Home > Environment > The race for a low carbon economy: A form guide

The race for a low carbon economy: A form guide

September 12th, 2009

If, as I think is now possible, the Copenhagen summit leads to an agreement to reduce CO2 emissions substantially in the next decade and to very low levels by 2050, we will need to replace, or do without, a lot of energy currently derived from carbon-based fuels. It’s probably a good time to take a look at the main contenders for achieving this. Here’s my form guide. (I’m not going to give lots of links – Wikipedia is, as usual, a good place to start).

Efficiency: Often ignored or left until last, but improvements in energy efficiency will probably be the most important single response to the imposition of a price on carbon. Across a wide range of activities there are 50 per cent gains to be had at low cost, as can be seen by comparing the average energy-intensity of most activities (cars, lightbulbs, industrial processes) with the most energy-efficient commercial option. For example, the average fuel efficiency of the existing Australian car fleet is estimated here at 11litres/100km, but there are a wide range of vehicles that use half that, and plenty of options that use even less. Given some mixture of price incentives and regulation it should not be hard to achieve similar savings in most activities. In the transition to low or zero emissions, we can also make some big efficiency gains in the way in which we use carbon-based fuels, most obviously by shifting from the worst such sources (brown coal, oil from tar sands) to the best (gas and other hydrocarbons)

Substitution: Even less commonly mentioned, but again a favorite if we get a serious carbon price. For most energy-using activities there are easily available low-energy substitutes: warm clothes for home heating, cold beer (or iced coffee) for air conditioning, public transport for cars, communications for transport in general. People don’t like talking much about this because the debate is dominated by two polar opposite viewpoints: that we should consume less of everything, or that we must never reduce consumption of anything. In fact, though, over the last century we’ve consumed more of most things, but not of everything. To give just one example, although we consume more of most kinds of health services, house calls by doctors have disappeared and lengthy stays in hospital have become so expensive that they aren’t offered except to those who absolutely need them. As relative prices change, we consume more of things that are cheaper and less of things that are dearer.

Offsets: There are a bunch of these, but reforestation is the big one, probably big enough to reduce atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 50-60 ppm over a century or so.

Zero carbon energy sources: These are usually discussed first, but I’ve left them until (second) last to make the point that we shouldn’t think about replacing all existing energy use with new sources. There are a lot of options and a fair bit of uncertainty about all of them, but it seems reasonable to expect that, if we give a general price incentive and put a bit of money into each of them, at least some will pay off. Here’s my list.

Hydro: Well established but not much capacity for growth

Geothermal: Exists on a small scale already and this could be expanded with modest technical progress. But the contribution will still be relatively modest. The big obstacle is the need for transmission lines from locations to markets: we need technical innovations to reduce costs and changes in market institutions that tend to discourage investment

Carbon capture and sequestration: The horse Australia would most like to see win, since a cheap and effective CCS technology would mean that we could declare the problem solved and go back to mining and burning all the coal we have. The capture part seems feasible, but there’s not much to suggest that the difficulties of underground sequestration are going to be resolved any time soon. If CCS is going to be an option, my guess is that its going to have rely on something like using the captured CO2 to grow algae. This is probably also the most promising route to biofuels. I haven’t seen much on the economics of this – any good sources

Biofuels: Technically feasible, but since most biofuels either use food crops as inputs or compete with food crops for land, they can be economically and ethically justified on a large scale only if we can achieve increases in productivity big enough to feed a growing population and have a surplus output large enough to use for fuel. I’m less optimistic about this than I once was, but it’s important not to over-react to the brief upsurge in food and fuel prices a year or so ago. Commodity markets are highly volatile and short-run movements are not a good guide to the long term.

Nuclear: In the Australian context, talk of nuclear power (for and against) is mainly political pointscoring. Even with a big government push behind it, it would take decades for Australia to build up the kind of regulatory, technical and educational infrastructure we would need for a substantial nuclear industry. And realistically speaking, we aren’t going to move until some other developed country shows that it’s possible to start a nuclear program from scratch or at least, restart a stalled program. The leading candidate is the US, which has been pushing a ‘nuclear renaissance’ since the Energy Act of 1992 and particularly since the Bush II administration came in nearly a decade ago. So far, all they have to show for it is a dozen or so proposals, mostly at existing sites. From what I’ve seen it’s unlikely that more than a handful will be in operation by 2020, which puts a large scale resurgence of nuclear power off until 2030 or later. Of course, as has long been true, nuclear plants will continue to be built in countries with a military or national pride motive, but that kind of thing is a dead end as far as any real contribution to global energy needs is concerned.

Wind: already commercially viable or nearly so in lots of places, and bound to become even more significant once carbon prices start rising to $50/t or higher. The big issue raised by critics is variability of supply. That hasn’t proved to be a problem in jurisdictions with up to 20 per cent wind. Given smart metering (and automatic processes capable of responding to higher prices by lowering energy use) this proportion could probably be raised to 40 or 50 per cent, and with storage, even further.

Solar (photovoltaics and thermal): I used to think this technology was a long way off being a serious contender, but recent progress has been striking. As long predicted, the shift from small-scale specialty production to large scale industrial processes has produced big cost reductions with no obvious end in sight. In particular, the industry has ended its reliance on the semiconductor industry as a source of cheap offcuts for silicon, and has been forced to develop low-cost processes specifically designed for solar cells. Assuming a good outcome from Copenhagen (and no breakthroughs on CCS), I predict that by 2020 most new electricity generating capacity will be either solar or wind, while more coal plants will be closing than opening.

Last of all, there are a variety of geoengineering solutions to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. As I said recently, these are a long way off, but could be important after 2050.

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  1. Rationalist
    September 12th, 2009 at 16:22 | #1

    What about Waxman Markey? If that fails the race will not start in the first place.

  2. Alice
    September 12th, 2009 at 16:37 | #2

    We have millions of sunny roofs in this country – there is no reason why solar shouldnt work. If the damn govt in the 1950s could build the Snowy scheme why cant they invest in getting the solar panels into production. They would if they had any sense of planning ahead for this country at all…instead of planning for the next election and tit for tatting amongst themselves.

  3. gerard
    September 12th, 2009 at 16:47 | #3

    About a year and a half ago, out of curiosity, I attended a CSIRO “workshop” at UQ on the challenge posed by climate change and resource depletion and the alternative energy sources that were available. About an hour into the proceedings it had become clear that the entire event was just a PR exhibition for CCS technology and all the miracles that we could expect out of its thirty-year research program. The other ‘alternatives’ were hardly mentioned. I know it’s just a little anecdote, but it really impressed upon me how concentrated Australia’s research dollars are going into this one technology at the expense of all others.

  4. Hermit
    September 12th, 2009 at 16:59 | #4

    Some technologies on this list aren’t showing signs of forging ahead, nonvolcanic geothermal and flue gas algae for example and I think we should give them just five years to achieve prime time. With carbon sinks like forestry there is the moral hazard of letting ourselves exaggerate the amounts, timing and reliability. The economics of solar, both PV and thermal, have been discussed at length on the BraveNewClimate website. Wind penetration >20% seems to be hitting diminishing returns in several countries and I haven’t heard that smart metering will help. The problem is maintaining 230v, 50 Hz to most users.

    With nuclear a couple of options are to start tomorrow or wait til build times reduce. We might have to get the Chinese to build them for us. I think as oil goes back to $150 a barrel that Australians will prefer natural gas cars to plug in Prii. After a few years that could mean reining in LNG exports.

  5. jquiggin
    September 12th, 2009 at 17:00 | #5

    McCain-Lieberman got 43 votes in a much more Republican Senate. If the Dems are willing to make this a majority-vote budget reconciliation bill, they should have no trouble getting to 51. It’s pretty clear they will need to do this on health care, which will probably come up first.

