Thursday, June 09, 2016
Solar Versus Nuclear
Solar energy might be free, but harvesting it is very costly, both in dollar terms and on the environment, writes Geoff Russell.
I’d be guessing that large screen TVs in the pubs around Mt Isa, Broken Hill and the Northern Territory’s McArthur River mine are hard wired to show nothing but Fox Sports, but they really should have been tuned to the ABC back in November last year for Kitchen Cabinet.
They’d have been a cheerin’ and a hollerin’ over their beers as Australian Greens leader Richard Di Natale stood before the altar of his large bank of lead acid batteries and announced with messianic fervour, “This is the future!”
Sunshine may be considered a renewable energy source but the resources needed to harvest it are the same as for any other energy source; they involve land, mines, tailings dams, metals, smelting, concrete, trucks, bulldozers; the whole gamut.
But because sunshine and wind are both intermittent and unpredictable, it’s best to squirrel away what you harvest; which means more mines, smelting, tailings dams, trucks and the like.
Focusing on the renewability of the sunshine and ignoring the harvesting infrastructure is like focusing on the oh-so-low-low price of a colour printer, while ignoring its $500-a-refill toxic toner cartridges.
Aboriginal people living around the McArthur River zinc, lead and silver mine are at the pointy end of battery production, and may not share Di Natale’s enthusiasm.
The McArthur River mine has been getting some worrying news coverage lately. Threatening disaster with fires and (claims of) tailing dam leaks, and consequently threatened with closure.
A tailings dam is where miners put all the stuff that nobody will pay them for after extracting the stuff they reckon they can sell from whatever they dig out of their bloody big holes. The extraction process generally involves water, hence the term “dam”. Typically, tailings dams contain significant amounts of material that is toxic and dangerous, forever.
As the crow flies, the McArthur River mine is about 90 km from the coast in the Northern Territory.....
But let’s get back to the mine itself. Who the hell needs zinc, lead and silver anyway?
Zinc mines have always been important because zinc is incredibly widely used. About half of the world’s zinc is used in galvanising iron, but the rest is used in everything from brass to electrical solder to vitamin pills.
Zinc mines are particularly hot property at the moment because of interest in bloody big batteries to spackle over the gaping holes in energy output from solar panels and wind farms.
There is a major battle between zinc and lithium technologies, and if zinc were to win that battle, then we’d need more mines like McArthur River, Mt Isa and Broken Hill.
Zinc currently has an edge because it’s cheaper… partly because its many uses have driven the construction of big mines… like McArthur River.
Will zinc stay cheap? Probably not, it’s on the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) endangered chemical list. But the thing about lithium batteries is that the ones being touted for cars and home backup systems have (by weight) eight times more cobalt than lithium. And the thing about cobalt is that the biggest producer on the planet is the Democratic Republic of Congo, which produces fully 50 percent of current world production.
Here’s a picture of some children mining cobalt in DR Congo for the green big battery future. Amnesty International released a report on these horrors back in January this year.
After zinc, lead is the second major product of the McArthur River mine. Globally we use about 10.6 million tonnes of lead annually, with about 5 million coming from mines and the rest coming from recycling.
It’s used in everything from paints to shotgun pellets, but about 85 percent of global lead production is used in batteries; like those used in Richard Di Natale’s battery room.
While zinc and lithium are fighting for the high-end market with superior energy density, lead will always be a winner in the battery wars because it is cheaper than both. But if you want a serious battery backup system, then you typically need a spare room for what ends up as a really large battery set.
Imagine if all the households on the planet who have a car also emulated Di Natale’s PV system with battery backup. Instead of one standard car battery, each household would have a dozen batteries of more than double the size.
Can enough lead deposits be found and developed to meet such a rise in demand? Lead isn’t on the ACS endangered list but it is listed as “Limited Availability… Future risk to supply”. The same is true of cobalt and nickel, the other key battery components.
So a large expansion of lead or any other battery technology may not be trivial. But even assuming you can find and extract more lead, building clean smelting and recycling processes is challenging. Even rich countries like Australia have persisted with poor processes resulting in children at Port Pirie in South Australia having elevated blood lead levels for decades.
And even if the proposed Nyrstar redevelopment at Port Pirie finally results in cleaner processes, lead is still smelted and processed in filthy conditions and poisoning children in many countries; one study estimated that 15 percent of Mexican children have lost 5 IQ points due to lead poisoning.
So while the Greens are worried about nuclear waste – which has never hurt anybody – their leader spruiks an industry of monumental toxicity.
