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Hanging on to the energy dreams

By Martin Nicholson - posted Monday, 9 May 2011

Christopher Booker recently said in the UK Telegraph: "When we embark on a course of action which is unconsciously driven by wishful thinking, all may seem to go well for a time, in what may be called the 'dream stage'. But because this make-believe can never be reconciled with reality, it leads to a 'frustration stage' as things start to go wrong, prompting a more determined effort to keep the fantasy in being. As reality presses in, it leads to a 'nightmare stage' as everything goes wrong, culminating in an 'explosion into reality', when the fantasy finally falls apart."

Over the last 20 years, the UK has installed more than 3,000 wind turbines at a cost of several billion dollars, in an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Last year, on average, if very irregularly, these turbines generated less than 3 percent of UK's electricity (about 10 terawatt hours), less than the output from a single one of our brown coal power stations in the Latrobe Valley. Yet the UK still plans to spend billions more on offshore wind despite the significant additional cost to the UK electricity consumer.

Australians are in the process of making a similar mistake, hoping to abandon fossil fuels and replace them with energy from wind and sun in our effort to reduce greenhouse gas emission.


Recently, in this journal, we were presented with an opportunity to see Booker's dream theory acted out. Dr Mark Diesendorf has long been a strong advocate for renewable energy and its ability to power all our needs for electricity. It seems clear from his article that he is experiencing the 'frustration stage' as the progress of his dream seems not to match his expectations.

His retort to those who question the ability of renewable energy to meet our needs suffers from some of the same kind of simplistic myths he claims are made by the questioners. The misleading impression that baseload demand is low needs to be considered carefully. Baseload power demand, the minimum continuous level of power to meet all needs in Australia, is roughly 60% of peak power demand and represents 75% of total energy. Hardly low. The notion that this can be further reduced by solar hot water systems in the face of future need for night-time charging of electric vehicles seems rather fanciful. The latter is likely to double household demand, not reduce it.

Certainly there are renewable energy solutions that seem to have the potential for replacing baseload coal, like bio-electricity and hot-rock geothermal. But we need a reality check here. To replace a coal plant with biomass needs a land area for trees that is over 80 times that of an open-cut coal mine. Hot-rock geothermal has been in development for 40 years and we are yet to see a commercial scale plant anywhere in the world.

I share Diesendorf's enthusiasm for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. But with wind limited to a probable maximum of 20-30% and still needing fossil fuel back-up, the limited practicality of large scale bio-electricity and the doubtful prospects for hot-rock technology, I cannot share his dream.

In just nine years time, our government's Renewable Energy Target will require 20 percent of our energy to come from renewables energy sources - most of which will be wind power. This is over 50 terawatt hours of electricity, or five times the total output from all UK's wind turbines. This is wishful thinking indeed; we are still in Booker's 'dream stage'.

As 2020 approaches, the reality will dawn that increasing wind capacity, perhaps at least four-fold, is a fruitless task. Very few, if any, coal power plants will have been closed as a consequence and frustration will set in. Probably the government will be blamed for not mandating plant closures.


But the fantasy will persist. As we see from Diesendorf, there will be more calls for even more renewable energy research and development, and demands for more energy efficiency. The nightmare is around the corner. The extra renewable energy investments will still fail to close sufficient fossil-fuel plant. The improved energy efficiency will fail to reduce energy demand and the fantasy will fall apart.

Perhaps then we will be ready to 'explode into reality'.

Either fossil fuels are here to stay or we have to seriously consider more realistic alternatives than renewable energy. Switching from coal to gas for electricity generation could reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from all sources by 25 percent and help climate change. By itself, this will not be sufficient to reach our 2050 emissions reduction target of 60 percent but it certainly isn't just an energy dream.

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About the Author

Martin Nicholson lives in the Byron Bay hinterland. He studied mathematics, engineering and electrical sciences at Cambridge University in the UK and graduated with a Masters degree in 1974. He has spent most of his working life as business owner and chief executive of a number of information technology companies in Australia. He is the author of the book Energy in a Changing Climate and has had several opinion pieces published in The Australian and The Financial Review. Martin Nicholson's website is here.

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