Tinkering With A Solar Solution

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Noel Barton has been up for three hours when he picks me up from the train station. The trim 63 year-old works out at the gym between 6.30am and 7.30am four days a week and walks 5km on off days. After his morning exercise Noel makes his way downstairs to the small room behind the garage where his renewable energy company Sunoba is headquartered.

We take a seat at the computer and Noel starts telling me the story of how he threw in his job and six-figure salary as the Manager of Applied Mathematicians at CSIRO in 2003 to pursue his passion for inventing. He had become increasingly concerned about climate change, was disappointed at the level of renewable energy research taking place within CSIRO at that time and was ready for a new challenge.

He was always likely to be a scientist of one type or another. His father, a maths and physics teacher, and his high school maths teacher were early influences. Noel, born in a small country town in WA, earned a PhD in mathematics from the University of Western Australia, followed by a postdoctoral year at Cambridge. He was awarded the Member of the Order of Australia for his services to mathematics in 2002 and after a 28-year career in academia and at the CSIRO became an inventor and entrepreneur in 2003.

On 3 June 2004 at 4.30am Noel had a lightbulb moment about how to make power out of thin air (and a little water). His idea uses hot dry air and water to create power via evaporative cooling. The process involves a passive solar collector called a canopy — like a greenhouse — that traps heated air used to run a low-rev, multi-cylinder evaporation engine to generate electricity. Heat is stored in pebble beds, a cheaper alternative to molten salt or batteries.

Noel has modeled the efficiency of the engine and canopy, built an experimental version of the engine, and continues to model the storage system. Based on his research to date, he believes his system, prior to introduction of thermal storage, could generate electricity at a cost of around $128 and $173 per megawatt hour for sloping and horizontal canopies respectively. This would be more expensive than electricity from coal or gas, but would be emission-free, and is highly competitive for solar-generated electricity.

The road from idea to commercialisation is strewn with carcasses and Noel is realistic about the obstacles he faces. A global patent to protect his intellectual property for 15 years would cost about $500,000 and he estimates he needs at least another $1 million to build a full-sized prototype of his engine.

Despite the uncertainty, he has enjoyed the journey so far and does not regret the decision to follow a dream. He talks about the different types of happiness one can experience in life, from simple pleasure and gratification, to the deeper satisfaction achieved through using the knowledge and skills you possess to serve a broader purpose.

Noel works full-time at his own pace, one of the few benefits of working for free. Every day he reads about a dozen technical blogs about climate change and renewable energy and also maintains his own blog, posting at least once a fortnight. About half of his posts analyse the cost of solar power generation projects around the world. He enjoys seeing that someone in India, the US, Germany or Japan is taking an interest in his work but admits that, after working for most of his career as part of a team, the solitary work of the inventor can be lonely at times.

Noel has an Aboriginal flag in his office, an Aboriginal print tablecloth and another painting in his living room. I ask if he has a particular interest in Indigenous Australians. He talks about the great tragedy that they have endured and that if he were "Bill Gates rich" he’d like to endow a museum that would celebrate Indigenous culture and history.

The conversation drifts back to climate change and politics. When it comes to Australia’s energy future Noel has no doubt that we can meet all our future needs through a combination of solar, wind, biomass and energy efficiency.

"From a technical point of view there is nothing to stop Australia moving to 100 per cent renewables", he says.

As the president of the NSW branch of the Australian Solar Energy Society (AuSES), Noel’s view is hardly unexpected but he cites several studies that point to the impressive growth and increasing cost-competitiveness of solar energy.

But his optimism regarding the technology is paired with a political pessimism. He finds the level of political debate in Australia regarding climate change depressing and often chooses to mute sections of the evening news. He is a Greens voter but would not describe himself as an environmentalist and is unlikely to ever join a political party.

In the afternoon Noel works on a blog post analysing the projected cost of power generated by the Kagoshima Nanatsujima Mega-Solar Power Plant that is being built in southern Japan. Noel uses the same set of standard assumptions to analyse each project and has written posts on 25 different operations. It turns out the cost of power generation for this 70MW plant is at the expensive end of the scale.

We move onto to a bit of computer modeling after the blog post is published. Noel is working on a forbiddingly titled "Simulation of Air-Blown Thermal Storage in Bed of Steatite Particles". Basically, the pebble bed works as a type of "natural battery" that stores energy as heat and then discharges it when required. Noel experiments with different variables — such as flow-rate of air, bed depth and particle diameter — to see which produce the best results. It’s slow, fiddly work, and he admits to finding it more difficult as he gets older.

Noel is hosting the monthly meeting of AuSES so we leave the office for the city around 4.30pm. He lays out the cryptic crossword on the dining table before we depart so it’s ready for when he gets home.

Noel tells me he believes Australia is being left far behind countries like Germany and China when it comes to the expansion of the renewable energy sector. Like many scientists, he sees a bleak future ahead for humanity if we fail to act rapidly to reduce the impacts of dangerous climate change. He thinks we’ll survive as a species but not without widespread and serious impacts.

There are about 40 people at the AuSES meeting: a mix of scientists, engineers, architects, alternative technology advocates, and a few activists. Noel conducts his official duties in a calm, professional manner.

We first hear from a young activist from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, the type of effervescent character who sends a flutter of hope through the largely older crowd. She is followed by a charismatic electrical engineer from UNSW who speaks with great enthusiasm about energy-efficient pumps before Noel steers him back towards the advertised topic of solar photovoltaics.

Much of his presentation and the subsequent discussion is technical, but the message is clear: Australia can meet its energy needs through a combination of energy efficiency and renewables. Noel presents the two speakers with book vouchers, thanks everyone for coming, and declares the meeting closed.

Noel Barton is not optimistic that we will act in time to prevent major suffering and destruction as a result of climate change. He’s not sure that his own inventions will pass safely through the valley of death and be successfully commercialised. But there’s a good chance he’ll finish the cryptic crossword before bed.


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