Webdiary - Independent, Ethical, Accountable and Transparent
header_02 home about login header_06
header_07
search_bar_left
date_box_left
date_box_right.jpg
search_bar_right
sidebar-top content-top

An open letter to the Prime Minister

Lionel Orford is new to Webdiary. He is a professional electrical engineer with a long standing interest in renewable energy, energy sustainability and climate change, and has studied the Peak Oil issue in depth snce 2004. This is his debut piece for Webdiary - thank you and welcome, Lionel.

An Open Letter to Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia

3 December, 2007

The Hon Kevin Rudd MP
Prime Minister
Parliament House

Dear Prime Minister,

Firstly, congratulations on your historic election win. Your promise of “new leadership” and a focus on Australia’s future are certainly needed at this time.

You have come to power at a time of a looming worldwide economic crisis; a time when we desperately need new leadership to deal with the immense problems ahead of us and an end to the deception, denial and neglect that characterised the Howard era. The news is in and it is very bad news indeed:

  • We have now almost certainly reached Peak Oil. The highest ever level of worldwide production of “all liquids” was in 2006 and conventional crude oil was in 2005. It would now take a minor miracle to raise production above these levels and the rate of decline is almost certain to accelerate over the next few years such that “business as usual” is impossible.
  • Global Warming is proceeding much faster than most scientists expected and we are completely clueless on how serious the problems will be and how fast they will unfold.

I do not address the Global Warming issue in depth in this letter because no actions by your government alone can have any significant impact on the problem as it is a worldwide problem, where extensive damage has already been done and major consequences are now inescapable. However, I must stress that I fully support major initiatives in renewable energy development, energy conservation and a global plan of action through the UN because these are the correct actions to mitigate the crises being brought about Global Warming and by Peak Oil.

Even though the effects of climate change are likely to be very serious, they are largely unknown and will play out over the coming decades. However, Peak Oil will have major consequences over the coming years – during your time as Prime Minister.

The unfolding crisis is in several ways analogous to the sinking of the Titanic. We are now at the stage where the ship has hit the iceberg and is already taking on water; its fate is sealed.

The crew is now trying to avoid panic by the passengers by announcing “All is well, the ship is unsinkable, there’s no need to launch the lifeboats”. Unfortunately most of the crew is yet to realise that this is simply not true – they are optimists, still in the denial of the dreadful truth.

There is an urgent need for recognition of the problem so as to best manage the crisis. Denial of the problem at this time will lead to inaction and a far greater disaster, just as it did on the Titanic.

Like the Titanic, this crisis was caused by gross negligence and hubris that led to the belief that the ship was unsinkable. The inevitability of Peak Oil and its effects have been known for decades, but rigorously denied, based on the belief that our technological prowess has made us invulnerable to reality.

Welcome to the job of Captain of the SS Australia.

Peak Oil and the Unfolding Economic Crisis

To those unstudied in PO, it initially seems “no big deal” - something that, to some Greenies, will stop us destroying ourselves or something, to the economists, that the market and technical innovation will deal with.

Both are extremely misguided by their respective ideologies and just flat wrong.

The bad news for the Greenies is that far from being that which will save us by reining in capitalism, it may well result in our demise through social dysfunction and the use of any available energy source, no matter how environmentally destructive.

The bad news for the economists is that the market and technical innovation is completely unable to provide solutions to the demise of its staple food source – cheap energy. It has been assumed that as crude oil declines, we will turn increasingly to “alternative” sources of oil. This is a ridiculous assumption, based on hubris and blind faith; it is completely detached from reality. There are simply no alternatives to oil – no combination that can be obtained fast enough and in sufficient quantities to replace the dwindling supply.

What we have seen over the last three years of significantly higher oil prices is massive stimulation of efforts to increase supply, but the small increases in supply have not matched the declines in the large mature oil fields. We have seen demand fall to match supply by means of poor countries simply falling by the wayside.

Now the world is guzzling its way through its trading reserves, but this can not last for long.

Very soon we will face an oil supply shortfall which results in dramatic escalation in the oil price. As the price increases, people will do what they can to reduce their usage. However, very quickly the discretionary use of fuel (trips to the coast, overseas holidays, interstate travel, etc) will be reduced to almost nothing.

At first this doesn’t sound that bad, but consider what it means for our service based economy. At best, it means a downturn and at worst, a collapse of the tourism industry, the airline industry and the rest of industries based on selling us stuff we want but don’t actually need. It means unemployment for many thousands, along with the bankruptcies and foreclosures of people’s homes.

The result will be a recession, which drives down demand to match supply through “demand destruction”.

A mild rate of decline (say < 1.5% p.a.) may result in a mild recession that goes on and on because there is insufficient oil to allow re-establishment of economic growth. The world economy would grind to a halt and a failure of the market system would probably follow.

However, it is far more likely that the economy will overshoot into a recession far more severe than what is required to cut back oil consumption to match supply. Ironically, as in the 1980’s, we would then see an excess of oil supply and a dramatic fall of the price. However, unlike the recovery of the 90’s, any economic recovery would be short lived due to significantly reduced oil availability due to depletion in the intervening period.