The global nuclear industry has been looking after its waste safely for decades. Not so the lead industry, and lead doesn’t have a half life… it’s toxic forever.
Mining isn’t something anybody should undertake lightly. You want to maximise the social value while minimising the area you trash in the process. So let’s run some Ranger numbers.
How much electricity has been generated during the last decade from Ranger’s uranium?
It takes about 280 tonnes of uranium to power a South Korean APR1400 reactor. So Ranger’s output over the past decade could supply about 13.45 of these reactors annually.
How much electricity would that supply? About 148 terawatt hours annually; which is about 60 percent of Australia’s total electricity demand.
Add in the Olympic Dam uranium, and we could easily power Australia from these two mines if we had the reactors.
Let’s compare this to a solar and battery alternative. Australia’s largest solar farm is at Nyngan. It covers 250 hectares and generates 230 gigawatt hours per year.
These 13.45 APR1400s would generate as much electricity annually as 637 Nyngans, covering 159,250 hectares… without needing any batteries. This is like 81,000 Melbourne Cricket Grounds.
Join them end-to-end and you have a 41-lane highway stretching from Sydney to Perth … and back to Sydney … and back to Perth and then some.
But what if we didn’t use lead, zinc or lithium to store the electricity from all those Nyngans? How about molten salt storage?
Plenty of people talk about molten salt storage, but when the public hear about it, almost everybody imagines scraping a little off the top of Lake Eyre and putting it in a few trucks. Not quite.
The salt used is a mix of sodium and potassium nitrate, produced in chemical plants using stuff that is first mined and then transformed.
Nonetheless, this kind of salt storage is well understood, but only ever been used in small powerplants.
Why? It’s easy to calculate the amount of salt needed to provide 12 hours of storage for 637 Nyngans; it comes to about 22 million tonnes.
The current global production of potassium nitrate is about 1.4 million tonnes, and that of sodium nitrate is similar.
So first find sites for a very large number of chemical factories, do an EIS for each one, survive local objections, or better still, build them in some developing country with more friendly tax laws and lower environmental standards, then make your 22 million tonnes and deliver them to where you want them in half a million B-double truck loads.
Like I said, sunshine might be free, but harvesting it is a bugger and storing it is even worse.
The environmental costs of a Ranger sized uranium mine are certainly significant, but tiny compared to the solar + battery alternative. And it just keeps getting better the more you understand about nuclear reactor technology.
The Chinese expect their ‘fast reactors’ to dominate the market in about 15 years time. With these reactors, you can multiply the electricity generated with a tonne of uranium by a factor of about 100. Which is exactly what the Chinese need, because they don’t have much uranium.
So what’s on the horizon for solar and batteries? Exactly the same snail pace development with tiny incremental improvements of an already resource hungry technology.
Federal election 2016: throwing cash at schools is not the answer
A question that has divided philosophers and psychologists for centuries — what makes children turn out as they do? — has finally been answered with the release of Labor’s education policy.
It seems Descartes, Locke and co were barking up the wrong tree; the answer is not nature or nurture but the government.
No longer will children have to “choose their parents wisely,” as Bertrand Russell once advised. Under the fully funded Gonski plan, we are told, every child in every school will have the same chance of succeeding.
“We want to make sure,” Bill Shorten explained, “that children, no matter what their background, no matter what their postcode, whether or not they live in the suburbs and the cities, in country towns or along our coast, whether or not they go to a government school or a Catholic school, a private school, get every chance.”
Much as alchemists once dreamed of turning base metal into gold, so today’s social policy planners are bewitched by the notion that, with enough government money, every child can be made to sparkle.
Never mind the trail of failed experiments, abandoned fads or prodigious amounts of public money already spent. It wasn’t the frailties of the program that let us down, apparently, but mean-spirited governments blind to the needs of the weary and dispossessed.
The government’s job used to stop with the provision of universal education; what students and parents did with it was entirely up to them. After four decades of progressive social thinking, culminating in the Gonski review, the government’s task has expanded; it must intervene to break the supposed causal link between educational accomplishment and familial, social and economic background.
The Gonski review should have challenged the assumption that schools are cost-effective instruments for fixing the complex ills of society.
Instead, it took it as granted, which seems absurd to anybody grounded in the real world. Take, for example, the plight of an infant raised in a welfare-fed cesspit by adults so drug-addled that they are incapable of telling the time themselves, let alone passing that skill on to their children. Suppose a generous Labor government doubles the budget of the local school which the little mite fitfully attends. How much does that change the kid’s prospects? Probably very little, if at all.
