Quote of the day/week/month/post:
Better to have questions you can’t answer than answers you can’t question – Max Tegmark (and many others)
Jacinta: So while astrophysicists argue over the likelihood of life elsewhere in our tiny but massive universe, some are focusing on our nearest star neighbour. Some wobbling of the red dwarf known as Proxima Centauri has revealed, upon lengthy observation, that it has a closely orbiting planet, which considering the relative coolness of the star – way too dim to be seen with the naked eye – and the proximity of its satellite, is very much in the habitable zone. While it’s too early to say so much for the naysayers, the discovery of a planet in the Goldilocks zone of our nearest star in a galaxy of billions of possibilities must surely raise hopes and expectations of life abundant.
Canto: This closest possible exoplanet was only discovered in August this year, so we’re desperate to find out more about it. Being in the habzone is one thing, habitability is another. Obvious questions we have no current way of answering are: does it have an atmosphere? Any possibility of water? Is it tidally locked? And of course we’d love to know if we could launch some sort of robotic mission to our nearest star neighbour. Meanwhile is there any other way of gleaning more info from this tantalising object?
Jacinta: It’s not likely to be habitable though. Solar winds are estimated to be some 2000 times those experienced on Earth, though we can’t be too sure. Researchers are trying to work out the size of the planet…
Canto: How do they know about those solar winds?
Jacinta: Oooh, that’s a horribly good question. It’s due to the closeness of the orbit, where you would expect the solar winds to be much stronger, as they are in our solar system. It’s believed that Mercury’s magnetic field, which should be stronger than it’s been measured to be because of its heavy metallic core, is dampened massively by our solar wind. So basically they would’ve inferred Proxima Centauri’s wind by our own. As to how they came up with the figure of 2000 times that experienced on Earth, I’ve no idea, but strong solar winds make it hard to maintain an atmosphere, which is vital for life. You’ve also talked about tidal locking, which is a feature of close orbits, such as the Moon’s orbit of the Earth. So you’ll have a permanently hot day side and a permanently cool night side, and this can be problematic for the creation of an atmosphere, according to modelling.
Canto: Now, all of this sounds very negative, but basing exo-planetary activity on what’s been the case, as far as we can work it out, in our solar system, has been really problematic hasn’t it?
Jacinta: Definitely, that’s why we need to go beyond modelling, if we can, and collect some real data. So we’re looking to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the very exciting successor to Hubble to be launched around November 2018, to garner more info, which it’ll be perfectly equipped to do.
Canto: If by some near-miraculous combination of circs there is an atmosphere on Proxima b, or a reasonable quantity of liquid water, that would help distribute the heat around the planet. With no atmosphere, the difference between day side and night side would be stark.
Jacinta: Exactly, and that’s what the JWST should be able to detect, as the best way to detect the atmosphere is to measure the planet’s infrared heat signature. If the JWST finds a decisive and fixed difference between the planet’s day and night sides, it’s a safe bet that no atmosphere is present. The JWST will be equipped to measure this IR signature on both sides of the planet, and if it doesn’t find that stark difference, that’ll be when we can start speculating about an atmosphere and its constituents.
Canto: Though of course they’ve already started with the speculation. But really, whatever they find – and I don’t expect that everything will line up for life – the fact that we’ve found an exoplanet well worth investigating on the nearest star outside our solar system, with billions of stars yet to be homed in on, one by one – doesn’t that say something to those who argue for the Fermi paradox – where are they? Okay, Fermi and Hart were talking about intelligent life, and that may well be orders of magnitude more difficult to develop than life itself, but I’m sure that Fermi would be unsettled in his skepticism, if he was alive today, by the vast numbers of exoplanets, in other words possibilities for life, we’re discovering now, with so many to come in the near future.
Jacinta: Yes, bliss in this time it is to be alive, but to be young, that would be very heaven!
Cosmos issue 71, pp9-10
Jacinta: Let’s talk about power. Imbecilic and nasty macho rulers have disgraced our planet for centuries, and their female counterparts have been few and far between. Let’s take a look at some current fruitcakes.