  6. jquiggin
    September 12th, 2009 at 17:23 | #6

    I’ve only had a quick look at the posts by Peter Lang but they seem to be an economics-free zone, driven by engineering assumptions derived from the coal industry, and therefore favorable to nuclear (in essence, the assumption that the ideal power supply system is one with constant output). If there is any role for the price mechanism, I didn’t see it.

  7. September 12th, 2009 at 17:53 | #7

    Here are some good internet resources:-

    - Robert Raper’s R-Squared Energy Blog;

    - the Thorium Energy Blog; and

    - the Nuclear Green Blog.

    On “Even with a big government push behind it, it would take decades for Australia to build up the kind of regulatory, technical and educational infrastructure we would need for a substantial nuclear industry” – er, no. It would probably only take on the order of a decade. Unless that was a point that folded in issues of political will? That’s open ended and can’t practically be quantified at all.

    There are genuine synergies to be had, e.g. start with coal and/or gas to liquid (the Fischer-Tropsch process, as used by Sasol), then switch to using nuclear for its energy inputs and biomass for its feedstock as those become convenient. The first (non-Green) phase is justifiable for Australia on other grounds anyway, in my view.

    As for “Carbon capture and sequestration: The horse Australia would most like to see win, since a cheap and effective CCS technology would mean that we could declare the problem solved and go back to mining and burning all the coal we have”, this is a solved problem because you don’t need to sequester CO2 as such, you only need to take CO2 out of the atmosphere/stop it entering the atmosphere. It’s just that most Greenies won’t like the answer and it conflicts with “Biofuels: Technically feasible, but since most biofuels either use food crops as inputs or compete with food crops for land, they can be economically and ethically justified on a large scale only if we can achieve increases in productivity big enough to feed a growing population and have a surplus output large enough to use for fuel”.

    This solution is, continually grow lots of fuel crops (ideally nitrogen fixing woody plants), make charcoal out of it as efficiently as is cost effective, and then stockpile it, bury it (you can get a “twofer” if you have a use for Terra Preta and make that) or sink it in watercourses or at sea so that it escapes weathering by moisture in the presence of sunlight (the only natural process that recycles the carbon short of the geological cycle). Any power equipment or processes should be modified to run off gasifiers fuelled by part of the crop, or to use the crop itself more directly if possible, so as not to lose on the fossil fuel roundabout what the sequestration swings gain (there would be no logistical problems with this particular biofuel use). Even repeated burn offs would do something towards this. I have actually seen a statement by one relatively level-headed Greeny that suggested that this approach was the only practical way to sequester enough carbon fast enough, starting from here (assuming that the CO2/global warming situation really is as represented), which shows someone independently coming to the same conclusion as I did on the matter.

  8. September 12th, 2009 at 18:00 | #8

    To get Waxman-Markey through the Senate, they may need 60 out of 100 votes in order to bring about “cloture” and avoid a filibuster. To ratify a Copenhagen treaty, they will need 67 Senate votes.

  9. Hermit
    September 12th, 2009 at 18:06 | #9

    JQ I’ve seen the key conclusion replicated on several websites that nuclear works out half the capital cost for the same reliability. That is wind and solar need to be overbuilt several times and connected with expensive new transmission since all future energy storage options will be expensive. In defence of ignoring demand elasticity I wonder if it has limited effect for households at least. If you want toast at 7 a.m. on Tuesday you don’t leave it til Friday when the spot price of electricity is expected to drop. When it’s 40C you want the air conditioner on. Time-of-use pricing beyond water heating may not repay the equipment costs.

  10. Rationalist
    September 12th, 2009 at 18:24 | #10

    @Peter Wood
    JQ mentioned using reconciliation but I don’t know if that will work well with respect to Senate procedure. It depends a lot on the Senate Parliamentarian and his personal discretion on procedure. If he refuses to allow Waxman Markey/health care bill be reconciled the procedure reverts to a 60 vote supermajority (same as for cloture).

    You can fire the parliamentarian and replace him (or her) with 50 votes + Biden but there are a lot of liberal Democrats who are sticklers for ethics and procedure who would not support this (since many would associate it with Bush era Republican dirty tactics, which this essentially is).

    The parliamentarian also has the ability to poke holes (essentially line by line) in bills for reconciliation, which doesn’t help.

  11. Ken
    September 12th, 2009 at 21:25 | #11

    Is the Australian energy sector even over it’s entrenched denialism? Will it turn out to be just as reluctant to embrace nuclear as embrace renewables simply because they refuse to acknowledge the need to change how they do business? Without that sector really on board, without it’s genuine committment we’ll get CCS in maybe 3 to 4 decades and more coal plants in the meantime – or nuclear in maybe 2 or 3 decades and more coal and maybe some gas plants in the meantime.

  12. Glenn Tamblyn
    September 12th, 2009 at 22:36 | #12

    Efficiency is the big sleeper issue. A root and branch efficiency drive through every part of our society can deliver surprising results since the energy chanin is usually efficiency * efficiency * efficiency * efficiency.

    Also major drives to reduce other greenhouse gases could produce more benefit than we might think. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gase but is relatively short lived. Again, a root and branch cleanout of Methane sources throughout society might deliver surprising results.

    However, the key perhaps is the policy framework to deliver root & branch changes in anything, a ‘go through it like a dose of salts’ approach. Unfortunately the more likely policy approach is will probably be ‘we will have a policy on X, then we will provide Y Dollars in funding’ and we will do a bit.

    Governments are mired in the mindest that they have a policy (lots of words, whoopee), legislate (more words and a lawyers feast), fund, then step back.

    Perhaps part of the answer to what we need to do is the legacy of the NeoCon revolution needs to be sidelined. In times of peace, the private sector does, and governments get out of the way. In times of war, the private sector is pushed to the margins, and governments Do.

    With the threat that climate change poses, is this a time of peace or war?

  13. jquiggin
    September 12th, 2009 at 22:49 | #13

    @Hermit “’ve seen the key conclusion replicated on several websites that nuclear works out half the capital cost for the same reliability.”

    Most errors are replicated on multiple websites nowadays. The facts on the ground (or, in the case of nuclear, the absence of facts on the ground) don’t support these claims.

  14. Alice
    September 12th, 2009 at 23:50 | #14

    We have more than a million roofs here bouncing the sun away every day. If solar cant be done in Australia it cant be done anywhere….we need to be the change to lead the rest of the world. Why on earth do we need nuclear here when we could have the best solar in the world……investment is needed here….if we could build the snowy mountains scheme we can ivest in solar. Its couldnt be that hard (or is it the pressure from coal fired electricity oligarchs doing us out of a simplem obvious solution …or is everone thinking astill about how the mighty few can be enticed to fund the investment..?? To hell with the mighty few – we can all invest in it.

  15. Alice
    September 12th, 2009 at 23:54 | #15

    We really are not getting to the essence of the change needed. Its not about the price needed to attract private investment in alternative enery sources…..thats crap. We can do it with all our taxes and we can have the power we want…
    The rest of the argument re pricing is secondary to the dangers we all face.

  16. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 13th, 2009 at 06:26 | #16

    Barry Brook and Peter Lang figure that solar is about 20-40 times more expensive than solar if you are looking for a complete energy replacement solution. This costing assumes that solar needs a storage option and extra transmission.


  17. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 13th, 2009 at 06:37 | #17

    And realistically speaking, we aren’t going to move until some other developed country shows that it’s possible to start a nuclear program from scratch or at least, restart a stalled program. The leading candidate is the US, which has been pushing a ‘nuclear renaissance’ since the Energy Act of 1992 and particularly since the Bush II administration came in nearly a decade ago.

    What we do doesn’t matter much. However both India and China seem to be embracing nuclear. China recently ordered four Westinghouse AP1000 nuclear reactors. These are 1GW generation III+ reactors.

