PV solar from toy-size to utility-scale

Tandy 'Science Fair' Solar Power Lab, c. 1978
Tandy ‘Science Fair’ Solar Power Lab, c. 1978

We came across a time capsule when we were clearing out a spare room a few months ago: a ‘Solar Power Lab’ given by one family member to another nearly forty years ago and passed down through the family ever since.

Project list
Project list

Photovoltaic cells were cutting-edge technology back then. The cells in the  kit – four of them, each about 5 x 1 cm, in a line along the back of the circuit board – were novel enough to be the selling point of an otherwise unremarkable electronics construction kit, and may well have accounted for half the cost of the kit.

The introduction to the manual, like the box, was all about the ‘space age’ technology used to power satellites – which were big news themselves in those days.

The ingenious recipient could construct any of twenty-odd projects, from logic gates (these were the days when home computers with 64KB of memory were considered powerful) to LED demonstration gadgets (LEDs were new, too) to transistor radios.

Construction manual
Construction manual

Moore’s Law was relatively new back then, too. I wonder how many people had any idea what its impact would be over the ensuing forty years? The purely quantitative differences have been so large that they have led to qualitative differences (from “big data” to the ubiquity of mobile phones.)

And solar power has grown almost beyond belief, too, on a similar path of dramatically falling costs and steadily improving efficiency. This ThinkProgress article presents a good overview of the current state of play, with one chart which sums it up beautifully:

Solar’s exponentially declining costs and exponentially rising installations (the y-axis is a logarithmic scale)
Solar’s exponentially declining costs and exponentially rising installations (the y-axis is a logarithmic scale)

Progress hasn’t been as rapid in solar power as in computing (Varun Sivaram explains why here, if you’re interested) but has been enough to overtake older technologies and to transform our future.

Once again, quantitative improvements have led to qualitative changes. Solar power is no longer a novelty and no longer a last resort for difficult situations such as satellites, but a realistic, cost-effective solution for all sorts of applications. Garden lights? Solar, of course – it saves wiring them in. Bore pumps? Solar, of course – no need to cart diesel down to the the pump every few days. New suburbs? Solar with grid backup – not even vice versa. Parking meters? Lanterns for remote PNG villages? Traffic hazard warning signs? Domestic hot water systems? Solar, solar, solar.

Green-ants and their dinner

green-ants on wire fence
Green-ants on our garden fence

A chicken-wire fence forms the boundary between our garden and our neighbours. To the green-ants whose garden we share (that’s the way it feels at times), the fence is a convenient highway. The trio on the right were returning to the nest after a successful hunt when I saw them.

The prey is, I think, a fly. The ants are 8-10mm long, so the fly is only about 2.5mm – certainly not big enough to attract human attention in normal circumstances. I just happened to be there with my camera, on one of my periodic rambles around the garden, and took the photo without being aware of exactly what was going on. There’s always more to see!


The return of the Friarbirds

brown bird in tree
Hornbill Friarbird

Friarbirds have returned to our garden after a gap of some months. I can’t say just how long they were absent, because I didn’t notice them stop coming: they were just around less and less often until they weren’t there at all. The Cuckoo-shrikes, incidentally, have likewise returned after a gap of unknown duration.

To lose two such big species so casually might be considered thoughtless but I am not feeling too guilty about it since we have been entertained and distracted by the continual presence of magpies, Peaceful Doves, Drongos and three species of honeyeater (Blue-faced, White-gaped and Brown), and frequent visits of Blue-winged Kookaburras, Willie-wagtails and many more.

I have been calling this species the Helmeted Friarbird, Philemon buceroides, ever since I knew the bird well enough to give it a name, but the local race has recently been granted full species status as the Hornbill Friarbird, Philemon yorki, and the original name is now restricted to Northern Territory birds.

Walks, Tracks & Trails

walks-tracks-trails-720pxWalks, Tracks and Trails of Queensland’s Tropics
Derrick Stone
CSIRO Publishing, 2016

Regular readers of this blog will know that I like to go bush quite often, on short walks or weekend camping trips, and have visited a good number of National Parks and other locations in the last few years. A couple of weeks ago I was wondering where to go next and remembered that my favourite bookshop had featured this guidebook book on its facebook page. I trust my bookshop and this publisher (CSIRO seems to publish every second nonfiction book I buy) so ‘problem solved’, I thought, and went shopping forthwith.

Walks, Tracks and Trails turned out to be every bit as good as I had expected.   Continue reading “Walks, Tracks & Trails”