The magnitude of the coming decline in oil availability is truly alarming. In October 2007, the Energy Watch Group – a research body that provides advice to the German government – released a report which states that which is becoming more and more obvious; that we passed the worldwide Peak Oil in 2006.

Furthermore, EWG forecasts that the decline rate will be much higher than that foreseen by any other group, including ASPO. EWG predicts that crude production will be down to around two thirds of current production by 2020 and to half by 2030. If these well researched forecasts are correct, it is totally infeasible to reduce consumption by this amount in 2 decades, except through a collapse of our current system.

But the story gets worse. Petroleum geologist Jeffrey J. Brown has developed an ‘Export Land Model’ which models what happens to exports from the major oil exporting nations whose domestic demand is still growing while their oil production is in decline. These nations include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, Kuwait, many of the smaller middle eastern oil producers and most importantly Russia – the worlds largest oil producer. The model suggests that it will only take about nine years from Peak Oil for exports from the major producers to reduce to zero. This is very much in line with what actually happened to Britain, where it took only six years from peak production for Britain to again become a net oil importer. This spells disaster for major oil importers, particularly the USA and Western Europe.

Right now, the USA seems to be in the initial phase of “The Long Emergency”, as James Kunstler has dubbed it. I think that the only uncertainties are how fast their economy will fall apart and what the reaction of the US high command will be. A collapse of the dollar seems imminent because of the converging effects of the unsustainable boom financed by ballooning consumer debt and the unsustainable flooding of the world economy with US Dollars to import two thirds of their oil as well as a flood of consumer goods. The United States is bankrupt but nobody wants to admit it. The main reasons that in the US Dollar retains any value at all are that a large number of countries hold dollars as foreign reserve, almost everybody buys their oil in dollars and manufacturing countries, particularly China, do not want to see a collapse of their largest market.

The consequences and speed of the downfall of the American Empire are highly unpredictable, but it is certain to be a disaster for the whole world, which ever way it unfolds. I worry that the US high command may do something really stupid, like launching military action to seize oil by force by attacking Iran or Venezuela for example. My only hope is that their current war for oil is going very badly and I don’t think the American people will support any new resource wars. However, this may change if the economy collapses and there is massive unemployment and hardship similar to that of the Weimar Republic of the 1920s.

What your Government can do about it.

Prime Minister, it’s time to tell the crew and passengers the dismal truth and get everybody working together to launch the lifeboats.

Step 1. Tell the Truth

No government wants to tell the truth about the dire situation because that would cause a loss of confidence in the market economy and the government itself. However, you have an obligation to inform the Australian people of the seriousness of the situation and to take action to start to deal with it. You have an obligation to desist with the “all is well” denial and inaction of the previous government; to seek frank, fearless, honest and realistic advice from departments such as ABARE and DITR rather than covering up the problems by seeking only “optimistic” advice that will maintain confidence in the market economy, as your predecessor did.

I contend that it is far better to level with the Australian people before crisis hits than to wait for it to happen and then react by saying “who could have known? – I was deceived!” Well – after verifying what I’m now telling you – you have no excuse not to know! To claim that you didn’t know would be to claim your own incompetence and the electorate would be justified in throwing you out of office at the next election.

The news must be delivered so as not to cause panic and I do see how difficult that is. The finesse required here is to term the news in terms of planning for the coming oil supply and economic problems. I note that your election campaign rhetoric did mention this very briefly.

Step 2. Start Planning for Major Infrastructure Works

When the economy goes into recession or depression, the only known way that some economic activity can be restored and unemployment reduced is by government investment – Keynesian economic intervention.

At the same time as this government intervention is required; the nation has a burning need for infrastructure to allow our society to function with an ever declining supply of oil.

I suggest that these are the most pressing needs:

  • Major investment in national electric railway infrastructure – long distance freight, high speed passenger rail and suburban light rail. A vast amount of petroleum is consumed by road freight, air travel and commuting. The majority of it can be powered by electricity. This would also enable greenhouse emissions to be significantly reduced due to the large increase in efficiency of rail transport compared with road and air transport.
  • Major investment in infrastructure to better manage our water usage. We need to return the waste water generated by our cities to the land, together with the precious nutrients it contains.
  • Major investment in carbon capture and storage. I personally don’t think this will prove technically and economically viable, but none the less, we should pursue it until it is proven non-viable. We have no other resource except coal which can be readily deployed to provide the rapid increase in the electricity we need.
  • Massive investment in renewable energy. The most promising technologies here are solar thermal with heat storage and geothermal. There is no point in developing large scale intermittent resources such as wind, photovoltaic and wave power because such intermittent generation cannot be managed on a large scale.
  • Develop oil from coal technology in Australia, with the up-front requirement that any plant built must sequester the huge amount of carbon dioxide it produces. Again, this may never be viable, but the viability should be assessed.
  • Get serious about infrastructure to allow bicycles to be used safely for commuting. This includes bikeways, storage facilities, showers and possibly public hire bike depots.

There is a problem with major government investment during the current boom times because such investment would be inflationary. However, this boom will end very soon and the planning behind such major infrastructure works takes years, with only a relatively small amount spent during the planning phase.

