Formerly Climate Tasmania, this is a Tasmanian take on the thorniest global issue since the dinosaurs. Based on Peter Boyer’s newspaper column in the Hobart Mercury.

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Climate Tasmania is the new voice of climate advocacy in Tasmania, an expert body committed to lifting the profile of climate change across both government and business sectors.

For fossil fuels, the good times have gone

All the signs are pointing to a coming revolution in how we source our energy. Fossil fuels will be the losers. [3 March 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Let me get this off my chest: I was wrong. Oil prices haven’t done what I said they’d do after the world passed peak oil about a decade ago.

A fading memory? PHOTO LabTest Certification Inc

A fading memory? PHOTO LabTest Certification Inc

Back in May 2011, I advised readers to get ready for steadily rising fuel prices “driven by the fact that world oil production is past its peak and is now on a terminal, irreversible downward slope.”

I thought I was on firm ground. None other than the International Energy Agency’s chief economist, Dr Fatih Birol, had just declared that “the age of cheap oil is over”, advising us all to be prepared for higher prices and more restricted mobility.

Birol’s assessment seemed fair enough then. Crude oil prices were continuing to trend upward after their historic low point in 1998 and the short-lived shock of the global financial crisis in 2008.

But they’d no sooner reached US$100 a barrel in 2012-13 than they headed south again. They’re now around $50 and are projected to stay there throughout this year. What happened?

The rising oil price had encouraged increased development of high-cost reserves in North American shale and tar sand deposits. This added to income pressure on low-cost Middle East oil producers already hit by a very large and sustained reduction in US oil imports.

Saudi Arabia, the prime mover for a low price, knows that its own vast reserves can be exploited cheaply and that sustained low prices would make the new North American sources unprofitable. If it can keep this up for another couple of years, that might just kill them off.

Besides affecting the North American industry, this is also damaging more vulnerable high-cost producers like Brazil, Venezuela, Nigeria, Algeria and Russia. For these countries, falling oil revenue is likely to have political as well as economic repercussions.

Even without low prices, another influence now in play could see off all but lowest-cost producers, not just oil but gas and coal too. November’s US-China agreement to work together to slash carbon emissions was an ominous warning to the entire global fossil-fuel market.

A 2014 assessment by the European broking firm Kepler Chevreux, led by energy specialist Mark Lewis, concluded that realising the agreement envisaged for the Paris summit this December would cost the world’s fossil fuel industry over A$30 trillion, two-thirds of this lost by oil.

With the prospect that climate action will cause some very expensive assets to be stranded, the fossil fuel industry is lobbying hard in the lead-up to the Paris meeting to ensure that any deal struck is ineffectual.

A continuing global plunge in the price of photovoltaic solar energy is another threat to fossil fuel futures, affecting plans for liquefied natural gas infrastructure and for opening up massive new coalfields in Queensland’s Galilee Basin.

Australia’s coal and gas exports are highly susceptible to the renewable revolution both here and abroad. Lobbyists for these industries have put a massive effort into persuading the federal parliament to cut the Renewable Energy Target, so far without success.

A decade ago it seemed that Australia might lead the world in developing renewable energy, but shifting policies put paid to that. Other countries have been able to maintain consistent policy positions, and among these Germany and China have been crucial.

Germany’s Renewable Energies Act benefited the world by mandating development of wind and solar power 15 years ago. In turn, China’s vast industrial muscle has seen that achievement put into effect on a massive, cost-effective scale both domestically and around the world.

Ironically, Australia has been a big beneficiary of these efforts. Wind and solar power are now able to compete directly with coal and gas, with or without government subsidies to either side. All the new energy now coming on line in Australia is renewable.

With new developments in battery power now promising to deliver 24-hour solar and wind energy, investors are getting nervous about fossil fuels. Increasingly, governments are recognising this.

That throws another light on last week’s decision by the Tasmanian government to put a stop to hydraulic fracturing of rocks to release natural gas (“fracking”) in the state until 2020, prompting an angry protest from one fracking proponent.

