Some things to look forward to…

Swansea lagoon visitors centre

Swansea lagoon visitors centre. Picture from BBC News.

‘News’ is frequently an abbreviation for ‘Bad News’. There seems to be no end of stories about ‘things’ getting worse.

And so it is something of relief to hear of people providing solutions to our problems. Here are few things which have recently inspired me with hope.

  • Meeting some teachers today.
  • The Swansea Lagoon Project in Swansea.
  • The Solana and Ivanpah Solar Thermal Power projects in the western USA.

Teachers: Today, Saturday March 1st, I got up early and drove to Birmingham to give a talk to a group of eight physics teachers at a training day.

They were a friendly and positive bunch – but what inspired me was not their subject knowledge (which was actually excellent) but their looks. To my 54 year-old male eyes these people didn’t look like what I expected physics teachers to look like.

From this gender-balanced group there was short and tall, thin and chubby, and a range of ethnicities. They were united only in an interest in Physics and in teaching it well.

As I reflected on the long drive home, it seemed as though these people were part of the solution to a long-standing problem in physics education, and I felt honoured to be able help a little.

The Swansea Lagoon Project (BBC Story) may or not get built, but I loved the design flair in their visitors centre (main picture above), and modesty of the project.

This is not the Severn barrage which would block the entire Severn estuary and which would be able to supply 5% of UK electricity demand to the detriment of nobody but a few wading birds.

This is a much more modest lagoon off the coast of Swansea which would not even harm the birds! Its lower cost makes it much more likely to actually get built, and the technology is scalable – multiple projects could be developed one by one – something which also makes it much more investment friendly.

Map of the Swansea tidal lagoon

Map of the Swansea tidal lagoon

Two solar thermal projects in the US have recently begun operating.

  • The Ivanpah plant consists of an astonishing 170,000 parabolic mirrors each of which tracks the Sun to focus light onto a furnace at the top of gigantic tower. This heats steam which drives a turbine to generate electricity.
  • The Solana plant in Arizona is similar, but distinctly different. One difference is that it uses cheaper parabolic troughs to heat a synthetic oil which runs along a tube at their focus. But this plant can also generate electricity after dark! This astonishing engineering ‘trick’ involves storing the thermal energy in gigantic vats of molten salt. The heat can then be used to generate electricity after the Sun has gone down, allowing the generation of electricity at its time of peak demand.

These plants have been heavily subsidised. But they show that this technology is practical and I am sure the next generation of plants will be cheaper to build and operate.

However the LA times reports today that solar thermal plants are already obsolete – even as they open! – because the falling cost of silicon photovoltaic plants is making them uneconomic. That may be true – but photovoltaics definitely don’t work in the dark!

The future is not obvious. But when I see the diversity of people teaching physics and wanting to do it better. And when I see the range of emerging options for sustainable energy generation I feel able to hope that even if I don’t recognise it immediately, the future will arrive all by itself – and that it will not be all bad.

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