Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Straight from the sun

Renewable energy will drive a new industrial 
revolution. That revolution is inevitable, 
elegant, and already here 

Just after the latest round of climate change talks (in Bonn this time) had sort-of stalled, I took a walk to New York’s North Cove Marina.

The southern tip of Manhattan narrows to a point at its southern end and juts out into the broad expanse of New York Harbour. The Marina is on the lower West Side, far enough down for the famous landmark of Ellis Island to be clearly visible. Just beyond is the Statue of Liberty; it was a mid-June Monday and the statue was bathed in the bluish haze of a warm humid late afternoon at the end of spring. A few lazy sailboats drifted in front of it. Further away, the high, bright-orange superstructure of a Staten Island ferry passed in front of the Verrazano Narrows bridge, itself a tiny latticework on the horizon, spanning the channel between Staten Island and Brooklyn, and guarding New York’s gateway to the sea.  Closer to the shore, the Circle Line sightseeing boat passed by, as did the odd ferry across the Hudson, carrying commuters home to the New Jersey shore a mile or so away across the river.

The Planet Solar in New York (pic: M. Robbins)
The Marina itself is tucked into the steel-and-glass canyons of modern Manhattan; over it looms the new Freedom Tower that has sprung from the ruins of September 11 2001. That afternoon the MS Tûranor PlanetSolar had backed into her berth in the Marina after a long trip across the Atlantic to Florida and thence up the coast. The name Tûranor is taken from J.R.R. Tolkien;  it is Elvish for Power of the Sun. They are not joking. PlanetSolar is powered by an enormous solar array of about 5,600 square feet (519 sq m). Walking into the marina from the south, the 89-ton boat was instantly recognisable; she is actually a catamaran, with a totally flat superstructure bar a small blister for the bridge – the rest of her topside is solar cells. The brainchild of Swiss eco-entrepeneur Raphael Domjan, in 2010-2012 she became the first solar boat to circumnavigate the globe. On this occasion, she had not come so far – across the Atlantic from La Ciotat on France’s Mediterranean coast.  The trip had been accomplished solely on solar power; although she carries a back-up engine to recharge the batteries, she hadn’t needed it.

PlanetSolar had not come to New York just to prove a point. On board was a team from the University of Geneva, led by Martin Beniston, Professor of Climate Change at the University and also director of its newly-established Institute of Environmental Sciences. On the night the PlanetSolar arrived in Manhattan, the Swiss Consulate arranged a cheerful informal reception on board, and I found Professor Beniston unwinding with some excellent Swiss wines and cheeses.   Although Swiss, Professor Beniston was born in the UK and did his first degree at the University of East Anglia, where I did my own PhD  on climate change. The project, he explained, was to carry out research in the Gulf Stream into the mechanics of CO2 fluxes between the ocean and the atmosphere, and especially into the role of phytoplankton.  “Because it’s a pollution-free boat, it will be ideal for the collection and analysis of samples,” he told me. “They won’t be contaminated.”  

Later I climbed up to the bridge to greet the captain of the PlanetSolar,  Gérard d’Aboville.  The vessel had had a hard time docking that afternoon in the confined space of the marina, and he could have been in a foul mood, but he wasn’t, or if he was, he hid it well. But then, not much bothers a man who has rowed singlehandedly across both the Atlantic and the Pacific, sat in the European Parliament and done much else besides. (He also once competed in the Paris-Dakar with his four brothers, each one riding a Kawasaki 250; so maybe the whole family is slightly mad.) Then I stood with my companion in the hatch and admired the solar array, which glowed carmine and orange as the sun sank slowly towards the New Jersey shore, lighting the pink and grey clouds and setting the Hudson on fire.

The Solar Impulse is Swiss as well. It was designed in collaboration with the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, which is also doing pioneering work on solar cells. It is not the world’s first solar plane; experimental designs have been flown of over 30 years. What is new about Solar Impulse is that it is the first manned aircraft that can store enough power when in the air in daylight to fly through the night. In theory, Solar Impulse it has an unlimited range. In practice it hasn’t; the pilot is the limiting factor, as the cockpit is extremely small and besides, the plane is not designed to fly through bad weather. Nonetheless it has remained aloft for over 24 hours at a stretch.

