Saturday, 18 December 2010

Queensland solar power: covered in coal soot

I stared at this story for a while, wondering what my response would be.

Then the Government published a media release as well, and I decided to go with: Pathetic, foot-dragging pack of short-sighted hypocrites.

The story is:

Under the definite headline Queensland to host one of the world's largest solar power stations, says Stephen Robertson, the Courier Mail reported conditionally on December 15 that:

Queensland could become home to one of the world's largest solar power stations, Energy Minister Stephen Robertson says.

This tendency to make unjustified, definitive claims in headlines (ie, "lying") is one of my biggest complaints against editorial practices in poor-quality journalism. Bald statements tend to get remembered, and headlines tend to get remembered, so the end result is the perpetuation of inaccurate perceptions. This, particularly in science journalism where a nuanced discussion of uncertainty is paramount, is unnecessary, destructive to an informed public and unforgivable.

But I digress.

The fact is that for a state blessed with wide open spaces and lots of sunlight (anyone not associate Queensland with sunlight? No? Didn't think so), Queensland has been as backwards as the state's reputation, and needs to stop being proud of plans that will barely even catch us up to where we should be.

This is a state addicted to burning things. Electricity generation is built on a platform of coal, and more coal. Even "renewables" production depends heavily on burning things. According to a 2009 report to the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics (ABARE), in 2007 bagasse (sugar cane mulch after the sugar is extracted)  provided a third of all electricity produced in Queensland from renewable means. Surprisingly, hydroelectricity was most of the rest. Biogass and wood pulp contributed and there was a frankly surprising contribution from wind. Solar, including solar hot water heating, barely even registered.

To be clear: Even if you don't accept global warming, a heavy reliance on a finite resource has never been intelligent. Any manager with half a brain plans for things like expansion and increase, and any geologist, geometrician or anybody capable of acknowledging the spherical nature of the earth can tell you that no fossil fuel is available in unlimited supply.

If you do accept global warming, something it's becoming harder and harder for even the obstinately ignorant to avoid, burning agricultural by-products is questionable and burning fossil fuels is asking for trouble we've already started getting.

Nor is it acceptable to hide beyond excuses that "the technology wasn't ready".

Let's recap, shall we: Solar concentration through lenses was achieved BC and the first solar hot water heater was build pre-1900.

The photovoltaic effect was recognised in 1839, exploited in 1883 and explained by Albert Einstein in 1905, for which he won the Nobel Prize.

The United Nations held a conference on solar power in 1961 and spacecraft were solar-powered in 1967 (only the electrics, obviously).

The first solar car race in Australia was run while I was in primary school, and Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed on the White House in 1977 - they were later taken down by Ronald Reagan, who believed that the job of a leader and government is to prevent, at all costs, doing any actual leading or governing.

I believe that governments are elected, and paid out of our tax money, to lead, govern and look to the future. I'm also disappointed in their response to water management, but that's another rant entirely.

At this moment, in Australia, we have companies developing quite exciting concentrating dish photovoltaics,  concentrating dish solar thermal and dye-sensitised photovoltaic solutions in addition to the more conventional solar photovoltaic panels. And that's just what I uncovered in five minutes googling.

Whyalla in South Australia (40MW) and Mildura in Victoria (154MW) are both planning, or even constructing, large-scale plants. Yet the best the Queensland Government can do is a lot of plans, high-sounding words, ambitious statements and a couple of measly little power stations rating in the hundreds of kilowatts. Wizard Power is building a 40 megawatt, 4,000 kilowatt, station in Whyalla, a city a lot further south than the Queensland border. That plant is expected to produce 66 gigawatt hours of electricity each year.

According to that ministerial statement, Queensland's "first solar farm" will produce 335 megawatt hours of energy per year.

The state-government-owned CS Energy is building a solar thermal add-on to a polluting power plant, and it's planned for a capacity of 44MW and all it has to do is pre-heat water entering a coal-fired plant rated at 750MW.

For a state that prides itself on self-sufficiency and is selling itself as "the smart state" and "ClimateSmart" and the "Solar State", there is an awful lot of catching up to do and a deplorable lack of ambition. And that's even before we factor in the fact we export more coal than we burn.

1 comment:

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