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Energy Solutions

 

Most informed commentators agree that Australia needs a better mix of energy sources.  We are too dependent on fossil fuel.  This results in a very high rate of carbon dioxide production per capita; and this has international and domestic implications in the context of concerns about climate change.

 

For a more in-depth discussion of climate change follow this link.

While we can increase the production of renewables the potential to significantly expand hydroelectricity (the largest renewable resource worldwide) is limited by:  

  • insufficient rainfall in populated areas;
  • the generally flat nature of the continent; and
  • strong public and political objections to further river diversions and/or dam construction on a scale that could make a significant contribution. 

Wind power is the next best option.  

After making an allowance for 'externalities' related to climate, and recent and expected fossil fuel price rises, wind is already economically competitive at around twice the price of fossil sourced electricity.  But there are serious limits to the contribution wind can make in Australia due to the fluctuating nature of the resource, and the shortage of good sites close enough to most mainland consumers on the to deliver the energy without unacceptable losses. 

 

Capitol Wind Farm Publicity Shot
Capitol Wind Farm NSW - Publicity Shot

 

Solar is effectively unlimited but despite declining Photovoltaic (PV) panel costs, still more costly to recover (per kWh).  It may become competitive if battery and other cost limitations can be overcome. But at the moment (despite a lot of small domestic units installed) it is making a very small contribution to total electricity generation.  For a more in-depth discussion follow this link.

Australia hopes to obtain up to 20% of our electricity (which in turn contributes about a fifth of our total energy consumed - mostly from fossil fuel) from renewables by 2020.  This is very much a 'stretch goal' and on present trends is unlikely to be achieved.

We could do much better and also dramatically decrease our transport and industrial dependence on fossil fuel if we had fossil-fuel-free electricity. For example then we could use rail electrification and electric vehicles to reduce (rather than increase - as at present) carbon dioxide production.  But we have chosen not to.  So unlike the thirty or so countries that employ nuclear power and/or have vastly more hydroelectricity, we are 'fighting with our hands tied behind our back'.

I have come to support a nuclear component in the Australian energy mix after looking at these facts.  I have no financial or personal investment in the technology.  Indeed, I have a small financial (pragmatic) interest in wind, gas and coal businesses that might be inferred as creating the opposite bias.  

In practical, if not political, terms it seems a relatively trivial matter to progressively replace existing coal and gas fired stations with larger advanced nuclear ones in the same locations as they reach their end of life.  Elements of the electricity grid and cooling facilities are already in place, as is a workforce experienced in running power stations.  Local communities would benefit.  Ionising radiation from a coal fired power station is significant and would be lowered substantially and other hazards such as coal transport, noise, dust and toxic oxides would be eliminated.

The US National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) estimates the average radioactivity of coal is 17,100 millicuries/4 million short tons.  This results in a radiation dose to the population from a 1GW coal fired plant of 490 person-rem/year; a hundred times more than from a comparable nuclear plant.

Notwithstanding the problems in Japan at the Fukushima I Nuclear Power Plant, caused by the unprecedented earthquake and tsunami on March 11 2011, it remains safer to live near a modern nuclear reactor than near a fossil fuel burning power plant.  

If you doubt this, a recent New Scientist article [open this link] quotes the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force (The Toll from Coal, 2010): that reports that fine particles from coal power plants presently kill an estimated 13,200 people each year in the US. 

 

 

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Travel

Russia

 

 

In June 2013 we visited Russia.  Before that we had a couple of weeks in the UK while our frequent travel companions Craig and Sonia, together with Sonia's two Russian speaking cousins and their partners and two other couples, travelled from Beijing by the trans Siberian railway.  We all met up in Moscow and a day later joined our cruise ship.  The tour provided another three guided days in Moscow before setting off for a cruise along the Volga-Baltic Waterway to St Petersburg; through some 19 locks and across some very impressive lakes.

Read more ...

Fiction, Recollections & News

The First Man on the Moon

 

 

 

 

At 12.56 pm on 21 July 1969 Australian Eastern Standard Time (AEST) Neil Armstrong became the first man to step down onto the Moon.  I was at work that day but it was lunchtime.  Workplaces did not generally run to television sets and I initially saw it in 'real time' in a shop window in the city.  

Later that evening I would watch a full replay at my parents' home.  They had a 'big' 26" TV - black and white of course.  I had a new job in Sydney having just abandoned Canberra to get married later that year.  My future in-laws, being of a more academic bent, did not have TV that was still regarded by many as mindless.

Given the early failures, and a few deaths, the decision to televise the event in 'real time' to the international public was taking a risk.  But the whole space program was controversial in the US and sceptics needed to be persuaded.

In Australia we knew it was really happening because Tidbinbilla was tracking the space craft, as it had previous Apollo launches, and the Parkes radio Telescope had been requisitioned to receive the live television signal, so that an estimated 600 million viewers could watch it too.  Nevertheless for a wide range of reasons, ranging from religious orthodoxy and anti-scientific scepticism to dislike of the Kennedys and big government in general, conspiracy theorists in the US and elsewhere continued to claim that it had been faked for decades later.

 

 

The Houston Apollo Control Room - now a National Monument and the Apollo 11 crew
my photos - see Houston on this website:  Read more...

 

The immediate media reaction to Armstrong's: 'one small step for man one giant leap for mankind', statement was a bit unforgiving.  In the heat of the moment, with his heart rate racing; literally stepping into the unknown; Armstrong had fumbled his lines.  He should have said: 'a man'.

As it was the recording, that will now last, as of a seminal moment in history, into the unforeseeable future, is redundant and makes no sense - an added proof, if one were needed, that it wasn't pre-recorded or faked.

I've talked about Kennedy's motivation for the project elsewhere on this website [Read more...] but the outcomes for the entire world turned out to be totally unpredictable and massive.  Initially engineering in the US had not been up to the task and the space program stumbled from one disaster to the next, with the Russians clearly in advance, but now some centralised discipline needed to be imposed - to herd the cats.  Simply using a single standard of weights and measures was a challenge. 

Yet the incredible challenges involved required new technology and an open cheque had been committed.  Billions of dollars funded tens of thousands of research projects that led to many thousands of innovations.  New materials and methods of manufacture were developed.  Perhaps the most important were semiconductor electronics at companies like Fairchild and Bell Labs and computer science at the previously mechanical card sorting and calculating companies: NCR and IBM that had once been sceptical of this newfangled electronic stuff.  Engineering and science educators expanded to provide the young researchers, engineers and programmers.

Unlike the wartime 'Manhattan Project' much of the research was published. Scientific American was required reading among my friends. In any case the speed of innovation rendered advances redundant in a matter of months. Thus quite a bit of this taxpayer funded technology 'fell off the back of the truck' and computer engineering entrepreneurs like Hewlett Packard, who had got their start making sound equipment for Walt Disney, quickly took advantage, soon to be joined by many others. So that today electronics and communications related industry has become the core of the US economy.

Today the computing and communications technology you are using to read this is several millions of times more powerful than that employed to put Neil Armstrong on the Moon and this is indeed a testament to that 'giant leap' that, in part, enabled 'one small step for (a) man' 50 years ago.

 

 

Opinions and Philosophy

On Hume and Biblical Authority

 

 

2011 marks 300 years since the birth of the great David Hume.  He was perhaps the greatest philosopher ever to write in the English language and on these grounds the ABC recently devoted four programs of The Philosopher’s Zone to his life and work.  You will find several references to him if you search for his name on this website. 

 

Read more ...

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