Dec 222019
 

No doubt many will have heard about the “bushfire crisis” that has basically been wreaking havoc for the past month. Here in Brisbane things haven’t been too bad, but we’ve had our fair share of smoke haze and things of course are exceptionally dry.

From where I sit, this is a situation we have let ourselves get into. Some argue that this is all because of the lack of back-burning, and to a certain extent this is true.

Back-burning doesn’t make it rain however. The lack of back-burning is a casualty of a few things, partly a lack of firefighting resources, and also significantly, a hotter, dryer climate.

Climate change has been known about for a long time. When I was growing up in the early 90s, the name used was the “greenhouse effect”. The idea being that all the “greenhouse gasses” we were generating, was causing heat to be trapped in the atmosphere like a greenhouse, and thus heating up the planet.

Back then, there didn’t seem to be any urgency to combat the problem.

So, we’ve just continued the way we always have since the start of the industrial revolution. Some things have improved, for instance electric vehicles just weren’t practical then, they are slowly gaining traction.

Large-scale PV generation in the 90s would have been seen as a joke, now we have entire paddocks dedicated to such activities. Renewable power generation is big business now. Whilst it won’t displace all traditional methods, it has an important place going forward.

Yet, in spite of all this progress, we’ve still got people in government, and in big corporate organisations who cling to the “business as usual” principle.

When South Australia announced they were going to install a big battery to help back-up their power supply, the idea was poo poohed, with many saying it wouldn’t be big enough to make a difference. What it doesn’t have in running-time, it makes up for in very fast responsiveness to load changes.

A coal-fired power station operates by using thermal energy produced by burning coal, to boil water to produce steam which drives turbines that in turn, drive electric generators. A nuclear station isn’t much different — the thermal source is the only bit that changes. Geothermal is basically using a nuclear station that mother nature has provided.

The thing all these systems have in common is rotating mass. It takes significant energy to cause a step-change in rotational speed of the turbine. If the turbine is still, you’re going to have to pump a lot of energy in, somehow, to get it spinning. If it’s spinning, it’ll take a lot of energy to stop it. Consequently, they are not known for reaction times. Cold starts for these things in the realm of a day is not unknown. They also don’t take kindly to sudden changes of load. It is during these times the emissions from such generators are at their worst.

Solar is great during the day when it’s fine, but on a cloudy day like today the output is likely to be greatly diminished, and it’ll be utterly useless at night. If we had big enough battery storage, then yes, we could theoretically capture enough during the sunny days to carry us over the nights and cloudy days. That’s a big if.

So I still see the traditional methods being a necessary evil. The combination of all three options though (renewables, traditional generation and battery storage) could be a winner. Let the older stations carry the evening base-load and keep the battery topped up, ramp them down a bit when we’re getting good renewable output, use the batteries to cover the load spikes.

Nuclear could be an option, however to my mind they have two big problems:

  1. Public perception
  2. Commissioning time

Without a doubt, the modern designs for these things has greatly improved on what graced the sites of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima. They generate waste still, but in many cases the half-life and quantity of this waste is greatly reduced. The biggest problem though is public perception, as there are many who will not differentiate between the designs, and will immediately respond: “not in my back yard!”

Even if you could win peoples’ trust, you’ve got a second problem, getting them built and commissioned in time. If we had started in the 90s, then maybe they’d be doing useful things for us now. That boat has long set sail and is dipping over the horizon now.

Transportation is another area where we’re, as a nation, addicted to fossil fuels. It’s not hard to see why though. Go outside a major capital city, and infrastructure for a purely electric vehicle disappears.

Moreover, the manufacturers, stuck in their echo-chamber, don’t see larger electric vehicles as worth the investment.

Back in 2007, my father was lucky enough to win the Multicap Art Union, and so replaced the Subaru stationwagon he’s owned since 1982 with a Holden Rodeo ute (we had the choice between that or Toyota).