Labor leader Brian Green implied it should have been an outright ban with no time limit. But five years is a long time in today’s fast-changing energy scene. By 2020 there’s a high chance that gas will be much lower on the economic agenda, or off it altogether.

I’d like to think that in forming his view energy minister Matthew Groom took account of failing economic prospects for fossil fuels. In any case it shows he and the Hodgman government have listened to legitimate community concerns about this dubious practice.

Science, humanity and that pale blue dot

An astronomer asks questions about his own planet [24 February 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Twenty-five years ago, on Valentine’s Day 1990, a spaceship took a look back across six billion kilometres to the planet where it had begun its long journey in 1977.

The inner solar system as seen from Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990. Earth is the pale dot in the top coloured band, towards the right of the picture. PHOTO NASA

Part of the inner solar system as seen from Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990. Earth is the pale dot in the top coloured band, slightly towards the right of the picture. PHOTO NASA

Hurtling through space at 1000 km a minute, Voyager 1’s journey was still in its early stages. It was to continue to the edge of the solar system and beyond, into interstellar space. Remarkably, it’s still sending data back to Earth and is expected to continue doing so for another 10 years.

Voyager’s primary mission was to explore Jupiter and Saturn, a task which it completed in 1980. At that point the astrophysicist Carl Sagan suggested to NASA that as it sped away its cameras be turned back toward the sun to obtain a very special image.

As bureaucracies do, NASA took 10 years to agree. In 1990 Voyager captured 60 digital images, stored them on a tape recorder aboard and transmitted them back to Earth over a three-month period. So distant was the spacecraft that it took 5½ hours for the radio signal to reach Earth.

The final image, made from three exposures, showed coloured bands of sunlight reflected off the camera housing. In the middle of one of these bands, taking up less than a pixel in the image, is a tiny dot of light, paler and slightly bluer than surrounding objects.

In 1994, two years before his untimely death, Sagan penned this eloquent tribute to that speck in the photograph: “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.

“The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilisation, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

All who view this “mote of dust” can’t help but wonder at the smallness of Earth, seen from not even halfway to the edge of the solar system. The pale blue dot as seen from Voyager on its outward journey would soon have disappeared altogether.

The Earth-awareness encapsulated in the Voyager image informs all those who labour in the cause of understanding our universe and our world and all that happens therein. It would have special resonance for the celebrated astronomer Brian Schmidt.

Born in the United States, Schmidt has called Australia home since 1994. His discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating brought him the most glittering of prizes for science, the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, along with a host of other awards.

Like Voyager, Schmidt is used to looking outward into deep space. But last week, in support of the Australian Academy of Science, he too turned his attention to our own heavenly body. The Academy has just released an update of The Science of Climate Change, its excellent climate booklet for non-specialists.

Schmidt is not surprised at people’s confusion about climate science, which as he points out is a very broad, complex subject. What does surprise him is “the supreme confidence that non-experts (scientists and non-scientists alike) have in their own understanding of the subject”. Whenever climate science comes into a discussion, he finds himself amazed at “how each person I meet suddenly becomes an expert”.

“I too am not an expert on climate science. But I do understand how science works. I understand that the current consensus has been reached by thousands of scientists working for decades.”

They’ve found, he said, that air and oceans are warming, ice is diminishing and sea levels are rising; that human greenhouse gas emissions are the main cause; and that continued emissions will transform Earth’s physical environment and ecosystems.

Schmidt’s plea to his fellow-Australians is that “for the future health of our world and our country, let’s quit self-diagnosing on climate change, and act on the expert opinion.”

In the bigger scheme of things humans don’t even rate a pixel, but here on this pale-blue dot we do matter. It’s us who caused our climate to go awry. We owe it to all of Carl Sagan’s saints and sinners – to ourselves – to fix it.

PHOTO Australian National University

PHOTO Australian National University

A sad postscript: Professor Michael Raupach (left), globally known for his outstanding carbon cycle work and co-editor of The Science of Climate Change, died last week aged 64. I knew him as a humble man, generous with his time and knowledge and unfailingly courteous. He leaves a big gap.