    Australia ought to start reforming it’s nuclear regulatory environment now to make it clear that we will accept nuclear plants if the terms are right.

  18. jquiggin
    September 13th, 2009 at 08:02 | #18

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    As I’ve said, I don’t buy the assumptions underlying this analysis, which seem to an amplified version of the baseload demand myth.

    On your other point, China is doing lots of everything, including solar on a scale larger than the nuclear orders you mention.

  19. Michael of Summer Hill
    September 13th, 2009 at 08:19 | #19

    TerjeP (say tay-a), if methane accounts for around 14% of all global GHG missions, and methane emissions from coal mining account for around 9% of global anthropogenic methane emissions wouldn’t it be more sensible harnessing methane than going nuclear?

  20. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 13th, 2009 at 08:44 | #20

    MoSH – you could do both. However I suspect the reason we don’t already capture and use methan relates to cost.

  21. Michael of Summer Hill
    September 13th, 2009 at 08:56 | #21

    TerjeP (say tay-a), if methane is 21 times more effective at trapping than the sun’s heat then how can it be more expensive?

  22. Rationalist
    September 13th, 2009 at 09:44 | #22

    @Glenn Tamblyn
    Efficiency is fantastic, in fact I would say that that the vast majority of Australian energy intensive industry is already at worlds best practice w.r.t efficiency.

    An economist talking about economics is all well and good, an economist talking about grid engineering which miraculously supports his political argument w.r.t energy policy… not so much :) .

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)
    Don’t forget the massive expansion of coal fired power.

  23. jquiggin
    September 13th, 2009 at 10:02 | #23

    “in fact I would say that that the vast majority of Australian energy intensive industry is already at worlds best practice w.r.t efficiency.”

    And this opinion, contradicted by the experts I speak to and by basic economics (since energy is cheap here, one would expect it to be used more intensively) is based on how many years of intensive study?

    “An economist talking about economics is all well and good, an economist talking about grid engineering… not so much ”

    which is why I talked about the mistaken economic assumptions being made by engineers writing about grid economics. My only contribution on grid engineering

    The big obstacle is the need for transmission lines from locations to markets: we need technical innovations to reduce costs and changes in market institutions that tend to discourage investment

    If you want to use a name like “rationalist”, you should read and think a little more carefully before you write.

  24. September 13th, 2009 at 12:06 | #24

    Not that I don’t want more trees planted but a talk I had recently with a researcher in carbon sequestration left me with an impression that we need an awful lot of trees to make a measurable difference to global CO2 and the need (besides lots of trees) is to start planting them yesterday. I was wondering if anyone is aware of any data that indicates the quantity of trees we might need to obtain the a reduction of 50-60ppm?

    Its good to see the pro-nuclear lobby alive and as reasonable as ever.

  25. jquiggin
    September 13th, 2009 at 12:08 | #25

    I don’t have a number, but the rough answer is “enough to reverse all the deforestation of the past century”, or, more simply, a lot.

  26. Fran Barlow
    September 13th, 2009 at 15:48 | #26


    Doubtless, John, the need to run coal plants more or less continuously to make them cost effective and do on-demand power does skew the patterns of energy usage, but I wonder if you are overstating the amount of demand shifting that would in practise, be politically acceptable.

    Can renewables shoulder even the part of the burden that is not amenable to load shaving and would be left over after efficiency had been substantially improved at acceptable cost? At this stage, one would have to doubt that, even in a country such as Australia.

    There is also, John, something of a distinction between what in theory might be viable if everyone were reasonable in their expectations of the electricity supply system and what politicians would rather avoid people talking about. It is most doubtful that any politician will, on the altar of renewables, allow an opponenet to claim that we are exposed to the risk of blackouts or even brownouts. That plays very badly indeed. Now personally, I’d be willing to accept the occasional brownout/blackout during the hours after dusk if it was caused by excessive reliance on intermittent power — provided it’s not too long, my perishables will be OK, resetting the clock on the microwave is no biggy and missing the last half of Burn Notice isn’t going to kill me. I can imagine that if it did, I’d get some batteries for the roof to tide me over. But I’m not most people. Most people rate the government on how well the basic services — water, power, hospitals, education, the police are provided. If the power goes off then the government is to blame.

    In this context, and bearing in mind trhe comparatively high cost of effectively dispatchable renewable power there can be absolutely no doubt that old coal plants will be replaced with newer coal plants (or in the case of Victoria, old coal plants will be extended). No government will say that they are replacing a plant like Hazelwood with 4GW of installed wind (about $6.4 billion) or 1.5GW of wind plus 1.5GW*10 days of storage because the cost would be even greater.

    And of course gas plants are more expensive to operate, which means everyone’s power bill rises can be blamed on the government — and they still ouptut something like 50% of the GHGs of coal.

    It would make a lot of sense to remove all the direct and indirect subsidies to coal and to impose upon them the full community cost of burning because then aluminium smelting would either go some place else (like Iceland which does this 100% renewable), pay up and allow us to compensate with mitigation measures or clean up its act. Much of the rationale for Hazelwood is the subsidy it provides to aluminium. Hazelwood accounts for 5% of Australia’s GHGs, yet only about 5000 people are employed in smelting in Australia. Last I heard the subsidy amounted to about $250,000 per job. Obviously, the scope for a generous redundancy and retraining package is considerable.

    It seems to me that even allowing for the outrageous mark up on building nuclear plants associated with each being a project-based design, it’s probably still cheaper in life cycle terms per unit of power delivered than any renewable. Certainly the marginal costs per KwH of running the plants are lower than coal, so how good they are at load following probably isn’t that important. A modest augmentation in storage and the replacement of our oldest coal fired capacity nuclear would be a huge step forward for this country.

  27. iain
    September 13th, 2009 at 16:27 | #27

    Hydrogen fuel cell technology seems out of favour? As are the fabled GM bugs/bacteria that are supposed to off-gas hydrogen for us cheaply.

    Co- and tri-generation (probably just a creative step above what is listed) is also promising.

    ESCOs will also proliferate in a carbon constrained economy.

  28. jquiggin
    September 13th, 2009 at 17:02 | #28

    “It seems to me that even allowing for the outrageous mark up on building nuclear plants associated with each being a project-based design, it’s probably still cheaper in life cycle terms per unit of power delivered than any renewable.”

    Investors don’t seem to be making that calculation, even with big US subsidies for nuclear.

  29. plaasmatron
    September 13th, 2009 at 17:11 | #29

    Algal CCS is a potential winner on many levels. Apart from the advantages over pumping CO2 into underground storage chambers (which is a rediculous proposition) piping the output of coal-fired power stations through large growth ponds, regulating the temperature of the water to optimal growth temperature, and providing lots of sunlight are not difficult options (the iggest issue in Oz would be securing a good water supply). The ethanol production option outlined in John’s link is a good one, but much easier and potentially better for Australia is to simply use the algae as biomass to improve soil organic content (ie fertiliser) which can replace crude oil derived fertiliser and has the added advantage of improving the water retention of the soil. Win, win, win for australia. Since we are never going to get our act together and manufacture or value add (to) anything in Oz then supporting the coal mining and agriculture industries would seem like research dollars better spent than on PV IP which can be ripped off by our northerly trading partners.

  30. Glenn Tamblyn
    September 13th, 2009 at 18:23 | #30


    The killer is all the smaller inefficiencies in the total energy chain. And Energy Intensive induistries are only a small part of that. Its line losses, poor plant maintenance, pipe friction losses, motor inefficiency, patterns of usage that are driven by factors other than efficiency. Planned obsolescence practices that leads to needlessly inmefficient products because there is no cost justification for better efficiency, our throw-away society that wastes all the embodied energy of all the wasted products. I can’t comment on how close to Worlds Best Practice Australia is, but Worlds Best Practice is light byears away from Best Possible Practice – read some of Amory Lovin’s opinions on this.