Step 3. Start conserving what we have left

Rationing of fuel will be one of the first steps required to deal with the coming shortages. If this isn’t done, there will be mayhem – hoarding of supplies, black market profiteering, queues for fuel at petrol stations and crucially, shortages for essential services, particularly food production and distribution. I believe that tradable quotas are the best means of rationing demand as they would allow people with greater needs to buy additional quota and reward those who conserve most effectively.

If rationing was implemented via a worldwide “Oil Depletion Protocol”, where all countries reduce their consumption progressively to match the available supply, this would mitigate the problem in the most equitable way possible, hopefully preventing a breakdown of world order. However, getting the US onboard is bound to be difficult.

The rationing system must also reserve enough fuel to implement the infrastructure works required to adapt to the post-peak world.

Step 4. Get our best and brightest onto developing long term solutions

The size of the challenge that confronts us is truly staggering. I fully support your “Education Revolution” and regard the deliberate neglect of public education by the Howard government as reprehensible.

However, there is no point training more economists and bankers for the capitalist system which will not exist for much longer.

A new economic system

The fundamental problem behind all the problems we face; the reaching of practical limits to growth in the case of oil, water and deforestation, and the consequences of the waste products in the case of Global Warming, is that our economy is dependent on economic growth and fails to function without it.

We need an entirely new economic system which must be able to

  • function effectively without economic growth
  • function to equitably share resources in a world of declining resources
  • enable the development of local communities that are largely self sufficient
  • facilitate depopulation of the planet
  • restore planetary ecosystems

Such an economy may need to be a state run economy, which have a poor track record. We need to learn from the mistakes of former state run economies and come up with something that works. I have thought long and hard about this and can offer few practical suggestions.

A new energy system

We must face reality and understand that we are dependant on large amounts of energy just to meet our fundamental needs and this cannot be changed in years or decades; it will take lifetimes. We must also understand that while there is energy available, we humans will use it because availability of energy is standard of living.

A recent Energy Watch Group report tells the bad news that coal will be peaked out worldwide within 20 to 30 years. It will simply impossible to provide the minimum energy needs of a population that lives in cities once the oil, gas and coal are severely depleted.

Current technology nuclear power (based on the fission of Uranium235) is only able to provide a relatively small part of our energy needs because viable supplies of Uranium235 are very limited. Developing this technology for Australia would be very short sighted indeed.

Hence I contend that we should get started on developing safe breeder reactors which convert Uranium238 to nuclear fuel and/or breeder reactors that convert Thorium to fuel. Uranium238 is a large resource and Thorium is a vast resource, capable of providing our energy needs for millennia. This is a large technical undertaking that will take decades, but the long term need for it is really beyond question.

Conclusion

When one fully understands the magnitude of the problems that we humans have caused ourselves, it’s tempting to just throw up your hands in dismay and just give up. Like the Titanic, we are in a situation where no desirable outcome is possible. However, we must do what we can to work for the best possible outcome.

The first step is to desist with the denial of the problems and the fantasy that everything is OK; that the market will sort it out. This involves informing the public about the seriousness of our predicament.

The second step is to get stuck in and do what we can to adapt to our new situation.

If there is any aspect of this letter on which you would like me to provide references or further information, I am most willing to provide this. Stealing your line - I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help.

Most sincerely,

Lionel Orford

left
right
spacer

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Intermittent Energy Sources

Why should ‘wave power’ be intermittent?  Or more correctly, why should surge power be intermittent? ( I see surge power proving to be the cheapest, most reliable source of power.)

Hi Peter. Wave power is intermittent, because sometimes there are no waves, and sometimes there are giant waves. The grid can only handle so much of this intermittent input (@20-30%). Smaller communities could find themselves without lights or electricity, depending upon the weather, the seas or the wind.

However, large offshore wind farms, wave and tidal power installations could all send DC energy through a high voltage DC cable to a substation on the coast where desalination (for potable water) and hydrogen production can occur.

The hydrogen can be stored for electricity production and fed to the grid in a fairly predictable manner. This system would remove the intermittency from the electricity supply and produce precious water – goodness knows we're going to need it in 40 years time!

Rural or small communities could certainly employ their own energy systems, but they too face the serious issues of storage and water.

I sympathise with your local energy production idea – it's straight out of the Julian Darley notebook, after all :) – but it would be very difficult to maintain our cities this way. They may even collapse, distributing desperate, hungry people in all directions.

So, I think there is still something to be said for a state/national electricity grid. With a bit of luck, we can do all the things we want, if we start to act soon. It is the gross political indifference, wed to the balance sheets of the top end of town, which concerns me. This dynamic little duo will go on depleting the earth, bellowing out "growth, growth, growth", until there's nothing left...

I don't believe we need to throw away all we have now. But we do need to change our habits, invest heavily in public transport, convert everything possible to electricity, and convert to superior, more sustainable forms of farming.

Biofuels, I think, should be used only on the farm, for mechanical labour (stump-pulling, transport, etc). ABARE recently predicted that grain exports will diminish to nearly nothing in the years ahead, so why bother with biofuels for cars?

We may also have to learn how to farm water. Here's a great story about a farmer in Zimbabwe who taught himself how to farm water:

The man who farms his water

I do know what an alarm is

An alarm is something which wakes you up.   It doesn't tell you how to get dressed or do it for you.

