Towards A Solarpowered Slutwalk

Two days ago I had solar panels installed. It’s taken a while, but I was waiting for the boom caused by temporary rebates to subside. Yesterday I went to Slutwalk, a protest against blaming the victim of rape (While I am at it, can I say how proud I am to have friends with the courage to write this and this, and the brilliance to write this). Strangely enough, these two things turned out to have a connection.

Roof mounted solar panels (not mine)

The inspirational Karen Pickering at Slutwalk. Bet you didn’t expect a connection.

The turnout at Slutwalk was impressive given the lack of money the organisers had to promote it, and the fact that the media largely ignored it beforehand – last year it’s novelty value meant it received huge amounts of media, even from outlets normally not too reluctant to do some victim blaming*. However, this turnout turned into something of a problem when the generator to power the amplifiers went down. Most of the speakers found their amplification dropping in and out, sometimes several times a minute. For the famously vocal Van Badham, who almost deafened us when the microphone was on, this wasn’t too much of an obstacle but others struggled, particularly those trying to convey a  message infused with sorrow as much as anger. In the end a smaller battery powered operation helped the speakers finish, but it lacked the grunt to reach the back of the crowd.

It was a gloriously sunny day in Melbourne and it was inevitable to think “One of my solar panels would probably do the job fine. The problem with fossil fuel energy is they’re so unreliable and intermittent.”

Now of course this is not literally true.The first day of spring in Melbourne is no time to count on days like yesterday for power, and even if we had had solar panels we probably would have needed to keep dragging them around to avoid shade from nearby trees.

On the other hand, my election business company is confronted with the situation this week where we need to run two laptops without access to mains energy. The laptops must be used for a period of seven hours, so their own batteries will not last. The same day my panels were installed the company acquired a portable battery system, which in theory should solve the problem, although at the moment it seems inclined to deliver much less power than advertised. Naturally I pondered if the the battery, fully operational, would be enough to power the microphone through the rally.

So here, in a microcosm, is the issue that will decide our future. We have a choice between polluting, but apparently convenient fossil fuels, or the use of renewable energy, which will need battery support to provide reliable power. Just as in this little model, the primary reliability problem lies with the batteries, rather than the solar panels/windfarms. The power sources are still improving, but are getting close to the price and reliability needed to make the system work. The challenge is in the storage.

Meanwhile, coal fired power stations are much more reliable than the dinky little generator that kept dropping out at Slutwork. Nevertheless, as Victorians have seen their claims to 24/7 delivery have more than a touch of hype.

As I have covered several times before, I have great hopes for Prof Maria Skyllas-Kazaco’s vanadium redox flow batteries, buy they are hardly the only horse in this race. In the last couple of weeks I wrote articles about two new entrants: systems that replace expensive lithium with the chemically similar sodium and a big step forward in hydrogen storage. We’ve got a long way to run before we find out which of these will succeed on a large scale, but one step towards viability will be usage in portable applications, like allowing those who have been silenced to amplify their voices.

*Outrageously, many media outlets told organisers that unless there was anything new this year they didn’t see a reason to cover Slutwalk. The comments of Todd Akin, George Galloway and Tom Smith apparently having passed them by entirely.


About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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