    But even so, the key issue is adequate political engagement from the political classes. The embracing of the idea that the role of Government is actually to govern the place, not just have policies. We elect governments to act for us, we don’t elect the private sector.

  31. Rationalist
    September 13th, 2009 at 18:28 | #31

    @Glenn Tamblyn
    A lot of what you say is sound however the last line caught my eye.

    I would say we do in fact elect the private sector, we do so with our money and investment.

  32. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 13th, 2009 at 18:34 | #32

    JQ – where do you stand on electricity price regulation?

  33. Socrates
    September 13th, 2009 at 18:37 | #33

    Regarding transport, certainly we can get more efficient cars – hybrids are a good place to start. These can later help transition to electrics. Plug in hybrids can also be a clever way to store renewable power too.

    However ultimately we must reduce energy sued in freight (35%) and air (5%) transport which together make up about 40% of transport energy consumption. For those the task is more difficult, especially diesel trucks. We are going to need to revert to greater use of long distance rail freight (could eb electric) and coastal shipping. Remote farming areas reliant on truck transport are in real trouble. It isn’t just food miles. It takes more CO2 to get a tonne of fruit from the Ord River to Melbourne by truck than cheese from Holland by ship.

    We could do a lot ot make rail more competitive by regulatory reform. We don’t even have common standards for trains and carriages.

  34. Alice
    September 13th, 2009 at 18:38 | #34

    And while we all debate a la Ratio whether we have gained efficiencies…try living in Goulburn where the Pejar dam is so low the sewarage pipes failed and they have been on the highest water restrictions for five years…and they (the residents of Goulburn) ask what comes next…they cant put a fork in their garden beds the soil is so dry and compacted…and they ask what comes after level five? is that when the water trucks have to roll into town or they are forced, with a twist of emon to drink their own….
    Then look at every town west of the great dividing range that is in the same situation…talking about recycling sewerage…

    And then ask WHY??? WHY??? are we still subsidising the filthy greedy mining industry that is going to bankrupt all of us..???

    I dont give a damn about mining. I really couldnt care less. There are millions across Australia who need investment in some sort of water access and instead we subsidise the coal miners..

    Only one word appropriate…totally PUTRID governments.

  35. Rationalist
    September 13th, 2009 at 18:50 | #35

    Mining on balance is good for you, good for me and good for everyone. Jobs, wealth, exports, what is not to love? I admit there are some minor environmental concerns but they pawl in comparison with the greater economic good.

    Wow, all of this “greater good” stuff is making me talk like a social democrat!

  36. Socrates
    September 13th, 2009 at 18:50 | #36


    regarding hydrogen fuel cells, they are nowhere near commercial use in cars. One trial in London with a delivery company was quietly abandoned. Unreliable, unserviceable and potentially unsafe. Plug in Hybrids and electrics are by far the most feasible option now for the majority of urban transport. Electric batteries are heavy so there is no good option for long distance freight, hence my comment on rail vs road.

  37. Socrates
    September 13th, 2009 at 19:09 | #37

    Just for comparative information on transport efficiency, here are some relative stats on fuel usage (Ml/tonne-kilometre) for different freight modes:

    Air 165
    delivery truck 100
    semi trailer 22
    B double 16
    Container train 1.5
    Ship 0.2 to 0.3

    So why don’t we only use rail and ship? Because the cost of handling is still a large factor in transport. Also transport cost is often only 10% to 20% of production. Hence price signals alone won’t stop some “bad” behaviours.

    Rationailst 22
    If you believe all our sectors now are worlds best practice then I can safely assume you are not an engineer. We are not even close.

  38. Ikonoclast
    September 13th, 2009 at 19:26 | #38

    My take on JQ’s points.

    1. Efficiency. Yes, this is a big ticket item. Fifty percent savings with minimal reductions in living standards and general amenity are eminently possible.

    2. Substitution also promises big savings. In terms of amenity, positives might outweigh neagatives. For example, using one’s feet or the bicycle instead of the car for short trips would have siginficant health benefits.

    3. Offsets are “dodgy brothers” territory. Too much room for rorting and too many complaince and moral hazard issues. Reafforestation is much needed but better treated as separate ecological issue with no claims being made re carbon offsets.

    4. Zero carbom renewable energy sources are another big ticket item. If Australia cannot provide 50% of its electricty generation from solar, wind and tidal in say 15 years then we just aren’t trying.

    5. Carbon Capture and Sequestration is total lie by the coal lobby. It will never work It is economically unfeasible due to the high energy overheads in CC&S. The safety of reservoirs is open to question. Remember prevention is better than cure. It’s better (safe and cheaper) not to generate the CO2 in the first place rather than to try CC&S.

    6 Hydro, good but I agree there is little room for growth.

    7. Geothermal may have some good potential in Australia but perhaps not globally.

    8. Biofuels are an energy sink not an energy source unless someone can develop algae to make biofuels from waste. Certainly we can’t use food for biofuels as one it will decrease food security and two that process is an energy sink in any case.
    Land areas required for any biofuel production are prohibitive in any case.

    9. Nuclear might be viable but very expensive and probably too dangerous. Nuclear fuels in any case are exhaustible just like oil. But fine, put a true cost on CO2 emissions and on insurance for nuclear accidents and withdraw all subsisdies for fossil and nuclear and see what happens. The rapid phasing out of both I would wager.

    10. Wind and Solar covered above in renewables but more please, much more. I might be accused of a monomania here but I want to see Giant Solar Convection Towers up to 1000 m high producing power for our cities and industries.

  39. silkworm
    September 13th, 2009 at 19:37 | #39

    There are a few things that should be added to the list. Algal CCS has already been mentioned, but deserves another plug. Another form of CCS that deserves investigation is soil carbon. Wikipedia has a mediocre page on carbon sinks, and mentions soil carbon capture through grassland management, but the entry lacks any reference. The leading advocates of this appear to be Holistic Grasslands Management of the USA. They claim that properly managed grasslands can potentially sink many more times carbon than rainforests. An Australian professor has also claimed that properly managed grasslands can also sink substantial amounts of methane. Then there is the use of biochar as a carbon sink. Also zeolites.

    The other biggie that no one dares mention is zero population growth, but we have to face it sooner or later. The best way to achieve this is to give women control over their own bodies, and to give women social security so that they will not require to have a large number of children to work the family business.

  40. Alice
    September 13th, 2009 at 19:37 | #40

    Stuff mining jobs Rationalist – if we had half a brain we tell the mining companies like BHP and RIO to pay what they pollute or move their operations elsewhere…. then damn well invest in the infrastructure we need to get the hell out of this climate mess….that would create jobs too…new clean jobs.
    I dont give a damn about dirty jobs…smelting here employes a measly 5000 people across Australia as Nanks or someone mentioned before.

    Let them pay their own damn way…if we can afford to subsidise big coal we need to get our heads around subsidising useful clean industries that wont cost us an arm and a leg and many lives to fix up their problems later. Id rather see every BHP worker on the dole and BHP gone, to be perfectly honest, rather than see them on the teat of our taxes, to look after a few at the cost of many…. They can go to Finland or hell…

  41. Alan
    September 13th, 2009 at 19:58 | #41

    Does anyone have a plausible estimate of the PR budget Australian coal miners have set aside to make sure that coal sales continues to grow over the next decades?

  42. Rationalist
    September 13th, 2009 at 20:01 | #42

    Haha, these companies are a massive positive contributor to taxation revenue and despite whining and complaining from socialists, both political parties with any power think these companies are fantastic.

