Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Solar powered billionaire backs... [wait for it...] Solar Power!!

SHI Zhengrong
(Shi sells Shi-cells, down by the sea shore?? - sorry couldn't resist)

To the bewildered amazement of this blogger – and I’m sure many readers out there – Dr. SHI Zhengrong, a Chinese billionaire and founder – and currently in possession of 40% of the shares of – the Nasdaq-listed Suntech Power, capitalised at $US5.5 billion ($6.5 billion) has come to Australia to ‘talk some sense into us’ about the justification for solar ‘over’ nuclear. [Oh, and then lure 300 of our best and brightest out to work in a probably much more lucrative Chinese energy market - but we're not supposed to focus on that. Remember my infrastructure post on resources?... ah-hem!].

What a shock!!

Mind you, I support solar – but I think we should all acknowledge two things. First the demonstrated capabilities of the technology; despite the claims of many solar advocates, solar is not displacing baseload power anywhere. It’s great for hot water heaters etc. but the heavy lifting will have to come from some other technologies – as international and domestic reports have repeatedly concluded.

Second, let’s get real about these pie in the sky claims regarding solar R&D. I can remember claims from solar enthusiasts back when I was at university – a long time ago indeed – stating that the ‘big breakthroughs’ were just around the corner.

I suggest we all take a deep breath, maybe even a step back, and look at the colossal problem that greenhouse gas emissions – carbon dioxide in particular – pose to us ALL in the coming decades.

Is it reasonable to assume the bulk of people around the globe will drastically alter their lifestyles? Take just a moment to consider what this means. Will even 10% of Sydneysiders be bicycling to work in 10 years time? Further afield, will residents of the developing regions of Africa be burning carbon depleted cow dung to cook their dinner?? [An example: I was dumbfounded when a former director of mine used to leave his office window open while his air-conditioner purred away [he was not a nuclear man by the way]. When I challenged him on it, he – being of an earlier generation – simply shrugged it off and made some comment about air-conditioned air being stuffy and his small impact would not kill the world [think again, mate]].

Is it acceptable to just continue to allow our electrical infrastructure to degrade to the point where brown-/black-outs are a periodic occurrence? This is happening as utilities wait for the manifestation of any carbon pricing and/or balk at new plant construction due to protests of the myriad environmental groups opposed to coal/gas [greenhouse gases], nuclear [? you got me], hydro [fish killers], wind [bird/view killers] as well as the others that I am sure are out there on the fringe. Will this or future generations accept less reliability than they have come to take for granted throughout their lifetimes? Without power, how long will it take for society to degrade into utter chaos? Think I’m being dramatic? Have a look back at the news reports following the 2005 Katrina hurricane in the USA. Not to mention that degraded electrical infrastructure makes any country more vulnerable to security threats.

But I’m not a total pessimist; in fact I have always considered myself more on the positive side. I do believe society in general can be counted on to make modest lifestyle changes. Maybe forgo the gas guzzling Ute for something more fuel efficient, getting in the habit of switching off the lights, or moving the A/C temperature up a few degrees, buying local produce, etc.

But if you look at the numbers, and the absolutely massive shift in energy generation technology required [or so say the experts at – for example – the IPCC]; it becomes painfully obvious that we will need – must have, in fact – an array of technologies and lifestyle changes to get the job done.

Simply put, this means: Solar AND nuclear AND hydro AND wind AND geothermal AND tidal AND biofuels AND lifestyle changes AND improved efficiency AND any bloody thing else that can be economically and safely thrown at this problem.

Of this list, nuclear – and only nuclear – can displace carbon based generation with existing, demonstrated and reliable capacity. Take nuclear out of the equation – and a credible solution is simply not technically conceivable.

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