Following Labor’s unexpected loss in the “climate change election,” it’s timely to consider renewable energy’s green credentials, as it was a major player in their policy over-reach. My ancestors, the Vikings, harnessed the wind to explore, pillage and settle parts of the globe others could only dream about for another few centuries, but times and aspirations change. Ask any sailor slicing through waves on a fast reach while the sails strain and the wake stretches silently behind. There’s nothing quite like harnessing the wind on a breezy, sunny day … until some petrol-head in a power boat or jet ski, blasts past and shatters the natural harmony. Or the wind drops.
Unfortunately, the reality of wind and solar power as alternative energy sources are just like that. They are far from “free,” but backed by government green subsidies and tax breaks at federal and state levels, they are intended to play a key role in meeting Australia’s Renewable Energy Target of 23.5 percent by 2020 under the Coalition. Experience overseas suggests that, apart from hydro power, renewables are unreliable, uneconomical and very unfriendly to the environment they are claimed to protect. Evidence from places investing heavily in renewables such as Denmark, Germany and California demonstrates they are intermittent power generators needing back-up from conventional energy sources.
South Australia found this out the hard way earlier this year, when heatwaves caused widespread blackouts there (and in neighbouring Victoria). That giant back-up battery Elon Musk sold the former Labor government at undisclosed and, presumably, enormous cost, failed after a few hours and they had to fire up expensive diesel generators to keep the lights on. Studies on wind farms have raised possible serious human health concerns, and a devastating effect on birdlife. The mining of rare earths used in their manufacture, used also in mobile phones and electric vehicles, has also caused huge pollution problems in China over the past decade. The Daily Mail Online reports:
Hidden out of sight behind smoke-shrouded factory complexes in the city of Baotou, and patrolled by platoons of security guards, lies a five-mile wide ‘tailing’ lake. It has killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy.
This vast, hissing cauldron of chemicals is the dumping ground for seven million tons a year of mined rare earth after it has been doused in acid and chemicals and processed through red-hot furnaces to extract its components…
According to a recent report by the Heartland Institute, it is estimated that up to 328,000 birds are killed each year in the US by wind turbines.” The Audubon Society says that makes wind ‘the most threatening form of green energy.’ Other sources say the death tolls are far higher…
“Bat deaths are even worse and potentially more threatening to human health and welfare.
“A conservative estimate is that at least 4 million bats have been killed by wind turbines since 2012. Bats are our primary natural defence in keeping mosquito and crop-damaging insect populations in check. One bat can eat between 500 and 1,000 mosquitoes and other insects in just one hour, or about 6,000 per night…
Noise generated by wind turbines is akin to a helicopter, affecting quality of life and causing serious health problems for people living within a quarter-mile of a turbine. A 2013 Canadian paper reported, ‘People who live or work in close proximity to IWTs have experienced symptoms that include decreased quality of life, annoyance, stress, sleep disturbance, headache, anxiety, depression and cognitive dysfunction.’ Other studies report the same problems.
When even Bob Brown turns against wind turbines you know the technology’s moment has all but passed. And the Greens patron saint is not the only one to lose the faith. Time magazine “environmental hero” Michael Shellenberger says he was once a firm believer in wind and solar, but the Californian experience changed his mind. He also cites major environmental problems with both solar and wind farms but adds,
Without large-scale ways to back-up solar energy, California has had to block electricity coming from solar farms when it’s extremely sunny, or pay neighbouring states to take it from us so we can avoid blowing-out our grid…
Despite what you’ve heard, there is no ‘battery revolution’ on the way, for well-understood technical and economic reasons.
Shellenberger now advocates nuclear energy as a cheaper, more reliable alternative, observing, “It turns out that scientists have studied the health and safety of different energy sources since the 1960s. Every major study, including a recent one by the British medical journal Lancet, finds the same thing: nuclear is the safest way to make reliable electricity.”
Meanwhile in Australia, nuclear remains a naughty ‘N’ word, irrationally banned as a power source, but some LNP Queensland MPs intend to present a motion in the Senate to form a committee to investigate including nuclear in our energy mix.
Keith Pitt (Hinkler) and Senate colleague James McGrath are reportedly behind the push. “I am not saying that there is a nuclear reactor coming to a shopping centre near you but we have to be able to investigate all options,” Mr Pitt, a qualified electrical engineer, said.
“All I am calling for is an inquiry as to whether it’s a feasible option to ensure we are up to date with the latest information.”
Other colleagues agree. Ken O’Dowd in the neighbouring seat of Flynn adds, “ We must evaluate the possibilities of nuclear energy as a part of the mix,” and Senator Amanda Stoker said, “It seems to be a complete no-brainer. It’s good policy and has the potential to be good politics.
“The challenge, as I see it, is to make sure we have good answers to the questions about safety and waste.”
That seems a logical approach if we really are serious about reducing CO2 emissions and maintaining cheap, reliable baseload power. New research into a modern adaption of molten salt reactors (MSRs) which offer the potential for economy of size and minimal waste, could form part of the study.