    Think about aluminium smelting, would you prefer if we did it here with worlds best practice efficiency or would you prefer it done overseas with poor emissions standards, bad safety practice (a socialist in the comments mentioned “exploitation”, if anything can be described as that it may well be this).

    One way or another, despite objections from some on the far left, all governments are going full steam ahead with mining and mineral operations. Gorgon gas, doubling coal exports, iron ore, uranium. Should this be analysed for environmental impact? Yes, is this occurring? Absolutely.

  43. Rationalist
    September 13th, 2009 at 20:02 | #43

    No idea, I think the coal PR is a laugh. But then again, they don’t really need PR to sell bucketloads of coal.

  44. Alice
    September 13th, 2009 at 20:14 | #44

    Simple Rationalist – when we get more employment out of McDonalds or Pizza delivery drivers or electricians or plumbers …than aluminum smeltering across Australia…Frankly Id rather have a big Mac fully plugged in and plumbed (and thats saying something given what I think of the nutrition value..)

    Yiou just dont get it do you? Its NOT all about mining and is pathetic we have governments who think thats all we can do……

    Poor desperate fools.

  45. Rationalist
    September 13th, 2009 at 20:17 | #45

    @Alice :P

    I like having government on my side :) .

  46. Alice
    September 13th, 2009 at 20:19 | #46

    Thats the trouble Ratio – it aint on your side…

  47. Alice
    September 13th, 2009 at 20:20 | #47

    “smiley” – thats the best I can manage technologically speaking…

  48. Rationalist
    September 13th, 2009 at 20:22 | #48


    “Victorian police have arrested 22 climate change protesters at a Latrobe Valley power station today.

    Hundreds of activists have marched through police roadblocks at the Hazelwood power station, demanding it be shut down.”

    Police doing their job nicely.

  49. Alice
    September 13th, 2009 at 20:26 | #49

    oops – I meant that smiley for you Ratio – I really hate to be the one to shatter your dreams of a government being on your side…by siding with BIG miners (and bloody well using our taxes to subsidise the filthy bullies…)

  50. September 13th, 2009 at 20:28 | #50

    Ikonoclast at 38: I agree completely with your point 9. What the nuclear fan club always neglect to mention is why it is necessary to continue the US Government imposed cap on total insurance payout in the event of a disaster at a nuclear power station.
    A report prepared for Greenpeace International by Helmut Hirsch, Oda Becker, Mycle Schneider, Antony Froggatt in April 2005 called “Nuclear Reactor Hazards. Ongoing Dangers of Operating Nuclear Technology in the 21st Century” provides a thorough and well-referenced guide to the problems for nuclear power stations, including the much-vaunted Generation 1V reactor designs and the danger of terrorist attacks.
    Before the nuclear proponents scoff at a report prepared for Greenpeace, they should check the credentials of the authors, which are detailed on page 4 of the report.
    The report has some interesting (and scary) things to say about nuclear power station safety as they age, as well as details of actual problems at nuclear power stations from extreme climate events.

  51. Rationalist
    September 13th, 2009 at 20:35 | #51

    I wouldn’t trust anything by Greenpeace.

  52. Donald Oats
    September 13th, 2009 at 21:08 | #52

    Feeding and watering the plants involved in such massive reforestation might be the fly in the ointment. In many areas of Australia the summertime temperatures are too hot for trees to transpire – I’m not sure of all the reasons why, but at least one of them is to stop water loss – and the shut their stomata. If the overnight temperatures stay above 30 or so degrees, the trees may remain in this state. Certainly a lot of work has been carried out on matching plants to anticipated climate, but there are some local climates that are toxic for all but a handful of adapted plants.

    One possibility is to provide drip water to trees in the more arid areas and to have decent vegetative ground cover to the greatest extent possible. If the plantations is sufficiently elevated and relatively close to the coast, a combination of desalinisation and pumping of water uphill could be done with wind turbines. Water that has been pumped up to the plantation could be stored for later use either as plantation water or for electricity generation by dropping it down through a generator. If the water is ponded at the bottom it may be re-used as storage by pumping it back up at a later time.
    Whether the cost of all this, and the sheer labour-intensive nature of getting so many plants to fully establish, matches up with the imposed cost upon carbon pollution, I don’t know.

  53. September 13th, 2009 at 21:23 | #53

    If you would not trust anything by Greenpeace, then surely you are not a Rationalist. Try Climate Change Sceptic (or Denier). I venture to suggest you would trust a report commissioned by Peabody or Exxonb-Mobil, though.

  54. John Davidson
    September 13th, 2009 at 21:29 | #54

    Agree with most of what you say. However, don’t agree with the constant assumption that we have to put a price on carbon. It would be smarter, for example, to use regulation to drive down the average fuel consumption of new cars instead of increasing the price of fuel. Historically most of the reductions in emissions have been acheived by regulation so it may be smarter to see using price increases as the last resort instead of the first option.
    Simarly, potential investors in clean technology are looking for price and sales guarantees and don’t really care what happens to the price of the dirty alternative. Only putting a price on the clean alternative means that the average price only ramps up slowly as the proportion of clean product increases. A lot more price effective than raising the price of all electricity high enough to make the clean alternative competitive.

  55. Fran Barlow
    September 13th, 2009 at 21:45 | #55


    Consider this JohnL:

    If there were no cap and there were a disaster in excess of $US9.5billion, what are the odds that the damages would be paid? The companies could and would just declare bankruptcy. Price Anderson ensures that the whole industry takes a share ensuring that only damage that in practice would not be recoverable from any business is carried by the state.

    The airlines did not carry 9/11 liability and still don’t, even though that was far more foreseeable and likely than the kind of catastrophic damage implied in the compaints over the P-A cap. No business can reasonably be expected to cover every remotely conceivable confluence of events involving catastrophic loss. Should the promoters of a major cultural or sporting event have to carry liability for someone choosing the event to release sarin gas? Of course not. Yet this is orders of magnitude more likely than the kind of loss we are talking about with proiperly regulated contemporary nuclear plants. TMI caused $70million — less than 1% of P-A and almost all of it in losses to business.

  56. Ken
    September 13th, 2009 at 22:07 | #56

    I think gas might have a role as backup to renewables but not as a replacement for coal; about the time we’ve replaced the coal burners the next stage of emissions reduction will be emanding more reductions than gas can deliver. We need to be getting serious about renewables of course and that hasn’t happened yet. The no pain policy is leaving us with no policy; understand the seriousness of the issue and expensive energy doesn’t seem too much.
    Let’s at least get a price on carbon but I don’t believe it will be enough. No doubt nuclear will become the major part of our energy production. I suspect a concience vote right now would get an in principle decision to allow nuclear power, bypassing the green-left on this. Actually I think nuclear could be where the Greens and mainstream Australia part company; a lot of small ‘g’ greens are already rethinking their position on nuclear, the maybe possibility of more weapons proliferation versus the looming certainty of climate change and the absolute requirement for real, rapid and sustained reductions of emissions… if it takes nuclear to see the coal plants shut down the risks may be acceptable to mainstream Australia.

  57. Isabella
    September 13th, 2009 at 23:00 | #57

    This is unrelated to this story… sorry, I really wasn’t sure where to post this. It’s not spam though.
    I was just wondering to the writer of this blog, doesn’t it depress you writing about politics all the time? Isn’t it frustrating, standing by, year after year, watching new people come and go and effectively nothing change. It’s frustrating that there is so many people in the world and yet our power is all tied up in like 20 people per country (or in some cases far less)… I’m sorry I know this is unrelated to the story, but it just depresses me so much and I was wondering as a writer (or as a commenter if someone else is reading this), how you felt?

  58. Michael of Summer Hill
    September 13th, 2009 at 23:25 | #58

    Isabella, welcome to the social democratic forum. Here we are all one big happy family Labor, unionists, greens, and conservationists. We are not racist and/or sexist and I sure JQ will go out of his way to help any depressed liberal and/or libertarian.