Tasmania’s energy strategy tackles the shock of the new

The current iteration of Tasmania’s energy strategy has discerned new forces at work; now it must work out how to deal with them. [17 February 2015 | Peter Boyer]

The first thing to be said about the Tasmanian government’s five-year energy strategy, now in its final stage after public consultation, is that it acknowledges its limitations.

Tasmania’s electricity network is set for more shocks. PHOTO ABC

Tasmania’s electricity network is set for more shocks. PHOTO ABC

This is a compliment, not a criticism. In these turbulent times for the energy business, the hardest thing to do is to recognise that what we’ve always thought was part of the furniture may soon be a historical curiosity.

However well-established, no business is ever safe, and that’s especially true for technology-based businesses. A case in point is Kodak, which enjoyed over 100 years as the global colossus of the film-based photographic industry.

As the 20th century drew to a close, Kodak wasn’t sitting on its hands. Having invented all the key elements of digital photography, it seemed well-placed to dominate electronic imaging just as it had dominated the world of film. Instead it went into steady decline, filing for bankruptcy in 2012.

Kodak died because of deeply-ingrained ways of thinking built around very specific sets of skills. In the 1990s Kodak people could see that the future lay in digital technology, but they couldn’t bring themselves to embrace it and run with it. It was alien to all that they knew and loved.

As the Tasmanian Energy Strategy recognises, there’s a similar story in play in the future of our use of energy on this island.

Abundant energy with its vast electricity networks and the big generating plants that supplied them shaped the post-war world in which I grew up. In Tasmania the energy came from moving water; in other states it was from steam created by heat from burning coal.

The electricity networks of five states and the Australian Capital Territory are now united as the National Electricity Market. With about 40,000 km of transmission lines, the NEM proudly claims to administer the longest alternating current system in the world.

Electricity networks are a kind of natural monopoly, where a product or service is deemed to be delivered more cheaply by a single provider than multiple ones. Experience suggests that with good regulation this can work, but like all monopolies it’s prone to complacency.

Other dominant symbols of my time are the motor car and its internal combustion engine, centrepieces of a huge global industry powered by mineral oil. These technologies were fully mature when I was born, which makes them positively ancient today.

Making, servicing and fixing the car and its engine is a big enterprise, as befits this beast of many parts. Even more than grid electricity, it’s become part of the furniture.

Enter two interlopers into this comfortable scene, like digital imaging intruding into the world of Kodak. Rooftop solar power and the electric motor vehicle are set to massively disrupt today’s energy industries, here and everywhere. The reason for this lies in both the technologies themselves and in the economic forces that drive all such enterprises.

Unlike centralised power generation, rooftop solar is a distributed energy source. While it can be profitable to sell solar power into a grid, it doesn’t have to be that way. It can simply power the building it sits on, or buildings nearby. It doesn’t have to have poles and wires.

The cost trajectory of both solar panels and electric motor vehicles is heading down, driven by both economies of scale and advancing technology. Solar costs a tiny fraction of what it did a mere 15 years ago. Electric cars and the batteries that drive them are going rapidly in the same direction.

Solar power is free and locally supplied, while grid electricity is beset with network costs and fuel costs in the case of coal. The petrol-diesel engine’s complexity makes it far costlier to maintain and ensures a shorter operating life than applies to the relatively simple electric engine.

The Tasmanian Energy Strategy recognises the value of rooftop solar to the electricity grid with smart metering and an appropriate pricing structure, and sees the potential of electric cars both in saving on transport fuel and providing battery power to enhance network energy storage.

A couple of caveats: the strategy’s tacit approval of pricing to represent the “true cost” of network supply isn’t a good way of dealing with solar and battery power. With these options getting cheaper by the day, this may eventually encourage householders to go it alone – not a great help to the grid.

Biofuels and natural gas are put up as possible extra strings to the energy bow. But government-funded feasibility studies are bound to find that the value of biofuel is at best peripheral. As for natural gas, it’s a fossil fuel whose propensity for leakage has cast doubt on its mitigation value.

Like Kodak, the Tasmanian Energy Strategy has spotted the big disruptions ahead. Unlike Kodak, it must now find a way to deal with them. I look forward to the next stage.