In December last year I wrote a post about a museum I visited in Streaky Bay, South Australia, where enthusiasts had brought together a couple of hundred machines that had sustained farming and grazing until the arrival of grid electricity. The Powerhouse Museum is a joy, at least to someone like me who is interested in history and how our society developed. I made the point in that essay that we take utterly for granted our capacity simply to flick a switch that ’empowers’ us to do something that relies on energy produced elsewhere. Our whole society in its present form is based on that assumption, which is why, from the beginning, I was apprehensive about expansive Green dreams to replace fossil fuels with alternative energies that are not reliable and are much more expensive.
A day or so I came across an essay on ‘Watts Up With That?’, the most visited climate change website in the world, with 36 million visits last year. The post was by a frequent and always readable correspondent, Willis Eschenbach, who seems to have had a most interesting life, aspects of which he draws on for his essays. He called this one ‘The Cost in Human Energy’, and I am adapting its message for my purposes.
He points out that the output of human energy, when adapted for a purpose like driving a generator through a bicycle wheel, works out at about 100 watts an hour. If you were physically fit and well supported with food and water, you could produce 1Kwh after a ten-hour stint on the bicycle contraption. We pay 18 cents for each kilowatt hour that we get from flicking a switch, which seems to be about fifty per cent more than Eschenbach’s payment in the USA. No matter — it is a small sum for us.
Eschenbach reminds us that past societies have used slaves to produce extra energy for human purposes, and that reducing the cost of energy is the basis for all the improvement in past human endeavour, the endeavour that has raised millions of people from poverty and ended slavery. If I look around our house, the 18 cents an hour we pay for electricity supports our lighting, the heating and cooling of our house, instant hot water, food preparation and storage, the cleaning of clothes, a full range of communication with the rest of the world, entertainment and security. In past ages, and to the extent possible through knowledge at the time, I would have needed an enormous staff to produce the same results.
That’s just our place. But everywhere we go in Australia has the same dependence. Our workplaces, shopping centres, hospitals, schools, universities, cinemas and old-age homes all rely on the same cheap energy. Our transport systems rely on cheap energy provided through other kinds of fossil fuels. It is the cheapness and efficiency of energy today, relative to the bicycle-powered generator, that means that we live well. I am in favour of living well, and regard the advance of cheap energy as the basis for our present civilisation. To attack it without proper cause seems to me almost nutty, but I won’t go further down that path in this post.
Yet, with Eschenbach, I do want to insist that raising the price of energy, no matter how noble the reason, is as regressive a policy as you can imagine. Because cheap energy underpins everything, increasing its cost must raise the price of everything. Our carbon tax was ‘balanced’ by the Gillard Government through a one-off compensation to poorer families. That offset has gone, but energy prices keep going up, and the price of everything will go up in consequence. Below the tax threshold you pay no income tax at all, but there’s no threshold for energy prices: they are built into everything, and the poorest have the hardest task in coping. ‘Fuel poverty’ is now a real worry in the UK, and even in sunny Queensland houses are being removed from grid power because the occupants can’t pay their electricity bills.
Built into the whole attack on fossil fuels, the policy outcome of a belief that anthropogenic global warming is real, unprecedented and a catastrophic threat to humanity, is the happy assumption that we can easily move to a new form of energy creation, one that uses the energy of the wind and the sun, but not through nuclear options, and not through any more dams, thank you! I shake my head at these idealistic notions, which do not seem to me to be based on any understanding of how our society actually works, let alone of the impact of increased energy prices on the poor.
The government’s policy is to raise energy prices in order to force us to convert to solar and wind power. I think that’s a fair summary. I do not think it is in any way a fair policy, especially for a Labor government. Nor do I think it is in any sense necessary, but I’ve said that before.