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Renewable energy - show me the money..

With oil prices soaring and the effects of CO2 emissions apparent to all but the most myopic or dishonest observers, you'd think that the promise of a clean sustainable energy alternative would generate some interest. Some excitement, even.

And - in some quarters - it does. In science and tech circles there's increasing interest in the work of the UNSW's Centre for Materials Research in Energy Conversion. More specifically; in the work that the Centre's doing on using titanium dioxide to harness solar power for the production of solar hydrogen.

Last year UNSW hosted a public lecture by Professor Helmut Tributsch about the urgent need to invest in new technologies that can convert the sun’s power into usable energies, such as hydrogen fuel.

“Hydrogen is all around us and is the cleanest and most efficient fuel for powering everything from vehicles to furnaces and air-conditioning, if only we can find an affordable way to harness it,” said Professor Tributsch, who is a Director of the Solar-Energy Department at the Hahn-Meitner-Institut and a Professor at the Free University, Berlin.

According to UNSW’s Dr Leigh Sheppard, once the process becomes efficient enough it could be exploited to provide essentially limitless amounts of clean energy, using three resources that Australia has in abundance - sunlight, titanium and seawater.

“The process has no harmful by-products: indeed, it has the additional advantage that it works best in sea-water and the by-product would be fresh water - a resource in scarce supply in Australia.

Put simply, solar hydrogen is the cleanest, greenest energy option for a sustainable economy. The potential market for hydrogen energy is huge, equal to the combined markets for coal, natural gas and oil.”

Their enthusiasm for renewable energy and solar hydrogen in particular is undeniable, but is it shared by Australian governments and industry? Not so much, it seems.

While universities such as UNSW have long had programs in renewable energy, many Australian renewable energy graduates have left to go overseas where there is greater funding and a more favourable regulatory environment for renewable energy.

Famously, Dr Shi Zhengrong graduated from the UNSW's school of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering in 1991 and then left to develop a solar company in China, Suntech Power. Danish company Vestas walked away from its Portland blade factory last August, saying its investment was not viable as market conditions in the country did not support the wind energy industry.

Australia's potential as a leader in the field of sustainable energy is promising and the longer term benefits are significant. So why aren't our industries and Government throwing money at renewable energy?

Perhaps because the pay-off is seen as too long term to be of political benefit to anyone. Maybe because the investment climate in Australia favours short term investments, like currency speculation. Or more ‘reliable’ investments, like property. Perhaps it’s just because in an economy that’s bound to grow on the back of population growth, technical investment’s just too hard.

The time for short term thinking is over. What’s needed now is direct public funding, supplemented by increased investment incentives for sustainable energy research.

Some background information on solar hydrogen, reproduced from a 2004 UNSW media release:
. 1.6 million individual households equipped with 10m x 10m solar hydrogen panels would meet all of Australia's energy needs.
. Hydrogen generated from water using solar energy constitutes a clean source of energy as neither its production nor its combustion process produces greenhouse or pollutant gases. Hydrogen produced by existing conventional methods emits carbon dioxide at the production stage.
. When this technology matures it would allow Australia to be a leader in solar technology, becoming part of an OPEC of the future. Australia is ideally placed to commercialise this technology as it has abundant sunlight.
. This technology ultimately will reduce Australia's total reliance on coal, gasoline and natural gas, providing energy security.
. Titanium dioxide is plentiful and cheap. Titania ceramics also have many other applications, including water purification, anti-viral and bacteriacidal coatings on hospital clothing and surfaces, self-cleaning glasses, and anti-pollution surfaces on buildings and roads.
. As sources of fossil fuels disappear, the race is on to be the world's leading provider of hydrogen. The US Government committed an extra US$1.2 billion to hydrogen research several years ago. Japan has launched a 20-year research program that is sending satellites into space in the hope that it can harvest solar energy and send it back to the earth by laser onto cells of titania (TiO2). The European Commission has instituted an intense R&D program in pursuit of solar hydrogen.
. Iceland aims to be the world's first hydrogen economy.

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With all due respect, Dave, this press release sounds like a lot of hyperbole with very few specifics. They talk about 'when the technology matures', but hydrogen storage and transport of the fuel are very problematic. Despite a great deal of money and hype, so far, no-one has come up with any technology that would have hydrogen provide 'limitless amounts of energy'.

Maybe you know more about this than I do, in which case, please, details, details, details :-)

Sheila N

Sheila Newman, population sociologist
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Hi Sheila,
There's no denying that solar hydrogen has a way to go before it will even come close to replacing fossil fuels. The point of my article was not so much to suggest that it could - currently- but rather that it was promising technology that warranted greater investment than at present.

Having said that, there are concrete, working right-now examples of hydrogen being generated renewably around the world.

The Treehugger website reported last year on a solar powered home hydrogen fuelling station that had been developed by CSIRO. Treehugger said..
"We at TreeHugger have never been fond of the hydrogen economy, with its problems of sourcing the hydrogen (really a form of gaseous battery storing energy) and transport. However, this addresses both of these formerly intractable problems."
Likewise, the case of Mike Strizki's solar hydrogen powered house in the US demonstrates that renewably generated energy can be stored as hydrogen.

In Strizki's case particularly, the system isn't overly elegant. It's big, costly and not particularly efficient. But so were computers in 1978.

Problems with storage and transport can't be denied, but without investment into R&D, they won't be solved either.

Cheers :)