by Kayla Lebo
We’re familiar with solar panels, and solar is probably the most promising renewable energy source - but we’re on the verge of a major change in the technology.
“Power-generating windows are already available, and companies are working hard to cut costs and improve efficiency,” says James Murray of the website BusinessGreen. “But the most exciting aspect of solar glass is its position as the most visible example of thin-film solar technologies – lightweight, flexible, and printable solar cells that can be integrated in everything from clothes to car park canopies. Forget solar panels – within a decade, solar cells could be everywhere.”
Sometimes the simplest technologies are the most important. Solar lamps sound like a punchline to a joke, but they are providing free, carbon-neutral lighting for millions of families in Africa and Asia. And they have a more immediate benefit: Because most poor families rely on kerosene lamps, the uptake of solar has led to a huge improvement in air quality. “SolarAid has now sold more than 1.5 million solar lamps in Africa, saving families $215 million in kerosene costs and leading to 3.6 million people reporting better health as air pollution falls,” says Murray. “It’s a forerunner of the solar consumer electronics revolution – companies such as Apple are looking into integrating solar cells into phones and laptops.”
THORIUM & NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGIES
There is an endless back-and-forth over nuclear power between different parts of the environmental movement. Is it safe? Is it economic? But a new generation of reactors could possibly end that debate forever. It’s not the perpetually-30-years-away dream of fusion, but three fission technologies: thorium reactors, integral fast reactors, and travelling wave reactors. “Integral fast reactors promise to turn radioactive waste into power, travelling wave reactors promise to provide zero emission power for 100 years, and thorium reactors promise to quash nuclear safety concerns,” says Murray. The three technologies have been mooted for decades, but may make it off the drawing board soon: General Electric and Bill Gates, among others, are backing them.
Biofuels have so far been, at best, disappointing. They work as fuels, but making them involves growing vast acres of crops which utilize natural resources and then can’t be used for food. But it has been shown that all transport can run on them, including air travel, which is amazingly high-carbon. “How do you get enough energy crops to power the global aviation industry while leaving enough land free for agriculture?” asks Murray. “Richard Branson and other airline bosses think the answer lies in algae that can be produced at scale in industrial ponds.”Steps have already been taken by a possibly unexpected group. Murray says that “those notorious eco-warriors in the US Air Force have already successfully trialled biofuels containing algae, and wider test flights are imminent”.