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Page added on May 31, 2011

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The future doesn’t have to suck

Saul Griffith is one of those people with whom you know you are not going to win a mine-is-bigger-than-yours argument. Certainly not when it comes to the size of your brain.

The graduate from University of NSW and the University of Sydney, Dr Griffith completed a PhD in programmable assembly and self-replicating machines at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is a futurist (actually, he doesn’t like that description much) and an inventor – he’s working on a high altitude wind energy machine, an electric bicycle and new solar technologies, among many other things.

In an absorbing presentation at the TEDx conference in Sydney on the weekend, Griffith went over some of the ideas and issues facing Australia and the world, such as the hopelessly inefficient way we currently produce our electricity.

And he also lamented the lack of vision – not just from governments, but also from environmental groups. “To paraphrase the environment movement, if we try really, really hard, and make a lot of sacrifices, the future will suck a little bit less than otherwise.”

Griffith, a Tintin fan, says: “I want to live in a future walking on zero gravity on the moon, with a fish bowl on my head and my dog is walking beside me. There is a collective failure of our imagination if we let ourselves believe that the future is going to suck. We have to inspire our children to do some awesome stuff.”

Griffith is based in the US, and is so because of the lack of resources given to the technology sector in Australia, and the apparent aversion to new ideas. “Australia needs to think about how it will use its money and its resources. We should be using investment this in an intelligent way. We are a very rich country, but we are not investing. We are investing in casinos and horse racing (but ) we should be taking these profits from our mining wealth and using it to develop a big domestic solar and wind industry.”

Climate Spectator caught up with Griffith after his presentation for a quick interview…

Giles Parkinson: Saul, could you just explain how this high altitude kite works?

Saul Griffith: So, I think most people will have seen a wind turbine – a normal looking wind turbine, which is three blades on the end of a very big stick. So, 75-80 per cent of the energy that’s produced by that wind turbine is produced in the 25 per cent of the tips, so only the tiny little bit at the very wingtip of those huge machines is producing the majority of the energy. The insight that drove Makani [Power] was, well, let’s get rid of everything else except for that little tiny piece of the wingtip. And so we built, really, quite astounding wings – they’re autonomously controlled and they fly in circles. Ideally we’ll be flying them at 2,000-3,000 feet up in the atmosphere, eventually. And they’re tethered to the ground by a cable that brings the electricity back down to the ground and, as the wind makes them fly in circles, very small turbines on the wing actually bring the energy back down to the ground.

GP: That takes up a fair amount of air space, I’d imagine. How do you think that would work with flights, etc?

SG: So, we do have to deal with air space issues and we’re working with the FAA in the United States, and other organisations around the world, to get permissions. We can fly below 2000 feet right now. The reality is most aircraft fly in pretty much highways in the sky that are very well established and there are a lot of regions in the world where there’s very little air traffic. And so, you know, we’re not planning on putting this at Mascot, but this is the technology that could be fabulous for offshore wind and there are plenty of remote regions. So, I’m not terribly worried about this issue. We need to jump the bureaucratic hoops, but I’m pretty sure we’ll get that.

GP: And so each of these turbines, machines – what do you call them? – can generate about 3MW, you say?

SG: Airborne wind energy machines… these magic things from the future! Well , we could build them at any sized scale from tens of kilowatts through to tens of megawatts or hundreds of megawatts, but you then have to say well, at which one of those sized scales is the one that’s going to give you the cheapest electricity? And you do all the math and it’s pretty complicated because you have to look at the statistics of the wind speed at all the different heights, etc, etc, etc, and you have to look at the materials that you can use and the math that we look at and the physics that we look at at the moment suggest that the optimum is going to be sort of 1MW to 5MW machines flying at 2000-4000 feet up.

GP: And you think it could be as cheap as coal?

SG: Yeah. It will take a while to get there. We think that it can be cheaper than coal. As with any new technology, you don’t really know until you’ve got it to full scale, but as long as the maintenance – and that’s the challenge for all the renewable energy technologies is not the cost of the input, it’s maintenance – so, as long as the maintenance isn’t too bad, I think we’re going to kick coal’s arse and that’ll be great.

GP: You talked [in the presentation to TEDx] about the role that solar and wind will play to power the world to give energy to the world, but you also talked about the need to think beyond the technology that we are contemplating now. Can you expand on that?

