Guest essay by David Archibald
It used to be said that Australia was usually 5 years behind the US in adopting new trends; in turn the US was led by what happened in California. The beauty of that was that California’s taxpayers would pay for experiments in public policy and the rest of us could pick and choose from what worked. Unfortunately Australia is now in the lead in self-inflicted wounds resulting from faith-based public policy. One Australian state, South Australia, now has the dubious distinction of the world’s highest power prices. Four months from now, South Australia hits its peak summertime power consumption for which the grid operator projects there is simply insufficient supply … at any price. And this is in a country with plenty of coal reserves – 200 billion tonnes of lignite in the adjoining state of Victoria as well as all the black coal deposits scattered around the country.
The closest historical example of what Australia is doing to itself now is the 1856 cattle-killing frenzy of the Xhosa tribe in what is now South Africa. Briefly, a teenage girl named Nongqawuse and her friend Nombanda went to fetch water. Upon returning, she said that had met the spirits of three of her ancestors who had told her that the Xhosa people should destroy their crops and kill their cattle. In return the spirits would sweep the British settlers into the sea. Then their granaries would fill again and their kraals would have more and better cattle. The cattle-killing frenzy that followed killed between 300,000 and 400,000 head of cattle. In the resulting famine, the population of the province dropped from 105,000 to fewer than 27,000. This is a photo of Nongqause’s gravestone:
That was what a primitive, deeply superstitious people did to themselves. Now cut to the current day and Australia’s embrace of renewable energy has caused widespread blackouts, businesses to close, the indigent to seek shelter in public buildings in the current southern winter. All of which was entirely predictable. More and worse is coming as the renewables percentage of the national power supply ramps up. There are moments of comic relief amongst the gloom though. Australia’s largest company, BHP, is a true believer in global warming and suffered a A$300 million loss because of the power blackout at its Olympic Dam mine when the South Australian grid failed. Belief in global warming has a big, self-loathing, anti-capitalist component so it was good to see BHP get a dose of its own medicine. If you think that is a little far-fetched, consider that BHP’s CEO, Andrew Mackenzie, was once trustee of a left-wing UK think tank, Demos, that had been founded by a Marxist. He was a known quantity when he was hired.
In discussion of Australia’s power supply, for some reason it is taken as a given that renewable energy is desirable thing in itself, because of global warming. Global warming in turn is taken as a given. Global warming was born in the early 1980s after the world reversed out of a 30 year cooling trend. The little monster could have been killed in its crib, but it was given shelter and succour and protected from scientific inquiry. As with all science fiction stories, the global warming monster grew up to turn on its creators.
Who protected it, who should have known better? As Australian families struggle with higher and higher power bills, with the respiratory disease load from underheated homes in winter, and all the other afflictions that come from third world-level power reliability and pricing, whose name should they curse? The lefties in both major political parties currently promoting renewables are mindless automata; they really don’t understand what they are doing, most likely don’t care about the consequences and nobody has high expectations of them in the first place. But who knowingly set up the conditions that allowed them to repeat their inane platitudes without being mocked for spouting scientific and economic drivel?
The villain in our story is John Winston Howard, Prime Minister from 1996 to 2007, and this is the backstory of global warming and renewables in Australia. As a student at Sydney University, Howard used to travel across Sydney to sit at the knee of Sir Philip Baxter and be told stories of the wonders of nuclear power. This would have been in the early 1960s. Sir Philip was a UK-born chemical engineer who had contributed to the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge in 1944. He came to Sydney as a professor of chemical engineering and served as chairman of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission from 1957 to 1972. Young Winston soaked up the stories of how wonderful nuclear power will be and promptly shut up about it. He became a one-man sleeper cell of nuclear advocacy, to be activated once the conditions were right.
This story could have had a happy ending but our villain, as Prime Minister, decided to speed things up and create the conditions conducive to acceptance of nuclear power by the Australian public. At this point let’s digress and discuss the merits of said nuclear power. First of all, the Greens are against it. Normally this would be the end of the argument as anything opposed by the vile and loathsome Greens is usually a good and decent thing. But in this instance the Greens are correct about nuclear power as it is commonly understood, which is light water reactors burning U235 in fuel rods. Those things are wasteful, burning less than 0.5 percent of the uranium mined, leave an enormous waste legacy and are inherently unstable. You just can’t turn off a such a nuclear power plant. Because of decay heat as fission products split to become more stable atoms, cooling pumps have to keep working for months to avoid a meltdown or permanent damage. Increased safety requirements with more layers of steel and concrete made the situation worse because the nuclear industry responded by making bigger reactors to maintain economies of scale, in turn making the problem of cooling the reactor core more difficult.
There is a nuclear technology which comes with inherent safety and a minor radioactive waste burden. This is the thorium molten salt reactor. Work on this technology was underway at Oak Ridge, Tennessee in the 1960s. It was killed off by President Nixon and has been resurrected by a Chinese effort at commercialisation. Getting this technology commercialised is absolutely essential to the continuation of civilisation at a high level – because there is nothing else.
