Throughout the 99.9 per cent of human existence before the recent widespread adoption of fossil fuels, almost every individual toiled at manual labour from mid-childhood until the end of life. Even with the help of horses, mules, and oxen almost all of the population was needed in food production in order to sustain themselves and produce enough extra to support a small population of nobles and town dwellers. Today, in developed nations three-quarters or more of the population now live in large urban areas, and about half of the populace is no longer engaged in any productive activity.
As a group these overwhelmingly urban non-producers seem to be remarkably unfamiliar with even the most elementary understanding of the basic principles underlying the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fundamental to modern society.
Nowhere is this more clearly displayed than in both the mainstream media and in government policies pertaining to renewable energy. Although the idea of cheap, clean, endlessly renewable energy is fantastically appealing, it is just that, a fantasy. The technology being proposed is extravagantly expensive, resource-intensive and has a relatively short service life. It also requires huge quantities of many scarce materials which demand extensive mining and processing as well as complex manufacturing. The mining and processing in particular result in high levels of toxic waste and have been greatly restricted in developed countries. This has enabled China to simply ignore any environmental concerns and achieve a near monopoly dominance of the global supply.
However, all this is only the initial hardware level of the problem. A further major difficulty involves the siting of energy farms. Wind and solar are diffuse sources of energy. They require extensive acreage devoted to energy farms where other important land uses can be displaced. Then, in addition to the limitations imposed by site suitability and an extensive environmental footprint, there is still another major problem. To be of any use, all of this diffuse and distant power must be integrated into a vast power grid. Worse still, to accommodate the requirements for storage and backup imposed by the highly erratic nature of wind and solar power, as well as adding a major increase in the use of electricity to power electric vehicles, all this is going to demand at least a doubling of both grid infrastructure and maintenance costs. It is further worth noting that about half of the cost of electricity is not in the generation of power. It is in the grid, and in the 20 per cent of power which is lost in transmission.
Finally, for all of this enormous assemblage of technology, there will be an overwhelming difficulty in managing the highly erratic variability of wind and solar power generation, this further compounded by the huge demands and fluctuations of both a greatly expanded grid and increased demand for power. Finally, to top it all off, there will be a massive increase in vulnerability to accidents, equipment failures, weather extremes, terrorism, solar flares and cyber hackers. The bottom-line reality is that if earnestly pursued, a rapid large-scale switch to wind and solar power will be virtually certain to result in at least a doubling or tripling of power costs with frequent blackouts and a strong probability of occasional extensive longer-term outages with catastrophic consequences.
With respect to the more severe risks, it is important to appreciate that these are far more likely, sudden and severe than those predicted to arise from the comparatively gradual change in climate we are seeking to avoid. The severity of such risk should not be underestimated. Widespread extended outages in such a vast, vulnerable, technological and operational house of cards is far more likely than currently.
NUCLEAR power in the form of small modular reactors (SMRs) is a proven technology backed by an extensive history of use in ships, submarines, and research reactors, demonstrated to be capable of providing the most reliable, safe, compact, and economic technology for power generation. Designs, prototypes, and trial installations for commercial use are already in advanced stages of development in at least a dozen nations with the beginning of widespread commercial adoption expected before the end of this decade.
The only real obstacle to a rapid acceptance of nuclear power has been the widespread and irrational fear of radiation, this compounded by the conceit that opposing nuclear power is a signal of virtue. Fortunately, however, anti-nuclear sentiment also seems to be approaching its use-by date, as recent polls show. Also, the disposal of nuclear waste by secure underground storage in geologically stable locations where there is no groundwater is beginning to be accepted as an effective solution. In addition, the increasing use of thorium as a nuclear fuel should greatly reduce the volume, intensity, and half-life of radioactive waste, Thorium is also of no use for making nuclear weapons.
A further major advantage of the SMR approach to power generation lies in the virtual elimination of all the costs, complexities and risks arising from an extensive grid. SMRs can be located close to wherever power is required and are relatively easy to add expand, remove, or replace as needed. The whole insane cost, complexity, and vulnerability of giant power grids is unnecessary
The only real remaining obstacle to SMRs is political acceptance. The eco-activists can be expected to continue to wave their anti-nuclear banners as long as the indoctrinated lapdogs of woke journalism continue to dominate the mainstream media and give activists the public attention they crave. This then, in the never-ending popularity contest of government, results in the major political parties continuing to shy away from anything controversial as they pander for popularity on a platform of vacuous waffle devoid of a clear commitment to anything.