On July 6 2013 it arrived in New York after a transcontinental flight in the hands of its two Swiss pilots, André Borschberg, an entrepreneur and former fighter pilot, and distinguished balloonist Bertrand Piccard (the two men are co-leaders of the project, as well as alternating pilots). Its arrival was fraught. A stretch of fabric pulled away from the port wing, a fact unknown to pilot Borschberg until he was told by the crew of a following helicopter. Borschberg later described cheerfully how, on hearing of the tear in the wing, he had thought he might have to bail out into the Atlantic below and found himself thinking that that would at least be a new experience. A week after the plane’s arrival, and again courtesy of the Swiss Consulate, I filed into Hangar 19 at New York’s JFK airport to see the plane.

The Solar Impulse in Hangar 19 (pic: M.Robbins)
Hangar 19 has apparently played host to Concorde, Air Force One and the plane that brought the Pope to the USA; but it can have had few stranger and more wonderful visitors than it did on that July day. The roof of the hangar was in shadow, as was the foreground; the plane itself was 60 or 70 feet away and bathed in an eerie light. It is both tiny and vast. It is controlled from a small forward pod that contains the pilot, his oxygen (the plane flies above 30,000ft when required) and all immediate essentials; together, according to Piccard, these weigh about 500lb. The fuselage itself is longer – over 70ft (about 22 m) – but very slender; the wingspan, at around 208ft (about 63 m), is equal to that of an Airbus A340, and there was little clearance from the wingtips to Hangar 19’s edges. There are four motors, each in a nacelle that also contains the batteries. Two of the engines are mounted quite close inboard, but the outer ones are far out at the point where the wing bends upwards. This, and the predatory downward sweep of the cockpit, remind one of an enormous pterodactyl.

Both pilots were on hand to answer questions. Piccard was in ebullient mood. In addition to his own achievements, he is a grandson of Auguste Piccard, a Swiss scientist who worked in Brussels and was Hergé’s model for Professor Calculus (Professor Tournesol in French) in the Tintin books. More to the point, he was, like his grandson, a pioneer high-altitude balloonist; and was also the inventor of the bathyscape, which in 1961 dived to the bottom of the Mariana Trench with his son, Bertrand’s father, aboard. The family thus has the distinction of having held the records for both the highest ascent and the deepest descent.

Borschberg (left) and Piccard  (pic: M. Robbins)
Asked about Solar Impulse’s gliding characteristics and how they compared with a conventional aircraft, Bertrand Piccard  said they were exceptional; if anything went wrong, the air traffic controller would have time to “drive home, have a cup of tea and come back” to deal with the emergency. This perhaps makes light of the hazards of the enterprise. The plane cruises at just 30-60 MPH, meaning it must stay well out of the way of busy air routes. Moreover it weighs just 3,500 lb (1,600 kg), about the same as a car (in fact, that is pretty much the kerb weight of one typical European saloon, the Alfa Romeo 159). At the same time it has a huge, very light wing area, and Borschberg and Piccard admitted that the aircraft is difficult to land in crosswinds. Given that at least one full-size airliner has been destroyed by wind shear, both men must have had real courage and skill to fly this strange aeroplane across a continent. In fact, they intend to fly around the world in, they hope, 2015; the aircraft in which they plan to do this, the Solar Impulse 2, is already undergoing testing. 

The solar plane and the solar boat should make the Swiss proud. That day both Bertrand Piccard and the Swiss Consul-General in New York, François Barras, stressed the Swiss track record in innovation. (The country has earned the largest number of patents per capita of any on earth.) But are they practical technology? Piccard told the audience he didn’t foresee passengers flying the Atlantic in a solar plane, while Gérard d’Aboville has said that the Planet Solar, remarkable as it is, does not represent the future of boats. In a sense, they are surely right. The Solar Impulse has the wingspan of a jumbo jet but barely has room for its pilot and cruises at 40 MPH. The Planet Solar makes an average of 5-6 knots and the “works” leave little space for cargo.

