Archive for the ‘environment’ Category
Canto: So what’s the latest on SA’s statewide blackout of September 28 last year, who’s to blame, who’s blaming who, and what solutions are in the offing, if any?
Jacinta: Well the preliminary report on the NEM, which we’ve been reading and writing about, has a few things to say about this, and they’re based on the findings of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) in its own preliminary report.
Canto: He said she said.
Jacinta: Well maybe sort of. So the SA blackout is presented as a case study. Here in SA we have a very high proportion of VRE (variable renewable energy) generation – one of the highest in the world. Our peak demand as a region is 3300 MW, and our supply capacity is almost 2900 MW of gas, almost 1600 MW of wind, and 700 MW of installed solar. We’re connected to the rest of the NEM by two interconnectors, an AC connector with a capacity of 600-650 MW, and a DC connector with a capacity of 220 MW. With electricity demand here declining, or at least not growing, synchronous generation and supply have reduced, with a resultant reduction in system inertia.
Canto: I presume by system inertia you mean the tendency for a machine, a vehicle, or a generator, whatever, a system to keep going once the power’s switched off. Like the QE2 has a lot of system inertia.
Jacinta: Right, but it’s a particularly important term in reference to power generation. There are some neat explanations of this online, but I’ll give a summary here. Coal-fired power stations work through the burning of coal which generates steam to turn a turbine, putting energy into the grid, and being massive, it has a lot of spinning inertia. Slow to fire up, slow to wind down. Solar, though, doesn’t work that way. It has no spinning or even moving parts. When the sun’s off, it’s off, but when it’s on it’s on. There’s really no inertia at all in a conventional solar PV system.
Canto: And wind? That’s the principal renewable energy here.
Jacinta: Yes that has inertia, certainly, but it’s variable and not as significant as perhaps it could be. So anyway on the morning of the blackout weather forecasts were grim, but not enough for AEMO to put out alerts for a ‘credible contingency event’. As it turned out there were at least seven tornadoes in the north of the state that day, as well as numerous lightning strikes and high winds which caused structural damage to transmission lines. At blackout time electricity demand in the state was a little over 1800 MW, with nearly half of it being supplied by wind farms, and of the rest about a third came from gas-fired generators, and the other 600 or so megawatts came through the interconnectors from Victoria. The main Heywood connector was approaching its operating limit. Short circuits to the transmission lines, caused by lightning, were the probable proximal cause of the blackout. Thirteen wind farms were in operation at the time, and eleven of them experienced ‘voltage dips’. What happens in these circumstances is that ‘fault ride-though’ responses are invoked. However, nine of the eleven farms had a lower pre-set limit for the ride-through response to proceed, and after a number of dips those nine wind farms cut their connection. The other two had higher pre-set limits and continued operation.
Canto: Ahh, so those preset limits were set too low?
Jacinta: Maybe – that’s one for further investigation. So the lack of generation from the wind farms caused an overload on the Heywood interconnector, and it was disconnected as per protection systems, resulting in frequency failure on the grid, and blackness fell upon all the land.
Canto: Right, so how did things get restarted? What’s the normal procedure?
Jacinta: Well, there’s this contracted service, called the System Restart Ancillary Service, which in SA is contracted to two major electricity generators (unnamed in the report), who can supposedly restart regardless of the grid situation, and provide power to the transmission network, but these servers failed for unexplained reasons, and power was finally restored through the Heywood interconnector together with the Torrens Island power station.
Canto: Okay, so now the fallout. How could things have been done differently?
Jacinta: Some near-term fixes have been implemented already. Firstly, having to do with frequency rates which I won’t go into here, and secondly in relation to wind farms. Five of them have made changes to their fault ride-through settings, and AEMO is looking at this issue for wind farms across the NEM. The Australian Energy Regulator, another bureaucratic body, will have completed a full analysis of the blackout by early next year to determine if there were any breaches of regulations. Obviously it’ll be looking at the conduct of AEMO throughout, as well as that of the transmission operator, ElectaNet. It’ll also look at these fault ride-though settings of wind farms and the failures of the System Restart Ancillary Service. It all sounds as if everything’s being done that can be done, but the major problem is that grid security as it stands can only be provided by large generators. The report again mentions gas-fired generators as the best solution, at least in the short to medium term.
Canto: So, as the grid, and the general provision of electricity, undergo these transformations, we’ll no doubt experience a few more of these hopefully minor setbacks, which we can learn from as we develop security for a more diverse but more integrated system…
Jacinta: Greater integration might require less squabbling about the future of energy. I can’t see that happening in the near future, unfortunately.
Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, who also happens to be a regular columnist for Cosmos, Australia’s premier science magazine, of which I’m a regular reader, has released his panel’s preliminary report on our national electricity market (NEM), and it has naturally received criticism from within the ranks of Australia’s conservative government, which is under pressure from its most conservative elements, led by Tony Abbott amongst others, who are implacably opposed to renewable energy.
The report confirms that the NEM is experiencing declining demand due to a range of factors, such as the development of new technologies, improved energy efficiency and a decline in industrial energy consumption. It makes a fairly reasonable assumption, but one unwelcome to many conservatives, that our electricity market is experiencing an unprecedented and irreversible phase of transition, and that this transition should be managed appropriately.
The NEM has been in operation for over 20 years, and the recent blackout here in South Australia (late September 2016) was its first real crisis. The issue as identified in the report is that variable renewable energy (VRE) sources are entering and complicating the market, which heretofore has been based on the synchronous generation of AC electricity at a standard system frequency. VRE generation is multiform and intermittent, and as such doesn’t sit well with the traditional system.