If you did some research, like reading my article (which is a serious critique - 200 scientists can't be wrong? where did the ether go?) and looking at how my proposal is costed you might be a little less dismissive. Building solar rail freight is fully self funding in the first year and more so the more one spends (it's funded by infrastructure bonds, pays the dividend and a profit out of the GST and generates its own income thereafter plus revitalising the bush.)   The beauty of using rail to build solar collectors is that the materials don't have to move by road except from the manufacturing plant to the railhead. Hmmm. Wonder how we could solve that problem?

Heaven save me from experts and deliver me some willing lateral thinkers. Most of Rudd's proposals have the real potential to get bogged down in committees. If you want to do something son, work out a practical way of paying for it.

Thoughts on a Solar Railway

Malcolm, we've been through this before. Your solar rail idea lacks any technical explanation, and at this stage is just a blue sky mind-blip. Here's the "idea" again:

Then, let’s use every kilometer of railtrack and cover all of it with solar panels owned by the Commonwealth. Fund it by using infrastructure bonds. Legislate so that super funds cannot invest more than 50% of their holdings (so that there is still sufficient liquidity to keep the stock market going). Pay 7% on the bonds. Spend all of the money on construction (not bureaucrats). 10% of that goes in GST straight away. In the first year, you make a net gain of 3%. Fast track so that the first power is available by the end of the first year. Sell the power into the grid. By the time the whole project is complete, you have a massive surplus of power.

Putting the funding issues aside, let's just look at some of the technical obstacles.

Firstly, the most efficient solar panels track the sun. If yours are to lie flat between and around the rail lines (this is one way to imagine it), they will only be efficient when the sun is directly overhead. At other times of the day they will be highly inefficient.

If they are simply to be placed in row after row beside the tracks as they wander around Australia (the other way to imagine it) this introduces a myriad of technical issues.

How are you going to transmit the electricity? Run AC towers next to all the railway lines, which then branch off every few hundred miles to join in with the grid? Where, and how often will you place the millions of DC inverters you'll need to change the DC solar power into AC electricity?

Heavy rail passes through mountains, tunnels, ravines, forests, over bridges and encounters many other obstacles that will have poor lighting or no area for solar panels. What happens to your system then? Does it just end? Or start up again on the other side of the obstacle? What happens to the AC Towers which need to track the railway?

Who is going to maintain and police the integrity of this system? Who will guard the thousands of miles of railway lines from thieves and sabotage? Tens of thousands of Railway Police, working day and night to guard our unscrew-and-takeaway energy system? Or would you just put up razor-wire security fences on both sides?

Have you whether we might have enough trained installers to do the job? Let alone whether or not we have enough trained electrical engineers and on-site people to maintain and service it? Where do they stay when they are working miles from any township? Do they camp there?

Now let's consider the enormous transmission losses. Nah, to hell with it, I think I've made my point...

Look, the solar idea is good, but the "use every kilometer of railtrack and cover all of it with solar panels" idea is bad. Solar power should be located as close as possible to population centers, not distributed all around the outback and in remote, unpopulated areas, where transmission losses will diminish its usefulness.

It should be built in multi-unit farms. It should be solar thermal power plants or PV power plants. While you're at it, consider solar updraft towers. Take a look at the 154MW Solar Systems power plant that is going to be built in north-west Victoria. This is the state of the art.

I like your idea of using the railway system to shorten the startup time, but we need sunny, open areas, large enough to house a solar farm, close to population centers and owned by the railways, to make it work. Obviously they are more likely to own these areas closer to population centers, so that suits. But the first thing to establish is whether these areas are available!

"Carpeting" the railway tracks around Australia is, I think, absolutely the wrong way to go. As to your funding ideas, they sound OK to me.

Answers for a Solar Railway

What's the problem, Ian McPherson? The panels go on top of the rail tracks. The trains travel between the panels and the track. If you want to put more panels beside the track - fine. There is no obstacle to designing panels that track the sun - it's merely a technical problem.

You track the transmission lines parallel with the rail track (probably above it - isn't that how we do it now?) As far as accumulation in areas where there is no sun (tunnels etc) that is a problem for solar. We refer to it as night. I gather it has been solved and load capacity can be adequately addressed by storage. Batteries get better all the time and nothing drives innovation like need and money.

Maintenance and policing. Not too worried about policing given the size of the system. Maintenance? What do you think we are going to need to do with all those out of work builders and coal industry people? It's another beauty of the scheme because it puts jobs out in the bush were they can support the towns and provide off farm employment for farm workers in hard times.

Training? You train people as you go. It used to be called an apprenticeship. Just imagine the opportunities for school-leavers who shouldn't be doing the HSC. Your attitude strikes me as odd. At the tertiary level, whenever there's a mining boom, geology courses take off like nobody's business and cadetships abound.

You bet they camp there until the job is done - how do you think the bloody track got there in the first place? But this time, it's easy peasy: because you are building the network from the edges back in towards the rail hubs and the cities, you can have them living in quite comfortable rolling stock.