  59. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 13th, 2009 at 23:50 | #59

    Isabella – it is called stalemate. Nobody wins.

  60. Rationalist
    September 14th, 2009 at 06:00 | #60

    Sure, they know what is cracking :) .

  61. Michael of Summer Hill
    September 14th, 2009 at 06:45 | #61

    Crikey John, thanks to the Coalition for sitting on the fence all these years Australia is now in a weak position of any industrialised country in a clean energy world. The G20 Low Carbon Competitiveness report has Australia as the “lowest ranked” major industrialised country in terms of its ability to generate material prosperity for its people in a world that limits greenhouse gas emissions. Drongos.

  62. Fran Barlow
  63. Michael of Summer Hill
    September 14th, 2009 at 07:11 | #63

    John, today CFMEU president, Tony Maher, has made a bit of a goose of himself by going against the ACTU and others pushing for a green jobs campaign. He fails to understand that Australia has an international obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and is out of step with the rest of the world. Thumbs up Southern Cross Climate Coalition.

  64. Glenn Tamblyn
    September 14th, 2009 at 08:35 | #64


    The big issue with the so called Hydrogen Economy is where you get the stuff and how you handle it. Hydrogen needs to be seen as a an energy storage medium, like a battery. And like a battery, one of the most important characteristics you judge it on is efficiency – how much of the energy you are storing in it is wasted. And as long as existing hydrogen production technologies are how we obtain it, then the answer is most of the energy is wasted.

    Also, Hydrogen can be nasty stuff to handle. Because it is so light you need to operate at quite high pressures to store meaningful quantities in reasonable volumes. Hydrogen, since it is just a proton and an electron, leaks through metal quite easilty – not through cracks but straight through the metal. And Hydrogen burns with an invisible flame – Firefighters are trained to walk with a broom or similar held out in front of them if they are dealing with a hydrogen fire, to avoid walking into the flame

    The Hydrogen Economy is an idea that has been around for some time and unfortunately probably isn’t a great idea. It really was thought of when the dominant paradigm was ‘new fuels’ rather than the broader idea of new energy sources.

    On the point about electricity grids, distance to market etc. High Voltage DC can be used for major trunks and is much more efficient than AC, and the distance to market issue only seems particularly important in Australia with our few large cities and geography. In many countries, markets and energy sources are far more intermingled.

  65. Glenn Tamblyn
    September 14th, 2009 at 08:50 | #65


    “Assuming a good outcome from Copenhagen (and no breakthroughs on CCS), I predict that by 2020 most new electricity generating capacity will be either solar or wind, while more coal plants will be closing than opening.”

    Here’s hoping on the Solar/Wind front. Sometimes it is nice to see dreams come true.

    On an agreement from Copenhagen, getting an agreement is one thing, seeing what is agreed actually being delivered is another. And most of the assumption behind any carbon pricing type of approach is that such an indirect approach will deliver the results required. There will be a hell of a lot of people out there looking for clever ways to rort/fudge the system – offsets that aren’t, clever financial engineering etc

    What would really focus the minds of everyone would be making the CO2 target levels absolutely binding. On this date CO2 levels will be X, non negotiable. And we will shut down power plants for example to make that happen if necesary. Obviously political fantasy land.

    My expectation is that we will get a moderate outcome from Copenhagen, but China in particular won’t be bound by limits; working hard to improve their performance yes which they are doing now, but not limits. The Chinese have already indicated that they wont sacrifice the improvement of their peoples standard of living for climate targets. Then progress towards the agreed targets will be slow to take off, hit legislative hurdles and generally proceed but not as fast as hoped.

    So I disagree with you John that most new capacity will be S/W by 2020, unfortunately. 10 years is too short a time frame. 20 – 30 years from now, yes they will be roaring away.

  66. Fran Barlow
    September 14th, 2009 at 10:03 | #66

    Ken said:

    a lot of small ‘g’ greens are already rethinking their position on nuclear

    And some big ‘g’ Greens as well … see for example.

    The four leading environmentalists who are now lobbying in favour of nuclear power are Stephen Tindale, former director of Greenpeace; Lord Chris Smith of Finsbury, the chairman of the Environment Agency; Mark Lynas, author of the Royal Society’s science book of the year, and Chris Goodall, a Green Party activist and prospective parliamentary candidate.


    None of the four was in favour of nuclear power a decade ago, but recent scientific evidence of just how severe climate change may become as a result of the burning of oil, gas and coal in conventional power stations has transformed their views.


    The long moratorium on building nuclear power plants in Britain came about largely because of intense lobbying by environmentalists in the 1970s and 1980s – a campaign that may have caused more harm than good, Mr Lynas said.

    “In retrospect, it will come to be seen as an enormous mistake for which the earth’s climate is now paying the price. To give an example, the environmentalists stopped a nuclear plant in Austria from being switched on, a colossal waste of money, and instead [Austria] built two coal plants,” he said.

  67. Fran Barlow
    September 14th, 2009 at 10:31 | #67

    From the link:

    Freeways had also reduced fuel efficiency, Dr Mees said. “If you drive at 110 km/h, you use more fuel than if you drive at 70 km/h.”

    And that goes double for driving stop-start between 0 & 10kph from the outersuburbs

  68. John Quiggin
    September 14th, 2009 at 10:32 | #68

    My position on nuclear power hasn’t shifted since the 1980s. I’m not opposed, provided it’s safe (ie modern design and with no cutting of regulatory corners), not tied to any military program, and cost-efficient. The first two can be delivered more or less, but the third is a long way off.

    More recent converts to this position seem to me to be overoptimistic about costs.

  69. Crispin Bennett
    September 14th, 2009 at 11:03 | #69

    @Isabella: John Gray got it about right in Straw Dogs. The situation is depressing to the extent that one clings to ‘progress’ as more than a contingent and reversible possibility. We’re all heir to that illusion, at least intermittently, it seems, but it has become, paradoxically, more prevalent in recent times with the Right (neo-conservatism, End of History, etc), and less with the Left (with the death of utopian socialist hopes). Though there was certainly something messianic in the hopes heaped on (and courted by) Obama.

    But on the other hand it only looks like ‘nothing changes’ if you do cling to radical and permanent change as the only type worth attaining. Lots of things are getting better in many ways (and lots worse), but the transformations are contingent and fragile.. Indeed they’ll all reverse at some stage (tragedy is inherent), but that hardly makes them lacking in value to current beneficiaries.

  70. carbonsink
    September 14th, 2009 at 11:51 | #70

    Meanwhile, back in the real world…

    Coal booming despite emissions

    INVESTMENT and production in the coal industry are galloping towards record highs, in stark contrast to moves in Australia’s biggest export market to shift towards cleaner fuels.

    As Japan – which buys nearly half of Australia’s coal exports – pledges heavy cuts to its greenhouse gas emissions, a coal investment boom is driving domestic production to new peaks.

    Over the next five years Australia’s total coal production is set to bulge by 30 per cent to a record 450 million tonnes a year, compared with 350 million tonnes produced now, according to the energy consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

    Yay Australia!

  71. Hermit
    September 14th, 2009 at 14:07 | #71

    I think the obvious answer is if the coal customers won’t cut back we should cut it for them. Henceforth all coal customers get 2-5% less a year. Or perhaps an arbitrary 15% tariff on their finished goods if they won’t accept coal cuts.

    Sometimes I think the coal industry is having a quiet chuckle at us pale, medium and dark greenies. Anna Bligh has apparently given the unofficial nod to a power station that promises to be ‘carbon capture ready’. She obviously doesn’t watch Four Corners. China wants to dig up chunks of the Liverpool Plains with the full blessing of the NSW government. China incidentally will want to import a lot more coal as it has apparently sucked Vietnam dry. Good old Oz will help out as always.

