Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Australians need to learn to cope without baseload power

News that the main coal-fired power stations want more leverage to expand their output is devastating given the huge reductions in Melbourne’s rainfall and the sensible observation that in effect our government is acting as if its members were all hardline greenhouse sceptics. Both fairly old (in terms of date compiled) paleoclimate data and modern research show that the rainfall changes in Australia since 1997 have probabilities of one in thousands of years.

This does not deter our governments who are eternally vigilant not at what is happening to the southern winter rain zone’s climate but at what the mortgage belt is feeling. Those who know Australia should, in ecological terms, have by far the least cheap energy in the world and that the proportion of its land requiring conservation is so high that at least a substantial proportion of its coal deposits ought to be in strictly protected nature reserves that protect:
  • In the Hunter Valley, very unusual geological features (burning coal seams)
  • In Gippsland, forests critically endangered by global warming due to the burning of coal
The inability of the free market or governments beating to the heart of the mortgage belt rather than those of Australia’s wildlife and farmers in a multitude of foreign countries whom unsustainable Australian agriculture renders uncompetitive will have consequences we cannot imagine very soon.

The sensible thing for Australia to do, given the absence of an alternative to unsustainable coal-fired power, would be to abolish the whole idea of an electricity grid and to plan the shifting of large and medium industrial energy users to nations with reliable hydropower like New Zealand. The availability of reliable hydropower in many developing nations means that fears of extra pollution from shifting abroad are at large unfounded. In a sense, Australians are unwilling to surrender their enormous economic privilege of having such enormous energy resources.

For urban consumers, coping without an electricity grid would be difficult given the lack of incentive to use solar panels – though projected CO2 levels and Tertiary paleoclimates suggest Melbourne will be the best place in the continent for solar energy generation by 2020. Except on very hot days, better clothing and housing construction ought to allow people even in cool Tasmania to survive without heating and my knowledge from cycling shows how gross the excessive lighting on streets from ultra-cheap electricity is. Small-scale power might be able to cope with these minor electricity uses adequately if we in Australia were committed to real sustainability, which would anyway mean prices order of magnitude higher than paid in Europe or North America or New Zealand.

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