Solar power that's truly out of this world

03 Dec 2012


Here's some great news for anyone who thought the search for alien life ended when Michael Gove stepped into public life.

Yes, it seems extra terrestrial seekers all over the world are still beavering away. The Tank envisioned a team of beardy weirdos crammed into a bamboo hut in Hawaii sporting shirts so loud their co-workers need ear defenders – but sadly it seems most of the research is being done in California, Harvard and Pennsylvania.

But rather than abandon the search after finding the square-root of diddly-squat in more than 50 years of searching (so they say – Conspiracies Ed.), scientists have simply changed tack.

Now The Atlantic reports a team of Penn State researchers plan to spend the next two years scanning the heavens for enormous alien solar power stations known as Dyson spheres.

You see, in 1960 genius physicist Freeman Dyson predicted all civilisations would eventually run out of energy (assuming they were still going) and there was pretty much only one way to leap over this evolutionary hurdle: build a massive shell or ring of solar panels surrounding their home star and capturing its energy output.

So the theory goes that if you want to find alien civilisations, you should be looking for these rings, shells or swarms of solar panels. And to think energy minister John Hayes thinks a couple of wind turbines represent a blot on the landscape.

To the Tank's mind, the concept leaves the UK's target of building 22GW of solar capacity as a clear sign that we're not living in an advanced civilisation, but also, rather more reassuringly, that the government clearly isn't being ruled by a race of flying alien lizards as has been claimed in some quarters. Huzzahs all round.

A wood in your ear...

22 Nov 2012

Woodbuds - photo Woodbuds

As you might have guessed from the Sceptic Tank's weekly missives from the front line of sustainability (sorry, we mean Innovation and Resilience), our life is pretty awesome.

When we're not wearing sustainable pants or suits, we're exploring our feminine side in solar-powered bikinis or carbon-neutral bras. And then hitting Chat Roulette with a bottle of Jack Daniels.

But there's always that sneaking feeling we could be living just a little bit more... awesomely (perhaps a thesaurus would help – Ed) – and that may just be where WoodBuds fit in.

Crafted from certified sustainable wood with bioplastic cables and packaging made from 100 per cent recyclable material, these headphones are most definitely green, while still coming in eye-catching red, yellow, blue, white, and black. In fact, we're really struggling to decide which goes best with the bra... SUIT. Of course, we mean suit.

Woodbuds - photo Woodbuds

And never fear: the highly rated sound quality means you shouldn't miss a single note of the latest world music and whale sounds.

The Yorkshire firm will even plant a tree for every 100 products sold, which is one of those admirable aims consumers seem to go for without questioning what type of trees and where. Imagine, for example, you wake up one day to find the cheeky chaps from WoodBuds have stuck a flipping great oak tree in the middle of your garden. Not cool guys, not cool.

Anyhoo, what with Christmas coming up and all, we thought WoodBuds would make an excellent gift for your family, colleagues, or even your favourite environmental journalists! And no, we don't mean George Monbiot – he's doing just fine already.

So Peter Lilley now likes wind turbines?

16 Nov 2012

Peter Lilley MP for Hitchin

Now if the Sceptic Tank is sure of one thing, it's that Peter Lilley, scourge of green campaigners, hates wind turbines.

This, after all, is a man who has been such an outspoken critic of renewable energy and taking action on climate change, that his recent appointment to the energy and climate change select committee caused all sorts of rumpus.

So imagine our surprise when a Greenpeace undercover journalist filmed Lilley apparently saying he "rather likes" wind turbines. It even sounds like it's his wife who has the problem with them.

It seems Lilley's main objection is that they are too expensive, which of course is a rather bizarre argument to make when onshore wind is already the cheapest renewable technology and is forecast to become cost-competitive with conventional power sources within the coming decade.

Anyway, with our faith so shaken we're now off to the woods to discover what exactly bears have been doing in there all this time.

Taking the p*ss ... for energy

14 Nov 2012

urine powered generator - photo Maker Faire Africa

Intros are particularly difficult for the Tank. So now we've got that first sentence out of the way, let's just skip onto the next bit, which is a lot of fun and may even contain some Bad Words, depending on just how liquid lunch was today.

You see, three Nigerian schoolgirls have literally gone where no-one else has gone before, by inventing a urine-powered generator. Duro-Aina Adebola, Akindele Abiola, and Faleke Oluwatyoin, all 14, and 15-year-old Bello Eniola came up with the unique device as part of innovation event Maker Faire Africa.

Apparently, you can get six hours of power from a litre of the yellow stuff, which is around a half to two-thirds of what the average person produces each day.

Hydrogen is separated out from the urine in an electrolytic cell, purified and pushed into a generator to create electricity. The user is then politely reminded not to attempt to fill the tank from across the room and to please wash his hands afterwards.

Of course, there are problems beyond the basic hygiene the Tank so struggles with – you still need power for the electrolysis process, while hydrogen has a nasty tendency to explode.

Still these are surmountable problems and we're pretty sure it's a better use of waste than this Korean 'faeces-wine' (you honestly wouldn't believe the things we do for research...).

In fact, judging by the state of the gents at The Tank's Soho basement, the only long-term flaw might be losing a great deal of this valuable resource to inaccuracy.

Islands powered by sun, that is what we are...

05 Nov 2012

Nukunonu Lagoon Tokelau - photo CloudSurfer

No man is an island, John Donne intoned. One might infer the famously bawdy poet turned Bishop meant self-sustainability is no mean feat - something The Tank can agree with, considering our latest attempt ended up in the eating of the very twigs we'd spent the last six hours trying to light after the sick rabbit we'd managed to trap escaped with our keys. Mrs Tank declared it to be the worst afternoon of her life, but as she's a Sheffield Wednesday fan it's hard to give that any credence.

Anyway, all this meant we were more than impressed that an entire country has become energy self-sufficient! And which pioneering, world-leading nation would have the vision, funds, and sheer chutzpah to carry this off?

Well, the tiny south sea islands of Tokelau, most famous for not actually being a country, but a territory of New Zealand, and sporting a rather impressive record at lawn bowls.

A new 1MW solar array, thought to be one of the world's largest off-grid solar systems, has been installed across the three low-lying atolls that make up Tokelau for the princely sum of $7.5m.

The array replaces costly oil imports and, as it supplies one and a half times the 1,400 inhabitant's energy needs, it allows Tokelau to export excess power. The resulting fuel savings will be used to pay off the cost of the system and increase investment in health and education for the Tokelauns? Tokelauites? Tokelaus?

Fossil fuel imports comprise up to a third of total imports for some nations in the region, so it's no wonder Jovilisi Suveinakama, general manager of the National Public Service of the Government of Tokelau, advised other Pacific islands to follow Tokelau's example.

"Our commitment as global citizens is to make a positive contribution toward the mitigation of the impacts of climate change," he told Inter Press Service. "We are proud of this achievement."

And rightly so. Tokelau sufferers from extreme weather storm surges, droughts, coral-bleaching, inundation of land, and salination of groundwater, all of which is likely to get worse as a result of industrialised nations' carbon emissions.

Yet these very same countries are amongst the first to get on board with low carbon energy strategies, some of which have led by ambitious islands including the Maldives and our very own Isle of Wight embracing plans to become energy independent.

Other governments need to realise that while no man is an island, the planet certainly is - and there's no getting off. At least not until we get around to building that Death Star.


The Sceptic Tank blog provides a unique take on all the latest weird, wonderful, and downright infuriating green stories from around the world

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