Early this afternoon, I was pondering a report whose subject need not concern us here. As often happens, my attention wandered. I threw down my pencil stared out at the slate-grey sky. For a moment I wished I could fast-forwards four months to the bright days of May.
Then I made the mistake of clicking on the BBC News website when I should have been getting on with what I was supposed to be getting on with. There it was, in black and white, or black and 10% grey:
Well, my answer was no.
But I compounded my mistake by clicking on the story.
First, we are told that small islands in Indonesia need electricity.
“Those people who don’t have electricity are living on remote islands, so in this situation it’s hard to connect a cable to them and it’s hard to install other expensive solutions such as wind turbines,” says Luofeng Huang, a lecturer in mechanical engineering at Cranfield University.
Something is coming through… wait, I’ve got it! We give the remote islands diesel generators.
Solar power is one option to provide those islands with energy. It has become much cheaper in recent decades – the International Energy Agency (IEA) says that it is becoming the cheapest option for new electricity power plants.
No, I haven’t followed the link to see what rat hole it wriggles down. Solar electricity migh be cheap, but I wouldn’t want to power my house by it, and neither would the BBC reporter. Half the time it is dark.
At any rate, solar does have acknowledged problems: slavery, non-recyclability, sourcing rare earths, etc. And it takes up a lot of room. [Is this something that the BBC has noticed re: solar farms in the UK?]
So scientists and engineers are working on ways to install solar panels on the ocean surface, providing power to those living onshore nearby.
“Floating solar is very convenient because it can just be put on top of the water, and if you need more electricity you can put on more solar panels,” says Mr Huang.
Yes. And if my pint glass is empty, I can sashay to the bar and purchase another beer, albeit at the outrageous cost of about four quid. Science moves on apace. At this stage the BBC reporter acknowledges that waves and sea water are likely to smithereen your attempt at installing solar panels on the ocean surface. But wait! All is not lost! There are answers.
First we have SolarDuck, which is planning to install solar panels in the North Sea, raised above the damaging waves. The Duck farm is going to be attached to a wind farm to share export cables, and is due to begin operations in 2026. Good luck finding a mug who will pay for that. Wait, it’s probably us.
Meanwhile, we have Ocean Sun, who are making circular floats covered in solar panels (see featured image). It’s a sort of electrified swimming pool cover and flexes with the waves, thereby avoiding being damaged by them.
Huang, the expert from Cranfield dismisses both designs. One will be expensive because it is raised up so high. The other will be bashed to bits. I agree with him. These are two solar fantasies. But Huang has a fantasy of his own, called the Solar2Wave system (where do they get these wonderful names?). Solar2Wave swings into the swell, and has a wavebreak at what will hopefully always be the leading edge. The demonstration project will be floating in the Indian Ocean in 12 months’ time.
Sorry, no. This one is going to fail too. Or am I just being cynical? Perhaps. Would I have willingly boarded the USS Monitor?
A final ecological note:
The pH of open water varies diurnally. During the day, algae fix CO2 and produce O2 as a “waste product.” The consequence is increasing pH. At night, no photosynthesis is possible, only respiration. This results in increasing amounts of dissolved CO2 and, you guessed it, a decrease in pH. Now let’s imagine you cover most of a bay with solar panels. What happens to the pH?
The BBC report ends with:
Solar farms could even be sited far out at sea where they could serve as refuelling points for electric ships.
If you believe that, you will also believe that spaghetti grows on bushes, or that your iPhone can be made waterproof by a software update.