In another sense, however, Planet Solar and Solar Impulse represents a future that is inevitable, elegant, and – to some extent – already here.

As a child, I had a number of Ladybirds, picture books for children that were then much loved. One was The Story of the Motor Car. This showed the progress of the car from the earliest experiments with steam. One colour plate that I have not forgotten is one of an 18th-century Frenchman with an infernal three-wheel machine with an enormous boiler overhanging its front. It is tipping over, and the Frenchman in question is flying through the air, his tricorn hat parted from his wig, his frock coat askew; a tongue of flame emerges from the boiler. Soldiers, on foot and on horseback, look on with evident concern.

The flying Frenchman was a military engineer, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot, and the fiery trike was one of two attempts he made to build a steam-powered fardier (a fardier being a heavy horse-drawn cart for pulling field guns). Cugnot’s  fardier à vapeur is said to have been implicated in the world’s first road accident, destroying a wall of the Paris Arsenal.  This may be apocryphal; some sources say it never happened. Still, Cugnot’s fardiers à vapeur (he built two, in 1769 and 1770) were unstable and proceeded at only 2 mph; moreover they could manage only 10 minutes or so of motion before steam had to be raised again. Eventually the army lost patience and pensioned Cugnot off, along with the fardiers à vapeur. However, the 1770 machine survived. It can be seen in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris, though not, one assumes, in action; if I were the museum, I wouldn’t mess with that thing.

Gérard d’Aboville: rowed the Pacific (pic: M. Robbins)
Meanwhile Nicéphore Niépce (who later invented photography) and his brother Claude were taking a different route. In 1807 they built a device called the Pyréolophore, which they mounted on a boat and tested on the River Saône. The device, which initially ran on moss spores but later on pulverised coal, bore little relation to a modern engine; rather, it sucked in water and blew it out in order to convert the pressure created by combustion into forward motion. Nonetheless it was an internal combustion engine, converting its fuel into motion directly rather than via steam, and the French Institute National de Science saw the point. In the Niépces’s machine, it declared, “no portion of heat is dispersed in advance; the moving force is an instantaneous result, and all the fuel effect is used to produce the dilatation that causes the moving force."

This must have been how François Isaac de Rivaz saw things, too. De Rivaz was born in Paris but was Swiss, of a family from the Valais, where he settled at quite a young age. After working with steam engines for some years in the Army, he built an internal combustion engine, and in the same year, 1807, he mounted it on a cart to create, in effect, the world’s first car. There is some argument as to whether this, rather than the Niépces’s Pyréolophore, was the first internal combustion engine. However that may be, de Rivaz’s machine had one strikingly modern feature: the force of the explosion was converted into movement by rotary motion through a piston. True, this was blown upwards by the explosion, and turned a ratchet as it fell back down – not a system used much at Ford or Toyota. Moreover the idea would take a long time to catch on. Nonetheless, the process of converting stored energy into rotary movement had been simplified, so that less was lost during the process. In effect, de Rivaz had built the world’s first internal combustion piston engine.

So why have we not moved forward since? 

Not long ago Škoda launched a new version of its popular Octavia model. I was very impressed with an early version that I hired some years ago, so I took a look. The car is available with an arsenal of equipment, including satnav, a digital radio, driver fatigue warning, dual-zone climate control and a box on the dash with a wireless connection for your mobile phone. Electronic stability control is standard, and one can specify a collision warning and even a system to apply the brakes if a collision seems likely. All in all, the car disposes of far more computing power than did the Apollo lunar module. Yet at its heart (and that of almost all cars) is a reciprocating engine not much different in principle from de Rivaz’s, and certainly not from that of the Benz Motorwagen of 1885.

