Category Archives: technofixes

2 April 1978 – Australian Coal Association starts having conferences…

On this day 39 years ago, the first Australian Coal Conference began in Surfers Paradise, Queensland.  2 – 6 April 1978.

These shindigs, which happened every second year, would continue until 2000.  Climate change got a super-brief mention in 1988 (the conference happened in April) and a heckuva lot more coverage in 1990 (with the usual mix of denial and technology will fix it). The conferences hosted scientific luminaries like Fred Singer and Pat Michaels too. The industry, which saw these conferences as a chance to sniff out deals and schmooze, finally got fed up with a (to them) excessive focus on climate policy after the 2000 conference, and the Australian Coal Association stopped having a conference.  Other outfits (Coaltrans for example) took up the slack a bit…  But that’s for another day…


Also on this day –

In 2001, a day after John Howard sent a ‘good on you mate’ letter to George ‘hanging chad’ Bush, his Federal cabinet went ‘heh heh, yeah, me too’.

“A string of federal ministers, led by Prime Minister John Howard, voiced support for the US position following the March 29 announcement by Washington that it would not support the Kyoto Protocol. Federal cabinet decided on April 2 to support the US decision. The government declared that it will not ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless the US does.”

Meanwhile, The April 2 Age 2001 printed an article by Ray Evans from the Lavoisier Group, in which he stated: “President Bush has shown courage and provided world leadership by announcing that the United States will not support the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. What is baffling, however, is that some senior members of the Australian government do not seem prepared to immediately lend support to Bush. In the interests of good policy and good science, they should do so.”

March 24, 2004 – “Coal 21” plan launched

On this day in 2004 the Coal21 national plan was launched

It had been knocking about for a bit – see this

Hennessy, C. 2003. Future Of Coal Looks `cleaner’. The Newcastle Herald,13 September

ANY “sunset” scenario for the Hunter’s coal industry would be a cleaner one, industry leaders said yesterday.

Using Coal21, a paper put together by the state and federal governments as a starting point, panellists looked at whether the billion dollar industry had a use-by date a “sunset”.

NSW Minerals Council executive director John Tucker said many in the industry believed the move to more diverse energy sources would start to occur in big numbers in 40 to 50 years.

and was part of the whole “technology will fix it, if it is in fact a problem” mentality which is still alive and quivering in 2017, at least in the more scientifically illiterate corners of the Coalition parties and its cultural supporters.

The plan itself, which talked about a voluntary levy on coal exports to fund research into ‘clean coal’, was attacked

Day, A. 2004 Coal research `just a hand-out. Australian Financial Review, 25 March.

Taxpayers will fund half the coal industry’s initial research into greenhouse gas reduction in a move environmentalists and opposition parties say is “corporate welfare” that focuses too much on non-renewable energy sources.

Federal resources minister Ian Macfarlane said the government would pay $500,000 to the coal industry’s research into lower-cost sequestration the storage of waste carbon dioxide in saturated underground rock and other methods….

Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett said the decision to subsidise coal industry emission research as part of the government’s COAL21 project was corporate hand-out at the expense of regulatory and market-based measures.

“Low-emission coal technology cannot achieve the deep cuts that are necessary to ensure Australia is able to shoulder its share of the burden for reducing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases,” he said.

The ALP and Greens also condemned the plan as unbalanced and undermining renewable energy solutions.

and then defended

O’Neill, M. 2004. Coal industry’s plans to clean up its act should not be lightly dismissed. Canberra Times, 30 March.

And only two years later, when climate change “burst” onto the Australian public policy did that levy kick in. And even then… ah, but this is for another day…


Also on this day- 

1990 Federal Election – climate barely mentioned, but Libs did have stronger policy.  Not that it did them any good…

“The backlash against environmentalists began very publicly on election night. Peter Walsh launched a bitter attack on them from the tally room, attempting to deny any influence they might have had on the outcome. He was joined in later weeks and months by a number of Cabinet ministers, largely but not exclusively from the economic portfolios, but careful evaluation of that election result makes Walsh’s assertion untenable.

Malcolm Mackerras (The Australian, March 1, 1993) summarises the result well: on the primaries, the Coalition had 43.5 per cent to Labor’s 39.4 per cent, the Democrats 11.3 and others 5.8 per cent.

