We’re heading into a renewable future – and the way in which people keep coming up with remarkable ideas seems to make that inevitable.
Take how we deal with one of the biggest problems with renewables, for example.
The wind doesn’t blow all the time. The sun gets switched off at night. That doesn’t happen with coal, or gas or nuclear power – we can rely on power from them 24/7.
So, do we have to live in a world where we need to still burn things to make energy?
The answer, many people said, is having a way to store energy.
Why not use massive batteries – have enormous installations with racks and racks of batteries to store all the energy we don’t need when the wind does blow, and then use it later when we do need it?
The problem is that batteries aren’t exactly good for the environment either.
First, there’s all the mining needed to get the rare earths we need in the first place, and they happen to be in not entirely friendly countries.
Then there is all the plastic needed to make the batteries safe.
After they get used, they are essentially a toxic little package – you can’t just throw them into landfill – and need to be processed and recycled.
All this adds up to a problem building up for the future.
There are less problematic ways of storing energy – in dams for example. But those don’t work anywhere and quite often you need to entirely change landscapes and move entire towns to make one.
But now, a Santa Barbara startup called ARES has had a good idea.
ARES stands for Advanced Rail Energy Storage, and it’s a brilliantly simple concept.
They build a railtrack up a hill. When the sun is shining or the wind is blowing and there isn’t enough need for all of it, they use what is left over to push a train filled with rocks up a hill.
Then, when they need the energy, they let the train roll down the track and get all the energy out again as electricity.
It’s effectively using some iron, rocks and gravity to create an energy storage system – and those items are a lot less polluting than batteries.
Building a railtrack doesn’t take the amount of land needed by a dam, and when you’re finished you can recycle the iron, put the rocks back so they look nice and pretty soon it will look like a normal hillside again.
You can stick them anywhere you have a hill – and if there’s one that’s dry and not much use for anything else so much the better.
So… we’re left with something that is brilliantly simple with very few drawbacks – other than getting to market and creating a business in a pretty hard to crack market.
Hope they can do it.