Transmission loss may be a problem but it may not. Think about it: there will not be 100% loss. Now, I readily admit that I do not have an Electrical engineering degree and my physics isn't as good as it should be (only did 1st Level Science and that's a long time ago now) but, the people I talk to (must ask George Maltabarrow next time I see him) tell me it can be done. That comes down to a cost-benefit analysis which, in turn, depends on the total quantity of overall generation. E.g. 5% (say) of 100 units isn't much but if it's ramped up to 1,000,000 units ... etc. Since you profess the expertise, do the sums for me.

One other thing does bother me though. 'Tis but the way of the world: if we're the first to do it, we'll be the first to be obsolete. Maybe we can make up the shortfall by exporting the new technology we develop as we go.

The main reason I disagree with you energy of villages concept is that the revenue base needs to stay with the Government to repay the principal on the bonds.

Please have the good grace not just to attack an idea with potential. No policy will have all the detail on a first press release but it should have at least the guts of an idea.

Criticising the Solar Railway

What's the problem, Ian McPherson? The panels go on top of the rail tracks. The trains travel between the panels and the track. If you want to put more panels beside the track - fine. There is no obstacle to designing panels that track the sun - it's merely a technical problem.

I think you underestimate the computer power and programming required to drive motors on all these solar panels to track the sun, not only across the sky (and across the seasons), but around every part of every curve in Australia's railway system. It's much more than just a technical problem. And the panels have to be able to rotate both ways, horizontally and vertically.

You track the transmission lines parallel with the rail track (probably above it - isn't that how we do it now?) As far as accumulation in areas where there is no sun (tunnels etc) that is a problem for solar. We refer to it as night. I gather it has been solved and load capacity can be adequately addressed by storage. Batteries get better all the time and nothing drives innovation like need and money.

The batteries don't exist to do this on a large scale, at this stage (however, interesting designs are in development). You can't just hook up a bunch of submarine batteries and hope for the best. Probably the best way to back up this amount of solar panels would be to pump water uphill into a reservoir and release it in a gradual manner (like hydro). But where do we get the water? And the reservoirs?

I'd also prefer you didn't play the "innovation" card with this idea. Remember this was meant to give us a quick start?

Maintenance and policing. Not too worried about policing given the size of the system.

What does that mean? That it's too far off the ground and thieves can't climb. And louts can't throw rocks at it to damage the panels?

Maintenance? What do you think we are going to need to do with all those out of work builders and coal industry people? It's another beauty of the scheme because it puts jobs out in the bush were they can support the towns and provide off farm employment for farm workers in hard times.

Training? You train people as you go. It used to be called an apprenticeship. Just imagine the opportunities for school-leavers who shouldn't be doing the HSC. Your attitude strikes me as odd. At the tertiary level, whenever there's a mining boom, geology courses take off like nobody's business and cadetships abound.

I thought this was a quick start idea? Now we have university courses for our children, plus TAFE courses for bankrupt farmers, builders and coal workers – who we'll give jobs all over Australia, even though they can't afford to move there...

You bet they camp there until the job is done - how do you think the bloody track got there in the first place? But this time, it's easy peasy: because you are building the network from the edges back in towards the rail hubs and the cities, you can have them living in quite comfortable rolling stock.

Will these happy campers sing "'Cause we're working for the Man"? And what does it matter which direction you build it in? Oh, sorry, I forgot. The bankrupt farmers and builders, camping their way back to the city. Quite comfortable rolling stock? Like sleepers? Will it have a dining car too? Parked in sidings, right? Will they be allowed TV or radio? Even David Hicks got a TV...

Transmission loss may be a problem but it may not. Think about it: there will not be 100% loss. Now, I readily admit that I do not have an Electrical engineering degree and my physics isn't as good as it should be (only did 1st Level Science and that's a long time ago now) but, the people I talk to (must ask George Maltabarrow next time I see him) tell me it can be done. That comes down to a cost-benefit analysis which, in turn, depends on the total quantity of overall generation. E.g. 5% (say) of 100 units isn't much but if it's ramped up to 1,000,000 units ... etc. Since you profess the expertise, do the sums for me.

The theoretical limit for cost-effective electricity transmission is around 4,000 miles. Losses run at 7-8% on average, but no-one is using transmission lines anywhere near 4,000 miles long.

But it won't work that way. This will break up into mini-grids, no matter what you might desire. Take the heavy rail line north between Hornsby and Gosford. It is hilly, full of curves, cutaways, tunnels and bridges – but empty of people. You wouldn't bother using your system between those two points. You would just let the people use the existing grid, or if they wanted, install a local solar farm (preferably solar thermal).

The Nullarbor Desert has the same problem. No population, therefore no need for electricity. Why build an intermittent electricity supply in the middle of the desert, only to transmit it hundreds of miles to Perth or Adelaide. How are they going to store the energy? They can't store it in the grid? You'd be much better off building larger, solar thermal plants close to Perth and close to Adelaide.

Build them on railway land, by all means, but build them closer to the population centers!

One other thing does bother me though. 'Tis but the way of the world: if we're the first to do it, we'll be the first to be obsolete. Maybe we can make up the shortfall by exporting the new technology we develop as we go.

I don't think it will ever happen, let alone become obsolete. Not with solar panel technology. Storage and intermittency are the two killers. You'd be much better off with solar thermal plants close to population centers. There may be a way to design a solar thermal plant using your overhead railway idea, but why bother? Self-contained, out-of-the-box, solar thermal plants are ready to go now.

