If you do what you've always done

Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus is attributed with the maxim that ‘change is the only constant in life’. If he came back to life now, you would hope he wouldn’t be surprised to see the maxim is as accurate now as it was 500 or so years before the modern era when he was alive.

We don’t react well to change. When a steam engine first hauled a train with passengers instead of coal along a railway in the UK in the 1830’s, there was moral panic with ‘experts’ claiming that people sitting in a railway carriage travelling at 50 mph would ‘melt’ and women who travelled at such high speeds would find their uterus would fall out! When the first vehicles with engines hit the road, again there was a moral panic, answered in part by legislation such the Red Flag Act in the UK where ‘vehicles’ powered by engines were limited to 4 mph on country roads and 2 mph in cities with a man waving a red flag walking in front of the vehicle. While the proponents of the act claimed that the engines and their trailers might cause fatal accidents, scare horses, block narrow lanes, and disturb the locals by operating at night (all of which may have had an element of truth to it), there is also evidence to suggest that the legislation was promoted by those who had affiliations with the industries that had the most to lose — railways and horses — railing against inevitable change. We all know the ‘horseless carriage’ won the day.

In more recent past we have all been subjected to argument by various interest groups about the dangers inherent in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. While the overwhelming majority of scientists who are actually qualified in the field of study agree that there are a number of irreversible detrimental effects to the environment we, and our descendants, will have to endure, others with usually significantly less specific scientific knowledge and training fervently disagree.

We’ve all heard what could pass as other examples of moral panic — coal (or nuclear) power stations are the only possible alternatives that work at night; we need ‘baseload’ generation or generators that can be turned on and off at will; the mining and domestic consumption of coal employs tens of thousands of people; coal exports produce a considerable percentage of Australia’s export income and so on.

To an extent there has been at some stage some validity to all the claims above. There isn’t any more. For example, in January 2020, South Australia and Victoria lost the inter-connector that transfers power between the states due to a storm. Of equal concern, the Portland Aluminium Smelter was at risk of losing power from the Victorian grid. With the help of a lot of clever people, South Australia worked out how to be self-sufficient for power generation as well as offering to guarantee power to the Smelter. South Australia has no coal fired power stations, relying on renewables, a really big battery or two, wind power and gas generators, yet they kept the lights on across South Australia and the Portland Smelter operating for a couple of weeks as reported in The Australian (yes, you read that correctly). According to the report, they also had to disconnect some wind generation from the specially rigged system to ensure supply didn’t exceed demand — mismatched supply and demand levels apparently isn’t a good thing in a power grid.

Maybe the tide really is turning. Recently the ABC carried reports of what have been billed natural enemies, coal miners and environmentalists, working together to minimise the damage caused by the Gospers Mountain ‘mega-fire’ in New South Wales.

Even more at odds with ‘conventional wisdom’ is the increasing number of coal miners that are becoming environmentalists at times after decades working in the mines.

The reality is that mining and the use of coal to generate electricity is a sunset industry. As evidence, look to South Australia which has managed for weeks without coal fired power generation when the interconnector failed in a storm. Additional evidence comes from the United Kingdom who have at times gone up to two weeks without using a coal fired power generation facility and plan to phase all their coal fired plants out by 2025.

Of course transitioning to renewables will result in a loss of jobs currently involved in the mining, transporting and using of coal. While it apparently hasn’t been smooth sailing, Germany’s
trade unions, energy companies, green groups and government have all agreed that the coal industry must go.

And the Government will give tens of billions of dollars to coal regions to create new jobs and industries.
It’s a pity the Australian Governments of the last 15 to 20 years haven’t got the same courage even if they had the conviction. As the ABC reported mid-February, Australia has the space to create a network of solar thermal power plants that can reliably generate renewable energy day and night.
Solar thermal power systems may also have a thermal energy storage system component that allows the solar collector system to heat an energy storage system during the day, and the heat from the storage system is used to produce electricity in the evening or during cloudy weather.
Who would have thought the climate deniers in Australia that use their microphones and newspaper columns to rage against change could be wrong? Apparently the sun can generate power at night (and wind doesn’t stop when the sun goes down either).

While Australia has a grid that supplies Queensland through to South Australia, there might be a point where a solar thermal network overloads the ‘sort of’ National Grid in a similar manner to the excess wind generation in South Australia earlier this year. Rather than throttling the network back there is a solution in development — exporting the power.

Mike Cannon-Brookes (who dared Elon Musk to build the now very successful first industrial scale storage battery in South Australia) and Andrew Forrest have put their own money into a proposal to export Australian generated power to Singapore through a 4500km cable.

Given Cannon Brookes is one of the founders of Atlassian, a worldwide provider of planning, collaboration and security software, and Forrest is one of Australia’s most successful iron ore miners, the concept of exporting power through really long extension leads isn’t the idle chatter of two mates down the pub on a Friday night either.

There’s a future for Australians who should be starting to transition out of coal mining and processing jobs in Central Queensland, the Hunter Valley and elsewhere but they need some support along the way. The future is renewable energy production. Like mining coal, the infrastructure can be placed in regional areas and many of the construction and monitoring of sophisticated infrastructure-based skills used in mining are directly transferable. Pity the government seems to be more concerned with funding swimming pools that aren’t wanted in the communities on the receiving end of the largesse and changing facilities at sports fields.

Unfortunately there are a number of politicians on all sides that still believe that what we have done in the past — dig up coal, ship it out and ignore the consequences — is what we should do in the future. That’s not a recipe for future success, is it?

What do you think?

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