  72. Crispin Bennett
    September 14th, 2009 at 14:14 | #72

    @carbonsink, @hermit
    Can you imagine any possible world in which (a) our ruling elite will do anything to jeopardise the profits of Big Coal and/or (b) our population will permit any more than the fig-leafiest of reductions in our voracious energy use to be encouraged (let alone mandated) by government policy. Without violence or some unforeseen shock, I really can’t. The issue’s surely an animatronic duck.

  73. BilB
    September 14th, 2009 at 14:24 | #73
  74. carbonsink
    September 14th, 2009 at 14:56 | #74

    @Crispin Bennett

    Earlier I posted a dark and doomerish rant along these lines that seems to have got sucked into moderation. Hopefully PrQ deems it worthy of publishing.

    To put that in perspective:

    China’s installed coal-based electrical capacity was 484 GW, or 77% of the total electrical capacity, in 2006

    …and growing at (say) 10% p.a. or ~50GW p.a. Even 2GW is a drop in the ocean.

  75. BilB
    September 14th, 2009 at 15:16 | #75

    What I suspect that you will discover here, CS, is that where China can install 1 coalfired power plant a week, they can also install a CSP plant a week, once they get under way. Meanwhile, Australia has done nothing….except talk…and talk. But good on you, there, for solid gold negative thinking.

  76. Hermit
    September 14th, 2009 at 15:39 | #76

    I think it is fair to say the Federal government and each of the States is in the siren call of cheap fossil energy, either coal or gas. South Australia and Tasmania have a lot of wind and hydro but in reality are utterly dependent on interstate coal. The problem now if there is a Federal double dissolution who to vote for. The ALP says all the right words but does nothing, the Libs will have nuclear on top of undiminished coal and the Greens will find themselves unable to achieve their utopian ideals.

    However the stakes are getting higher. So far the public has shrugged off ominous climate signs. If a shocking weather event occurs comparable in local terms to Katrina in the US then the knives will be out. I’ll start the ball rolling by suggesting that it would be an embarrassment for Rudd to go to Copenhagen.

  77. carbonsink
    September 14th, 2009 at 16:25 | #77

    But good on you, there, for solid gold negative thinking

    Show me something to be positive about and I’ll be positive.

    Its good to see the French introducing a carbon tax, on top of their world-beating efforts in terms of GDP per tonne of CO2 emitted. Perhaps there’s something to be said for nukes and diesels?

    One wonders why Sarkozy feels this is necessary given that Europe has an ETS in place (perhaps because its made b*gger all difference) but good on him for pushing through with it, even with the French Socialists now campaigning against it (shame).

  78. BilB
    September 14th, 2009 at 16:29 | #78

    I hate to say this, JQ, but this..

    “‘use CO2 from coal power plants to’ grow algae. This is probably also the most promising route to biofuels”

    is a non starter, because even though it sounds logical, it still leads to the release of the CO2 to the atmosphere but with perhaps at best a 2 month delay and a small second bite at the CO2 cherry. Whereas it is true that this might offset fossil oil consumption to some degree, this is a short term gain as oil consumption is required to be phased out along with the coal.

    But grow algae by all possible means, using atmospheric CO2 as the feed stock. Still somewhat problematic today, however. I suspect that algal production is a more logical partner to the thermal tower generation proposals or wind power generation sites where airflows are consistent.

  79. Fran Barlow
    September 14th, 2009 at 16:49 | #79


    I disagree BilB — assuming (which I don’t yet) that algal biomass could be harvested to produce alcohol- and lipid-based liquid fuels (eg starch-to-butanol, lipid-to-biodiesel) at prices competitive with petroleum there would still be fewer carbon miles in the fuel than that imported and extracted from oil wells elsewhere. Not only that, there are fugitive emissions of methane from all of these wells, which would not attach to algae. There would also be fewer oil spills and of course there would be a reduction in other undesirable emissions.

    There are some vehicles that don’t lend themselves all that readily to electrical energy – heavy transport vehicles such as refrigerated trucks, commuter buses, heavy shipping and of course aircraft, so a liquid fuel product might be very useful. Running serial hybrid vehicles with this as the other fuel would also be sensible, at least until we get serious range out of pure EVs.

    Initially what I’d like to see is algae used primarily to strip out CO2 from the air, dried and then sequestered permanently. With the right carbon price — about $100 per tonne, this would be feasible. Once the infrastructure to do this is in place, then the marginal cost of diverting some of this to do fuels wouldn’t be that great.

  80. BilB
    September 14th, 2009 at 18:00 | #80

    That is exactly what I said, Fran. The part you have missed is that using CO2 from coal fired power plants to grow the algae saves nothing from an environmental CO2 point of view. At best it extends the life of the oil to some small degree.

    Algal growth from atmospheric CO2 is what is required.

    Algae are going to do the last part on their own. As the oceans warm, massive algal blooms will become all too common place choking many small seas and waterways.

  81. September 14th, 2009 at 19:32 | #81

    BilB :
    Algae are going to do the last part on their own. As the oceans warm, massive algal blooms will become all too common place choking many small seas and waterways.

    Maybe I’m wrong but isn’t this the theory that underpins the historical creation of oil? Warm oceans stagnant oceans as a result of diminished ocean currents? Its pretty obvious that’s where we’re headed since nothing realistic is going to be done. We could have alternatives but until there is a realistic price on dumping CO2 into the atmosphere, a price that reflects what we have to do to reverse the problem or mitigate the consequences, then we are pretty much stuffed. But the economy will be ok.

  82. Stephen Gloor
    September 14th, 2009 at 21:36 | #82

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    I tried to show how flawed that analysis was by only mentioning Solar PV and assuming ridiculously low CF for solar based on one PV plant in Queanbeyan. It should not be used in any discussion as it has no real basis in fact.

    Solar thermal with storage can give 24X7 power to underpin wind and other forms of renewables. Baseload power stations are hopefully a thing of the past as they are inflexible dinosaurs from the Victorian era. We have progressed beyond these.

  83. Stephen Gloor
    September 14th, 2009 at 21:38 | #83

    @Stephen Gloor

    The link to the comment I was referring to did not come out as I expected. I was talking of course about the ‘paper’ Barry Brook posted on Brave New Climate by Peter Lang on solar power.

  84. Alan
    September 14th, 2009 at 22:16 | #84

    The coal and oil industries can marshal vast sums of money. They can buy op-eds, commission movies, pay shills, fund politiccal parties and spread fear and doubt about methods to mitigate global warming. And they will do so until there is no oil or coal left to burn.

  85. Ben
    September 14th, 2009 at 22:20 | #85

    I’ve been a strong advocate of energy efficiency measures since reading Factor Four. However, I was recently introduced to Jevon’s Paradox, which says that making things more efficient also makes them cheaper to run and so we may run them more. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jevons_paradox. Can someone reinstate my faith in energy efficiency?

  86. Alice
    September 14th, 2009 at 22:52 | #86

    Ben…how can I reinstate your faith in energy efficiency when I have lost faith in the use of the term efficiency?. Its a much overrated expression that has been used to justify many destructive, unproductive and entirely wasteful decisions…

  87. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 15th, 2009 at 05:07 | #87

    It looks like James Hanson is in bed with that evil aussie proponent of nuclear power, Barry Brook. See the members list for the SCGI:-


  88. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 15th, 2009 at 05:11 | #88

    I tried to show how flawed that analysis was by only mentioning Solar PV and assuming ridiculously low CF for solar based on one PV plant in Queanbeyan.

    I don’t think you succeeded.

  89. Rationalist
    September 15th, 2009 at 06:39 | #89

    300 years of black coal, 800 years of brown coal. Something like that.