The main reason I disagree with you energy of villages concept is that the revenue base needs to stay with the Government to repay the principal on the bonds.

You're misreading me Malcolm. I am not suggesting the government do not own these plants. I am simply suggesting that they are larger solar thermal plants built (singly or in multiples) closer to population centers. There is simply no need to run a system right around Australia and fund the transmission costs as well.

Please have the good grace not just to attack an idea with potential. No policy will have all the detail on a first press release but it should have at least the guts of an idea.

I am criticising the idea Malcolm, as I do not believe it has been adequately thought through. I am actually supportive of many parts of the idea. But I genuinely think that you underestimate the technical and computing issues involved, the storage dilemma and the intermittency problems.

Now let me do some math for you. A 30W SX30U BP Solar Panel is about $349 retail. It is 594mm x 502mm in size. Let's say we mount two of these side by side, long side parallel to the rails, and repeat them end on end.

The distance between Sydney and Newcastle is 167Km as the crow flies. So we'd need 55,666,668 panels to reach Newcastle (let's forget the bends).

Now let's imagine that BP give us the panels for $34.90, 10% of the retail price, because they've never seen an order like this in their lives. What does that add up to? A mere $1,942,766,713.

I won't even bother with the Australia-wide math.

Keep thinking about it Malcolm – there's no reason it can't change or be modified to be better.

Bad Math on the Solar Railway :(

Arrrggghhh!!! It's obvious I should never do math when I'm tired! Apologies for the previous calculations, which were completely awry. This morning, after some bacon and eggs and a nice cuppa, I've done it properly.

OK, we established that the BP solar panels were just about .6m long. As the crow flies, it is 167km from Sydney to Newcastle, so it would take 278,333 panels to reach the distance. This piece of track is particularly windy, so this would increase the distance between the panels, probably a good idea if the sun is at an extreme angle to the panel.

Therefore, using a single panel row approach, it would cost around $971m ($971,382,170) for a 167km stretch of rail. If we divide this by 167 we establish a roundabout price per km. In this case it is $5,816,660 p/km.

Wikipedia estimates the Australian rail network to be 33,819 km of track of three major gauges, of which 2,540 km is electrified. Let's subtract 10,819km from the 33,819, as some may be industrial, private and suburban. That leaves us with a very loose figure of 23,000km of track.

If we multiply that by our per/km figure of $5,816,660 we get the figure of $133,783,180,000. If we use the short scale, that is around $133.7billion for the solar panels. No construction, no transmission infrastructure, just the solar panels. (I'm not sure this many solar panels exist, by the way).

OK, now maybe some genius out there could give us some idea what sort of electrical power this would generate (it's beyond me), but it would certainly be one hell of a lot! It would require serious large-scale storage! Pumping it into the grid would certainly blow it to bits.

OK, now maybe I've chosen a solar panel that has too high an output, and they could certainly be spaced a lot further apart, so there is room to move financially. But storage for this sort of intermittent blast of energy is a primary obstacle. Without storage, intermittent energy is limited to around 20-30% of grid capacity.

One interesting way would be to route the DC electricity into high voltage direct current (HVDC) cables, and forward it to state-based substations on the coast, which could both desalinate seawater for potable water and produce hydrogen, which would be stored and then burnt and released later as electricity at a predictable rate into the state grids. This would kill two birds with one stone, hopefully...

Other storage ideas could include pumping water uphill (considerable capital investment), compressing air or mechanical flywheels. But, if we are going to take our Kyoto commitments seriously, however, the hydrogen option sounds better to me.

Any more ideas anyone? I would certainly appreciate any input on what sort of power we might expect from an energy system this size!

Solar

Ian McPherson, you will get a maximum of 200 watts per square metre of panel during daylight hours. You will get something between 16 and 17 volts across the output terminals of each panel when operating at peak power.
(See http://www.generators.smps.us/solarpower.html)

Steering a large array to track the sun would be a monumental task, which is why most home-based solar panels are angled to be approximately normal to (across) the rays of the sun at midday. They charge storage cells and run appliances off the storage. Direct powering of motors off solar cells is a lot more tricky.

Your 167 km of panels between Sydney and Newcastle, if the array were 1 metre wide and 160 km long would deliver a maximum of 200 x 167,000 watts, or about 30 megawatts (MW). (The biggest coal-fired power station in Victoria, Loy Yang A, puts out 2,000 MW.) But unlike the coal fired power station, that output would not be continuous. However energy storage in the Snowy Scheme (say) is possible by raising water from low storage to a higher one.

That direct currnet (DC) output can be converted to square-wave alternating current (AC) using inverters, and the surplus fed into the grid using appropriate technics.

The great thing about electric trains is that they can use regenerative braking. Between say Mt Kuringai to the Hawkesbury River, the trains going downhill can put energy into the lines to power the other trains in the system.

On the face of it, it would work. But at hellish expense setting it up.

I agree

We do need to keep thinking about it and argument is part of that. For long haul, design a train that powers itself - there are already cruise ships on the harbour doing that at least in part. As to cost - so what? Have you any idea how much super money there is floating around? 7% government guaranteed is very attractive and will become more so as the economy deteriorates.

