Words and Pictures

with Elizabeth Walton

Power hungry

Alternative ways to power the home

Stay wired – without an electricity grid – from The Weekend Australian, with Elizabeth Walton

The burning question on any hi-tech shopper’s lips is what dazzling technologies will be on sale in the next century? The Oracles of millenium-hype have long predicted a Jetsons-inspired vision of the future.

We’d love to know if there will really be space-age transport whizzing cyber-citizens around satelite-burbs bursting with intelligent machines and gadgets galore.

But the most pressing question we face in our final entry phase to the 21st century is how can we generate enough electricity to power our infinitely techno-vamped lives – and protect our biosphere from lethal greenhouse gasses at the same time?

The electrical inventiveness of the late twentieth century and those beyond may appear to have no bounds – but environmentalists would argue, earth’s ability to break down the fall-out certainly does.

Today’s department store expeditions mirror the quest for tantalising electronic devices it seems life can’t keep pulsing without. After all, what self-respecting kitchen could survive without blenders, mincers, juicers, choppers of every description, microwaves – not to mention arms’ length access to fax and answering machines, intruder scanners, cordless phones and remote nursery pagers?

Just as PCs have more computing-power than it took for man’s first walk on the moon, suburban homes now devour more electricity than it took to supply the whole neighbourhood back in the days of mankind’s giant leap.

John Moffatt, Integral Energy’s Community Services Manager, says electricity providers are concerned about the increases in domestic energy use. “Not so long ago, you walked into the average family home and there was one power point in each room. In the kitchen, there was an electric stove top and one power point for the fridge. That’s all changed now. The energy use within homes has increased dramatically.”

In December 1997, the world’s leaders met at the Kyoto Climate Change Convention to set targets for global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Australia gave the green light to ensuring that the GHG emissions for the years 2008-2012 would be capped at 8 per cent above 1990 emissions.

By the time the agreement was signed we had already crossed that line. The challenge now is to reduce emissions back to the target levels. The problem is that throughout the 1990s, Australia’s energy consumption – which accounts for 65 per cent of the country’s emissions – has increased by around 3 per cent each year.

Steel manufacturing and aluminium smelting companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto consume a plump bite of Australia’s energy pie. But it’s not just industry stoking at the coal fire. Around one third of Australia’s total energy is consumed in our own homes.

The average Australian household uses 6,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. It also releases enough GHGs to fill a balloon six times the size of the house.

Reducing emissions relies on changing to energy sources with low environmental-impact. For Australia’s electricity industry, the shift has already begun. Resources which have traditionally been wasted – like coal seam gasses, biomass from sugar cane production, and the heat used in manufacturing processes – are now being converted into electricity.

NSW residents can send a vote for renewables directly to their retailer, by electing Greenpower on their electricity bill. The retailer will give the customer an option of rounding their bill up a few cents, or making a regular contribution.

The State’s distributors have responded to consumer enthusiasm for Greenpower by committing $26 million towards renewable energy projects, such as wind, micro-hydro and solar farms. It is the largest domestic renewables program in the world.

The changes power distributors are making will significantly reduce the level of GHGs emitted when a switch is flicked. But staying wired doesn’t necessarily require downloading electricity from the grid.

The 1980s was a time when pocket calculators became the first mass-market, solar-powered novelties. It was also the time when NASA began using solar power to supply spacecraft with enough energy to survive long journeys interspace.

In the next century, an increasing number of appliances will also by-pass the energy grid, by using power the products themselves create. Solar powered computer and mobile phone batteries, intruder detectors, and turbo vents for cooling cars parked in the sun can all generate their own electricity.

Sun-powered appliances with built-in battery back-up never need to go anywhere near a conventional connection socket, because of their ability to store excess energy for delayed use.

Alternative power-source products can work just as efficiently as conventional products – and not surprisingly, the products on the market range from zany and imaginative, through to just plain practical.

The technology is based on methods used in the World Solar Challenge – a race where cars travel between Darwin and Adelaide on solar pure energy. The cars have enough energy to travel up hills and continue on through cloudy patches. They store excess energy in batteries during peak production phases – and use it later when conditions are poor.

Michael Cameron of Sustainable Technology Australia – the country’s largest supplier of alternative energy products – says appliances which were once the domain of the back-to-the-land movement are becoming popular in trendy inner city communities. These people are not just using solar appliances but installing grid connected solar systems on rooftops.

“The owners are not purchasing the systems primarily for financial gain, but for the sake of doing something for the environment. They tend to be wealthy, and their profession may be related in some way to the environment,” said Cameron.

STA also sells solar equipment to manufacturers of high tech solar energised products. “These companies produce products such as aircraft strip landing lights, electric fences, fish farm lights, and electric extendable pergolas. They also have a market with school solar-car and boat-race competitions and as battery trickle chargers for boats.”

This technology will come in handy for the intergalactic trip I was planning for next week. The travel agent mentioned there won’t be any fuel stations along the way – just the heat from galaxies of suns. Excuse me, Mr Jetson has just arrived. “I’ll be there in a nanosecond, George”.

Office of the future

The solar powered auto-levelling light controller sets energy level to suit the natural light flowing into a room. Solar computer chargers optimise battery performance during recharging. Flick off the solar office air conditioners, then drive home in your turbo-solar-cooled car.

Backyard bonanza

Light your next mid-summer night barbecue with solar lighting. The solar gate opener opens automatically to let your guests in while you take a splash – the solar powered pool filter uses 80 % less chlorine than standard pool filters.

Solar motoring

From toy cars and experimental kits right through to outboard motors and solar catamarans. Solar-hybrid bikers use solar power to get up hills – so cyclists can leave the car at home and arrive at work by bike without the sweat.

The great outdoors

Your solar equipment can help there too. The backpacker’s night light charges up while you hike. But don’t forget to take the flashlights, lanterns and the solar-powered mossie repeller.

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