Canto: I wouldn’t say imbecilic – people who get to these positions always have smarts, but often not the kind of smarts that we hopeful underlings value. Okay, let’s go to Poland. Andrzej Duda is Poland’s President, though not its King. That title belongs to another dude, who’s been dead for near on 2000 years (and some say he never existed), and that dude’s mum is Queen. Both in perpetuity, presumably. It’s not known exactly what powers have been conferred on this duo, but a recent ceremony installing the new but very old King, and attended by Duda, gives an indication. During the ceremony, this statement was made:
Rule us, Christ! Reign in our homeland and reign in every nation – for the greater glory of the Most Holy Trinity and the salvation of mankind.
I’m not sure how Poland’s neighbours have responded to this clear threat to their sovereignty, but surely the international community should be on high alert about Poland’s intention to conquer the world via this apparently indestructible dictator (it seems their Queen owes her status solely to being the King’s mum). We shouldn’t let the ambitions of ISIS entirely dominate our thoughts at this time. Duda is, needless to say, a devotee of the most patriarchal organisation in the western world, an organisation that has been intent on world domination since its formation.
Jacinta: And many women in the country are going bunta about the Catholic-diseased government’s plan to ban abortion outright and to impose heavy penalties on non-compliance. Though I should point out that the current PM of the ruling ‘Law and Justice’ Party (PiS) is female, and that’s where the real power lies. The President’s position is largely ceremonial.
Canto: Yeah, like the female cheerleaders for cloth bags in Islamic countries.
Jacinta: Yeah, chuck out the muslin, Muslims. Are they made of muslin? That’d be kind of poetic injustice, wouldn’t it.
Canto: Okay, let’s move south south-east now. Recep Erdogan is the current boss of Turkey, and hopes to be so until 2029. He’s a real macho, a former Islamist who saw the error of his ways after a spell in jail in 1998. Professing to be a moderate conservative, he created the Justice and Development Party (ADP) and led it to victory in a number of elections. So, after terms as Prime Minister he became President in 2014 and has since been expanding the power of that position, previously a ceremonial one.
Jacinta: Watch for any party with ‘justice’ and law’ in its title. They tend to be hard-liners. It’s unlikely that Turkey’s disgusting record of violence against women will improve under this bullish nationalist, who of course opposes abortion in all but the most extreme circs. Honour killing, sex slavery and domestic violence are massive problems in this country, where women are under-educated, under-employed, under-paid and under-valued. Turkey is, or was, keen to join the EU, but it’s opposition to admitting the truth about their Armenian genocide is just one of many obstacles. The position of women in Turkey is another. The recent failure to remove Erdogan seems to have hardened his sense of destiny, so he’ll be cracking down on all dissent and boosting his power in a typically macho way.
Canto: So now let’s head north again and vastly east to the supersized nation of Russia, spearheaded by Vlad the Imperator – not to be confused with the historical Vlad the Impaler, as there are some minor differences in their manner of disposing of their enemies.
Jacinta: Yeah, Vlad the Imp is another macho authoritarian leader unwilling to brook criticism or even scrutiny. Reporters without Borders has ranked the country 148th in terms of press freedom, and the deaths and silencings of independent journalists over the past twenty-odd years have underlined the brutal corruption within the Imp’s regime.
Canto: Sounds very Czarish. But at least women aren’t shat on quite so much there – unless they happen to be journalists.
Jacinta: Yes women are highly educated and highly integrated into the workforce, and two income families are the norm, but clearly the Imp’s a social conservative….
Canto: Right, so worse than your common or garden murderer then?
Jacinta: Well, as usual with these macho types, he’s dizzy with homophobia. He’s bosom buddies with a gang of thugs called the Night Wolves, whose principal raison d’etre is to smash the shit out of homosexuals.
Canto: Strange how some people make use of the only life they have on this planet.
Jacinta: So we seem to be in the grip of a wave of macho thuggery, and all we can do, sadly, is patiently chip away at it, through mockery, smart undermining, argument, evidence, and a kind of faith in a better world. Meanwhile, on with the horrowshow.
