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The future is knocking on our door.  Invite it in

The Beagle Editor Climate change deniers keep telling us that renewable energy will never work, can never work, for a host of cunningly imagined but dismally unconvincing reasons. But economists and even the CEOs of fossil-fuel-powered companies are telling us that it’s already working, and in fact driving prices down and driving fossil fuels out of the market. But how can that be? How can a brand-new installation be cheaper to run than an old installation that has already paid off its capital costs? I mused on that as I drove back from Canberra, catching sight of the two large wind farm installations north of Bungendore. And then it came to me in a blinding flash. (Is the turn-off to Damascus anywhere near Bungendore?) Think of how similar a wind-farm turbine is to a coal-fired power station turbine. Both are essentially fan-blades connected to the shaft of an electric generator. They are both driven by the flow of gas passing those blades. The generators then convert the rotational energy of the shafts into electricity. In the case of the wind-farm, the driving gas is the moving air we call wind. It’s literally “as free as the breeze”. All you have to do is plonk the turbine in a suitably exposed and windy place. Typically that’s a place nobody else has much interest in, for example a rocky hilltop, which is either cheap to acquire, or attractive for the farmer to rent to you. From then on it will transform the energy of the wind into electricity, with no more effort needed from you other than a bit of routine maintenance. Operation is automated. But consider how much more you have to do in the coal-fired power station, where you are essentially creating your own wind - steam. First you have to get the approvals, find the money, buy the land, and build the power station. It’s a massive engineering installation, with its giant hoppers to take the coal, the augers and conveyor belts needed to bring the coal to the furnace, massive furnaces to heat the boilers, massive boilers to convert water into steam, and pipework, control and monitoring systems, and staff on site 24/7 to keep it all working properly and safely. You’ll also need a reliable source of a lot of water to convert into steam and rather a lot of coal to burn. And that coal is not going to come cheap, as somebody else has had to explore for a seam worth exploiting, get approval to dig a mine, amass the capital to start work, purchase the equipment and hire miners to dig for and extract the ore, and transport it by road, rail or both to your hungry power station, while still generating a healthy profit for their shareholders. And after the coal is burnt, you have to remove the worst of the noxious gases exiting the chimneys, and continually clean out and dispose of the fly ash. (Ignoring the most dangerous remaining byproduct, CO2, spewed continuously into the atmosphere without cost or care. That is, without cost or care, for the moment....) And maintenance is a big issue. Nothing like pressurised steam to cause rust, and find weaknesses to escape through. And of course there’s the question of risk and the need to manage and insure against it. So many risks. Fire, explosion, burns, pollution, death, damage, all at great scale and expense. And, because coal-fired power stations cannot be ramped up and down quickly, you have to keep it running day and night at whatever level of power you hope to sell. All polluting our planet, costing you money, but not selling much! So is it any wonder that renewable energy is relatively cheap (as well as perfectly clean). There is so much less infrastructure involved, and no input or waste costs. Maintenance costs are minimal - the machines themselves are simple and low wear – essentially a big fan-blade connected to an electrical generator. No fuel, no water, no fires, no corrosive steam, no noxious fumes, no heavy machinery, no transport costs. The future is knocking on our door. Invite it in!

Terry McGee, Malua Bay.


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