Robert Clifford’s world of possibilities

Two years ago, when even the coal-carrying former PM Scott Morrison saw that denying climate change was electoral suicide, he summed up the Coalition’s newly-minted net-zero emissions plan in three words: technology, not taxes.

It was a message designed to give the impression that government was on the case and to reassure voters that they need not fear being called on to sacrifice hard-earned wealth just to fix the climate. 

A similar mindset has been in play in Tasmanian politics. Promising only to consult with other levels of government, industry and the community “to work together on practical solutions”, climate change minister Roger Jaensch continued his government’s multi-year avoidance of any commitment to act on our stubbornly-high transport emissions. The state government wants others to rescue it from uncomfortable truths. It’s a cop-out, thinly disguised as policy.

The cop-out extends to governments, in Australia and elsewhere, waving through new fossil fuel developments – coalmines, oil wells, gas fields, multi-billion-dollar processing plants. The only impediment to this, anywhere, seems to be legal action by highly-motivated but cash-poor youth and indigenous groups.

The gargantuan global fossil fuel industry has for decades told us that technology – carbon capture and storage – will eventually save us by sucking heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the air. All Australian governments have acquiesced by allowing that fallacy to linger.

For all that, technology will be part of our way out of this morass. The only measures of this are tangible results from tangible actions, and one such actor has striven all his life to make marine technology synonymous with his beloved island home.

Tasmanians have learned over a lifetime to listen carefully to what Robert Clifford says about the future of transport, because there’s a fair chance it will come to pass. A couple of weekends ago I joined an audience from Sustainable Living Tasmania to hear from this master shipbuilder how marine transportation might look in a world without fossil fuel, and see how his company is putting this into effect.

Because it’s a stop-start business depending on a succession of one-off orders, shipbuilding is especially vulnerable to economic fluctuations. When orders dried up early this century Incat went into receivership for nearly a year. Typically, Clifford traded his way out of insolvency by building and selling vessels on spec.

Either side of his 80th birthday early this year, Clifford and his iconic Tasmanian company worked their way through the biggest of many transitions in the company’s 46-year history. His lofty goal is to put Incat at the forefront of a revolution in shipbuilding now stirring around the world.

The revolution is all about greenhouse warming. Transport in all its forms accounts for about a quarter of fossil fuel emissions around the world. Road transport (Roger Jaensch’s great challenge) takes up three-quarters of that, and nearly all the remainder is shared about equally by aviation and shipping. 

Most shipping emissions come from 100,000 giant international freighters burning heavy fuel oil. Marine and aviation emissions, falling between national jurisdictions, have been left unattended, but now both industries are under pressure to clean up their act. Shipping is looking mainly at cleaner fuels, like liquefied natural gas, methanol and hydrogen. 

Another possibility is electric power. The world’s first autonomous battery-powered cargo ship, a 3200 tonne coastal vessel launched in Norway two years ago, is a minnow compared to the monsters 100 times its size plying the open ocean, but you have to start somewhere, and Europe is where the action is.

Incat’s focus has been aluminium passenger and vehicle ferries. A recent order for a 130m ferry able to carry 2100 passengers and over 200 vehicles started with diesel engines, but Clifford and his Argentine customer agreed that the ship’s light weight made it an ideal candidate for battery power. This will be the first battery-powered ship built in Australia, and the world’s largest.

So confident is Clifford of success that he’s openly envisaging his company becoming a global leader in sequential electric ship production, delivering each year a large ship of 140 metres or more and multiple smaller vessels at 70m. 

But as he also pointed out, electrical energy doesn’t come from nowhere. If electric ships are to be a success a lot of work has to be done to produce enough clean power to meet demand and deliver it to ships, in port or offshore, by charging or battery exchange. 

Remembering Robert Clifford speaking of maritime possibilities, I’m left wondering how he might tackle something closer to home, electrifying Tasmania’s road transport system. I feel sure of one thing: he wouldn’t be sitting on his hands waiting for others.

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