Usually I love government cock-ups because they demonstrate the limits of political power (see Malcolm of Nazareth) but the latest is the blackest of jokes and not much of a giggle. It has been building for 25 years and the punchline, when we get there, will bring the house down, maybe literally. Australians all, let us rejoice, for we have an emerging energy crisis – one completely of our own making and one completely, ridiculously, unnecessary.
Once upon a time not so long ago, Australia could boast, and did, of having abundant supplies of energy – coal and gas – available at a cost that gave us a competitive edge over most of the world. In the past 20 years we have squandered that position in pursuit of reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Coal-fired baseload power stations have been closed and not replaced, costly gas-fuelled peaker generators installed and, above all, intermittent, so-called renewable electricity expanded. At the same time, exploration for gas and the methods of recovering the bounty known to exist have been banned outside Queensland (and even there restrictions are onerous).
So now South Australia, which feeds off Victorian generation, has regular blackouts, Victoria is closing down, the other states are reeling, high-value gas is in short supply domestically, the national electricity transmission network is increasingly unstable and the system is vulnerable to extreme (and sometimes not-so-extreme) events such as hot weather and high winds. The price of electricity – not just for our homes but, more importantly, for industry – has doubled in the past 10 years and shows no sign of abating. In a country blessed with an abundance of natural resources we have been reduced to rationing ourselves.
Not that any of the above is news. Every day, since the folly of our ways dawned on us in the wake of the storm that knocked out South Australia last year, politicians and commentators of all persuasions are engaged in a huge shouting match, as if that will make the whole debacle go away. Very few, if any, are advocating the single policy stroke that would open the way to a solution – abandonment of the carbon dioxide fetish and a return to rational electricity supply.
I nearly said the problem would be fixed “immediately”. But that’s not so. The situation has gone so far that it can’t be turned around “immediately”, even if the single stroke were taken. It is certain that new generation capacity needs to be built, and that takes time. My preference would be the most efficient coal-fired technology. Gas is too high value – simply burning it is a waste. Nuclear is still too expensive for Australia. And everything else, apart from hydro, is pretty well useless for anything other than specific small-scale applications. The renewables fans can bleat and moan about it as much as they like but those are the facts.
Renewables are unreliable. That’s not news, either. But there’s more to reliability than being able to turn on the lights whenever you want. Renewables do not deliver steady electrical power – the current tends to fluctuate, mostly not much, sometimes a lot and sometimes it stops altogether. Even if generation is continuous, renewables electricity is unreliable for many of the hi-tech purposes of our world today. Worse, the increasing penetration of renewables into electricity grids is destabilising those grids. The power they deliver is intermittent – that is, they don’t produce when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine – making grid management difficult and at times problematic.
Therefore, as well as restoring good old, relatively cheap and reliable coal-generated power to our systems, we need to think about not just the “quantity” of that electricity but also the “quality”. The energy crisis gives us the opportunity to do just that. If the system were untroubled, if prices were still competitive, probably nobody would even bother. But we have a rebuild job to do and what better time is there to insert some quality controls into technology that is fundamentally the same as it was a century or more ago?
Our 20th century electricity supply system has been on a collision course with the 21st century (and beyond) ever since we decided to hand over management of just about everything to computers. We simply cannot do without electricity of the highest quality. We need to dress the system up to the nines. By that I mean ensuring electricity reaches consumers – big and small – without interruption or even significant fluctuation as close to 100 per cent of the time as we can get.
It will be no use restoring the quantity of supply to pre-madness levels if we don’t also aim at least at what’s known as “five nines”. In simple terms, if you have “five nines” you can rely on your power supply for 99.999 per cent of the time. That is, you can have a total outage time of 5.26 minutes a year. No, not new – I was introduced to the concept sometime around the turn of the century so it was probably fairly old by then as well. Mains electricity at the time was classified as 99.9 per cent reliable (8.76 hours out a year) – and, as far as I am aware, still is.
Well, so what? “Three nines” is pretty good, isn’t it? If everything you used were 99.9 per cent reliable, you’d think you were as close to perfection as a human could get, wouldn’t you? The truth is that at this point most of us in our personal lives do not, most of the time anyway, need five nines. Lights sometimes flicker and then shine on. Maybe the fridge misses a beat. It’s frustrating to be making a transaction online, or researching something, and the system blinks, things go haywire, stuff you haven’t saved gets lost and you have to start again. But you just shrug, don’t you, and get on with it. These little glitches are like the weather – can’t do anything about them, so you accommodate yourself to them.
And that’s fine for you and me (as I say, most of the time). What happens, though, when a giant government agency has a blink? What if the sat-nav system piloting your plane to Bali takes a mini-nap? Frankly, I don’t know and I am not about to try explaining how they cope. That’s not the point. The thing to realise is that Australia’s emerging energy crisis has ramifications beyond the lights going out, your frozen food melting away and your reverse cycle air conditioners sitting useless on the wall.
I’ve focused on Australia for obvious reasons but the general thrust applies to every advanced industrial nation. I dug out of my archives an article from The Economist of 2001 and this was its take on the future (i.e. now):
“When the economy was built around incandescent bulbs and electric motors, three nines was more than enough to keep the wheels of industry turning. But microprocessor-based controls and computer networks demand at least 99.9999% reliability, or “six nines”, amounting to no more than a few seconds of allowable outages a year. And that is just a start. [A report being used by the magazine] estimates that the quality of electrical power must reach “nine nines” – milliseconds of faults a year – before the digital economy can truly have the right quality power to mature.”
The Economist was optimistic about hi-tech solutions to the hi-tech problems and I’ve no doubt these have progressed amazingly in the past 15-16 years. But I’ve equally no doubt that the main tools in the quest for reliable power are built-in redundancies in the supply system and better batteries to ensure “uninterruptible power”. It was my involvement with a company developing a new battery that raised my consciousness to the nines, albeit only five rather than The Economist’s six or the ultimate nine.
Leave aside the needs of industry and the broad economy, ask yourself these questions about your own personal economy:
How much of the data you use to run your daily life is stored electronically?
How much of it is in your personal computer/s, including your phone?
How much of it is stored by Government agencies and the service supply companies your household uses?
How much of it is “in the cloud” – i.e. in the servers of Microsoft or Google or Apple or Facebook or . . . whatever?
What happens if any of these entities has a glitch, even just a small one. Don’t even think about a breakdown.
What happens if the World Wide Web becomes compromised?
Do you know?
The answer is no, you don’t and I don’t and nobody does. What we do know, though, is that everything we do today depends on electricity – three-nines electricity, when the need is for five-nines and the aspiration is for nine-nines.
I can’t help in this context recalling the flight of Apollo 13 in 1970. Three astronauts headed off for the moon on far less computer power than each of us carries today in his pocket. On the way out, the electricity source blew up and for the duration of their journey they were essentially without power. They could not use their computer systems, minimal though they were compared with today. They were reduced to making calculations with a slide rule, a pencil and paper. As we know, they made it back home. The newsroom I was working in at the time monitored every minute of that flight and I can tell you it was a close run thing, closer even than Ron Howard’s movie.
How confident are you, really, that Spaceship You, Spaceship Australia and, indeed, Spaceship Earth would get through an Apollo 13 energy crisis?