Regardless of whether the real-world effect of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions is a threat, or is grossly exaggerated, or might even be beneficial, there is still an overriding need to develop alternative means of power generation. Oil and gas are finite resources and there is a rapidly growing global demand which is already pressing limitations of supply. The boost in production from horizontal drilling and fracking can only be all too brief as the increase in flow from fracked wells after only a few months quickly declines into a long tapering tail. Although this insures against a sudden run-out it also assures that the current margin in surplus capacity will not last very long. As shortages begin to develop, supply will go to the highest bidder. Increasing unaffordability will impact many uses with major global political and economic consequences.
AUSTRALIA is at the far end of a distant and vulnerable supply line for fuel. With only a few weeks’ reserve supply on hand, there is a critical dependence on continuing deliveries. Any outbreak of hostilities in the Persian Gulf or the South China Sea, or any serious shortfall in production, is likely to disrupt shipments to Australia. This could very quickly bring food production and distribution to a halt. Although Australia does have some substantial crude oil reserves, these are stored in the US, and arranging for transport to Australia on short notice in a crisis situation is likely to be highly problematic. That this vulnerability has been years in development and clearly apparent while successive governments did nothing is almost beyond belief, especially when there is a readily available proven solution that is not only affordable, but it would also avoid billions of dollars in the trade deficit.
The South African company Sasol builds synthetic fuel plants (above) employing the well-proven Fisher-Tropsch process which can produce petrol or diesel from natural gas or coal. These plants have been built and are operating successfully in several countries. The fuel they produce reduces nitrogen oxide and has little to no particulate emissions owing to its low sulfur content. It also reduces hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions with a cost of production less than fuel refined from crude oil at current oil prices. The cost of such plants capable of providing fuel supply security for Australia would be far less than the proposed cost to replace the current naval frigates with a new generation of equally vulnerable surface warships. Alternatively, the Sasol plants could readily be built by corporate interests at no cost to taxpayers if government could only get their act together with some sound energy policies, a clearing away of the bureaucratic obstacles and perhaps an initial tax break.
In any event, and regardless of whatever future energy is adopted, an ongoing supply of liquid hydrocarbon fuels is going to remain critically important for a transition period that is likely to extend at least into a few more difficult decades.
Beyond all of the pros, cons, uncertainties, and unknowns of the science and technology involved in trying to decide what to do about the future supply of energy, there is the underlying concern about an existential threat from climate change. Throughout history prophecies of imminent doom have been a recurrent theme. This probably reflects some combination of an inherent perversity of the human psyche, the use of fear for control, and simply the satisfaction of being able to respond to any scepticism with promises of doom. For the past three decades, the idea of an existential threat from the use of fossil fuels had been the popular doomsday prediction. In addition to the usual psychological drivers for doom-crying, this one also provides power, publicity, and profits for many adherents as well as generous funding, plus a sense of self-importance and virtue for many others. It also comes with a claim to the credibility of cutting-edge science. There is a lot to like, and the temptation of taking a conspicuous seat on the climate bandwagon has been irresistible to many among the cadres of third-rate academics.
With the widespread endorsement of academia, climate change has become an article of faith in the educational system and there is now a whole generation, from primary school students to adults in the prime of their working lives, who have been thoroughly indoctrinated in the latest one true faith of Climatism.
However, like every other doomsday prediction, this one once again appears to be finding itself betrayed by reality, with more and more of its claims and predictions simply failing to hold up. Proclaimed deadlines for various events have been rescheduled so many times they no longer attract much credibility. The degree of warming predicted from a doubling of atmospheric CO2 has been cut to half of earlier projections. The frequency and intensity of floods, droughts, heatwaves, blizzards, tornadoes, tropical storms, sea levels, polar sea ice coverage and forest fires all remain within historical limits with no clear trends of acceleration. Global temperature averages from traditional weather stations show no apparent trend over the past three decades. In short, there is no indication of any trend or departure in climate outside the bounds of recent historical records. The one clear global trend has been a significant greening of arid regions from increased plant coverage due to the stimulation of increased CO2, as was in fact predicted by some climate realists. The only indication of any actual warming has been in a modest trend in the satellite monitoring record for the mid-troposphere, which is not at all alarming. Certainly, there is no evidence for any imminent climate disaster nor any reason to continue terrifying children with doomsday claims of a hopeless future.
If all this level of muddled thinking and sanctimonious nonsense seems hard to believe, there are still a few more items worth considering:
♦ Australia has close to a third of global uranium reserves but is the only G20 nation with no nuclear power. If this is because it is too dangerous to use ourselves, why then are we a major supplier on the world market?
♦ Australia is also the only G20 nation in which estimated natural CO2 uptake exceeds emissions making it a net CO2 Why then, are we mindlessly trying to close down our cheap reliable coal-fired power when we should be receiving carbon credits for sequestering emissions generated elsewhere and at the same time continuing to sell millions of tonnes of coal to be burned elsewhere?