I'm still against your close to population idea for the simple reason that the railways come with NO, repeat NO acquisition cost. That's because you are compulsorily acquiring a loss-making operation. That's the way I'd get my valuer to do it anyway. Land on the fringe of population is expensive.

I'm prepared to keep talking because I think there is a media res.   At least I'm suggesting something that people can argue about.    Where was there any policy detail for anything in the last election?

And it's arithmetic not math[ematics].    BTW, the GST on $2,000M is a fair whack (and don't tell me 1,000,000,000 is a billion) and 3% of that pays a lot of wages.    I find it ironic that one can fund infrastructure projects because of the stupid GST.    Once we've built what we want we can get rid of the damned thing.

As for training, get real - we've got heaps of raw labour, computer nerds and very quickly trainable techies.    You don't have to put them in sidings if you start from the outside in because nothing runs there now thanks to successive State governments.

Interestingly enough, however, the exchange we are now having is precisely the way good policy is formulated: you take an idea, you chew it around, you gather the technical data and you make it work.

 

Happy to continue a constructive argument for a change. 

 

Criticising the Solar Railway II

Hmmmmm... I think my math is a mess, and you might have to chop the last two numbers off that final figure (which is still an impossibly large figure). I'm too tired to work it out properly now. I'll do the figures again in the morning and repost them. I might even have a go at an Australia-wide figure.

Looong time, no post.....

Hi All

Long time, no post.

We'll be having a little Getup get-together in sleepy Carisbrook, so we are looking forward to see how it all works out in the wash.

I am aching for an excuse to post a link to this video, which I stumbled across a couple of days ago.  It documents the creepy undercurrents of Bali, East Timor and the war on terror.  I realise the whole thrust of this is to be forward looking, but maybe we also need to know something about where we've been for the last ten years.

It may also give a clue to the obstacles which the new government will have to negotiate.

Enjoy!

Fiona: Chris, welcome back. Yep, there are certainly many shoals and whirlpools ahead.

Have a talk about it on Dec 7

Latest from GetUp - I'm going to one on the Gold Coast, my first GetUp function:

Dear friends,

For more than a decade, we have had to spend enormous amounts of energy simply opposing the latest 'bad' thing. But we have more than a duty to oppose. Together, we have a duty to aspire.

Nothing is guaranteed under a new Government. But there is a point in dreaming big. So come to a Vision GetTogether, a meeting of GetUp members in your local community this Tuesday evening, to let this Government know exactly what kind of Australia you dream of. It's fun, easy and over and done with in 90 minutes flat:

http://www.getup.org.au/community/gettogethers/series.php?id=16

The caution the Prime Minister displayed yesterday on short-term emissions targets exemplifies the kind of work that will be cut out for us. It's clear that on many policy matters that are vital to our future, the Rudd Government is still determining where it stands. But they're moving quickly to fill in the details, so now is the time to make sure they hear our voice.

No government, no matter how well-intentioned, will ever soar higher than its progressive citizens demand - and most will sink as low as we allow. Working together, with strength in numbers and shared vision for our future, we can make sure this Government reaches for the stars.

Already, we have an unprecedented 220 Vision GetTogethers arranged in over 110 electorates around the country. Join thousands of other GetUp members at a GetTogether near you on Tuesday:

http://www.getup.org.au/community/gettogethers/series.php?id=16

Over the holidays, we'll take the input from every GetTogether and use it as the first step in shaping a national people's agenda for the new Parliament - to be hand-delivered to every single MP before the first sitting of Parliament next year. Your feedback will also determine GetUp's campaign priorities for the new year.

Decisions are made by those who show up. So come along on Tuesday to a GetTogether near you - or host your own - and help shape our future:

http://www.getup.org.au/community/gettogethers/series.php?id=16

The GetUp team 

Mine Full

My local meeting was full.

I do think this is the direction.  I'll be watching to see what evolves regarding relations with the parties as GetUp gets more influence.  I think it will be very interesting and important.

Technological solutions - plastics and energy technology

Anthony, only about 4% of oil is currently used to make the vast amount of plastic we currently waste.  Another 4% or so goes into the industries that manufacture the resins and products from the resins.  I find the wholesale waste of plastics on trivia like soft drink bottles and other unnecessary packaging a disgrace, but I have no objections to legitimate use in durable articles and medical materials.  At the moment, plastic is so cheap it isn't even recycled and most of what you put in your recycling bin ends up in landfill for lack of a market - it's outrageous. 

We will always have plastic becasue it is so damn useful and only a very small amount of oil is used to make it.  Long after it is no longer feasible to blow oil away in huge quantities for transport, there will still be plenty for necessary plastics. 

Evan: "I also think that we have the technology available to provide all the power we need and much else besides."

Oh, if only that was true!  Technology uses energy - it doesn't provide it. 

I have dedicated about 20 years of my life to pursuing renewable energy and energy efficiency and have come to the dismal realisation that these can never provide anywhere near enough energy for a technological society - not even close!  Not even for a society that is willing or forced to really make deep sacrifices and forego the luxuries they currently enjoy. 

Whether we like it or not, we live in cities that are only possible in a technological society that consumes large amounts of energy just to provide our essential needs, particularly food, but also many other things we take for granted.  Moving to small self sufficient communities is obviously required, but this will take generations to achieve and is only possible after major population reduction.  Any volunteers to be first? 

