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OPINION: Urgent changes needed in power politics

There are currently many problems in the Australian political sphere and hence many changes required; undoubtedly among the most pressing problems are those relating to climatic change.

To be able to consider what changes are required to fix any particular problem it is first necessary not only to understand what the present situation is but also how we arrived at the current position.

The two most pressing problems are firstly, the generation and usage of power and secondly, the collection of water and its usage.

Position prior to the last election

Let us consider power and start by also considering the situation in the period prior to the last Federal election. Our former Prime Minister John Howard had frequently stated his belief that climate change was not happening, then one day as he was walking through the park a remarkable thing happened.

Suddenly there appeared a burning Bush where normally there was nothing, so naturally he approached it to examine it more closely and as he approached it a voice spoke from its midst and said “John if you continue to deny that the climate is changing, you are going to lose the election.”

Then there was a flash and the burning Bush was gone and there was no sign that anything had ever been there. There was no doubt now in the Prime Minister’s mind. The Bush had spoken and he must act or lose the election.

So he announced his conversion to the cause, stating that recent studies had convinced him that climate was indeed changing. He also stated his first choice for the power situation would be nuclear power although he acknowledged it could not begin in Australia for 10 years, and his second choice would be Clean Coal, which he said was seven years away.

He also said “Solar can never take the place of base load stations.” He favoured bio-ethanol production as a renewable source.

Implications arising

I do not propose to argue either for or against the use of nuclear derived power but simply note that he acknowledges that it would be a decade before it could even begin to assist the situation in Australia. So it is not an immediate priority or palliative. Some other solution is required.

His second option was ‘Clean Coal’, which again is not an immediate solution. Further, there is no such thing as ‘Clean Coal’. It is still the same combustion of material containing carbon and producing the same quantity of CO2 as normal, coupled with proposals to capture the CO2 by means as yet not agreed, then conveyed and stored in ‘safe’ places.

How one can guarantee the safety of the storage against future possible leakage has yet to be established. (The same problem exists for storage of spent nuclear material.)

Prime Minister Howard’s next shibboleth is ‘Solar power can never replace base load stations’. Wrong John! Just plain wrong and your failure to put in place appropriate financial encouragement for these techniques has lead to the luring to USA by Exterminator Schwartzeneger of one of Australia’s most experienced solar power experimenters.

Further, the failure to provide any encouragement for the introduction of solar techniques has hampered their development and installation in Australia so that some other countries (particularly Germany) are well ahead of us. We need to act quickly in this respect.

Whilst the production and use of biodiesel is a move towards renewable energy, the diversion of the use of assets (agricultural land, labour, water and finance) from the production of food to any other purpose in this time of inability to feed the world’s existing population, must be regarded as absolute stupidity if not criminal stupidity.

Directions for the future

In the long term, the internal combustion engine is doomed. This is not to say that it will disappear at any time soon, although it is already in a stage of decline. In the area of large power generators including transport, it is likely to remain for a long time. In the event that cheap methods of hydrogen production are found, it may possibly recover somewhat but not to its recent almost monopoly position as a power drive.

All of those involved in transport, whether transport operators or manufacturers of transport equipment, need to start thinking and planning now for how they will cope with this change.

The prevention of loss to the atmosphere of methane from coal seams and landfill waste disposal schemes is clearly sensible and its use in conventional combustion systems is currently the most economic method of disposing of it but in the long term, use of it by some method other than this is needed.

Investigation of the possibility of developing a process for converting it to usable energy without traditional combustion appears to be warranted. Perhaps a biological method of conversion to hydrogen might be developed. Research in this direction should be undertaken as a matter of priority.

Alternatively, the development of a method of directly using the CO2 by converting it to some useful product (perhaps a carbonate or a biological process), might be possible. An investigation into this possibility is warranted (n.b. CSIRO has done some work on a biological use and this should continue).

Additionally, there are other power generation methods available that offer some promise. The current use of wind driven generators has limitations because of its non-continuous nature. This might perhaps be improved if it was coupled to a system to convert the generated power to some other form for storage (possibly heat or hydrogen).

Utilisation of wave energy does not suffer from the intermittency problem of wind power and its investigation and development should be encouraged. Clearly, it will be of most use in coastal areas but this is where most power is used.

Australia is fortunate in having some locations where generation of power from ‘hot rocks’ appears to be economic. However, this is not likely to be a major source of power unless a number of criteria can be satisfied.

Ideally, power should be used close to where it is generated (since the transmission of power involves a loss of energy to the atmosphere), thus power from wave activity is likely to be limited to locations close to the coast, whilst power from hot rocks is unlikely to be widely available and will be limited to few locations.

There is however, a circumstance in which this problem could be overcome. If either Hot Rocks Power (HRP) or Wave Activity Power (WAP) could be produced in such quantity as to gain a benefit of scale that brought its cost low enough to compensate for the transmission loss and still be cheaper than other methods, this could lead to some interesting possibilities.

Consider an ideal case. Hot rocks exists in a location relatively close to:

• a substantial supply of saline water;

• a substantial user of power;

• a source of methane or ethane; and

• national road or rail transport.

Such a situation would enable the possibility a major petrochemical and industrial gasses industry as well as cheaper power for the existing user. The desalination of a substantial quantity of water could also be highly beneficial. The total resulting beneficial effects of such a scheme on Australian GNP could be tremendous. Of course, it would also be necessary that there should be no yellow bellied parrots or brown spotted greenies or any other endangered species.

Efforts to find such a location (in the area from Central Australia down through SA to a point west of Whyalla) and develop it in the way indicated above should be given highest priority and begin immediately. To lose a golden opportunity through sloth would be an unforgivable criminal sabotage of our country’s future.

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