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*Pic: Flashback to the failure of Basslink showing the gouge in the cable. Basslink was the link to the national grid, which caused Tassie to import diesel generators at enormous cost because damn levels were low. The damaged section of the cable ... - See more here and Here

Australian Energy Solutions Part 1

Some time ago I was invited to a small survivalist’s confab.  These people exist here but are less noticeable than in the US.  We don’t have the NRA and travelling gun shows where they flog camouflage gear with his and hers designer Ruger Mini-14’s. 

But that’s OK; if you are really serious about survival instead of selling it, common sense suggests it’s better to keep your head down than to swan around like a complete f**wit.  They are everywhere in America but in forty years here I only met one.  That was in north Queensland. He was racing around our rural back roads in a freshly camouflage-painted US Army Jeep; dressed in mottled battle fatigues and packing a Colt .45 automatic; after his missing mid-teen daughter who had left the house unexpectedly the previous night and “pissed off into the bush with her boyfriend.”  They were somewhere out there; keeping their heads down, camping or worse.

But here on Tasmania’s central coast all the invitees were modest men; self-styled experts in their field, and we introduced ourselves around the circle in turn and explained what we did and could offer to like-minded people.  One wanted to form a small militia to protect our garden plots from starving townies; already antsy over their eroding welfare benefits who would explode into violent crime when TSHTF and modern agriculture and transport collapsed.

There was a bemused married couple of engineers.  I didn’t know if I really wanted to survive but would demonstrate how to make biodiesel the following Saturday at my workshop if anyone was interested.  Then came a smiling, self-professed ‘ideas man’ with an even better solution to the high cost of fuel.  Apparently people in Mexico were successfully making a 50% diesel fuel and water emulsion which is then treated with a Peter Brock or similar magnetic field device as it is sucked into the fuel injection pump.  For only $5 we could all get the instructions.

Finally there was a software engineer who was converting his home to total energy self-sufficiency.  He had erected a holding tank above his bore and was using a vacuum pump to fill it with water, which would fall back into the bore, powering a turbine that turned both a generator and the vacuum pump to maintain storage volume.  I kept a straight face and asked wonderingly if it worked.

“I haven’t been able to source a vacuum pump that is efficient enough,” he explained.

But don’t stoop to a self-congratulatory chuckle because your education and intellect has placed you above us average clueless, well-meaning Aussie battlers who insist on believing any amount of desirable albeit impossible crazy crap.  Because we all profess to be above average, or at least 90% us do according to surveys and we have elected men and women to high office who know exactly and continually remind us ‘what the Australian people want’ which is ultimately suicidal nonsense but one of which is cheap and reliable electricity. 

And that same software engineer has come up in the world.  He has been appointed to oversee the New Snowy Mountain Scheme and will squander 2 billion dollars of your money (for starters) on a simultaneous National Energy Solution and the all-important Turnbull re-election program.  Meanwhile Tony Abbott wants to keep the Hazelwood power station open until it all happens.  Hazelwood has failed the test of rational economics and this champion of budgetary responsibility is eager to throw yet another $billion of public funds down a rathole by the time it is renovated and the operator makes the usual deal in these cases; passing responsibility for the future demolition and cleanup to the new owners; us.

Tony is a true believer in contradictions.  Human initiated climate change is crap, yet he imagines a triumphalist future when ‘nature shall be brought to its knees’.  There is the virgin birth.  And now ‘Ownership of means of production by the proletariat.’ 

Thankfully there is a caveat on that last Marxist criterion.  Anything public that actually runs in the black must be flogged off quick smart in the interest of budgetary responsibility and efficiency.  So our ex PM isn’t another Marxist ratbag after all, but remains a silent cornerstone of his fractious government; motor-mouthed country mongs versus cunning urban lawyers devoid of moral compass in the minefield of legalities, precedents and the ongoing joint oversight of Jesus and Mammon.