Canto: So we head south to China. Of course it has a sorry history of foot-binding and other forms of mistreatment, though probably no worse than elsewhere in the partiarchal past. China is now being transformed more rapidly than possibly any other country in history, and the world is waiting for its profoundly anti-communist government to rip apart at the seams, though there’s little sign of it as yet. The current General Secretary of China is Xi Jinping, a conservative hard-liner who relishes the abuse of human rights. Under him are the members of the standing committee of the Politburo, all men of course. While we know virtually nothing about these characters, we have fairly reliable information that the Chinese dictators slaughter more people annually than are killed by government decree in the whole of the rest of the world put together. In fact, I find China’s very lengthy record of human rights abuses too unbearable to read, and the Tiananmen Square massacre is still fresh and raw in my mind.
Jacinta: Okay so let’s reduce it to statistics – where does Reporters without Borders place China in terms of press freedom? And what about the treatment of homosexuals – always a good sign of macho infantilism?
Canto: China’s ranked at number 176 in terms of press freedom, out of 180 countries listed. Just above Syria, North Korea and other such havens. On the other hand, attitudes to homosexuality aren’t particularly hostile, though legal changes have a time lag on the west. Clearly the dictators don’t see it as a major threat – they don’t seem as murderously imbecilic as Vlad the Imp on the subject. So where next?
Jacinta: Well for our final stop let’s head further south to the Phillipines, whose molto-macho leader seems to love the headlines…
Canto: Actually, when I looked up macho Filipino pollies, the list of sites all dealt with one Ferdinand Marcos.
Jacinta: Interesting point – the current Prez of the Phillipines, a macho scumbag by the name of Rodrigo Duterte, is naturally a great supporter of scumbags of the past, and wanted to honour the former dictator – the second most corrupt polly of all time, just behind Scumbag Suharto, according to the anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International – with a state funeral, but due to receiving plenty of blowback in the country he opted to return the dead scumbag corpse in secret. Now, many argue that Duterte is a reformer who doesn’t belong to the any of the super-rich families who basically own the Phillipines, but his murderous war on drugs shows he’s no friend of the poor either. He has obviously given sweeping powers to the police – always a focus of macho brutality everywhere, with the odd honourable exception – with the inevitable corrupting result. Extra-judicial killings are now a daily occurrence in Filipino cities, and who knows what the death toll will end up being. He’s also flirting with martial law, but that’ll have to wait until his power is consolidated. I’ve no doubt, though, that that’s what he wants for his country.
Canto: He’ll sell his soul for total control?
Jacinta: It’s the ultimate macho fantasy, lived out by Attila, Genghis Khan, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, Leopold II, Stalin, Mussolini, Hitler, Pavelic, Ho Chi Minh, Tito, Mao Zedong, Brezhnev, Kim Il Sung, Pinochet, Suharto, Amin, Pol Pot, Mobuto, Hussein, just to name a few.
Canto: Yeah, but let’s face it, women would be just as bad if they were allowed to live out their macho fantasies…
Records of Arctic sea ice have been regularly kept since 1980 or so, and there’s been some satellite mapping since the late seventies. The sea ice starts its growth in autumn, reaching its greatest extent at the end of the northern winter. This year has been unusual – after a more rapid freeze-up than usual in September, the growth of ice has slowed substantially, and by the end of October the sea ice extent had reached a new record low for this thirty-five year period. Two principal causes of this slow growth were the high surface temperatures in open waters of the arctic region, as well as high air temperatures. The USA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) provides lots of useful information on the issue and does its best to explain the complex local and general factors driving arctic ice formation and melting.
Arctic sea ice is ice that forms and deforms in the ocean rather than on land, so it doesn’t include icebergs or glaciers. It’s covered in snow most of the year, and its bright surface reflects 80% of sunlight back into space, whereas melted ocean water absorbs 90% of sunlight, causing a positive feedback loop, an acceleration of global warming effects. The term used to describe the whiteness or reflectivity of a surface is albedo. For our planet, albedo is affected primarily by ice and cloud cover.
