Friday, June 12, 2009

The Solar Energy Mirage

I have a torch at home that doesn’t need batteries yet never runs out of electricity. It is made from durable plastics and inside has a copper coil with a loose magnet that slides back and forward through the coil when you shake the torch.

It transforms the chemical energy stored in my muscles (and fat) into electrical energy that allows me to see in the dark. How amazing is that?

But this wonderful, perpetual, renewable energy source is not the answer to all my energy problems. It has not led me to unplug my house from the power grid, tear up my electricity bills and throw my car keys over the fence.

The solar energy industry is in the same position as my torch. It’s also an amazing, wonderful source of energy when it is used in the right situations, such as locations far from conventional electricity infrastructure, like in the outback, or powering the remote-control systems on gas platforms out in the South China Sea. But it is not the answer to the world’s energy problems and it won’t be in my lifetime and probably the lifetime of anyone reading this article.

Solar’s problem is the economics don’t add up. For example, we all dream of having cars that run on solar power. Yet if I produced such a car today, I would find it hard to sell. It would be ideal as a summer beach patrol vehicle, but it would never cut it as the family sedan. We need our cars day and night, rain, hail or shine and very few people can afford the capital expense of a second car just to use on sunny days.

These are the same problems with solar power generators – they are expensive and unreliable.

That’s why almost all the solar energy in our urban areas is there because it’s on the dole – whether that's in Australia, Germany or California. It’s paid for by taxpayers’ money, because our politicians are forced to pander to the misconceptions of the community. The community wants solar energy to be the answer to all our energy needs, so our politicians are very keen to give it to them. That’s why there is so much fuss about Environment Minister Peter Garrett’s axing of the solar rebate.

Meanwhile the real energy problems are mounting up – and they are formidable problems.

There are three fundamental principles that govern the energy industry – how much, how much and timing. How much energy can you deliver? How much will it cost? When can you deliver it? Scale, cost and timing.

These crucial principles are ignored by many who speak out on energy issues and as a result the general public has naive, impossible expectations based on a grossly distorted picture of the energy market.

Timing is important to understand because the energy industry runs on very different time-lines to the political election cycles that have such an influence on our policy decisions.

Our whole way of life, our quality of life, is determined by our access to energy. Wow betide the Government if our daily energy supply is curtailed in anyway, or if the cost of that energy goes up dramatically. We saw an example of this with the spike in petrol costs last year and the power outages in the Victorian heatwave.

But the energy we rely on today – to keep our milk and chops cold, to run our lights, air conditioners and tellies, and to get to and from work and pick up the kids – is the result of major capital investments in energy infrastructure five, 10, 20, even 30 years ago. If our energy system fails, chances are that's not down to the current Energy Minister, Martin Fergurson, it's more likely to be thanks to his predecessor or his predecessor's predecessors. In the same way our children and even our grandchildren will be relying on the energy investments we make today, under the current Rudd Government.

The problem is that in the current economic climate investment capital is very hard to come by. On top of all this, according to the Government's ABARE forecasts, our future generations are going to rely on a lot more energy than we are currently using, just as we today are using a lot more than our parents' did.

Which brings me to the scale of the problem.

Twenty years ago Australians consumed about 4000 petajoules (4000PJ) of energy per annum. Bearing in mind that one PJ is the energy equivalent of about 29 million litres of petrol. Today we demand about 6000PJ. According to Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE), if we become far more fuel efficient and implement our fuel conservation measures, we will require a bit more than 8000PJ in 20 years time.

So how much does solar contribute? Of the 6000PJ we consume today, solar energy contributes about 3PJ. I’ll write that again in case you think it’s a misprint. Solar contributes about 3PJ. This is almost entirely made up of the energy produced by all the solar hot-water heaters across the nation.

According to ABARE’s forecasts that figure is going to grow rapidly over the next 20 years to 4PJ. Meanwhile our annual demand will increase by 2000PJ over the same time.

The fact is the greatest responsibility for meeting our energy needs while at the same time cutting our greenhouse gas emissions falls heavily on the shoulders of the scientists, engineers, technicians and operators in the fossil fuel industry, who provide about 95 per cent of our energy. Without them we haven’t got a chance.

Slandering these dedicated individuals as “big polluters” or part of the “Carbon Mafia”, and comparing their organisations to tobacco companies just makes the task of recruiting the crucial next generation of young minds to this mammoth task so much harder.