Dick Smith’s false energy dichotomy

2013-08-02_DickSmith_s“Just to fill up the plane, 600 dollars a drum. Wow, imagine what happens when that gets to ten bucks a litre. Hoo hoo! I won’t be flying it, I don’t think.”

That’s an early moment in Dick Smith’s energy documentary, Ten Bucks a Litre, that aired last night on ABC. In between a few strange moments it’s a reasonable show, albeit with a highly questionable conclusion. Smith’s question is this: what is Australia’s current energy situation, and are we ready for the changes ahead?

The good bits

There some successes of this documentary, and some big failings. Where he succeeds is in covering all the main areas in a mere sixty minutes: fossil fuels, unconventional oil, carbon sequestration, wind power, small and large scale solar, nuclear, biofuel, energy efficiency, transport and energy storage. It’s a lot to pack in and he does it reasonably well given the time constraints, although I’m not sure he ends up including much that the average person doesn’t already know.

He also gets some stunning footage with real impact: the aerial shots of coal seam gas wells are interesting, and the views over the huge new coal mines in Queensland help give perspective on the physical scale of an industry most of us don’t ever see. He also points out the lack of foresight in our suburban planning that locks residents into energy-hungry homes in public-transport-free areas.

The bizarre bits

The Aussie entrepreneur tackles the project with aplomb. Here he is, landing in his private plane on a farm to discuss the unsustainability of fossil fuels! Here he is, weaving his light aircraft between wind turbines discussing renewable energy! Now he is landing his helicopter near an outer suburb of Sydney, so he can give energy saving tips to a family in a McMansion!

The bizarre irony-free way he approaches this is confusing – until you realise the entire documentary itself confuses two different motivations for energy reform: climate change, and resource availability. For most of the hour, he’s only concerned with fuel scarcity and subsequent price rises – and hence can step straight out of his private helicopter to question a Sydneysider’s Holden’s petrol use in the same scene without breaking a sweat. He’s just worried about how the man will get to work when fuel gets to ten dollars a litre, after all – but for now, both of us can afford our fuel, so let’s go for it! When you reduce energy issues to a question of cost only, the problem is conveniently in the future, and it’s something we will deal with when poverty forces us to – a relative scale, of course, depending on your wealth.

The misleading bits

His concluding statement at the end of the show does bring climate change into the picture. It’s worth reproducing the conclusion in full. “I think we’ve got three alternatives,” he says. “Number one: if we’re not going to care about carbon in the atmosphere and climate change, we’re obviously going to stick with coal and gas. That’s the cheapest. But if we are concerned with carbon in the atmosphere, and we want to keep our normal excessive ways of using energy, really the only alternative is nuclear. It’s going to be more expensive, and of course risk is involved. And the third alternative of course is to go totally renewables. I’ve seen that renewable energy is possible, but I think it’s going to cost a great deal more than we pay now.”

Let’s break this down point by point: His first argument about coal seems reasonable – until, that is, you realise he’s just done a huge flip of his main argument. By suddenly reframing it in terms of climate instead of resource, he’s made sticking with coal and oil a possibility (for those who decide global warming might not exist) – doesn’t the whole name of his documentary point out that this isn’t a long-term solution? (Oil has already peaked, and recent research has even shown that coal may peak much sooner than expected.)

The second argument about nuclear energy is the tip of a much bigger debate – but although Mr Smith would like to pose it as a practical necessity, he has no authority to say it’s the ‘only’ option – CSIRO modelling flatly contradicts this. Despite what he says, in Australia we have enough renewable resources to give us other technically and economically viable options – we can avoid the difficult decisions that have to be made by energy-poorer countries like England. This means nuclear power remains a social decision, not a technical necessity.

‘Expensive and risky’ is a good short-sentence summary of nuclear power, though. For discussion of other important issues, like whether we’d be able to build one in time to mitigate climate change, and the problem of emissions in the processing of uranium ore, I’d refer you to Ian Lowe’s Quarterly Essay. 

But by far the biggest problem with the conclusion – and, in my opinion, the most serious flaw in the whole program – is the false ‘all-or-nothing’ dichotomy he poses for renewables.

This itself is the source of one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the show: where Mr Smith uses his time on the podium at the Bellingen alternative energy fair to tell everyone solar panels are worthless because the sun doesn’t shine all the time. Later, of course, he visits the CSIRO solar thermal power plant and learns how some kinds of solar can run 24 hours a day thanks to thermal storage. (I was part of the solar thermal research team at the time he visited our site.)

But just because solar photovoltaics supplement, not replace, grid power doesn’t mean they don’t have a big part to play in our energy future. Likewise, just because it’s theoretically possible to run the whole country from solar thermal and wind power (as Matthew Wright from BZE showed Dick Smith in the doco) doesn’t mean all the experts  think going for total coverage is the best option either – as you would have heard from CSIRO solar research leader Wes Stein in the documentary, had his taped comments been included. Wes is on record as saying he thinks 25% of our nation’s power could technically and economically come from solar thermal energy – a huge amount, not devalued because it’s less than 100%.

In fact, the catchphrase of most energy experts in Australia is ‘the future energy mix’ – CSIRO energy economists forecast that in the future our energy will be forced – by resource limitations, price rises, growing demand and climate considerations – to come from a complex mixture of sources, including some fossil fuels. You can investigate scenarios yourself on CSIRO’s interactive eFuture tool.

The idea that renewables are ‘all or nothing’ only prolongs our inaction. Any growth in technology that displaces fossil fuels is an important start. We should be doing all we can to increase their deployment, for both climate and resource availability reasons. Because as Dick Smith demonstrates, it doesn’t seem like we’re about to change our extravagant energy usage any time soon.

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