SG: We aren’t thinking big enough, not even close. One thing is that we presume that solar is going to get ten times better. It’s not. The best solar cells are already 40 per cent efficient and we’re not going to get much better than that ever, so they might get better in cost, lower in cost, but there’s nothing in what we’re doing today that’s going to make them more efficient really. And, you know, we still think of solar as this distributed energy thing and you put it on your roof and da, da, da, da.

The reality is, Australia is one of the lucky countries where you could almost generate all of your energy on your roof, but nowhere else on earth is like that, so we’ve really got to think a lot bigger about enormous solar farms outside of metropolitan centres that are producing the energy to bring it into those centres and we’ve got to look at large-scale solar thermal for generating electricity. And by large-scale, I mean hundreds of square kilometres of these things.

History judges heroes and audacious people really well and what is astounding to me is that we don’t have any audacious or heroic vision right now. We’re failing for lack of audacity and I think that’s a terrible reflection on humanity. Like, let’s do it. What an awesome project to be involved in. Like, terawatt-scale solar farms. What an awesome project to be involved in – high-altitude wind power. I think it would be a great time to be an 18-year-old engineer because these projects are fantastic and, to young people going into renewable energy engineering, this century is your century, and go out there and kick arse!

GP: What’s holding us back with the vision thing, because we’ve got all these challenges in front of us, we sort of know what confronts us – what’s holding us back, do you think?

SG: Politics on every side of the fence.

GP: And Vested interest?

SG: You know, I don’t really subscribe to the who-killed-the-electric-car-kind-of-paranoia; that there’s someone out there trying to stop us. I’m confident that wind and solar will get to costs below coal. The problem is that coal is there and you’ve got to get your technology to scale while competing against this thing that is 100 years old. 100-year-old machines have kind of figured it out, right? So, you’re competing in a pretty difficult marketplace because they’ve had 100 years to learn and you’ve had a few years. So, you know, that’s the problem in the industry.

And then, there’s politics, on both sides. Both sides of the house in every country in the world don’t really understand what this is all about. And we don’t have young people as politicians. You know, what I would like to do is; you should not be allowed to be older than 25 and be a politician. You should only have 18-25 year-olds, because they’re the kids that are going to be living in the future that our current batch of politicians are fucking up and I choose that word really specifically. I mean, it’s terrible, the lack of political vision.

GP: What are some of the other technologies that, at the moment, interest you; some of the new things coming on the horizon?

SG: Myself, I’m working on a lot of solar projects at the moment. Working on trying to lower the cost of heliostats for solar tracking, that could be useful for lowering the cost of PV and solar thermal. You get about 30 per cent more energy if you can track. That’s very useful in solar thermal technologies.

GP: Is that going to be a two track system …

SG: Yeah, two access tracking. You know, actually, what I’m developing is an actuator that looks really boring and really cheap and it doesn’t sound terribly glamorous, but if you get this right and you get the cost right, that’ll make an enormous difference to solar. So that has me excited. I’m interested in some of the crazier, out there ideas, the things that might disrupt what we’re doing. We already have a lot of engineers working on the stuff that’s obvious and iterative and is improving the technology and those engineers are really good at doing that. So, what I try and do is figure out stuff that’s just a little wackier, a little over the horizon, and to try and make it come this side of the horizon and not always be over the horizon.

So, even things like solar rectification: So, instead of using the particle nature of light that hits the traditional cell on the photon, it ejects an electron and you get an electron-whole pair and they recombine to make electricity. So, that’s how we do it today. But we’ve known for a hundred years that light has a sort of dual nature. It’s both a particle and a wave. So, it does look like it will be possible to make an antenna to extract the energy from sunlight, you know, as it has a wave. It is a little crazy and it’s certainly really, really hard and we need to do all sorts of amazing things for diodes and solar engineering to do it, but if we did that, we may make much more efficient, much lower cost solar energy. I’d like to see the governments of the world invest a little more and the corporations of the world invest a little more in the kooky stuff that might change the equation rather than just the iterative stuff.

Climate Spectator



2 Comments on "The future doesn’t have to suck"

  1. DC on Tue, 31st May 2011 4:10 am 

    the future does not have to suck, but it probably will. Becasue we have companies controlling governments that work 24/7 to ensure the future looks exactly like the past, only bigger and dirtier. I used to think the future would be bright-and-shiney. But as time goes on, its pretty clear that future has been pre-empted for more fossil-fuels, cars, plastic garbage and suburbs, forever.

  2. deweyite on Tue, 31st May 2011 10:32 am 

    Interesting article, unfortunately like so many good scientists he comes across as terribly politically naive.

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