  90. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 15th, 2009 at 07:26 | #90

    700 years of fuel for a world powered by Integral Fast Reactors if we use nothing more than existing stockpiles of nuclear waste.

  91. September 15th, 2009 at 07:34 | #91

    Fran Barlow: I have considered all the points you make and find them unconvincing. This quote comes from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission Fact Sheet on Nuclear Insurance and Disaster Relief: “The Price-Anderson Act, which became law on September 2, 1957, was designed to ensure that adequate funds would be available to satisfy liability claims of members of the public for personal injury and property damage in the event of a catastrophic nuclear accident. The legislation helped encourage private investment in commercial nuclear power by placing a cap, or ceiling on the total amount of liability each holder of a nuclear power plant license faced in the event of a catastrophic accident.”
    The NRC therefore contradicts your claim that “No business can reasonably be expected to cover every remotely conceivable confluence of events involving catastrophic loss.” It says unequivocally that the P-A Act was designed to ensure that adequate funds would be available for compensation in the event of a catastrophic accident, meaning the possibility of a catastrophic accident was recognised and provision made for it.
    You say: “The airlines did not carry 9/11 liability and still don’t, even though that was far more foreseeable and likely than the kind of catastrophic damage implied in the complaints over the P-A cap.”
    Oh, really. More than a decade before the Price-Anderson Act the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima had shown the terrifying potential of the results of a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power station. Perhaps you could advise how many examples there were of terrorists taking over commercial airliners and crashing them into a skyscraper before 9/11.

  92. Charles Peterson
    September 15th, 2009 at 08:01 | #92

    Why do we let the greatest drug pushers of all time, the fossil fuel pushers, get away with it? The CO2 externality is looking to be the greatest destructive externality of all time (though we can’t yet say that won’t turn out to be the fallout from the use of nuclear weapons). Unfortunately, by the time the bill comes due, the corporations and most of their historical backers will be largely gone. At minimum their corporate charters ought to be rewritten to prohibit political meddling.

  93. TerjeP (say tay-a)
    September 15th, 2009 at 08:07 | #93

    The bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were not nuclear power station accidents. That example is like wanting to ban civilian airplanes because Hitler used airplanes to attack London in WWII. Or more accurately it is like wanting to ban steel because steel is sometimes used to make weapons. At best the example simply says that nuclear power stations should be designed differently to nuclear bombs, which is kind of self evident.

  94. Crispin Bennett
    September 15th, 2009 at 08:09 | #94

    Charles: “we” let them get away with it in part because it’s what “we” want (which is not to say that the elites would permit changes were they to become widely desired). Australians are largely aware of the likely consequences of their choices, and make them anyway. Look at the fuss that occurs over minor changes in petrol prices. We want: cheap petrol, cities clogged with 4WDs, 24hr a day air conditioning, and leaf-blowers; and we won’t let little things like massive rents in the global fabric prevent us from getting them.

  95. September 15th, 2009 at 09:29 | #95

    TerjeP: What is it about the statement: “More than a decade before the Price-Anderson Act the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima had shown the terrifying potential of the results of a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power station” that you do not understand?. It is a similar potential with a nuclear bomb as a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power station (both involve releasing dangerous levels of radioactivity, which happened with the Chernobyl nuclear power station accident). I am sorry that you cannot grasp the concept that a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power station could have a similar terrifying potential for the populace as an atomic bomb attack. Just to refresh your memory the it is the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission which said the Price-Anderson Act was designed to ensure that adequate funds would be available to satisfy liability claims of members of the public for personal injury and property damage in the event of a catastrophic nuclear accident (at nuclear power stations). So you see TerjeP, it would help if you understood what is being said before making inane comments and proceeding to ridiculous comparisons.

  96. Fran Barlow
    September 15th, 2009 at 09:42 | #96


    Perhaps you could advise how many examples there were of terrorists taking over commercial airliners and crashing them into a skyscraper before 9/11.

    To the best of my knowledge, there wasn’t one. That doesn’t make it unforeseeable to security professionals of course. Using planes as missiles started with the Kamikazes and with the advent of large scale suicide terrorism in the 1980s it was only a matter of time before people started trying it.

    This reference is telling:

    The first solid evidence of terrorists planning to crash a hijacked jet into a strategic target was the Air-France hijacking by the GIA (December 1994). It was discovered that the terrorists had intentions to crash the jet into the Eiffel Tower after having first landed in Marseilles. This argument is based on the fact that the terrorists demanded the refueling of the Airbus jet with 27 tons of fuel when only a third of this amount was needed for the short flight from Marseilles to Paris. In addition, one of the terrorist leaders later admitted that, indeed, the intention had been to crash the jet into the Eiffel Tower.

    See also the discussion here

  97. Fran Barlow
    September 15th, 2009 at 10:07 | #97

    @JohnL and also your later postRe: catastrophic

    You seem to be all over the place here. The word catastrophic is not a precise term. The US government under Price-Anderson thought it meant up to $9.5 billion, but presumably would have agreed that damage in excess of this would not have been non-catastrophic. Let me assure you that a nuclear attack on a city similar in force to Hiroshima or Nagasaki would today cost a lot more than $9.5 billion to remedy. Last I heard, the US was allowing $US5.8 million for one human death alone so the maths on 100,000 dead (and the costs of treating the survivors) dwarf that.

    More than a decade before the Price-Anderson Act the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima had shown the terrifying potential of the results of a catastrophic accident at a nuclear power station

    You refer to Chernobyl, and I would agree that this was catastrophic, but here, as far as can be told, about 50 people (mostly first responders) have died, and it may well be that eventually, a lot more (perhaps 4000) will die prematurely. See for example, this report. Parts of Belarus, Ukraine and elsewhere have suffered contamination. Interestingly, the absence of human activity from some affected areas has meant a recovery of local wildlife …

    Prohibiting agricultural and industrial activities in the exclusion zone permitted many plant and animal populations to expand and created, paradoxically, “a unique sanctuary for biodiversity.”WHO

    But Chernobyl did not explode like an atomic bomb. It caught fire and because there was no containment structure, there was a free air release of dangerous actinides. No plant would ever be built this way again, or run in the way Chernobyl was.

  98. Stephen Gloor (Ender)
    September 15th, 2009 at 10:37 | #98

    @TerjeP (say tay-a)

    “I don’t think you succeeded.”

    Partly because Barry shut down the discussion with cries of “Ender Fatigue”.

    Solar is NOT 20 times more expensive than nuclear in any reasonable analysis. Solar PV is not the whole gamut of solar power and is not representitive of the utility scale solar power that is coming online now.

    Barry got the answer that he wanted to support his increasingly polarised views on nuclear. I am also pretty sure that when JQ was referring to recent converts underestimating the cost of nuclear he was referring in part to Barry.

  99. Tim Peterson
    September 15th, 2009 at 10:50 | #99

    pressurized water reactors, which are used for power generation in the US, cannot go critical and cause a nuclear explosion. If they start to go critical, it causes a conventional, steam explosion which snuffs out the reclear reaction.

    All you need is a large, strong containment vessel to prevent a catastrophy.

  100. jquiggin
    September 15th, 2009 at 10:53 | #100


    As Crispin says, politics is pretty depressing if you are looking for radical and rapid transformation. But if you think of it as working hard (the “slow boring of hard boards” is one descripton) to make society a little bit better,it can be rewarding. It helps if you have a naturally optimistic outlook, and can focus on the wins rather than the losses. In my own case, for example, I played a role, maybe not crucial but useful in keeping the Tasmanian electricity in public ownership and in getting an extra year of schooling in Queensland, among other things.

    As a comparison, doctors don’t (in the main and as far as I can tell) get depressed about the fact that all of their patients are going to die in the end. As long as you can help a bit along the way, that ought to be enought.

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