra time to read is really, really beneficial to school going children. In my country, Malaysia, the Ministry of Energy, subsidized rural electrification projects using stand alone solar hybrid unit (a combination of solar panel/batteries/diesel generator). The main receiver of this power is a satellite dish, school computers and home lightings. The satellite dish is use to connect the school computers to the internet. Thereby giving children opportunities to be connected to the web. While home lightings is so that school going children have extra time to read and do their school works at night.

    2. I used to work in an energy efficient building. It was the first of its kind in Malaysia. The idea was to build an energy efficient building with only 5% increase in cost compared to other buildings of it’s size. Using passive design and active system, the building manages to reduce up to 50% power usage in comparison to other buildings of equal capacity.

    I believe, it is these small things that will eventually make a difference in our struggle to find a balance in living in this ecosystem.

    • Amryl, I hope I didn’t sound too flippant about the developing country link. I was just being a little cynical that it was being pitched as ‘enough for a developing country home’ when it would be far more impressive to supply a developed country home. I firmly believe that the best path to take in the 21st century is for developed countries, with the resources and ability to produce new technology, to be very proactive assisting developing countries to improve their living conditions using the best, cleanest and most efficient technology available, and this potentially offers a way to do that.

      • Maybe the scientist believe that a develop country home couldn’t be save anymore..hahaha… But seriously, I think there is a strong case to invest a lot of money to reduce power consumption in developed countries, that will definitely tip the energy balance. As of now, I can only foresee very limited supply of energy coming from “renewable” source. I put “renewable” because even current solar cell technology is not entirely renewable.

  4. Every little bit helps though. South Africans are increasingly looking at installing solar panels on new buildings.

    I forgot to mention in my “Kalahari Series” that the camps in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park use solar power. Solar power is also used to pump up ground water for the waterholes. And the farmers in that area also use solar power – obviously cheaper for them, and they’re tired of the problems with the power supplied by Eskom (our only energy company).

    Nice photo!


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