Plug in. Switch on. Power. Whether reaching for the on button, recharging our devices or brewing the third pot of coffee for the day, our needs demand vast supplies of power. The simplicity by which we have access to electricity, however, belies the minor miracle of harnessing and distributing that energy in the first place.
This constant demand for energy consumption, mixed with a heavy eco-conscious lean towards renewable, is driving ever more inventive and economical ways to deliver the goods. Let’s take a look.
Bright sparks, bright future
Take bacteria for example. Not just a microscopic biological cell but, incredibly, a power source just waiting to be tapped for our energy needs. Microbial fuel cells are an emergent power, arrived at by connecting breathing microbes to the positive and negative rods of a battery. Result? A potential energy source that at the right conditions can be seventy times as powerful as conventional methods of power production – and you thought tidal was innovative? Actually, it really is, but harnessing as many renewable resources as possible is key to electricity’s sustainable future.
The sun has got his power hat on
How about solar? You’ve seen your neighbours erecting giant solar panels on top of their roof tiles? Solar farms guzzle up daily rays full of the sun’s burning potential. Cheap, simple and moderately economic, they’re made all the more efficient by some seriously impressive tech. Solar panel positioning robots are able to alter the direction of the photovoltaic cells, draining every last drop of potential from Earth’s burning ball. An innovative answer to a simple problem. Or for something even more sci-fi – how about solar power in space? Yes it’s real, and yes, it’s incredible.
Along with developments in biofuel and radioactive-based betavoltaic batteries, there’s no sign of science slowing down in finding new ways to provide power.
On the starting grid
That’s just half of the story, however. These emergent energy sources are changing the way we store and distribute power. From a traditional centralised system that relied on simple power sources, the new wave of renewables is a potentially destabilising threat to the national power grid. After all, these electricity sources are themselves variable, subject to the whims of Mother Nature.
The one-size-fits-all approach to energy supply no longer fits with the variation in public consumption. The formal rigidity of the current setup wasn’t designed to cope with an influx of new and innovative energy supplies. So, a new infrastructure is needed fast. One that delicately disperses power from multiple sources, yet maintains the steady distribution of electricity to homes – all at the right frequency of 50Hz.
Power to the people
We still need a national grid. However, it’s one that’s going to need to democratise power structures, allowing for smart technology. That requires a greater emphasis on reactive power (localised power sources that don’t travel as far) to accommodate home-grown energy sources and greener fuels, and a national grid that’s malleable enough to cater for the varying demands of usage.
Now switch off the light if you’re not using it.
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