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Aug 17, 2011

Fear and greed … the real energy challenge

It’s curious to see how left-wing and right-wing politics have fallen on either side of the clean tech divide, particularly in the US and Australia, writes Giles Parkinson.

At the end of the PBS documentary Power Surge, there is a poignant moment when the camera crew visits the solar energy museum in Dezhou, a former crumbling transport hub that is now known as China’s “Solar City”.

One of the more popular displays at the museum is a solar panel that had been installed by President Jimmy Carter on the roof of the White House in 1979, just after he promised that the US would source 20% of its energy needs from renewables by the end of the century.

The panels were torn down a few years later, along with the rest of Carter’s renewables vision, by his successor Ronald Reagan, with the vocal approval of the new president’s oil and coal industry backers. The panel, along with a $100 billion solar PV industry that the US had once hoped would be its own, ended up in Dezhou, at the heart of China’s Solar Valley, the local clean tech equivalent of California’s Silicon Valley.

The Chinese can’t quite believe their luck — and the display appears to be designed to be a potent symbol of lost opportunity from its biggest economic rival, and one that Carter himself had foreshadowed. “This solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be just a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people: harnessing the power from the sun,” he said at the time.

The Obama administration, and particularly Energy Secretary Stephen Chu, is fighting another rear-guard action to save a new generation of clean technologies — such as thin-film solar PV and new forms of solar thermal technologies such as solar towers, along with a host of other emerging clean tech options — from a similar fate.

Having lost the fight to introduce a carbon price to the Republicans and its fossil fuel backers, the government is trying to support those technologies with other mechanisms, such as loan guarantees and tax credits. But these, too, are now under attack from the Tea Party-controlled Congress and newly elected Republican governors.

It’s curious to see how left-wing and right-wing politics have fallen on either side of the clean tech divide, particularly in the US and Australia. In NSW, the Premier Barry O’Farrell has renewed his distaste for wind farms. There has been virtually no new investment in electricity generation in the state for years, but there is possibly $10 billion of wind turbines in the pipeline. O’Farrell, who has also managed to bring the local rooftop solar PV market to a crashing halt, said he hoped the wind farms would never be built.

“None of this would be necessary if the federal government hadn’t signed up to a 20% renewable energy target,” he told Macquarie Radio, before trying to pass off the comments as his “personal views”. It even made the daily global wrap of France broking house Mirabaud Securities, which among its headlines of solar, wind, fuel cell and other clean tech investments across the globe, noted: “Australia’s NSW premier Barry O’Farrell states he hopes the state does not give approval for any more wind farms.” That must be what marketing people call positioning.

The fear of clean tech seems to have several origins. Part of it is from the belief that there is no problem to solve in the first place — no climate change, no limit on natural resources. Part of it comes from the belief that, if there is a problem, then it is either too hard or too costly to overcome. Part of it comes simply from the fear of change.

The Power Surge documentary that was broadcast on SBS TV on Tuesday night had an interesting approach to the “too hard, too costly” fear, and how to break down the energy task — to arrest the emissions growth from soaring energy needs.

“It is easy to say, ‘Oh, the energy problem is so big that we can’t possibly build enough wind turbines to solve it, we can’t possibly do enough conservation to solve it’,” says Princeton University’s Stephen Pacala. “So you break the problem into pieces and say, ‘What are the technological options across the board that we have to throw at it’?”

Pacala has addressed the problem by creating a triangle formed by the gap between what the world was going to do in terms of emissions (business as usual) and what we must do, and split the challenge — the carbon emissions that must be kept out of the atmosphere — into a series of wedges. Instead of relying on one technology to avoid, say, seven billion tonnes of emissions per year, maybe it could develop seven that could each account for one billion.