This will not do. Consider the number of moving surfaces in such a unit.  Each piston begins its cycle by sucking in fuel on a downward (intake) stroke, compressing it on the upward (compression) stroke, being driven down by combustion on the next stroke and then expelling the waste gases on its next upward travel (the exhaust stroke). With four such pistons, there are one hell of a lot of moving surfaces, especially given that only one cylinder of the four will be on the combustion stroke, and providing power, at any one time. Moreover, besides the major moving parts – the cylinders, the connecting rods from them to the crankshaft and the crankshaft itself – there are a mass of others; belts or chains from the crankshaft will drive the shafts that open and close the valves at the top of the cylinders, and will also turn the water pump that cools the engine and will drive the alternator that provides electrical power. Thus the one cylinder that is firing at any one time moves a large surface area that constantly changes direction, meaning that it must also accelerate and decelerate a great deal of mass as the pistons pass the tops and bottoms of their stroke.

In short, the modern car engine is an archaic, demented Heath Robinson device that flies in the face of physics, the sort of nightmare of moving parts an incompetent child might make with a Meccano set. Why do we still tolerate it in our digital world? Science fiction fans may remember a short story by John Wyndham, Chocky, in which the eponymous hero is an alien that communicates with a child; when the child explains that his father’s new car has gears, Chocky cannot hide his contempt.

There have been attempts to produce an internal combustion engine that is simpler and more effective. The most successful has perhaps been the Wankel engine, in which the piston did not go up and down but instead rotated, doing so concentrically so as to compress fuel and expel waste gases. Pioneered by NSU (now part of the Volkswagen group) in the 1960s, it powered the 1967 NSU Ro 80, a car of such elegance and modernity that it would not look out of place today. (Although Car Magazine described it as having “large, hard seats for large, soft Germans”.) But high fuel consumption killed it off, and the last car to use the Wankel engine (a Mazda) ceased production in 2012.

But another answer has been staring us in the face for over 100 years.  In 1899 the Belgian engineer Camille Jenatzy broke the world land speed record and also exceeded 100KPH for the first time, using a torpedo-shaped vehicle called the Jamais Contente. It too still exists and is on display at the Château de Compiègne not far from Paris, but I wouldn’t mess with the Jamais Contente either; it is rather tall, and the driver sat on top of it, making it look dangerously top-heavy.  Jenatzy will not have been scared. He went on to a distinguished motor-racing career at a time when the sport was horrifically dangerous. He told friends that he would die in a Mercedes, and oddly enough he did; to amuse guests on a hunting trip, he hid behind a bush and imitated a wild boar, whereupon his friends shot him. He died in the ambulance.

What intrigues about the Jamais Contente, however, is that it was electric. There is nothing new about electric cars at all. In the early days of motoring they were common, especially for town use. The relative lack of moving parts reduces friction, while the simplicity of their action mean that changes in velocity do not mean changes in multiple piston speeds. The Jamais Contente did not even have a transmission – even a simple transfer gear; the motor and wheels turned on the same shaft.  The limiting factor, so far, has been battery technology and inadequate range. Jenatzy himself seems to have abandoned the technology for that reason.

That is changing. Tesla Motors claims that its Model S will manage 300 miles at 55MPH. The range of an electric vehicle is highly variable depending on temperature and usage, but the US Environmental Protection Agency apparently does accept that the Model S car will do 208-265 miles, depending on battery pack. The Morris Minor I drove in my youth had a range of only about 260 miles. True, that was an era when there were many more fuel stations; but building charging stations for electric cars should be a simpler matter. In fact a recent article on the website of the Rocky Mountain institute (Is the End of EV Range Anxiety in Sight?, June 20 2013) suggests a number of possibilities, including increases in the number of charging stations, mobile emergency chargers and a 500-mile vehicle through developments in lithium-air batteries.

Two thoughts about the story above. First, Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur didn’t cut it at the time. Had you told even Cugnot himself that, at its apogee, steam would move the world’s largest artificial objects, the 1930s liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, each weighing over 80,000 tons, at over 30MPH for days on end, he would have found it hard to envisage. The fardier à vapeur and the Jamais Contente were the future; they weren’t the present. A proof of concept rarely is.

