Unfortunately Australia, or more accurately the Australian government, is rapidly reaching pariah status on the world stage with its inaction on carbon reduction and its clear commitment to the future of the fossil fuel industries, particularly coal. In a recent UN conference in Bonn, Peter Woolcott, a former Liberal Party apparatchik who was appointed our UN ambassador in 2010 and our ‘ambassador for the environment’, a new title, in November 2014, was asked some pointed questions regarding Australia’s commitment to renewable energy and combatting climate change. The government’s cuts to the renewable energy target, its abandonment of a price on carbon, and its weak emission reduction targets all came under fire from a number of more powerful nations. Interestingly, at the same time the coal industry, highly favoured by the Abbott government, is engaged in a battle, both here and on the international front, with its major rival, the oil and gas industry, which clearly regards itself as cleaner and greener. Peter Coleman, the CEO of Woodside Petroleum, has mocked ‘clean coal’ and claimed that natural gas is key to combatting climate change, while in Europe oil companies are calling for the phasing out of coal-powered plants in favour of their own products. In the face of this, the Abbott government has created a $5 billion investment fund for northern Australia, based largely on coal.
So, with minimal interest from the current federal government, the move away from fossil fuels, which will be a good thing for a whole variety of reasons, has to be directed by others. Some state governments, such as South Australia, have subsidised alternative forms of energy, particularly wind, and of course the rooftop solar market was kick-started by feed-in tariffs and rebates, since much reduced – and it should be noted that these subsidies have always been dwarfed by those paid to fossil fuel industries.
The current uptake of rooftop solar has understandably slowed but it’s still happening, together with moves away from the traditional grid to ‘distributed generation’. Two of the country’s major energy suppliers, Origin and AGL, are presenting a future based on renewables to their shareholders. Origin has plans to become the nation’s number one provider of rooftop solar. Currently we have about 1.4 million households on rooftop solar, with potential for about five million more.
Meanwhile, thanks in large part to the persuasive powers of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s been a formidable crusader for alternative energy in recent years, Canada and Japan, both with conservative governments and a reluctance to commit to policies to combat global warming, have been dragged into an agreement on emission reductions. So the top-down pressure continues to build, while bottom-up ingenuity, coming from designers and innovators in far-flung parts of the world and shared with greater immediacy than ever before, is providing plenty of inspiration. Let me look at a couple of examples in the wield of wind power, taken initially from Diane Ackerman’s dazzling book The human age: the world shaped by us.
Recent remarks by Australia’s Treasurer, Joe Hockey, and then our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, about the ‘ugliness’ of wind farms, together with the PM’s speculations about their negative health effects, give the impression of being orchestrated. Abbott, whose scientific imbecility can hardly be overstated, is naturally unaware that the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Australian government’s own body for presenting the best evidence-based information on health matters that might impact on the public, released two public papers on wind farms and human health in February 2015. Their conclusion, based on the best available international studies, is that there is no consistent evidence of adverse health effects, though they suggest, understandably, that considering public concerns, more high-quality research needs to be done.
As to the aesthetic issue, one has to wonder whether Hockey and Abbott really prefer the intoxicating beauty of coal-fired power stations. More importantly, are they opposed for aesthetic or other reasons to the very concept of harvesting energy from the wind? Because the now-traditional three blade wind turbine is far from being the only design available. One very unusual design was created by a New York firm, Atelier DNA, for the planned city of Masdar, near Abu Dhabi. It’s called Windstalk, and it’s based on a small forest of carbon fibre stalks each almost 60 metres high, which generate energy when they sway in the wind. They’re quieter than three-blade turbines and they’re less dangerous to birds and bats. As to the energy efficiency and long-term viability of the Windstalk concept, that’s still a matter for debate. There’s an interesting Reddit discussion about it here, where it’s also pointed out that the current technology is in fact very sophisticated in design and unlikely to be replaced except by something with proven superiority in all facets.
Still there are other concepts. The ‘Ewicon’ wind-converter takes harvesting the wind in a radically new direction, with bladeless turbines that produce energy using charged water droplets. The standard wind turbine captures the kinetic energy of the wind and converts it into the mechanical energy of the moving blades, which drives an electric generator. The Ewicon (which stands for electrostatic wind energy converter) is designed to jump the mechanical step and generate electricity directly from wind, through ‘the displacement of charged [water] particles by the wind in the opposite direction of an electrical field’. The UK’s Wired website has more detail. Still at the conceptual stage, the design needs more input to raise efficiency levels from a current 7% to more like the 20% plus level to be viable, but if these ideas can find needful government and corporate backing, this will result not only in greater and faster improvement of existing concepts, but a greater proliferation of innovative design solutions.