However, Labor’s environment second-preference strategy was so successful that the two-way party preferred vote became 50.1 per cent for the Coalition and 49.9 per cent for Labor (which just fell over the line to win in seats).”

Toyne, P. 1993. Environment forgotten in the race to the Lodge. Canberra Times, 8 March p. 11.

1995  The Australian  published (page 10) a story by Julian Cribb with the title  Greenhouse theory ‘still uncertain’. It began –

AUSTRALIA’S top science bodies say much uncertainty remains over greenhouse warming predictions despite claims by Argentinian researchers that Antarctica’s ice shelf has begun cracking up.

Current increases in global temperature cannot be linked with certainty to human action, the Australian Academy of Science and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering caution in a joint report released yesterday.

That report?  Simon Grose of the Canberra Times reported the following day

Grose, S. (1995) Industry seeking energy solutions Canberra Times Sunday 26 March


The report has the backing of a steering committee with representatives from a wide range of organisations including the Institution of Engineers and the World WideFund for Nature, the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Business Council of Australia, BHP and the Department of Environment Sport and Territories.

I have a copy somewhere. Doubtless depressing-with-the-benefit-of-hindsight stuff… Oh well…

2011 legislation was “introduced for a carbon offset to create incentives for carbon avoidance projects in the land sector: The Carbon Credits (Carbon Farming Initiative) Bill 2011 creates the Carbon Farming Initiative which is the first scheme of its kind globally.”


“Mine is bigger than yours” – penis envy, emissions and energy storage #auspol

It’s another one of those weeks where the news cycle is dominated by climate change.  The first week of December last year saw  Josh Frydenberg announce that the impending climate policy review would consider an emissions intensity scheme  (something the Business Council now wants,  perhaps quietly regretting that they cheered on Tony Abbott as he repealed Julia Gillard’s Emissions Trading Scheme?)

Frydenberg’s words sent Cory Bernardi, Christopher Pyne and others ballistic. The very next day Frydenberg was back on the airwaves denying he had said what everyone heard him say, pouring cold water over the idea. Another backflip in the long history of backflips on climate and energy policy.  The following day, Malcolm Turnbull at the fish market, scotched the EIS idea altogether, proclaiming it to be another carbon tax.   All this before chief scientist Alan Finkel produced the first report of his review into Australian energy security.

At the beginning of February we had another intense week – Turnbull spoke at the National Press Club saying that coal would be the foundation of Australian energy generation for decades to come; followed by Resources Minister Matt Canavan talking of “clean coal” and suggesting the Clean Energy Finance Corporations rules could be changed to allow public funding (since investors clearly were not interested).  Days later ended with Treasurer Scott Morrison brandishing a lump of coal and cooing “This is coal… Don’t be afraid…  don’t be scared.” (And has since boasted about this to radio shocking jock Ray Hadley.)

As one astute  journalist wrote three years ago it’s part of

“a long campaign to redefine the stuff that comes from burning coal as a “colourless, odourless gas”, a harmless three-way cuddle between one carbon and two oxygen atoms that, happily, provides “plant food”

Morrison’s stunt was an echo of US Senator James Inhofe’s infamous snowball stunt of a couple of years previously.

A third such climate-and-energy week has ensued. Last Friday Elon Musk grabbed headlines around the world by tweeting a ‘done and dusted in a 100 days or free’ offer on 100MWh of battery storage. He had talks with both SA Premier Jay Weatherill and Malcolm Turnbull, both of which were poured over by journalists and analysts. On Tuesday the SA government announced a six point energy plan, which involved funding a new gas fired power station, a tender for battery storage, a change in royalty payments to ease gas exploration and new powers for the SA government to intervene in the National Energy Market.  This last point was predictably rubbished by the Federal Government, with Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg muttering about consulting lawyers.

Then Malcolm Turnbull, pre-empting the Finkel Review it commissioned in response to the September 2016 South Australian blackout, let alone the climate policy review (remember that?),  proposed an expansion of the Snowy Mountain Hydro Scheme (a nation building project from 1947 to 1974 is the largest engineering project undertaken in Australia, brought in under budget and before time), this time to ensure not additional energy production, but storage.

