Sat, Dec 30, 2017 - Page 9 News List

‘Annus mirabilis’: All the things that went right in 2017

It was a tale of two years — the best of times and the worst of times — but not everything went wrong. From Juan Mata’s 1 percent to orangutans, here is a look at the good

By Mark Rice-Oxley with Adam Vaughan, Ian Sample, Paul MacInnes,  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Tania Chou

How was it for you? A bit grim? Many people will be eager to see the back this year, the year of US President Donald Trump, Twitter, terrorism, Yemen, Libya and the plight of the Rohingya, as well as environmental degradation and almost daily doomsday warnings about the multiplying threats to sustainable life on Earth.

However, the big, bold headlines tell only half the story — perhaps not even that much. Away from the hysteria of daily news, it is possible to discern progress, joy, breakthroughs and that rarest commodity of all: optimism.

ENERGY

From the north of England to South Australia, this year has proved to be the year that large-scale battery storage came of age, smashing cost and scale barriers and breaking into the public consciousness.

This is important, because storing energy is seen as a crucial complement to the renewable revolution sweeping the world.

Elon Musk’s Tesla Inc, known for its luxury electric cars, is increasingly making headlines for using batteries to tackle local energy problems around the world.

In post-hurricane Puerto Rico, the firm installed solar and batteries to help a hospital. Near Jamestown, South Australia, it completed the world’s biggest battery storage plant in response to a blackout that sparked a political row over renewables and energy security.

In the UK, big utility companies such as EDF Energy are building giant battery plants in Cumbria and Yorkshire to help the National Grid manage an increasing amount of renewable power.

Former E.ON chief executive Tony Cocker said: “If you’re a large power plant owner today and not looking at batteries, you’re almost negligent.”

He believes batteries now stand more chance of being built in the UK than new gas power stations.

The driving force for these batteries is the meteoric rise in renewable power, which they complement. Global “clean” energy investment this year is expected to narrowly beat last year’s US$287.5 billion.

Another big reason is that the cost of batteries, like those of renewables, is coming down fast.

“We’ve seen a halving of battery costs in the last five years. We’re expecting another halving again,” said Mark Futyan, merchant power director at the UK’s biggest energy company, Centrica.

Experts think this is just the beginning. As costs fall, the International Renewable Energy Agency predicts a 17-fold rise in the amount of battery storage installed worldwide, from 2 gigawatts today to 175 gigawatts by 2030.

SCIENCE

It was the year that alien life suddenly became a little more possible.

Firstly, a space probe detected water, salt, methane and other organic compounds beneath the frosty exterior of a small moon called Enceladus, which is orbiting Saturn.

Importantly, it also found molecular hydrogen, which microbes can use as an energy source.

The spacecraft, NASA’s Cassini, found so much that scientists concluded it must be made in an underground ocean, perhaps in hydrothermal reactions like those seen around hot vents that teem with life on Earth.

A NASA team wants to go back to Enceladus to collect any alien microbes that might find themselves caught up in plumes of vapor and summarily flung into space.

Further discoveries made this year a standout year for astronomers.

The European Southern Observatory and NASA’s Spitzer space telescope spotted the largest batch of Earth-sized planets 40 light years away around a star in the constellation of Aquarius. Three of the seven worlds are in the “Goldilocks zone,” where the temperature is thought to be neither too hot nor too cold for water to run freely, marking them out as potential homes for extraterrestrial life.

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