This vehicle was chosen with the intent of towing a caravan with it — something he later purchased. The caravan weighs about two tonnes. Yes, an electric vehicle could theoretically tow it, and could even do a better job, but at the time, no such vehicle was available from any of the available suppliers.

To my knowledge, this is still the case. Few, if any of the electric vehicles on the market here in Australia, have the necessary facilities to tow a caravan even if the motor is capable of it.

Then there’s infrastructure to consider. A pure electric vehicle would probably be impractical outside of major regional centres and capital cities. Once you got away from the network of high-power chargers, you better plan for staying a few days in each town where you charge, because it will take that long to charge that battery from a 240V 10A socket!

Diesel-electric though, could be a winner since diesel engines similarly operate most efficiently at constant speed and could drive a generator to charge battery storage.

A return of the gas turbine engine could also be a good option. This was tried before, but suffered from the typical characteristic of turbines, they don’t like changing speed quickly. Poor throttle response is a deal-breaker when the engine is providing the traction, but it is a non-issue in a generator. They run on a wide variety of fuel types, including petroleum and diesel, so could utilise existing infrastructure, and the engines are generally simpler designs.

Is there research going into this? Not from what I’ve seen. Instead, they trot out the same old style vehicles. Many people buy them because that’s all that’s on offer that fulfils their requirements. Consequently this inflates the apparent desire for these vehicles, so the vehicle makers carry on as usual.

The lack of cycle infrastructure also pushes people into vehicles. When I do ride to work (which I’ve been trying to do more of), I find myself getting up early and getting on the road before 4:30AM to avoid being a nuisance to other road users.

In particular road users who believe: “I paid vehicle registration, therefore this road is MINE!” I needn’t waste space on that assertion, the Queensland government raised about $557M in revenue (page 14) from vehicle registration in 2018-19, whilst the DTMR’s expenditure at that time was over $6bn (page 15).

The simple truth is that a lot of these initiatives are seen as nothing but a “cost”. Some simple-minded people even say that the very concept of climate change is invented simply to slug the developed world. We need to get past this mentality.

The thing is, business as usual is costing us more. We’re paying for it big time with the impact on the climate that these emissions are having. Yes, climate does go in cycles, but what we’re experiencing now is not a cycle.

I can remember winters that got down to the low signal digits here in Brisbane. I have not experienced those sorts of conditions here for a good 15 years now. Yes, this is a land of drought and flooding rain, however, we seem to be breaking climate records that have stood longer than any of us have been alive by big margins.

The “fire season”, which is used to determine when back-burning should take place has also been lengthening. It will get to a point where there just isn’t a safe time to conduct back-burning as theoretically every day of the year will be “fire season” conditions.

This is costing us.

  • It will cost us with property being destroyed.
  • It will cost us with work being disrupted.
  • It will cost us with food production being threatened.
  • It will cost us with health issues due to increasing ambient temperatures and air pollution issues.

Lately I’ve been suffering as a result of the smoke haze that has been blowing through the Brisbane area. I recognise that it is nowhere near as bad as what Sydney has to put up with. Whilst not severely asthmatic, I have had episodes in the past and can be susceptible to bronchitis.

On one occasion, this did lead to a case of pneumonia.

About a fortnight ago I started to go down with a bout of bronchitis. I’ve had two visits to the doctor already, prescribed antibiotics and a puffer, normally by now my symptoms would be subsiding by now. This time around, that has not been the case. Whilst the previous bouts have been stress-related, I think this time it is smoke-induced.

I think once the smoke clears, I’ll recover. I am not used to this level of air pollution however, and I think if it becomes the new “normal”, it will eventually kill me. If I lived in Sydney, no question, that level probably would kill me.

This is a wake-up call. Whilst I don’t plan to join the Extinction Rebellion — as I don’t think blocking up traffic is doing anyone any favours, I do think we need to change direction on our emissions. If we carry on the way we are now, things are only going to get worse.