While it may be that we’ll record the lowest ice maximum ‘on record’ by the end of this winter, we should recall that thirty-odd years isn’t much of a period in geological terms. Nor does melting sea ice substantially affect sea level rise, unlike melting ice sheets and glaciers. The main concern is this change in albedo, and its effect on ocean temperatures, which will not only effect ocean life in the region but also the melting of frozen coastal regions, and weather conditions, in largely unforeseeable ways.
Another issue is that ‘old sea ice’, the type that survives the annual freeze and melt cycle, has reduced substantially since records have been kept. This old ice stretched over a distance of 1.9 million square kilometres back in 1984, but this year that has reduced to about 110,000 square kilometres, according to a report from episode 592 of the SGU. This is a measure of sea ice extent, rather than volume, which would be much more difficult to measure. In any case, it’s a massive reduction in just a generation or so, but again we don’t have long-term data to tell us whether or not the planet has experienced these sorts of rapid changes before. It’s reasonable to suspect not, and that the great volumes of greenhouse gases we’ve been emitting into our atmosphere are having unprecedented effects, but we can’t be sure. In any case, our activities are certainly affecting our planet home, and theatening island and coastal populations around the globe. As mentioned, the warming of the oceans, and of the atmosphere above them, affects the polar jet stream and can have knock-on effects world-wide. The rise in sea level is generally the effect most human populations are concerned with, though the most wealthy residents of low-lying areas seem breezily unconcerned, as this podcast episode from climate one, discussing the response of residents in the San Francisco Bay area, clearly shows.
Arguably though, it’s not so much complacency as bewilderment that’s hampering responses. Projections of sea-level rise are notoriously varied, in keeping with the enormous complexity of the interacting effects of warming. We’re on much safer ground when making observations of past effects than when predicting future ones, and even then it’s tricky, because we don’t have direct measurements beyond a fairly recent time period. It’s generally agreed that the oceans have risen by about 15-20 cm in the last century, but predictions of the rise over the next thirty-odd years to mid-century vary wildly, with climate scientists bickering over the damage such varied estimates is wreaking on their profession.
So what is to be done? Allowing our bewilderment to inhibit all action is obviously counter-productive. We should continue to monitor, model and project, and to speed up the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with smart solutions to our energy needs as well as ways of minimising those needs, while considering matters of equity and opportunity re developing and developed regions. And we should continue to pressure and push our politicians towards promoting these reductions and solutions.
A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…
As everyone knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.
I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.
Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.
These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.
So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.
So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.
At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.
Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.
A bout of illness and a general sense of despair about blogging has prevented me from posting here for a while. For my health and well-being I’ll try to get back on track. So here’s a brief post on my hobbyhorse of the moment.
It surprises me that people could try to argue with me about the violence of men compared to women, trying to explain it away in terms of physical size – I mean, really? And then, when this doesn’t fly, they point to individuals of established combativeness, the Iron Lady, Golda Meir, and why not mention Boadicea, or [place name of fave female serial killer here]?
And it really demoralises me when this argumentative cuss is a woman. I mean I love a feisty female but really…
It reminds me of a scenario from my not-so-youth, when I briefly hung out with a perverse young lass who insisted with unassailable feistiness that men were clearly more intelligent than women (by and large, presumably). It certainly made be wonder at how intelligence could be turned against itself. But was it intelligence, or something else?
But let’s get back to reality. Men are more violent than women in every country and every culture on the planet. This is a statistical fact, not a categorical, individual claim. Of course there are violent women and much less violent men. That isn’t the point. The point is that you cannot sheet this home to sexual dimorphism. Two examples will suffice. First, look at death and injury by road accident in the west – in countries where both men and women are permitted to drive. The number of males killed in road accidents is considerably higher than females in every western country. In Australia males are almost two and a half times more likely to die this way than females, and in some countries it’s more, but it’s everywhere at least double. The WHO has a fact sheet On this, updated in November 2016:
From a young age, males are more likely to be involved in road traffic crashes than females. About three-quarters (73%) of all road traffic deaths occur among men. Among young drivers, young males under the age of 25 years are almost 3 times as likely to be killed in a car crash as young females.