♦ The natural decomposition of plant material results in the generation of methane. The Amazon rainforest is, in fact, a major global source of methane emissions, and the methane from vegetated land is similar in amount whether the decomposition is by microbes in the soil and from digestion by myriad wild creatures, or from domestic livestock. In Australia in particular millions of conspicuous ant mounds festoon vast regions and every one of them is a small factory continuously generating methane. Any plant material not consumed by livestock becomes food for ants or other wildlife and still ends up generating methane. Why then is there such concern over livestock emissions? Is fostering an increase in the proportion coming from ants somehow deemed to be more virtuous?
There is simply no sound evidence for an imminent global threat from a catastrophic change in climate. That is an idea based mainly on unvalidated computer modeling from some hundred-plus models no two of which agree and all of which incorporate multiple estimates, assumptions, and “adjustments”. All but one of these have also predicted warming well above the subsequent record which actually occurred, and the one exception has simply been ignored.
In contrast, an abundance of clear, sound, uncontroversial evidence that refutes every major claim of a climate change crisis is readily accessible in thousands of scientific studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Unfortunately the sheer volume of relevant evidence, the technical language employed, and the submersion of sound evidence in a swill of pseudo-science from self-appointed climate “experts” has created such a morass of information and misinformation that several years of extensive reading plus a technical background are needed to begin to be able to sort what is sound confirmed scientific understanding from the hypothetical speculations, propaganda and outright fabrications of activists committed to a cause they deem to be more important than any sound evidence or reason.
So, could all the esteemed “experts” possibly be wrong? One of the most valuable lessons of history is that much of what is firmly believed and uncontroversial at any time is later found to be incorrect or is even regarded as painfully ignorant. There is no reason to expect such does not still apply to current beliefs.
What then, might we do about the surging mania regarding climate change? The notion that it can and must be prevented by a crash effort to cease all use of fossil fuels and derive all our energy needs from wind and solar power is quantitively several orders of magnitude removed from any reasonable understanding of economics, resources, and technological capabilities. At present, the climate mania is immune to all reason and evidence. However, the threshold of debilitating costs, blackouts, shortages, and job losses also appears to be arriving, and attitudes about virtuous needs and deeds tends to quickly change when the costs and demands become personal. As the costs begin to be felt and the failures more obvious, alternative possibilities will have a chance to be considered. Three aspects of energy policy seriously need reconsideration. In order of priority these are:
1/ Establishment of a secure domestic supply of diesel and petrol to assure continuity of food supply and to at least permit functioning of emergency vehicles and transport services. The only possible solution for this purpose in the required timescale is a synfuel production capability, Fortunately, this is eminently practical in all respects.
2/ The next essential but longer-term requirement will have to be a clean, reliable, dispatchable, and economic source of power independent of the erratic outputs, and massive grid infrastructure of wind and solar power with all its extensive vulnerabilities and operational complexities. Again, there is only one feasible solution with known technology and that is in the form of small modular reactors.
3/ The third more distant need will be for the development of a safe, secure, long-term disposal and/or recycling of nuclear waste. Fortunately, again, the lucky country is ideally suited for all this, with abundant high-quality coal and gas reserves for synfuel, large reserves of uranium and thorium for nuclear fuel, and extensive expanses of uninhabited arid regions with highly stable geology where numerous depleted mines are ideally suited for safe disposal of radioactive waste. Better still, this could also easily become a valuable industry in itself. Then too in this regard, a major political obstacle to anything nuclear has now been removed with the bipartisan decision to replace the retarded commitment to diesel-electric submarines with nuclear subs.
All of the immense costs and resources going into the hapless hopeless effort to capture the diffuse, erratic energy of wind and sun, then to somehow store the slippery stuff, are worse than wasted. It is in fact a counterproductive obstacle to any effective solution. What may be required next is some catalyst to focus attention toward an achievable, affordable, functional direction. For this purpose, a clear assessment of the likely nature of the costs and benefits relating to the three technological approaches listed above would seem likely to find positive consideration if it is available when failure of the current approach has become unarguable.
A well-reasoned solution is a lot harder to ignore in the face of failure as well as much more likely to attract attention and spark debate. Also, if there is unrest in the electorate and the opposition party has no good alternative to offer, they will be much more open to something to run with.
As a final consideration, it also appears that climate itself is not currently doing much of anything to help with promoting the alarm. Polar sea ice coverage is increasing, temperate region winter temperatures are trending lower, la niñas are dominating over el niños, and weather extremes continue to remain well within historical limits. If the current solar minimum continues with even a modest but clear cooling trend, the necessity of increasing restrictions on fossil fuels despite the costs is going to almost certainly become the one thing that is truly unsustainable.