The presence of a man like Andrew Leigh on Labor’s frontbench makes it all the more surprising that it has fallen — hook, line and sinker — for the funding fallacy. Leigh was the lead author of a report for Treasury’s Social Policy Division called “How much of the variation in literacy and numeracy can be explained by school performance?”
The answer, Leigh concluded, was about 30 per cent. The other 70 per cent was explained by factors outside the school’s control. A comparison with other studies suggests Leigh may have been over-estimating the influence of schooling — an OECD study for example suggests 20 per cent — but even so, the implications for government are clear.
“The more that children’s academic achievement is determined in the home, the less chance that policies to improve schools’ performance will have a transformative impact on the life chances of disadvantaged students,” wrote Leigh.
“At the extreme, if socio-economic status entirely explains academic performance, it is pointless to think about reforming schools in order to raise educational outcomes.”
Absent from Leigh’s pre-Gonski analysis is any discussion about money. To the extent to which schools make a difference, Leigh suggests that the ability of the principal and the quality of the teachers are likely to make the biggest difference. Most objective studies arrive at the same conclusion; it is not the amount of money allocated to schools that matters but how it is spent.
In the middle of the election-charged debate about school funding comes a subversive intervention by the ABC that debunks Gonski’s assumption that it is just a question of funding. Last week the public broadcaster launched the first episode of Revolution School, a fly-on-the-wall documentary about a state secondary school in a low socio-economic area on the outer fringe of Melbourne that has managed to turn its lacklustre performance around.
It was apparent from the first scene that Kambyra College was well resourced; all children had access to a laptop and the classrooms were in reasonable repair. The teachers seemed motivated, dedicated and intelligent if a little battle-worn from the daily challenge of keeping order. Mr Wallis’ Year 10 English class appeared particularly brutal.
Yet in the course of the 58-minute episode, no one raised the issue of money.
As John Hattie, the expert who supervised Kambyra’s transformation, explained, when it comes to improving education, Australians are arguing about the wrong thing.
Class sizes or the difference between private and public education are largely immaterial.
“If you take students of the same kind of prior ability, the same kind of initial ability, here in Australia it virtually doesn’t matter what school you go to.
“Schools don’t make much difference — it’s the teachers.’’
Labor’s Gonski-inspired plan to pump another $37 billion into schools is looking increasingly reckless, as evidenced not just by Revolution School but the shadow assistant treasurer’s 2008 report.
It is less a rational policy response than an act of fiscal exhibition designed to show that Labor cares. As Leigh’s research demonstrates, schools cannot press the reset button for every kid that enters their gates, no matter how much money we throw at them.
With three episodes still to go, Revolution School is looking like the most uplifting thing the ABC has commissioned since Choir of Hard Knocks. Kambyra’s principal, Michael Muscat, would surely be an early favourite for Australian of the Year, had the process not been so corrupted.
While the teaching unions plaster the country with Gonski banners backing Labor, Muscat and his staff in an undistinguished outer Melbourne suburb are applying themselves to the harder task of changing the world one child at a time.
If you don't care about the details, why would they?
What do the Shorten / Turnbull leaders' debate, Julie Bishop's stumbles on transition to retirement and Sarah Hanson-Young's train wreck on superannuation have to do with each other?
Answer: they are all boring.
Partial credit only for giving that response. The full answer is they are all largely about policy details, while the fact that the public sees policy as boring is problematic, not funny.
And the Sarah Hanson-Young interview wasn't boring, especially the part where the host offered to get her policy advisor in, instead of her, because at least they knew what they were talking about. If only minor parties like the Greens were held to account more often.
The major parties are, at least on occasion, held to account. One such occasion was the leaders' debate, where journalists asked probing questions like whether Labor actually had an upper limit on how high the tax to GDP ratio would rise (which Shorten couldn't answer) and whether either party had a plan to actually get people off Manus and Nauru (which they didn't).
The fact that both leaders largely stuck to scripted answers that avoided the substantive issues is symptomatic of a broader political malaise.
The politicians know they don't need to be across the detail because most of the electorate isn't listening anyway -- and the bulk of those who do listen only care about what's in it for themselves. And let's not overlook the twitter partisan armies, ready to repeat whatever inconsistent, inane nonsense their side serves up as gospel.
That's why Q&A with the leaders attracts a million people and the debate only attracted half as many viewers as the third most-popular reality show of the night.