Pacala estimates there are actually 15 technologies already in the marketplace at an industrial scale that could meet the billion-tonne target, grouped around efficiency, renewables, carbon capture and nuclear. Which of those were deployed, and to what extent, would be the subject of individual country choice and opportunity: some may go more for solar, some more for efficiency. The likelihood is that if one of the options emerges as the “killer solution”, then it will dominate the other technologies, as coal has done for the past century on the simple metric of cost.

Dan Kammen, from the University of California, Berkeley, tells the program that the carbon problem is actually easily solvable. “What’s hard is that we need to make a lot of change in a hurry,” he says. “We, more or less, have the coming four decades to recreate a green version of the industrial revolution that’s taken us 150 years.” But as Paul Alivisatos, the director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory says: “Technology save us from climate change?  I’m very convinced that it can. And, in fact, beyond that, what I would say is that it’s an incredible opportunity for us to create all kinds of new things.”

*This first appeared on Climate Spectator.

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14 thoughts on “Fear and greed … the real energy challenge

  1. Frank Campbell

    Don’t imagine for a second that the Left and environmentalists will forever be enamoured of current “clean green energy technologies”. We’re not all suckers. Not one technology mentioned by Parkinson is remotely competitive yet. Most never will be and one is fraudulent by definition (wind).

    The only way to extract a winner from existing and future technologies is to fund research.

    The MRET is both premature and doomed to fail Forcing fraudulent or expensive technologies on to the public (by subsidy and legislation) wastes scarce capital and undermines the entire renewable energy/climate change project.

    The Productivity Commission has belatedly stated the obvious about this.

    Tell us about geothermal in Australia, Giles. It never gets a mention, in spite of the billion dollars wasted so far. Compare for us Flannery’s geothermal predictions of 2008 with the actual outcome.

    Tell us about the 400 nuclear reactors China intends to supplement its thermal coal generators.

    How many billions have been wasted in Germany on domestic solar, for what percentage of total power production?

    Why does Gillard say “coal has a fantastic future”?

    What sort of “clean energy future” will we have when the Right gains power for a decade? Why is Abbott crushing the government? Because the voters love his simian charisma? Because they have a secret longing to be ruled by a naked Jesuit? Or they like Liberals generous attitude to workers’ rights? Or because they lose sleep over the handful of boat refugees?

    And don’t cloud the issue by lamenting the loss of production to China- they’d be doing it anyway. They’re as happy to sell solar panels as anything else.

    There’s a power surge all right- a surge away from the Left. Driven by myopic fantasies such as we saw in last night’s program.

  2. Frank Campbell

    How do “clean energy” rent-seekers operate/ Just like Big Coal:

    (i’d be there if I had a “lounge suit”. I do have a lounge though…)

    “The Clean Energy Council is hosting an exclusive cocktail reception on Wednesday 14 September at Parliament House in Canberra.

    You and your staff are invited to join Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Minister Greg Combet, Parliamentary Secretary for Climate Change and Energy Efficiency Mark Dreyfus and other key Ministerial and departmental staff for drinks and networking.
    Date: Wednesday 14 September 2011
    Time: 5.30pm for a 6pm start
    Cost: $300 inc GST for CEC members and $600 inc GST for non-members
    Venue: Mural Hall, Parliament House, Canberra
    Dress: Lounge suit”

    and who gets the money?

  3. nicolino

    The NSW premier would have us back with coal generated power right to the very end and let’s face it, with this attitude it will happen. Business as usual is not an option.

  4. Bellistner

    Pacala has addressed the problem by creating a triangle formed by the gap between what the world was going to do in terms of emissions (business as usual) and what we must do, and split the challenge — the carbon emissions that must be kept out of the atmosphere — into a series of wedges. Instead of relying on one technology to avoid, say, seven billion tonnes of emissions per year, maybe it could develop seven that could each account for one billion.

    This isn’t a new thing to anyone who closely follows energy developments. When it comes to future power generation, it has to be said over and over again that there is no silver bullet. We instead have to use ‘Silver BB’s’ as Alan Drake puts it.

