What is our energy problem?

By September 24, 2012ABC, Climate Change, Research, Society

I watched a new ABC doco last night – Great Southern Land. This was the first bite of four, and I enjoyed it. The gimmick is to view as much as possible from the air, and to subject the narrator, Professor Steve Simpson, to new forms of transport, like parachuting and gliding, that didn’t seem to have much to do with his theme, however exciting and enjoyable they were.

The theme was the complexity of our society, and what is needed to feed it and to provide it  with the energy it needs to allow us all to live our lives as we have chosen – heating, cooling, every machine, and every light – all on demand. It was an absorbing hour, and I look forward to the next one. The complexity, and the fragility that underlies the apparent predictability of light appearing when we flick the switch, have fascinated me ever since I became interested in this broad issue, in 1970, when I was involved for a while in the Telecom 2000 project, which was about how Australia would look in 2000, especially in the area of communications.

We depend so much on cheap and reliable energy. It underlies everything we do, and  everything that we take for granted. Yet we can no longer take it for granted, partly because of the current demon of global warming, said to be caused by our burning fossil fuels, and partly because the infrastructure supporting our various power systems needs a lot of renewal, and renewal is expensive. That’s why our current gas and electricity bills have shot up.

Whenever I see or read anything about the energy domain I am alert to the hidden assumptions, and I didn’t find much in this episode to criticise. Well, Professor Simpson talked about ‘carbon’ where he might have said ‘carbon dioxide’, and he might have steered away from ‘pollution’, given that carbon dioxide is a basic plant food, and we all depend on it for our life. These sins are everywhere, and if our own Prime Minister is guilty of them, an ABC presenter can surely be excused.

But there were a couple of moments when I wanted to call out. One was where he moved quickly from a most interesting account of our coal industry through a slide ‘but of course these resources are finite’ (or something like that) to wind turbines and solar. Coal is a finite resource, there is no doubt about that, but even at current rates of extraction we have about a century’s worth left, and about three centuries’ worth if you count inferred resources. We’re not exactly at death’s door with respect to coal.

We don’t have to do anything at the moment because coal is somehow running out, and to his credit he didn’t beat the global warming drum very hard. Yes, we import a lot of oil, but if we had to we could run our vehicles on gas, of which we have a great deal. So the jump to the need for wind and solar wasn’t at all well argued.

And I felt that all his happy talk about the number of households that would be powered by the turbines was on the wildly optimistic side. The proponents of wind power love to talk about the number of households that could be served by these things, and it always sounds impressive. That number is based on the manufacturer’s specifications, and assumes that the turbine runs at its optimum all the time. Wind is not like that. Sometimes there isn’t any, and sometimes there is a gale, when all the turbines have to be turned off in case they overheat and burn out. What’s more, wind requires back-up for when there isn’t any or much, and the back-up is good old coal, or gas. Those impressive household figures need to be divided by four or five to get a true picture of the contribution that wind-power makes.

Professor Simpson waxed lyrical about solar power, and it certainly has a place, especially in areas away from the grid. And Australia certainly has an abundance of sunlight. But solar has a problem too. It is not ‘political will’, as he said, but the technical issue of storage. How do we conserve the power we produce during the day for use at night? Yes, we can move water uphill to run down later, but that’s expensive. There are experiments going on using great vats of salt, which can be heated by day, and the heat released at night to run turbines. So far the storage problem hasn’t been solved, but even when it has been solar will need to be competitive with coal and gas.

Professor Simpson didn’t mention nuclear energy, perhaps because there is none to see no matter how high you fly in Australia, and nor will I! That’s for another time.

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