The second thought is that steam never was the shortest route from A to B. Why use combustion of fuel to heat a separate substance to induce motion, when you can do so directly from the fuel itself? As the Institute National de Science realised, that was what the Niépce brothers had done. Meanwhile de Rivaz used the piston to convert that process into rotary motion.  But that was 200 years ago. It’s time to move on again. It’s the same process that led the replacement of the piston aero-engine by the turbine and then the jet, a profound simplification; and to the clean shapes of modern aircraft in place of the string-and-fabric birdcages that followed the Wright Brothers. In the late 1960s a motoring magazine persuaded the 80-year-old W.O. Bentley to give his thoughts on modern technology. It took him to Fairford to see the British prototype of Concorde, then under construction. “Now we’re back to the dug-out canoe,” he snorted. But perhaps that was the point. Good technology is ultimately a process of understanding how to use one’s environment, rather than confront it. To confront is a process of complication, of evasion; progress is simplification, cutting the distance between the source of energy and the outcome for which it is needed.

But there is a flaw in this argument. Electric cars are not fuel-less vehicles like the Planet Solar. They do not generate their own electricity. There have been experiments with solar vehicles, but they have yet to pass the proof-of-concept stage.  Far from converting fuel directly into motion, electric vehicles must take their charge from power stations that may generate it from fossil fuel. If the power were generated from renewables, of course, this objection would be overcome. 

We are much nearer this than we think. I am writing this a week after the inauguration of the London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind farm, and a day after the UK approved an even bigger one off Lincolnshire (it’s to be called Triton Knoll). Renewables are growing, despite a recent hiccough in investment. Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2013, by the United Nations Environment Programme and the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, reports that in 2012 investment in renewables – by which they mean mainly, though not entirely, wind and solar – was 12% down on 2011. However, it was still the second-highest ever. Investment in developing countries was actually up.  Moreover, while part of the overall decline arose from policy uncertainty, it also reflected a drop in the cost of photovoltaics (PV) for solar power. “The... cost of generating a MWh [megawatt hour] of electricity from PV was around one third lower last year than the 2011 average,” states the report. “This took small-scale residential PV power, in particular, much closer to competitiveness.”

This prompts the attractive thought that a householder will soon generate all their electricity needs, including, maybe, those of the car. In fact, there are already dedicated solar charging stations for vehicles, although effective ones are still probably not economic for most homeowners. But household use of renewables, mainly solar panels, is spreading rapidly, along with solar and wind capacity designed to feed into the grid. The renewables website CleanTechnica recently claimed that three Landkreise, or districts, in Germany, Nordfriesland, Prignitz and Dithmarschen, were producing 260%, 261% and 281% respectively of their regional power mix from renewables – meaning, presumably, that they could provide 100% of their energy needs from them, and export the rest.

True, these are not large areas. They have a population of 80,000-165,000, and two of these states are on the North Sea coast of Schleswig-Holstein, giving them an unfair advantage in terms of wind power.  Moreover high subsidies for feed-in tariffs, by which householders or owners of wind turbines can sell what they generate back through the grid, have made electricity expensive for many German consumers, and there is also an increasing backlash against the environmental drawbacks of wind-turbine construction. Nonetheless Germany has done well with renewables, and CleanTechnica claims that a 100% renewables energy system is possible within a few decades. As the UNEP/Frankfurt School study implies, the right policy environment is needed for this. (California, for example, allows feed-in tariffs – but it doesn’t allow householders to install more capacity than they need, so that they can generate and sell a surplus.) However, according to a Deutsche Bank report quoted by Australian journalist Giles Parkinson on his excellent site, Renew Economy, the 2014 global solar market could jump to 45GW, after rising to 38-40GW in 2013.