    A great many people want to ‘engineer’ our way out of the problem we’ve created for ourselves, but neglect that probably 90% of the engineering is already available, the remaining 10% is implementation.

    People also comment a lot on Base Load (google “Base load fallacy”), but over the implementation timespan we’re talking about (decades) almost all electricity useage is dispatchable (ie can be moved around to better match generation). A case in point is fridges/freezers: there’s no technological reason why business and households couldn’t buy and use Absorbtion chillers (apart from the higher up-front cost) and set them up to use power during the daytime when the sun is shining, or even, if they were so inclined, to power them direct from Solar Thermal.

    Problem is, the viewpoint ‘out there’ is that current technologies are not enough, because if they were, we’d be using them, so we need much more research (the new Bjorn Lomborg view).

  5. Peter Ormonde

    I’ll take wind turbines much more seriously when they start sprouting in the leafy suburbs of our capital cities.

    We are sticking these things where there is cheap land rather than where there is good consistent wind. And moreover we are sticking them near someone else.

    As for the technology being “already available” – I think we have a mediocre (at best) solution to the problem – in a few years time these three bladed tinker toys will be obsolete and irrelevant. Have a look at what the Chinese are doing with magnetic levitation… now that’s a generator!

    If we are so keen to use these half-baked gadgets at least we could put them where the wind is – offshore.

  6. Malcolm Street

    Peter Ormonde – “I’ll take wind turbines much more seriously when they start sprouting in the leafy suburbs of our capital cities.”

    Yes, we can’t take coal power seriously even now because the city-based power stations (eg Ultimo in Sydney) were shut down decades ago!

  7. Peter Ormonde

    I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make Malcolm but the point I’m making is that the “greenies” pushing windmills are putting them where the land is cheap rather than where the wind is. If they were serious they’d be putting them on all those lovely headlands and windswept foreshores … but that dirt is expensive. So they stick em in paddocks where the land is cheap and where the wind is extremely variable.

    The Danes, the Dutch and half a dozen others are putting all their windmills offshore because the production is more reliable and consistent. But that is expensive. More productive, but higher capital costs up front.

    Don’t make the mistake that I’m opposed to green power or to the need for renewables. Not by any stretch. I just this this stuff is junk, badly done, for a quick buck, by green carpetbaggers.

  8. cannedheat

    @Peter: I would have thought that putting wind turbines anywhere in Australia was uneconomic until a carbon price was put in place. Given both sides of politics are in the pockets of the coal industry there’s not much rent to seek …

  9. Peter Ormonde


    The carbon price is a good thing – a useful signal to encourage investment in alternatives and renewables over time. But hopefully it will do more than just have worthy folks buying solar panels and putting them under their house to avoid the cost of putting them on the roof.
    This is pretty much what is happening with wind turbines.
    I can’t stand inefficiency and hopefully the future will not be based on some least cost tinker toy set up that operates at 10-20% of its potential. The wind industry itself explains that gas generator capacity is required to provide back-up to cope with the intermittent nature of unreliable wind supply… the more intermittent the more back-up required. So the location and consistency of wind generation is absolutely critical to the overall efficiency of wind and indeed to its very claim to be renewable.
    So far it’s not looking very renewable at all.- just cheap. Superficially viable and at best a marginal contribution to a renewable energy future. Pity.
    We need more than a warm inner glow to keep the place running.

  10. Frank Campbell


    Wind turbines uneconomic without a carbon price? Hardly. Power companies are forced to buy at three times the FF rate. That’s why there are hundreds all over the country.

    A carbon price will just magnify the subsidy. Since no other technology is remotely ready, phony wind will expand- pushed along by most of the $13 billion “clean energy” cash the govt. has announced. Renewables R and D will be small beer compared with wind turbine expenditure. Sheer waste. Nothing can compensate for the fact that 80% of the time wind turbines produce nothing. Spreading them around doesn’t help either, as continental high pressure systems (peak demand winter and summer- when you want the power) mean little wind across vast areas.