The second example is youth gangs, including bikie gangs. These are, obviously, predominantly male, their purpose is usually to ‘display manhood’ in some more or less brutal way, and, again obviously, they can’t be explained away in terms of size difference. Other causes need to be considered and studied, and of course, they have been. Some of these causes are outlined in Konner’s book, but I can’t detail them here because I’ve lent the book out (grrr). An interesting starting point for thinking about the social causes of male violence is found in a short essay by Jesse Prinz here. Prinz largely agrees with Konner on the role of agricultural society in sharpening the male-female division in favour of males, but I think he oversimplifies the differences in his tendency to apply social explanations, and he says nothing about gene expression and hormonal factors, which Konnor goes into in great detail. It seems to me that Prinz’s line of reasoning would not be able to account for the reckless, life-threatening behaviour of young male drivers, for example. While there is clearly something social going on there, I would contend that something biological is also going on. Or something in the biological-social nexus, if you will. Clearly, it’s a very complex matter, and if we can uncover hormonal or neurotransmissional causes, that doesn’t rule out social factors playing a regulatory role in those causes. Social evolution, we’re finding, can change biology much more quickly than previously thought.
Jacinta: So the problem is, or was, that the whole state of South Australia was left without power for a long period of time – more than 24 hours in some places, it varied between regions. This affected some 1.7 million people, endangering lives in some instances.
Canto: And how did it come to be a problem? First because of storm conditions, particularly north of Adelaide, described as unprecedented. This might be seen as the proximate cause, with many describing the ultimate cause as anthropogenic global warming, which will see conditions such as these arising more often.
Jacinta: Well another cause, whether proximate or ultimate, might be degraded transmission infrastructure – the big towers. The transmission network, which is operated and managed by ElectraNet, is the long-distance network, carrying power to the distribution network – the poles and wires – which connects homes and businesses. The distribution network is owned and managed by SA Power Networks, which is 51% owned by Cheung Kong Infrastructure/Power Assets (CKI), a Hong Kong Chinese company. But it’s ElecraNet that we need to focus on. It’s apparently owned by a consortium of companies, but the largest share is 46.5%, owned by China’s State Grid Corporation (SGCC), the largest electric utility company in the world. I’ve heard rumours that there were complaints by technicians regarding rusty and poorly-maintained towers, complaints dating back over five years, but I’ve found nothing as yet to confirm those rumours.
Canto: So overseas ownership may feature in answering the question of how this came to be a problem. Another factor might be the interconnectors.
Jacinta: Yes, to be clear, there are two interconnectors between SA and Victoria, with some speculation about a third being built connecting us to NSW, and allowing us to export our renewables-based energy to that state from time to time…
Canto: Can you describe what an interconnector actually is, and how it works? I’ve heard that they actually work as surge protectors, among other things, shutting down the system when it’s overloaded or in crisis.
Jacinta: It connects transmission systems between different states, or different countries, allowing states to import or export power according to differential capabilities at different times, which helps stabilise or standardise the power available to interconnected states or regions. I should point out that SA imports far more power than it exports, so we are reliant on the national electricity grid, as we always have been I think, for regular, stable supply. Apparently, in terms of area, this is the largest electricity grid in the world. In 2013-2014 SA’s import to export ratio was 6 to 1. If you look at the chart on the SA government website, you’ll notice that SA generates less power within its borders than any other state, including Tasmania, which gets most of its power from hydro. But this varies – not long ago, when Tasmanian dams were low, that state was the least productive. The two interconnectors to Victoria are the Heywood interconnector, with a 460MW capacity, and the smaller Murray Link, which was not operational at the time of the storm. An ABC article quotes the SA Premier as saying the interconnector ‘played no role in the blackout’, but the same article quotes Paul Roberts of SA Power Networks: “We believe — and this is only early information — that there may have been some issue with the interconnector but the state’s power system is shut down I think possibly as a protection”. This statement is vague – it tends to contradict the Premier, but it doesn’t say that the interconnector had a direct role in the statewide shut-down.