This is all quite logical. Just as de Rivaz’s engines bought the power source right into the piston chamber, so renewable energy sources – especially solar – bring the sun’s energy direct to where it is needed. By contrast, the use of oil and gas requires the sun to shine on a plant, the plant to grow, the plant to die, the dead plant material to become buried, and for it to work its way deeper underground until it is crushed by the weight of the earth above. It is then necessary to wait 500 million-odd years before it is ready to burn. At that point, it must be brought back to the surface and transported to where it is needed, sometimes with pollution and loss of life. Examples include the BP explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and – less discussed, but possibly worse – the environmental damage done for many years in the Niger Delta. This is not new. I am old enough to remember the disastrous 1967 oil spill after the shipwreck of the 120,000-ton oil tanker Torrey Canyon on the Seven Stones off south-west England. Many will also remember the 167 deaths in the explosion of the Piper Alpha gas platform in 1988. Just this week, it is reported that at least 35 people have died in a dreadful accident involving an oil train at Lac-Mégantic in Quebec. As for nuclear energy, it is scarcely a simpler process, and requires huge infrastructure projects with a limited working life. Moreover, while it has a better safety record, the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima have reminded us that it is potentially even more dangerous. Why on earth not just harvest the wind and the sun?

This may seem glib. It is not so simple, of course. Fossil fuels let us use the energy produced through photosynthesis at a far higher rate than it is produced. (But is that a good idea? We have unbalanced the global carbon cycle in the process.) And as the Germans are finding, for renewables you need to fix the grid first. Yet there is an inescapable logic to the direct use of energy, and as the Planet Solar and the Solar Impulse have shown, one day we may be able to use it more directly still.

That is why a move to renewables is inevitable. They will not come about through the international climate negotiations. I am not opposed to those, but I am sceptical. Visit the web page of the Solar Impulse and you will see the headline “Around the world in a solar airplane”. Visit the website of the secretariat of the UN climate-change treaty, the UNFCCC, and you will see a reference to “The thirty-eighth sessions of the Subsidiary Body for Implementation (SBI 38) and the Subsidiary Body for Scientific and Technological Advice (SBSTA 38), as well as the second part of the second session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Durban Platform for Enhanced Action (ADP 2-2).” Enough said. 

Neither will the move to renewables have anything to do with of some nice fuzzy feeling about being in harmony with nature. Technological progress, as I have argued, is a cold, hard  process of going from A to B first via L, M, N and P, then via D, E and F and finally by the direct route.

But I cannot forget what Piccard said about the Solar Impulse and its ability to glide. Many years ago, as a young man in England, I wanted to fly gliders. Every weekend I drove the 70-odd miles from my home in inner London to an abandoned bomber airfield, where I would spend the day pushing gliders on and off the runway. There was a lot of waiting around. The runway was vast; it had once sent 30-ton bombers to the Ruhr; the control tower still stood, with ragged pieces of paper pinned to a mouldy noticeboard, long unreadable. Like all such places, the airfield was haunted one moment and prosaic the next as the light changed and the wind dropped.

At the end of the day, if I was lucky, I would be strapped into the cockpit of a wooden 1950s dual-control glider and launched a thousand feet into the air behind a decrepit 12-cylinder Jaguar car, rescued from the scrapheap at Milton, a few miles away.  If I was really lucky the instructor would catch a thermal, and kick the rudder hard, searching for an elusive pocket of warm air that would carry us upward so that we would be suspended for a minute or two between the low, hazy grey-and-white clouds and the soft green Oxfordshire countryside below. One day I was standing on the grass with nothing special to do when an ancient glider passed a hundred feet or so above my head, and seemed to drift through the air so slowly that it was almost stationary. As it came close I heard a thrumming, singing sound from its rigging, really quite loud, an enormous Aeolian harp.

As we left Hangar 19 at JFK last weekend, I turned for a last look at the strange aircraft behind me, and just for a moment I did think of a world where there would be no polluted Niger delta, no terrible Piper Alpha or Lac-Mégantic, no Fukushima; just solar boats that move quietly through clean water and, far above, a magic aeroplane that stays aloft forever, soaring and wheeling with kestrels and kites.

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads

Follow the links for more information about the Planet Solar and the Solar Impulse
To stay up-to-date on renewables, follow  Giles Parkinson and Zachary Shahan’s informative sites RenewEconomy and CleanTechnica
 Thanks to Sandrine, Neil and Andy
The author warmly acknowledges the hospitality of the Consulate General of Switzerland in New York Follow their Facebook page here

Hudson, sunset, and solar array (pic: M. Robbins)
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