Who knows where electricity comes from?
Mostly, it’s turbines.
These things spin around, next to some specialised magnets, which basically send electrons flying down the wires and into your home to power your appliances. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but not too much.
So how do we make them spin? Well, we make a huge hole in the ground,
dig up dead plants and animals that have been compacted over millions of years,
drive them out of the hole,
and burn them,
no, whoops, I mean burn them,
to convert the energy inside into electricity. But how? What’s the actual process? Does the coal have some magically mysterious ‘electrical’ property?
No. We burn it, to boil water, to make steam,
… And use the steam to to make the turbine spin.
Basically, just like a giant kettle. The average 1 GW coal plant burns about 6 tonnes per minute, or 100 kg per second. Globally, we use about four billion tonnes per year.
This produces nearly 12 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere which then affects global climate systems. But it it also produces millions of tonnes of ash, huge amounts of mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and all sorts of other nasties. So it’s not just the greenhouse which is hurting. Coal is straight up bad for your health.
All that — just to boil water, to make steam, to spin a turbine.
Fortunately, there’s more than one way to spin a turbine.
The Sun gives us enough energy in one minute to power our needs for a whole year. So, it’s just a matter of catching it.
And that is what Concentrated Solar Thermal Power does. Use giant mirrors, to focus the sun’s heat energy on a central tower, and use that to boil the water, to make the steam, to spin a turbine.
To provide electricity 24/7, they use the excess heat produced during the day to melt salt, which effectively stores the heat, and then use that molten salt to keep boiling the water overnight or when it’s cloudy.
How many of these things would we need? Let’s play with some numbers. 12 fields, in sites such as these, with 15–20 towers each, could meet 60% of our needs.
Now we’re off and running. Before we get carried away, we’re not saying we need to do exactly this. There are a multitude of ways to fuck this chicken.The point is just to get our heads around what’s possible. What does it actually take to produce the energy we need?
Of course, instead of going to all that effort to boil water to make the steam to spin a turbine, we can just use the wind.
One big turbine can provide about 7 MW. Put a few hundred of them together, and you get a field in the Gigawatts. The same as a coal plant. But as you can see above, unlike a coal mine, we can still use the land around them. Here is an example of 23 potential sites around the country, which would provide another 40% of our capacity needs:
Combining the two gives us the following: A network of suitable sites, selected for their meteorological diversity, that can produce power throughout the year — even when there times and places where the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
Total land use: 50 km squared. About the size of a few coal mines in the hunter. We don’t have to do all of them and we don’t need to make them all so big. But we do need to get started.
Of course, spinning turbines isn’t the only way to make electricity. We can also use sunlight to move electrons around directly — which we call Solar Photo Voltaic, or PV. Solar Panels.
These have no moving parts, so they don’t wear out. They’re completely silent. They’re small and portable, so we can put them wherever we need them, which saves a lot on transmission costs and losses, especially in isolated areas.
A rooftop’s worth is more or less enough to power a whole household, especially when combined with a battery. Every year they get better and better, and cheaper and cheaper, and there are plenty of rooftops ready and waiting. Perhaps we’re better off doing this instead of the concentrated solar thermal plants. It’s not for this article to decide. The point is, we have lots of options.
Some say that it costs a lot of resources to build these things. And it does. The plans described here are huge. So should we wait a hundred years to let our grand-children scrape the barrel of what’s left to build it all? No matter how many you think are left, fossil fuels are finite. Sooner or later, we need alternative means of electricity generation. The longer we put it off, the harder it becomes.
Now, let’s talk employment. Manufacturing these Solar fields and Wind Farms would create around 30,000 jobs.
Construction and installation would create about 80,000 jobs. Ongoing operations and maintenance would create about another 40,000 new jobs.
All of which would then roll over into a world-class export industry.
So, put it all together, and how much would all this cost? $370 billion. Over 10 years, that’s $37 billion per year, or roughly 3% of GDP. It’s about the same as what we spend on insurance. It’s less than what we spend on cars.So it depends on whether you see that as a good thing or a bad thing I guess. It‘s still a lot of money, but the money isn’t being burned, it’s being put in the pockets of workers to spend back in the economy, and building the infrastructure of a system which will power us into the future.
But what about the cost of not doing it? How much are we set to spend on ‘business as usual’? Mining is hard work. Gruelling, dangerous. Expensive. Operating the machinery, maintaining the equipment, shipping the fuel, all works out to be about $16 billion per year. So after 30 years, it’s the same as the plan— about $500 billion either way. (Not counting the ‘external’ costs of fossil fuels; like oil spills, or cancer).
And after that time, where are we? Still funnelling fossil fuels into furnaces?Digging stuff up every day, like it’s the 1800’s?
What happens when the rest of the world doesn’t want our coal? Australia’s economy has relied on exporting energy for decades. But the energy market is changing. Countries are looking for clean, green technologies. We have the chance to be a renewable energy superpower, and we need to take it, to secure our future in the global economy.
Remember, the point of all this isn’t to say that the exact energy mix in this plan is definitely the one we need to go for. Most of this modelling is already over 10 years old, and technology has come a long way since then. Nor is it to say that these technologies are perfect. Making electricity will always involve a cost.
The point is that renewable energy is affordable, reliable, and ready to go, right now. Australia is perfectly positioned to lead the charge. We just need to elect politicians who will do it.
Most of this work has been done by Beyond Zero Emissions — a think tank dedicated to finding sustainable solutions for Australia’s future. Visit their website to learn more about other plans they’ve been working on, and find out how you can get involved: https://bze.org.au/