That is why, after 20 years of opposition to nuclear power, I have concluded that we have no other choice.  Furthermore, in would be outrageously stupid to develop current nuclear technology as there simply isn't the fuel for it - Uranium 235 is already in short supply worldwide.  So we must develop a new generation of breeder reactors that use either U238 or Thorium.  The problem - we don't yet have these technologies and they will have problems and they will be very expensive.

Planning now for future shortage.

Indeed Lionel. In particular I agree with your plan for major infrastructure planning and development now in order to deal with fuel shortage in the future. It is a matter of putting our current fossil fuel reserves to good use while we can.

I've been doing what I can in the health sector to suggest that the current use of disposable medical equipment is unsustainable in even the medium term. Most of the synthetics in the overwhelming majority of equipment, from dressing packs to surgical equipment, are petroleum based. One solution, which has so far met with zero enthusiasm, is to replace synthetics with old fashioned stainless steel that can be sterilised and reused. This would mean rebuilding the sterilisation units in hospitals and retraining staff competent in the techniques.

Failing this the cost of high technology health care will blow out beyond imagining. Think about what we are risking: heart valve replacements, renal dialysis, the list is immense.

Recycling

Or you could use them once and then recycle.

Recycling

Agreed. 

What's more, as things get really tight, we will dig up the millions of tonnes of plastic that is in landfills and productively use that too.

Thanks Lionel

For a well argued and passionate piece on a (the?) most important subject.

I'm not sure that economic growth can't be diverted into other fields, eg. watching DVD's etc which may be less costly to the planet. I think incentives to less polluting companies and industries will be part of the transition.

There is a movie about Peak Oil (American) called The End of Suburbia. I think that is one way of thinking about the impact of Peak Oil.

I also think that we have the technology available to provide all the power we need and much else besides. The real challenge is the human one – the transition for those in the doomed industries, the creation of the new forms of community and communal production.

I'd like to know if you are involved in groups trying out new ways of doing things. If so which groups and how you find the experience.

Thanks for an excellent piece.

Good Stuff

Public transport is absolutely woeful in this country, except for those wonderful trams in Melbourne which I could travel on all day. Imagine London or New York without their underground systems? No matter how noisy, crowded and dirty they get, they are fantastic for getting about . I can't count the number of times I've been able to travel home via buses or the tube at 3am in both places. A car is just a hindrance.

One of my big complaints about the dreaded monorail, as we demonstrated at it being built, was not just that it was damned ugly - it didn't go anywhere sensible! If it had travelled to the Quay, Kings Cross, Oxford Street etc, at least it would have been useful. As for the god awful freeways that blight the city, particularly the Cahill Expressway, didn't whoever planned them know they are just hideously ugly? I mean if we can build the Opera House for all the world to marvel, we can get transport right as well.

Transport

Michael de Angelos: "I mean if we can build the Opera House for all the world to marvel, we can get transport right as well."

One big difference: the Opera House just sits there and is not run by the unions, unlike the transport system. Perhaps Cahill was a Labor man!

25 Questions and Answers on Peak Oil

Thanks to Margo for posting my Open Letter to the PM. 

If the issue of Peak Oil is new to you or not fully understood, I recomend 25 Questions and Answers on Peak Oil  at Lino's Place It is a bit of a read - a bit large to publish on Webdiary I would think. 

Responding to Malcolm, I guess the label of "Alarmist" is OK.  As an engineer, I know that alarms are an essentail part of any machine, as they can avert a disaster.  If you are implying that I am a "False Alarmist", then I suggest that you need to bit of reseach.

Well what a surprise

"Major investment in national electric railway infrastructure – long distance freight, high speed passenger rail and suburban light rail. A vast amount of petroleum is consumed by road freight, air travel and commuting. The majority of it can be powered by electricity. This would also enable greenhouse emissions to be significantly reduced due to the large increase in efficiency of rail transport compared with road and air transport."

One of the alarmists actually agrees with me. I put it out as policy a year ago. Oh, but it can't be done the gainsayers said. Well kiddies, necessity is the mother of invention. If it has to be done it will be done. Now let's formulate the science and the policy to get it done.

Lights out for the Liberal Party, coming soon...

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
© 2006, Webdiary Pty Ltd
Disclaimer: This site is home to many debates, and the views expressed on this site are not necessarily those of the site editors.
Contributors submit comments on their own responsibility: if you believe that a comment is incorrect or offensive in any way,
please submit a comment to that effect and we will make corrections or deletions as necessary.
Margo Kingston Photo © Elaine Campaner

Recent Comments

Alan Curran: Climate in From the IPCC to dinosaurs climate 52 min 38 sec ago
Scott Dunmore: Took you long enough in The rattle of a simple man 1 hour 1 min ago
David Roffey: No-fly problems in The rattle of a simple man 4 hours 27 min ago
Alan Curran: Apology accepted in The rattle of a simple man 16 hours 6 min ago
Justin Obodie: APOLOGIA MAXIMA in The rattle of a simple man 17 hours 43 min ago
Alan Curran: Why in The rattle of a simple man 1 day 15 hours ago