The policy detail should matter. It should matter more than the colour of Malcolm's tie or Shorten's zingers. It should matter much more than Richard Di Natalie's turtleneck or whether David Leyonhjelm really is the Bond villain, Blofeld.
Yet it will only matter to politicians if it matters to voters, and right now it is clear that it doesn't. It's just too boring.
Free debate more practised on the Right
There is a debate about public funding of literary journals, and other forms of middle-class cultural welfare such as the opera and the symphony.
But that debate is separate to whether the taxpayer's money that does subsidise the arts and letters is distributed without political bias.
I've been vocal about the Australia Council's decision to de-fund Quadrant magazine.
The Left loves to pay lip service to the ideals of diversity and respect for free inquiry. But I have found that ideals are more often genuinely practised on the Right.
Ten years ago, Quadrant published an article by me on the White Australia Policy, which was critical of aspects of the book that Keith Windschuttle had written on the subject, and which prompted a typically combative response from him in a subsequent edition.
In the decade since, Quadrant, under Windschuttle's editorship and others, has published a number of articles by me on a range of topics. I can't help wondering if someone who had criticised the work of Robert Manne, say, would get as good a run in The Monthly?
I think the reason the Right tolerates different answers to the same questions without recriminations, and doesn't impose a political bar on those who differ, is that it is more interested in doing good, rather than seeming good by supporting the 'right' causes.
A good example of this may be my critical review in the June edition of Quadrant of Stan Grant's new book, Talking to My Country -- a book universally acclaimed by the Left.
Grant's book argues that entrenched Indigenous disadvantage continues to persist in Australia due to the failure to address the legacy of racism dating back to the original sins of colonisation.
The gist of my response is that Grant has got his history the wrong way round. The major cause of the worst Indigenous disadvantage has been the impact of the policies of Aboriginal Self-Determination, which were implemented in the 1970s to address the historic wrongs of dispossession.
If we take heed of Grant's book, we will believe -- as many on the Left argue -- that the answers to overcoming Indigenous disadvantage lie in continuing to reckon with history by undertaking symbolic Reconciliation via the Recognition and Treaty movements.
To the contrary, the real answers lie in practical Reconciliation -- as has been the central message of the revisionist literature that has reshaped the Indigenous debate over the last 20 years, much of which has been published in Quadrant.
Another police goon
Cop pulled his gun and screamed abuse at a driver clocked at 16km/h over the limit on a remote highway. Has previous complaints against him
A police officer who is facing criminal charges after being caught on film swearing at and pulling his gun on a speeding motorist is petitioning to have his pay reinstated.
Senior Constable Stephen Flanagan was charged with assault and deprivation of liberty after the Ethical Standards Command reviewed footage of him pulling over a speeding driver on the Landsborough Highway in Longreach, Central West Queensland, last May, the ABC reported.
The footage - which shows Flanagan handcuffing, verbally abusing and pointing a gun at a motorist he caught doing 126 kilometres per hour in a 110 zone - was tendered to the Supreme Court by the Police Commissioner's office after he applied to have his pay reinstated during his suspension.
The suspended officer can be heard swearing as he drives up beside the speeding ute, using his horn instead of his siren to indicate to the driver that he needed to pull over.
Once the car comes to a stop on the side of the outback road, Snr Cst Flanagan pulls his weapon and points it at the driver while demanding: 'Get out of your f*****g car right now.'
He then calls the motorist names and swears as the driver's partner secretly films him from the passenger seat.
'You came past me - I'm bloody beeping the horn up the side to point you over and you still keep driving,' he said in the footage obtained by The ABC. 'You didn't see me? Right, where's your licence d**khead?'
Flanagan told the court he thought he had used his sirens during the pursuit and initially believed the vehicle was stolen, which is why he handcuffed the driver as he checked his registration.
But, according to the Courier Mail, investigators told the court Flanagan has a 'concerning and consistent complaint history involving excessive force when interacting with members of the community'
It was argued he had treated a motorist unfairly on another occasion in 2013, with footage of him tossing a Gold Coast motorist's keys on the road also tendered to the court.
He told the motorist he was driving like 'an absolute c***' before saying he would sit in court, laugh and drink coffee while he was convicted.
Flanagan, who has been a police officer for over 25 years, was stood down over the 2013 incident after it was found he failed to treat the driver with dignity and respect, according to the ABC.
The Supreme Court is yet to make a decision on Flanagan's pay, while he will face the criminal charges later this week.
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here