Solar and wind power are sold as being renewable and sustainable but they are neither. Consider the implications of the following graph:
Figure 1: Power price in Europe versus wind and solar percentage of consumption
One day all the fossil fuels will run out and power, then 100 percent renewable and sustainable, will cost about four times what it does at the moment at €0.60/kWh (US$0.68). And that is before paying for the battery storage to even out the flows from these intermittent sources. But sticking to the as-generated cost, the only reason 100 percent renewable, sustainable power costs only four times what coal-fired power does is because coal-fired power is used to make the solar panels and wind turbines. If power at €0.60/kWh was used to make solar panels and wind turbines, the price is likely to quadruple again, and so on ad infinitum.
There will not be any civilisation based on renewable energy, because such a civilisation is not sustainable. There is no point in have a renewables component in our power supply; it is a waste of money, and precious time. One former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has declared that the 15 percent renewables target under his government is the correct level. This is a statetment of religious belief, a tradeoff between what the legacy system can stand and the demands of religious observance – in this case the virtue-signalling of an ever higher renewables component in our power supply. The Labor Party has declared a renewables target of 50% which will cement the country’s position of the world’s most expensive electricity. At the same time, Australia is the world’s second-largest coal exporter. The mental gymnastics involved in restricting domestic consumption on moral grounds while exporting hundreds of millions of tonnes of the stuff – are beyond the scope of this paper.
The big picture view of energy is as follows. One third of energy comes from oil at the moment. When that starts running down, liquid fuels will start being made from coal, eventually doubling the coal consumption rate. So instead of coal lasting hundreds of years, people being born today will start seeing the end of coal. And then there will only be nuclear. It will be nuclear or the void of nothingness.
Currently solar panels and wind turbines and the steel and cement to make nuclear reactors are all cheap because coal is cheap. Whether or not we have a civilisation further out depends upon the cost of nuclear power when nuclear is the source of all energy – using electrolysis to split water molecules to make hydrogen to make urea so we can have fertiliser, hydrogen to make liquid fuels etc. Coal and oil were the fossil fuels given to us to take civilisation to a high level, U235 was the fissile isotope given to us as the match to start the nuclear fire which will maintain civilisation at a high level for all eternity. Departing from this will only end in tears and death.
Having established that our villain’s cause was just and righteous, what antics did he get up to that resulted in Australia current sorry state? In 1998, in horse-trading with the Australian Democrats, he established a two percent renewables component in power supply. That just kept increasing of course. On 6th June, 2006, he commissioned an inquiry into the viability of a domestic nuclear power industry. That inquiry concluded that the power price in Australia had to be much higher to justify the adoption of nuclear power. So our villain, our second-rate Machievelli, set out to make power prices much higher.
At the time, Prime Minister Howard had a public stance of being agnostic on global warming. In private he was known to be scathing, correctly seeing it as a fraud. But he continually aided and abetted the global warming industry, culminating in his last dark deed. This was the passage of the National Greenhouse and Energy Reporting Act (NGER) in October, 2007, before losing the federal election the following month. The NGER is the auditing basis of the carbon tax that was brought in a few years later. The idea was to get the paperwork flow settled down and then start taxing.
Howard’s ministers had no idea why he had introduced the NGER. They didn’t ask and he didn’t volunteer. Even Dennis Jensen, who was one of the few Liberal Party MPs to say that global warming was a fraud, voted for the NGER. These people literally had no idea what they were doing and why.
Partly on a promise to repeal the carbon tax, Tony Abbott became Prime Minister in 2013. But a few days after the election he announced that the NGER was not going to be repealed. What the hell? Why keep the auditing basis of the carbon tax if you are going to get rid of the tax itself? Even if the information it generates is not acted upon, the NGER is not some innocent little thing. Tens of thousands of accountants around Australia are employed to meet its demands. All that misdirected effort lowers the standard of living. But sure enough, the carbon tax has been resurrected as “Direct Action” under which people are paid to do things like not burn grass, believe it or not. Yes, Australians have been mesmerised into believing any stupidity that might be concocted.
So we come to the current day. Our villain’s dream of much higher power prices in Australia has become a reality; nuclear power not so much. What is the point of telling such a tale unless it provides instruction and guidance? On the guidance front, we do need to start now on commercialising thorium molten salt reactors because there isn’t much of a margin of safety left. We may have only a few decades to get it right, not generations. On the instruction front, mock, and anything worse you can think of, anyone who uses the words “renewable”, “sustainable”, “clean” and “emissions” with respect to energy and power supply. By using those words, they betray that they understand nothing and that their views are worthless.
Australia now leads by example – of what not to do in power supply. Nations shouldn’t kill their cattle on the advice of simple-minded teenage spiritualists, neither should they destroy their coal-fired power stations on the urging of the current day versions of same.
David Archibald is the author of American Gripen: The Solution to the F-35 Nightmare