Q&A with Renewable Energy Engineer Neil Faragher
In an era of climate change, the challenges we face as a global community can often appear overwhelming and insurmountable. The forecasts and predictions of catastrophic climate change can no longer be ignored. Last week, AIYA hosted an educational seminar in Yogyakarta which aimed to tackle some of these issues head on. One of our guest speakers, Neil Faragher, joins us to share some of his knowledge on the topic of renewable energy and why we have reason to be hopeful.
1. In your opinion, what are the main environmental issues we are facing globally?
I am most worried about climate change and biodiversity loss. A recent UN report states 1 million species are on the verge of extinction because of human activities – that will be a massive problem for our civilisation, and a key driver of this is climate change from ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Whilst developed nations have been emitting greenhouse gases for over two centuries, global emissions continue to increase as developing nations raise their standard of living (as they should!). Globally, we must shift away from fossil fuels as our primary source of energy as soon as possible. Renewable Energy is a key solution to this problem.
2. Tell us about your background, how you became interested in Renewable Energy?
Originally, I studied to become a Mechanical Engineer at the University of Auckland. Soon after uni, I got a job where I was responsible for designing various plastic based products. I soon realised that these consumable goods I was helping develop would end up as landfill, or worse, pollution. As someone who really values the outdoors this was a big problem for me. Around a similar time, I saw Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and began thinking about how I could apply my engineering skills in tackling the problem of climate change. Shortly after, I was fortunate enough to get work with a company designing concentrated solar technology. This technology particularly excited me as it aims to make solar power cheaper by using mirrors to focus light onto a small area of highly efficient solar panels. I’ve been mainly focused on designing the thermal aspects of this technology.
3. What are some of the exciting renewable energy technologies being developed and how can they be implemented to help us going forward?
Currently, I am particularly excited by three types of renewable energy:
- Presently, the USA, Morocco and Spain have built extremely large scale concentrated solar thermal power stations. These have the potential to replace entire coal power stations in the immediate future. They have the ability to store heat at high temperature and use this to drive steam turbines to dispatch electricity overnight. What’s exciting is that the next generation of these solar power plants will use sand rather than expensive molten salts as a heat bearing medium. This will be instrumental in lowering power costs.
- Another exciting technology is owned by Sundrop Farms based in Adelaide, South Australia. This technology combines solar thermal power with desalination and hydroponics to grow various vegetables such as tomatoes, capsicum and lettuce using sunlight and seawater as the main inputs. This has great potential to assist with food production in very dry climates around the world.
- Finally, I am inspired by the potential and ongoing improvements of battery production. Large scale battery installations are becoming cheaper every year and allow sunlight to be stored overnight. Installing more of these batteries results in less reliance on coal and gas for power generation – not to mention that we can also power our motor vehicles with batteries!
4. How might some of these technologies affect the relationship between Australia and Indonesia?
Development of renewable energy technologies has great potential to strengthen Australia/Indonesia relations. There are plans to build an underwater power line linking Australia and Indonesia. Australia, with its vast areas of empty space and significant quantities of sunlight could export excess solar energy to Indonesia. Indonesia also has the ability to develop significant wind and geothermal energy technologies, reducing its heavy dependence on fossil fuels. It is essential countries such as Australia and Indonesia collaborate for equitable power generation if we are to be successful in tackling climate change.
5. In your opinion, what are some of the main obstacles we face in transitioning to renewable energy?
Unfortunately, the fossil fuel lobby is a huge obstacle we must overcome in order to transition to renewables. Major lobby groups from fossil fuel industries have been extremely effective in lobbying governments to block progress towards renewables. Although this has caused significant political hurdles and stalled advancements towards clean technologies, increasingly citizens are making their voices heard and demanding that governments take climate change seriously.
6. Based on your knowledge and involvement in renewable energy, do we have reason to be hopeful about the future?
Although the challenges of climate change can appear frustrating and overwhelming much of the time, my work in the field of renewable energy brings me great hope. As standard solar power is increasingly rolled out it becomes cheaper and more accessible to install. In many parts of the world, it is now cheaper to install solar power than it is to produce new coal power plants. The economics of renewable energy is becoming increasingly cost effective and will eventually override those blocking progress towards clean technology. I am also encouraged by the recent turn out of young people, particularly school students, who are demanding governments take greater action on climate change. With a politically and environmentally conscious generation like this one on the way, we can’t help but be hopeful.
Thanks Neil and Laura for the fantastic interview!