How green energy can boost radioastronomy — and vice versa

March 7, 2013

David Dickson

David Dickson
Correspondent, SciDev.Net

At first sight, radioastronomy and renewable energy might seem strange bedfellows.

But there’s a growing realisation – or perhaps one should say a growing argument – that large radioastronomy facilities can become a driver for the use of renewable energy by remote communities across the developing world.

The logic was explained by Lourdes Verdes-Montenegro, of the Astrophysics Institute of Andalucía in Spain, speaking at a session on joint collaboration between Europe and Africa in radioastronomy as part of the EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration meeting in Brussels.

Verdes-Montenegro outlined several reasons why renewable energy technologies will be critical for major radioastronomy facilities such as the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which has been approved for construction in Africa and Australia.

“One factor is the need to provide large amounts of power to a concentration of instrumentation located far from any energy grid,” she said.

As a result, the SKA project is already looking at how it can exploit a range of renewable energies – such as solar energy and biomass – to produce electricity in situ.

It is also looking at developing new storage techniques, given that the telescopes will be operating 24 hours a day, and stored power will be required at night when solar energy is not available.

A second link to renewable energy, Verdes-Montenegro tells SciDev.Net, is that radioastronomy facilities require locations free from the radio interference that can be created by high capacity power lines.

“We have the chance to see SKA become the prototype of large mega-science infrastructures with zero per cent carbon footprints,” says Verdes-Montenegro. “It is a unique opportunity to explore the universe using green energy.”

But she is quick to point out that the astronomers will not be the only ones who would benefit.  “There will also be an opportunity for remote local populations to get direct benefits through access to energy supplies,” she says.

“Eventually 1.6 billion people around the world – the number who are currently not on the electricity grid – could benefit from the development of radioastronomy facilities,” says Verdes-Montenegro.

European energy researchers may also benefit. She says that Spain – which has recently been at the forefront of developing renewable energy sources – is leading a consortium that plans to bid for the contract to provide power for the South African facility.

Both arguments will come in handy for those who say SKA will provide wide socio-economic benefits – a case that needs to be made convincingly if full funding for the project is going to be raised, which remains far from certain.

This blog post is part of SciDev.Net’s coverage of EU Science: Global Challenges & Global Collaboration which takes place 4-8 March 2013, in Brussels, Belgium. To read further news and analysis please visit our website.

Don’t forget the jobs!

November 10, 2010

National energy plans should not forget job creation opportunities. Credit: Kuyasa CDM project

Embracing new energy technology without training skilled people to maintain the new gadgets is not the way to go for Africa, South Africa’s science and technology minister, Naledi Pandor, said on Monday night.

“No one has made a provision to repair solar panels when they break down. Skills associated with the positive technology must be made available so that we can confront future problems,” she said.

This morning, Barry Bredenkamp, from the South African National Energy Efficiency Agency, made a similar point.

National energy programmes are fertile ground for job creation, he said. But the South African national energy plan fails to address this issue – something that must be rectified, Bredenkamp said. “In South Africa, and globally, we have a serious unemployment problem.”

South Africa recently set up a Working for Energy programme. This programme aims to marry the rolling out of sustainable energy options in South Africa with job creation, focusing on up-skilling the unskilled. The programme will intentionally choose labour-intensive alternatives to stimulate job creation.

Something for other African countries to consider?

Munyaradzi Makoni, freelance journalist for SciDev.Net

ASADI 2010: Improving energy access in Africa

November 5, 2010

Can Africa afford to go for renewable energy? Credit: Flickr/PRI's The World

It is time for another African conference here on the SciDev.Net blog.

Next week, the African Science Academy Development Initiative (ASADI) descends on the sleepy seaside town of Somerset West, about an hour’s drive from Cape Town. The theme of the conference, ASADI’s sixth, is ‘improving energy access in Africa’.

The conference will hear about the state of energy access in Africa. Did you know that 70 per cent of the continent, or nearly 600 million Africans, lack access to electricity? And that nearly half of its power generation capacity belongs to South Africa?

Clearly, Africa’s energy revolution can’t come fast enough. But the continent has many choices to make. Can it afford to go for renewable energy? For South Africa with its coal reserves, dirty energy has been cheapest. But with climate change knocking on the door and green technology emerging as a growth market, renewables are becoming more competitive.

Already, there is progress on the renewable energy front in Africa. Kenya is looking to wind to power its grid, and South Africans are putting solar panels on their roofs to cut their rising electricity bills. The conference will give my blog co-pilot, Munyaradzi Makoni, and myself the opportunity to investigate these, and other, successes in more detail.

What can scientists do to make their voices heard in African energy policymaking? What are the benefits – and risks – of expanding nuclear energy in Africa? Can ‘smart’ grid technology help to curb the continent’s voracious energy appetite? Keep checking in for updates on these questions and many, many more.

Linda Nordling, SciDev.Net columnist

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