While Jay and Josh were having an extraordinary stoush in a suburban garage in Adelaide Malcolm Turnbull was touring that hydro scheme and could not help but say

“In one hour it could produce 20 times the 100Mwh expected from the battery proposed by the South Australian government but would deliver it constantly for almost a week (or 350,000 Mwh over seven days),”

It is almost exactly a year ago that Donald Trump assured voters that fellow Republican candidate Marco Rubio was wrong to cast aspersions about the size of his, um, hands….

In terms of childishness, well Lenore Taylor summed it up beautifully

“And sometimes the leader of the nation can join the policy discussion only by disguising his good ideas in a drizabone and bush hat, lest they be recognised for what they are by his own colleagues.”

A picture is worth a thousand words

Malcolm Turnbull tours the Tumut 3 power station while announcing the government’s plan for a major expansion of the Snowy Hydro Scheme

“Malcolm Turnbull tours the Tumut 3 power station while announcing the government’s plan for a major expansion of the Snowy Hydro Scheme. Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP.” Source: Guardian article here.

The photo accompanying the article, by  Lukas Coch of Australian Associated Press shows Turnbull, in obligatory hard hat and fluoro and wearing safety goggles pointing into the distance,  predictably flanked by two other men.  Readers with long memories and cynical dispositions may recall that in  July 2014 Senator Ian MacDonald came to parliament in a fluorojacket, provided to him by the same people who gave Morrison his lump of lacquered lump of coal, namely the Minerals Council of Australia.

This is like a thousand other photos of politicians donning similar protective garb.  These all seem like desperate claims by desperate men, who are the epitome of the political class (“out of touch”) using props to try to build to their constituents, earnestly proclaim themselves to be “real,” “tough”  and ‘authentically working class.’

Climate Change is making us all anxious (if not terrified). These claims to authenticity, ‘common sense’ and machismo, are the devices that our politicians deploy to calm us (and perhaps themselves?). It’s not so much ‘virtue signalling’ but ‘virtuoso signalling’ – a claim to competence and hard-headness to see us through the tough times ahead. Given the vicissitudes of the policy-making “process” and the super-wicked nature of the problems, such performances are unsurprising.   What is perhaps surprising that it politicians seem to think that it still works.

Visions, hype and Twitter: Elon Musk and Energy Policy’s latest twist. #auspol

Who would dare make a prediction about Australian energy and climate policy these days? The truth keeps turning out not stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think.

Last week Tesla’s vice president for energy products, Lyndon Rive was drumming up interest for his company’s batteries, the “PowerWall”. As opponents of renewable energy never tire of saying, as if it is a stunning insight, it’s only on tv that the sun always shines, and the answer is not blowing in the wind for the same reason of ‘intermittency‘. Renewables advocates counter this by speaking of storage (e.g pumped hydro), but everyone is holding out for a hero. (That’s enough shoe-horned song references, Ed).

Rive, pointed out that after a Californian power crisis “From start to finish, we installed an 80MWh battery pack at one of the substations in Southern California,”

California had had a methane leakage at a gas peaking plant, whereas South Australia’s September blackout – was due to high winds (despite the blame game which ensued). Knowing he had piqued his potential customers’ interest, Rive said “We can do the exact same thing in South Australia. Storage is the technology, and it can solve the problem within the next 100 days or so.”

Mike Cannon-Brookes the ‘accidental billionaire’  , the co-founder software company Atlassian was impressed, tweeting “Holy s#%t” and following it up with “how serious are you about this bet? If I can make the $ happen (& politics), can you guarantee the 100MW in 100 days?”

Rive’s cousin, one Elon Musk, tweeted back “Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?”

Nick Hammsen of the ABC notes that detail is sketchy. The Californian scheme was an 400 of Tesla’s Powerpack 2 batteries, which Tesla claim is infinitely scalable. Hammsen notes that system big enough for South Australia would run into the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars and that the cost and who would foot the bill is unclear.