Canto: Sounds like people are being cagey and defensive right from the start.
Jacinta: Well, of course – avoiding blame here is a big thing, in terms of money as well as reputation. It’s probably being overly naive to assume that nobody really knows whether the shut-down was caused by the interconnector, or whether that shut-down, if caused by the interconnector, was absolutely necessary. But it looks like nobody’s going to admit knowledge.
Canto: So the problem may or may not have been related to the interconnector, but it was definitely caused by a major storm north of Adelaide, which may or may not have been due to anthropogenic global warming, and it caused damage to infrastructure which may or may not have been avoided if that infrastructure was being upgraded effectively by ElectraNet. Sounds like we’re getting nowhere fast.
Jacinta: What about this idea that the state’s relying too much on renewables. What evidence is there about that?
Canto: Well, unsurprisingly, the state’s opposition leaders and their fellow-travellers are lining up to score points out of this event. SA’s conservative party leader Steven Marshall says there should be an investigation into the state’s ‘lack of base-load power generation’, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who now heads a conservative government in spite of having been a long-time advocate of renewables, has ‘rebuked’ state labor governments for having ‘ideological’ renewable energy targets, and the populist MP Nick Xenophon has expressed a rather vague but passionate outrage.
Jacinta: Okay so let’s look first at SA’s lack of base-load power generation. Hasn’t this been a perennial problem for SA? As I’ve already said, we’ve been importing a lot of power from interstate, on a variable basis, really since the year dot. Or since we’ve been able to do so, via the interconnectors.
Canto: Well there’s something of a new mantra among the renewable advocates that the base-load concept is out-dated, but I’d rather not get into that now, I’m really a novice about electricity markets and grids and such. The fact is that SA is running neck-and-neck with Tasmania as the state that produces the least electricity in the nation, though of course SA is a much bigger state. It’s just that now we’re generating more from wind, so we’ve shut off our coal generators. So the argument will be that renewables had nothing to do with the outage, which damaged transmission lines and initiated a shut-down of our only operating interconnector. This would’ve happened regardless of the power source, though there may be questions about the interconnector, and about the maintenance of the transmission lines.
Jacinta: Okay, that’ll do, though I’d like us to discuss the whole topic of renewable energy, in SA and elsewhere, on an ongoing basis in the future. It’s a hot topic, with a lot of people implacably opposed to it, particularly readers of the rather reactionary Australian newspaper, apparently. All very amusing. And perhaps we can educate ourselves a bit more about the National Electricity Market (NEM), the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and the future of grids and off-grid electricity supply.
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Canto: So we’re tasked with solving the problem or problems in SA’s energy system.
Jacinta: We are? What problem? Or should I say crisis, what crisis?
Canto: That’s a good question Jass, because as you know the first step in finding a solution is to define the problem.
Jacinta: Yes I knew that. So we’re talking about how all the power died for a period of – what, 24 hours or so, statewide here in South Africa.
Canto: South Australia, don’t confuse our international readers. So I’ve heard the crisis framed in a number of different ways. First, in terms of the SA government’s irresponsible, unrealistic go-it-alone pursuit of risky renewable energy. Second, in the more or less opposite terms of other states’ and especially the federal govt’s foot-dragging and negative approach to said energy, leaving SA unsupported. Third, in terms of privatisation – a number of electrical pylons fell down like ninepins in the outback, because, it’s claimed, the private owners are pursuing profits over infrastructure maintenance. And a fourth and most comprehensive framing invokes climate change itself – SA was subjected to an unprecedented weather event likely caused by the emissions our gallant state government is trying to reduce..
Jacinta: And our little Torrens River has been torrenting like the mighty Amazon.
Canto: Yeah right. So with all these and more framings of the problem, it looks like we’ll have to spend a few posts on this issue.
Jacinta: Or a lifetime. But yes let’s try to be thorough. And positive. I thought we might start with the 9-point plan for solutions to complex problems which we found in the enlightening book The origin of feces by Stuart Waltner-Toews, and which was presented in simplified form on the Solutions OK blog.