And hey - just kidding about the Snowy appointment.  Relax, smile and breathe a well-earned sigh of relief. It isn’t the software guy, only somebody just like him.  ‘Proven pumping technology’ is the latest party-approved sound bite mantra which you will soon hear as often as the nearly forgotten ‘clean coal’ although that too is resurrected whenever new coal leases are handed out, mines are proposed, or we want to divert public money from actual renewables.  That all this is happening, and that it can happen means there is something ugly under the surface that isn’t funny in the least and it is this. 

As usual we are being gamed and so easily: because you and the grocer and Eric Abetz and Turnbull and Pauline and her Malcolm especially and Kevin and now Bill do not know jack shit about anything regarding engineering or science or economics even.  And although I have done everything in the world from engineering various wonders, teaching science, trading pork bellies, shovelling black crap for Queensland Nickel and brown crap milking cows, milling timber, mulcting fools during high points on the share and real estate markets and being savaged in turn, building hovels and high rises, welding wear plates in ore shoots or operating the same $100 million mills – I don’t know either, but everything is relative.

So where have we gone wrong with the education system?  In a moment of madness it seemed like a good idea to make amends and write a small common-sense course that would set things right, but where to start? Certainly not with eyeball-glazing theory.  So many science and engineering people never manage to figure out the practical aspects anyway even after so many wasted years or they wouldn’t have been. 

So let’s look at the New Snowy with relatively easy and practical back-of cigarette package numbers.  We are offered 2000 megawatts of extra power, enough to power 500,000 new homes after a two or three year construction period costing $2 billion.  Firstly, that isn’t actually an extra power increment, it must mean some increase in gross storage capacity and watersheds with tunnels and short lifts but much of it is relifting spent water using distant renewables and off-peak base load power to make it available at times of peak loads.  “It’s just like a battery!”

Well, not quite. 

A rule of thumb with energy is that with really great engineering you will be lucky to achieve 70% efficiency in any transition.  That means a 30% loss at each stage unless you are charging batteries locally in which case there is a very small loss from transmission, voltage conversion and internal battery resistance and it is calculable as the square of the amperage times the resistance at each stage.  That squared factor is what famously pushed Thomas Edison out of the race to electrify America with his direct current generators in favour of Nikolai Tesla and his alternating current that can be transformed into high voltages (with simultaneously low amperages according to the formula Energy (watts)  = volts x amperes) and sent long distances on the cheap with thin wires and minimal transmission losses.  If you double the voltage and halve the amperage, the squared term means power loss is halved not only once but twice.

Nevertheless the mountains are a long way from wind turbines on the Bight or coal-fired generators in the Latrobe valley.  A 30% power loss on every stage in both directions plus the lift then regeneration means only 25% of the supplied power returns to the Melbourne market at high noon to cool so many sweaty accountants and all that beer.  Batteries on the other hand are charged and discharged close to the power source with efficiencies over 90%. 

And so with the help of experts I have shunned pumping technology and made my home nearly independent of the grid with a water tank (for solar thermal hot water) and a total of 24 solar panels and as many deep-cycle batteries salvaged from the recycler.  They split my main board so the house is off the grid except for a couple of high intermittent loads including the workshop, solar hot water booster, grill/oven and bore pump and I am putting some extra wiring in for optional use on the kettle, toaster and a couple of possible electric heaters for very occasional use. 

There have been too many annoying 30 second blackouts when the inverter is inadvertently overloaded.  So the 12 panels on a grid-coupled earlier inverter installation reduce grid consumption from those items most peak times and continue to generate power into the local low-voltage network which pays for more than my consumption and supply charges.  There is also a cheap garage sale Chinese diesel generator that runs on my own fuel if ever required.  But it is sooty, noisy and stinky and doesn’t burn bio or anything else nearly as nicely as my vehicles. 

The total cost has been about 20 thousand dollars as opposed to $4000 for each of the mooted 500,000 homes worth of energy from the New Snowy. But mine is a done deal, privately funded and finished and I have almost no ongoing outlays, as opposed to the one or two thousand dollars per per annum which those 500 thousand will have always.  A more realistic Snowy timeframe would be 5 -10 years, and another billion on the cost.  Since we are building 50,000 homes per annum, by the end of a decade we will be exactly where we are now, with the exception of the huge new public debt increment.