Since then, Musk and South Australian Premier Jay Weatherhill have spoken, with Musk tweeting

Mr Weatherill, who had floated the balloon of a states-based emissions trading scheme  said “Today I had a positive discussion with Elon Musk regarding his battery proposal,”

Greens Senator Hanson-Young is also intetested, arguing

The way the spot market works and way the electricity market is currently structured means that battery storage just can’t compete at the same level.”

Policy via Twitter (a la Trump)

This is under way because following a ‘policy bonfire‘, in 2013 and 2014, there is the mother of all policy vacuums in Canberra, with no resolution in sight. When this happened under John Howard, the states – with New South Wales under Bob Carr as leading light – started a push for an emissions trading scheme, which created impetus for a national scheme.

Entrepreneurs, be they policy or technology-based, are needed to ‘shake things up’. As an academic colleague wrote

I’m generally pro Musk, on the grounds that all visionaries are flawed, and stunts can be useful. You’ve gotta have someone willing to take the big risks, but the personality that allows that kind of behaviour is almost certainly going to also include some narcissism and megalomania. Every other entrepreneur who developed a whole new system in the past was also like this. Henry Ford, George Stephenson, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, etc”

“Socio-technical transitions” are indeed about visions  , but of course, visions are okay if you’re rich; if you’re poor and you have visions, they send you to a psychiatrist.

 Regardless of the ins and outs of visions, proposals like these take on a life of their own. If this twitter love-in goes on much longer – and if Cannon-Brookes finds the cash – Musk and Weatherill will both be in a position where they have to do something together, or look like – as they say in Newcastle (England) “All fur coat and no knickers.”

Talk, like Australia’s electricity, is no longer as cheap as it was.

South Australia has a long history as a “laboratory”

You could argue that South Australia’s foundation as the only non-convict labour colony under White Settlement (or invasion) is the first example of its role as a ‘laboratory’.

South Australia’s longest serving premier, Tom Playford (in office from 1938 to 1965) was certainly capable of thinking big, with his 1946 nationalisation of the Adelaide Electric Supply Company to create the (since privatised) Electricity Trust of South Australia (this was done with the enthusiastic support of the Federal Labor Government of Ben Chifley) and his nuclear ambitions.

Later visions of state-based responses to economic, social and environmental pressures were less successful (for example Premier Don Dunstan and Monarto, and John Bannon‘s similarly ill-fated “multi-function polis.”

As a virtual city-state, South Australia  can claim a place as an ‘urban laboratory’ and be an object of study for the question ‘Can cities shape socio-technical transitions and how would we know if they were?’  A new experiment seems to be unfolding. Tomorrow (Tuesday 14th March), Weatherill will announce a series of State government measures to deal with energy prices, energy security and climate change. Watch this space…

Winners and Losers

If it comes off, (and the “if” and the “it” are big questions), who would be the winners and losers? It would clearly be better PR than you could ever buy for Musk – proof of concept for his technology. Weatherill and his government are up for re-election in March 2018 and needing to put meat on the bones of the ‘OpenState’ festival promises, would be a happy chappy.

Academics studying “sustainability sociotechnical transitions” and the importance of visions and hype will love it. Public policy theorists who use the ‘Multiple Streams’ approach point out that often policy entrepreneurs develop solutions and then go looking for a problem to attach them to. The Musk-Adelaide connection would become the obvious citation

Renewable proponents would see their enthusiasm and hard work vindicated, especially if customers (and voters) see a stabilisation (or decrease?) in electricity prices, and an end to insecurity of supply. Community-based schemes may of course fear being pushed aside by the big boys, as do the Zen Energy owners and managers, who reckon a local consortium could do the job Musk is promising on the same time-scale.

Conversely, it would be bad news for the South Australian opposition, which is reduced to ‘me-tooism’. Liberal Opposition leader Stephen Marshall said in response to the Musk proposal

“It’s the sort of thing we need to be looking at to secure the stability of our grid here in South Australia and also how we can lower energy prices in this state” [source]

For the Federal Coalition it is another big headache – it is hard to see how Malcolm ‘innovation/exciting time to be alive’ Turnbull can object. He and Musk talked on Sunday, with the now usual exchange of mutually-congratulatory tweets.

If it came off, it would, presumably, be disastrous for the status quo actors who own/operate the centralised fossil-fuel power stations and grid, accelerating the ‘death spiral‘ of grid defection.