1. What is the problem situation or issue? How did it come to be a problem?
2. Who are the stakeholders? What do they care about? Where are they coming from (motives, investments)? What are the agreements, discords among them?
3. What are the stories being told by these different stakeholders re their roles and concerns in the problem?
4. What’s our best systematic, scientific understanding of the situation/problem?
5. What’s our best understanding of the social & cultural issues to be addressed?
6. How are 4 & 5 related? How do they constrain or support each other?
7. What are the scenarios and narratives here that people most connect with? On what things can we agree on? What are the power relations between people who agree or disagree? Given these constraints and acknowledgements what do we realistically expect that we can do?
8. What course of action, governance structure and monitoring system will best enable us to implement our plans and move towards our goals?
9. Implement. Monitor. Adjust. Learn. Re-Start.
Canto: Yeah, that’s pretty comprehensive all right, maybe too comprehensive.
Jacinta: No I think it’s a good basis. Take point 1. What’s the problem? That’s easy. The problem is that SA had all its power cut for the best part of a day, and although many are saying this was a one-off, freak event, many others are saying it could happen again and that SA’s the most vulnerable state, it wouldn’t have happened to any other state.
Canto: Though I think our Premier said the exact opposite, it could’ve happened anywhere. Lots of conflicting narratives and opinions. So let’s get started.
Jacinta: Well let me first say that, whatever the cause, we are experiencing extreme weather here for October – rainy and stormy conditions which have certainly never been experienced here in a good long lifetime. And right now we’re got rain and strong wind conditions. There’s been little let-up for some time.
Canto: Interesting – we’re only a few days into October, but the average rainfall for September in Adelaide, since records have been kept, is about 58 millimetres. This year it was over 130 millimetres. October, though, might be the most interesting month for records. Certainly I can’t recall anything like this, and we have flooding in many parts of the state.
Jacinta: So we have extreme weather conditions, and the direct cause of the outage, according to our Premier, was freak weather conditions north of Adelaide, including two tornados which knocked over transmission towers near Melrose. More than 20 transmission lines were damaged. The question being asked, of course, is how could these storms knock out the power for a whole vast state for a long period? What were the back-up arrangements?
Canto: Well the back-up apparently relies on two interconnectors to the east coast. Presumably there must be some arrangement so that when local power isn’t forthcoming, the interconnectors receive a signal to transmit. However, only one was operational at the time of the outage. Now I don’t really understand this interconnector thing and how they work. I’m not clear on why one interconnector was shut down and why the other one didn’t just do the job. Is it just a matter of ‘firing up’ an interconnector and a whole state’s lights come back on? How simple or complex is it?
Jacinta: And what, if anything, has this got to do with renewable energy and the shutting down of the coal power station in Port Augusta?
Canto: We might get to that later. I haven’t been able to find exactly how interconnectors work, and nothing much at all on interconnectors in Australia, but currently in the UK there are four interconnectors, linked to France, the Netherlands, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, of which the France one is largest, with 2GW capacity. It would be interesting to know the capacity of the two interconnectors linking us to the east, and whether that has any relevance. Anyway, these interconnectors are spruiked as providers of energy security and flexibility, so the more interconnectors the better. Maybe there’s a case for having a third interconnector, so that we’re never, or rarely reduced to having just one to rely on.
Jacinta: So why did we have no power? Why didn’t the interconnector provide it for so long? Or was it the interconnector that provided it, or was it the local system?
Canto: Well there was certainly local work going on from the start, as soon as conditions allowed, to fix local faults, but I can’t find too much info on the role of the interconnector. However, word has just come out that there’ll be a state inquiry into South Australia’s unique situation, so maybe there’s no point in us continuing this conversation.
Jacinta: Wait up, I think it might be fun speculating on and researching the matter, and then comparing our findings with the inquiry.
Canto: Which’ll come out in, what, five years?
Jacinta: An unnecessarily jaded remark. So let’s get stuck into some research, and look for solutions, always keeping in mind that 9-point plan.