In Tasmania cooling is required so rarely it hardly exists save as an occasional option for heat-pump owners.  But seasonal heating is essential and I am presently heating with firewood, 8-10 meters per year sourced mostly from my property, but I mean to cut that in half with a digitally-controlled roof heat recovery system which I am building myself.  There is also a servo-controlled valve which closes the roof heat intake in favour of a manual shutter above the wood heater to circulate full time at night.  The total cost will be about $1500 including paying an electrician to connect it all, which in delivered firewood at $80/ meter is a five year payback with much less hard labour and cleaning as a bonus.

And so energy independence and security is possible without pumping water up hill.

If people are making their own power, all the more water can remain in hydro storage dams which gives flexibility in drought and can supply peak power at high prices to the mainland.  If power prices are too high and uncompetitive then over-paid somebodies have made bad decisions which they will have to wear or the market looks elsewhere; which is just how the ‘invisible hand’ of a rational, free market works. 

All this is not a goody-two shoes demonstration that the world is salvageable via renewables, sharing and goodwill. It’s only an exercise in self-interest.  Having every electric appliance (nearly free at the tip shop), swanning around in old beaters burning free vegetable oil, dressed in clothing from the most exclusive tailors via the Salvation Army is still disgustingly affluent, right here at home with the Kardashians* as far as most of the planet’s 8 billion people are concerned. 

If their middle-class affluent dreams were realized and they had it already, they and we wouldn’t because all that arctic post ice-age methane would have been released and our teeming masses and small modicum of relative affluence would all be in the past; the now like in the Cormac McCarthy novel ‘The Road.’  Would/will a few survivors band together to make a wise new society that would conserve what was left and rebuild a new society?  Darwinian theory suggests otherwise; only the most cunning and vicious psychopaths – in uniforms, suits or the robes of holy orders would call the shots and the dumb, subservient or merely wise would fall into line on track to the new promised land.  Kind of like right now.

And if only those who could did it now it wouldn’t be possible either.  We would be enjoying Great Depression #2.  No free vegetable oil, it would ALL be eaten with rest of the cuisine along with any drippings in a world of empty shopping malls, soup kitchens, and 80% unemployment.  The ignorant would continue to breed which wouldn’t be a bad thing as China and every other totalitarian society including the democracies would move against their neighbours, so directing the rancour of the hungry masses away from their own fattened leadership.

But for now energy independence and security is possible without pumping water uphill. Small low voltage local distributors are very efficient and wide distribution of some generation capability could help secure the system which is not the case when you are transmitting power hundreds of kilometres over high voltage feeders as we have just seen in South Australia. 

Although Aurora isn’t happy and all kinds of noise is being made about solar systems cutting into the profits of privatised corporations that’s too bad.  If people are making their own power, all the more water can remain in hydro storage dams which gives flexibility in drought and can supply peak power at high prices to the mainland.  If power prices are too high and uncompetitive then over-paid somebodies have made bad decisions which they will have to wear or the market looks elsewhere; which is just how the ‘invisible hand’ of a rational, free market works.

• *Thanks to Satyajit Das who amongst other things performed the Ruddian impossibility of predicting the GFC.  I knew too but didn’t get the $900 as I had a paralyzed leg from a work injury and hence no tax return that year, nor the ability to stimulate the economy by the purchase of another Chinese flat screen TV, all of which had been far less predictable.  Das’ recent and very worthwhile talk on ABC radio may be accessed at …
• If you are interested in survival, monetary, financial or otherwise this is the best thing in a long time.

Energy Solutions Part 2 will examine natural gas and clean coal.

*George Smiley is a retired artist (with a grandson in Canada) who lives on a small holding near Stowport (North-West Coast).  He occasionally gives money to Get Up and Greenpeace, keeps busy with any number of both practical and artistic projects. Presently fixing up a couple old diesel cars, reworking the action on a 12 string guitar in spite of an occasional finger joint lost to rheumatoid arthritis, and planning exploratory work on intaglio prints.  “Old age takes everything eventually but it is of no consequence against the ongoing destruction of the world”. He has a blog at