They can be expected to fight back, by attacking the credibility of proponents (with Musk, that’s hard), the technology and by attempting to slow deployment. But in South Australia, they may not have enough levers to pull on, enough credible threats to make.

2017 is already living up to its billing as a perplexing roller-coaster.

Feb 21, 2004 – Clean coal hype moves up a gear…

We do love a good techno-fix, when the alternative is doing something now about future problems. And so it was that the fossil fuel industry, following the lead/very-gentle-indeed-shove of Bush and Howard, started spruiking ‘clean coal…
This, from the Australian, is worth remembering as a document of those days. It’s all gone horribly wrong, as any adult could have seen (and did)….

Wilson, N. 2004 Turning coal clean and green. The Australian, 21 February.
JUDGING by the heavy hitters attending a conference on the Gold Coast this week, geosequestration is about to get a substantial workover in Australia in the next few years.
Geosequestration is the capture of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and placing them underground. To some environmentalists the concept is about as popular as toxic waste.
For Australia’s biggest export industry, coal, geosequestration may be the difference between death and survival….

Also on this day-

Ross Garnaut had been asked by State Governments and Labor Leader Kevin Rudd in early 2007 to write a report on climate change impacts and what to do. By the time he produced the first report, in early 2008, Rudd had become Prime Minister, gone to Bali for his applause and dodged questions about targets for emissions reductions. Already by mid-February 2008, Garnaut’s strict ‘don’t give loads of money to the miners to shut them up’ line was causing him to be sidelined, as the second report here shows…

Murphy, K. 2008. Climate Change: Act Now. The Age, 21 February.
The Garnaut interim report has put the onus firmly on the Rudd Government to react swiftly to climate change, writes Katharine Murphy.

Anon, 2008. Rudd Government cool on Garnaut’s climate challenge. Brisbane Courier Mail, 21 February.
THE Federal Government has tried to play down its chief climate change adviser’s call for even deeper cuts to dangerous greenhouse gases.
Economist Ross Garnaut, in his interim report on climate change policy released yesterday, said the Government should set a 2020 greenhouse target this year and consider setting a tougher 2050 target.

April 26th, 1986: Chernobyl brings down the Soviet Union, Nuclear renaissance

The Chernobyl disaster (Ukrainian: Чорнобильська катастрофа, Chornobylska KatastrofaChornobyl Catastrophe; also referred to as Chernobyl or the Chornobyl accident) was a catastrophic nuclear accident that occurred on 26 April 1986 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine (then officially the Ukrainian SSR), which was under the direct jurisdiction of the central authorities of the Soviet Union. An explosion and fire released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere, which spread over much of the western USSR and Europe.

The Chernobyl disaster was the worst nuclear power plant accident in history in terms of cost and casualties.[1] It is one of only two classified as a level 7 event (the maximum classification) on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the other being the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011.[2] The battle to contain the contamination and avert a greater catastrophe ultimately involved over 500,000 workers and cost an estimated 18 billion rubles.[3] During the accident itself, 31 people died, and long-term effects such as cancers are still being investigated.

As well as a physical disaster, it didn’t do a lot for the health/credibility of the Communist Party, nor the nuclear industry more generally.

Novel worth reading – The Star Chernobyl by Julia Voznesenskaya

As ever, see the disclaimers, help the project and comments policy.

April 6th, 2012 – “engineer humans rather than t’planet”

On April 6th 2012, the following story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.  If it had been five days earlier, it might have been funnier…

IF IT is so hard to change the climate to suit humans, why not alter humans to suit the changing climate, philosophers from Oxford and New York universities are asking.

They suggest humans could be modified to be smaller, dislike eating meat, have fewer children and be more willing to co-operate with social goals.

Behavioural changes might not be enough to prevent climate change even if they were widely adopted, and international agreements for measures such as emissions trading are proving elusive, say Matthew Liao of New York University and Anders Sandberg and Rebecca Roache of Oxford University.

So human engineering deserves serious consideration in the debate about how to solve climate change, they write in a coming paper for the academic journal Ethics, Policy & Environment.

Also on this day

2011 US Senator Sherrod Brown votes to delay EPA regulations by 2 years