Monday, June 11, 2012

Adults only announcement on energy

It is with great sadness that I have to make an announcement. The solar and wind energy dream is over.
It is my responsibility to make this announcement because nobody else can.
The last time I felt like this was when I had to fess up to my children that there is no Santa Claus – it was always just me and your mum. Those nasty kids at school who teased you for believing, I’m afraid, where right all along. “I’m really sorry honey for not telling you earlier, but I didn’t have the heart. You so wanted to believe it’s true.”
It’s the same with society’s love affair with solar and wind energy.
All the major energy corporations of the world have known this for a long time. But whenever they try to say it they just become the “nasty kids at school”. Saying hurtful things like: “Solar is the energy of the future – and always will be.”
All the politicians who have known this for some time can’t say it, because if they did you wouldn’t believe them and they would just be voted out of office. As the global financial crisis bites our politicians are trying to quietly creep away from all the grandiose solar promises they made.
The major institutional investment firms that underwrite the energy industry have known, but why should they tell, it’s none of their business. They just go on investing our pension funds in fossil fuels like they always have.
This doesn’t mean to say that we won’t see wind turbines or solar panels anymore, we will. Wind and solar is beautiful, clean energy and we should use as much as we can afford. But it’s time we realised it is not the panacea for the imperative problems facing civilization today.
Wind and solar will always be to energy what bicycles are to transport.
It all has to do with one word – capacity. Those mentioned above – and engineers everywhere – understand the importance of this word. But the rest of us in the egosphere are easily confused by it.
For example, I can ride my bicycle down a steep hill at probably 100 kilometres an hour (60 miles per hour). So the speed capacity of my bike is 100kmh. But that doesn’t mean that I can ride my bike 100 kilometres in one hour. In fact I don’t think I could ride 100 kilometres in a week.
A little motorbike, on the other hand, that has a top speed of 100kmh, has the same speed capacity as my bike. However, it could feasibly travel 100 kilometres in one hour.
My bike and a motorbike can have the same speed capacity – 100kmh – but very different “capacity ratios”.
Over any 100 kilometre stretch the capacity ratio of me on my bike – that is the percentage of the journey I could do at my speed capacity of 100kmh – would be about 1 to 2 percent provided there were some really steep downhills. Whereas the capacity ratio of the motorbike would be closer to 100 percent.
A 100kmh-capacity bicycle is not the equivalent of a 100kmh motorbike, and for the same reasons a 100 megawatt windfarm is not the same as a 100 megawatt gas turbine.
Bicycle technology keeps getting better. Today’s bicycles are significantly faster and lighter than bikes 20 years ago.  In fact, bike speed capacity has reached 220kmh (Eric Barone, downhill on snow, in 2000). But this doesn’t mean that it’s only a matter of time before bicycles will be competing in the motorcycle Grand Prix.
In the same way wind and solar technology is getting better and better, but, sadly, it will never be competing with fossil fuels.
Politicians have long been playing to delusions about energy promising to deliver a “clean energy future” based on renewable energy. Here in Australia we have one of the, if not the, most conducive environments for solar energy.
Politicians here have no problem getting the public, journalists and even academics to believe we are about to switch over to a “Solar Dawn” any day soon – a “Clean Energy Future”.
But in its current Draft Energy White Paper it gazes into a crystal ball to model what we could have in the year 2050. The best it could dream up for solar is 3 percent of our electricity by 2050. Three percent, and only if there are some technology breakthroughs.
I’m really sorry kids, but there you have it.
The competition in the motorcycle market is between names like Ducati, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha. There will never be bicycles competing here.
Competing in the power generation market is coal, gas and nuclear. Right now there is no viable alternative. There will never be wind and solar in this league. There is some renewable energy making a marginal contribution, but this is almost entirely hydroelectricity and biomass, essentially wood-fired power generation.
Yes, there will have to be a new energy frontier sometime. But there is no way of predicting what that will be or when. In the meantime we have to work with what we’ve got. Wind and solar are not new energy sources for the future – they’re old energy sources. They have both been around longer than bicycles and we have tried so hard, particularly in the past 30 years, to make them work. But they just can’t do it.
Once again, it really saddens me to have to announce that this dream is over. And the ones I feel the most for are the Greens.
I know how much of their platform relies on, particularly, their solar energy vision, and I hate to have to tell them that the big corporations – those “nasty kids in the playground” – were right all along. There is no Santa and there is no solar energy future.
So why am I doing this? Why am I bursting their balloon?
Because I am a big admirer of the Greens and the environmental movement as a whole. I have been voting Greens for as long as Australian Governments have been throwing refugees into jail.
As far as I’m concerned, the Greens are the only party with a grown-up approach to the many social issues that are important to me. I want to see them adopt this same grown-up approach to energy.
We face some very serious energy challenges today and solar dreamers are poisoning the debates and preventing the discussions we really need to have.
The Greens have been a powerful political force in Germany since 1980. Germany has adopted one of the most aggressive attempts to make solar power generation work. It has spent billions over the years and yet today it only gets about 1 percent of its electricity from solar.
Greens have done a lot over the years to improve our environment and raise environmental awareness. Now we need them championing rational approaches to the huge problem of supplying the world’s growing need for real energy while, at the same time, reducing our emissions.