Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hot Air Rises

There are so many "new and exciting" approaches to alternative energy being bandied about, and so few that we are yet seeing really transform the power landscape, that sometimes I wonder how much of the buzz is just hype, and when we are going to see some tangible advances. When does all this potential get realised in some way that announces, "Okay, now we're turning the corner. Now we're not just theorizing--we're producing?" So many hopeful energy solutions (can an energy solution be hopeful?)--nuclear, ethanol, hydrogen fuel cells, wind, solar, geothermal, ocean-current-based hydro power systems, etcetera, etcetera, hold promise, but there are no notable world-altering breakthroughs to this point. There are innumerable reasons to continue the alternative power quest, from environmental to socio-political. It's good that there are so many options to explore, and that there are lots of different companies, with lots of different scientists, searching down lots of different roads, for the Holy Grail of energy alternatives. The more people who go out hunting, the more likely it is that someone will come back with the prize--or lots of different prizes. Wouldn't it be great if someday we're faced with choices, all of which are sustainable, green and affordable? Sometimes someday seem just around the corner, and sometimes someday feels very far away, like when you're a kid waiting for your birthday.

I remember reading a year or so ago about plans for a breakthrough new solar tower on the horizon for one of the open, sunny, very hot places in Australia. The concept was based on the fact that hot air rises. The design incorporates a giant tower surrounded by a huge (from what I read, about two miles across) glass covered solar collecting field, using black rock, or some other naturally heat absorbing material to store heat through the day and gradually release it by night. The concept is that all this heat would cause the air drawn into the field to rise along the gradually inclining glass cover toward the tower, where it would then be sucked up through the over quarter mile tall structure, providing the impetus to turn giant turbines that surround it. So, it's a sort of solar-wind combo, taking advantage of a very simple scientific truth that we all learn in grade school: heat rises. Sounds promising, yes? It could be a perfect fit. If there's anyplace in the world that seems adaptable to solar power, it's Australia. Lots of wide open spaces. Lots of sun. Lots of risk-taking frontier types to back the project. That was a year ago, though; what's happened since then?

Well, CNN Money.com has an update on where things stand now. Todd Woody, assistant managing editor of Business 2.0, writes about a 24,000 acre ranch where the solar-wind plan is going forward. He says, "...Melbourne renewable-energy company EnviroMission, aims to break ground here early next year on the world's first commercial "solar tower" power station." This commercial power station could do more than just keep a few cars on the road, or heat a home or two. This power source could provide enough energy to run 100,000 homes, without producing pollution or greenhouse gases. Hurray!! Maybe that world-changing energy breakthrough isn't that far away. What's the thing that's holding things up for now? Money, of course. Although the station will cost very little to operate, it's going to cost a lot to build, and getting that much money together takes time. Things look hopeful, however, and there are potential investors lining up from as far away as China. The Chinese investor, "Xiang Jiang Industrial, a Shanghai developer and construction company" is looking to start building solar towers in China as well. That would also be a reasonable development, since China's energy needs are growing as fast as her ever- expanding economy.

I'm always interested in where the things I've read about in the past are setting here in the present. This one looks as though it might be sitting pretty, or at least be advancing significantly closer to the time when the dreamers can say, "Now we're not just theorizing--we're producing." I'm going to keep my eye on this one, and hope it's not just full of hot air.

Hat tip: Futurismic