I read yesterday of a farming family near Bungendore who are trying to prevent the erection of large wind turbines adjacent to their property. They possess a small one themselves, and were conscious of its noise. A lot of big ones close by, they thought, would be too much for themselves and for their horse. They say that they feel powerless to do anything, since the scale of the project takes it away from the purview of local government, and gives the NSW Government the real authority. I wish them well.
The fact that they possessed a small turbine themselves made me think once more of the way that electricity supplanted other forms of energy on farms. You can see that story best in the splendid Powerhouse Museum in Streaky Bay, South Australia, where a group of enthusiasts has gathered the engines that used to run farms. Each machine has been stripped back, cleaned, repaired, repainted, and brought to working order. Each one works, and one of the guys will turn it on for you if you ask.
There are 280 of them, running in age of construction from 1905 to 1936. Their names bring back my youth: Lister, Sunshine, Cooper, Universal, International, Buzacott. They did everything. There were machines for inside and for outside, machines to run every aspect of farming and grazing. The earliest ones ran on kerosene, then diesel and gasoline. Of course there was an age before them when power other than that provided by horses and men was provided by steam, and you can see a few of those monsters round the country, brought in with great difficulty to run the shearing machines of the late 19th century, and then supplanted in turn by the newfangled fuel-based machines.
The man who showed us around the Powerhouse explained that their machines represented perhaps two generations of farming. What happened to supplant them was the growth of the electricity grid, which grew larger and larger after the second world war. Once it arrived in Streaky Bay, a grain area mostly (though Tasmanian oysters are doing very well in the bay), farmers replaced their machines quickly with an electric motor, which ran more quietly, more efficiently, and with less effort on their part. You just flicked a switch, he said, rather sadly.
We spent an afternoon there, impressed with the expertise, the care with which everything had been presented, and the insight into a past age, which was ending as I grew up. The visit made clear to me just how fundamental to everyone’s daily life, not just those of us who live in cities, is cheap, dependable electricity. I can still remember the brown-outs of 1949, when the Chifley Government had a lot of trouble with the mining unions. Today our whole society, in schools, hospitals, businesses, homes, government departments, licensed clubs, farms, mines — everywhere — depends utterly on the capacity we now have to flick a switch and make important things happen. And we take it so completely for granted.
The Commonwealth Government has just delivered another ‘announceable’ — a statement that somehow or other it and other governments will do something to reduce electricity bills. The Opposition has suggested that it might just get rid of the carbon tax; that would be a start. We are now all paying for the decisions taken by governments over the last twenty years to sell off aspects of the electricity system, and the price will go up for some time before it goes down, if ever.
And that brings me back to the people near Bungendore, apprehensive about a big turbine system next door. I have been in favour of R&D expenditure on solar energy for thirty years, and helped in a small way to advance it, on the ground that Australia had small reserves of oil and abundant sunshine. We still don’t have an efficient method to store solar energy once it is collected, but I expect that in time it will arrive.
But wind turbines are simply a delusory addition to grid power. They require back-up for when they are not running, their contribution is much less than their stated ‘capacity’, and it is entirely likely that in terms of greenhouse gas emissions they produce more GGE in their construction and erection than they ever save. As with solar power, there are places where they make good sense, like isolated farms and settlements. Investing large amounts of our money to add them to the grid, ours being now the largest in the world, simply makes no sense at all.