There are a number of other complicating issues. Improvements in building design and greater public awareness regarding emissions reduction have led to a decrease in overall energy consumption, while high peak demand on occasion remains a problem. Also the cost of electricity for the consumer has risen sharply in recent years, largely due to network investment (poles and wires). It’s expected that prices will continue to climb due to the closure of coal-fired power stations and the rising cost of gas. Interestingly, the report promotes gas as a vital energy source for this transitional period. It expresses concern about our overseas sales of gas, our low exploration rates, and negative attitudes to the fuel from certain states and territories. Rooftop solar systems, numbering more than 1.5 million, have further complicated the market, as the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) understandably finds it difficult to measure their impact. System integration, which takes solar and wind energy system contributions into account, is clearly key to a successful NEM into the future.
The report also stresses Australia’s commitment to emissions reductions of 26-28% by 2030. It points out that business investors are turning away from fossil fuels, or what they call ’emission intensive power stations’, and financial institutions are also reluctant to back such investments. Given these clear signals, the report argues that a nationally integrated approach to a system which encourages and plans for a market for renewables is essential. This is clearly not what a backward-looking conservative government wants to hear.
So the report describes an ‘energy trilemma’: provision of high level energy security and reliability; affordable energy services for all; reduced emissions. More succinctly – security, affordability and the environment.
In its first chapter, the report looks at new technology. The costs of zero-emission wind turbines and solar PVs are falling, and this will maintain their appeal at least in the short term. Other such technologies, e.g. ‘concentrated solar thermal, geothermal, ocean, wave and tidal, and low emission electricity generation technologies such as biomass combustion and coal or gas-fired generation with carbon capture and storage’ (p13), are mentioned as likely technologies of the future, but the report largely focuses on wind and solar PV in terms of VRE generation. The effect of this technology, especially in the case of rooftop solar, is that consumers are engaging with the market in new ways. The penetration of rooftop solar in Australia is already the highest in the world, though most of our PV systems have low capacity. Battery storage systems, a developing technology which is seeing cost decreases, will surely be an attractive proposition for future solar PV purchasers. Electric vehicles haven’t really taken off yet in Australia, but they are making an impact in Europe, and the AEMO has projected that 10% of cars will be electric by 2030, presenting another challenge to an electricity system based largely on the fossil fuels such vehicles are designed to do without.
The management of these new and variable technologies and generators may involve the evolution of micro-grids as local resources become aggregated. Distributed, two-way energy systems are the likely way of the future, and an Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap has been developed by CSIRO and the Energy Networks Association to help anticipate and manage these changes.
In chapter 2 the report focuses on consumers, who are becoming increasingly active in the electricity market, which was formerly very much a one way system – you take your electricity from the national grid, you pay your quarterly bill. With distributed systems on the rise, consumers are becoming traders and investors in new forms of generation. The most obvious change is with rooftop PV. The national investment in these systems has amounted to several million dollars, with the expectation that individual households will be generating electricity more cleanly, more efficiently, and also more cheaply, notwithstanding the traditional electricity grid. Developments in battery storage and other technologies will inevitably lead to consumers moving off-grid, likely creating financial stress for those who remain. The possibilities for developing micro-grids to reduce costs will further complicate this evolving situation. Digital (smart) metering and new energy management software empower consumers to control usage. And while this is currently occurring mostly at the individual level, industrial consumers will also be keen to curb usage, creating added pressure for a more flexible and diverse two-way market. The report emphasises that the focus should shift more towards demand management in terms of grid security. One of the obvious problems from the point of view of consumers is that those on low incomes, or renters, who have little capacity to move off-grid (or desire in the case of passive users), may bear the burden of grid maintenance costs at increasing rates.
Chapter 3 deals with emissions. In reference to the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has been ratified by Australia, the report makes this comment which has been picked up by the media:
While the electricity sector must play an important role in reducing emissions, current policy settings do not provide a clear pathway to the level of reduction required to meet Australia’s Paris commitments.
The current Renewable Energy Target does not go beyond 2020 and national policy vis-à-vis emissions extends only to 2030, causing uncertainty for investors in an already volatile market. Clearly the report is being critical of government here as it has already argued for the primary role of government in developing policy settings to provide clarity for investment. The report also makes suggestions about shifting from coal to gas to reduce emissions at least in the short term. The report discussed three emissions reduction strategies assessed by AEMO and AEMC (Australian Energy Market Commission): an emissions intensity scheme, an extended large-scale renewable energy target, and the regulated closure of fossil-fuelled power stations. The first strategy is basically a carbon credits scheme, which was assessed as being the least costly and impactful, while an extended RET would provide greater policy stability for non-synchronous generation, so adding pressure to the existing grid system. Closure of coal-fired power stations would reduce low-cost supply in the short to medium term. Base load supply would be problematic in that scenario, so management of closures would be the key issue.
Chapter 4 looks at how VRE might be integrated into the system. It gets a bit technical here, but the issues are clear enough – VRE will be an increasing part of the energy mix, considerably so if Australia’s Large-scale renewable energy target is to be met, along with our international commitment vis-a-vis the Paris Agreement. However, VRE cannot provide spinning inertia or frequency control, according to the report. Basically this means that they cannot provide base load power, at a time when coal-fired power stations are closing down (nine have closed since 2012) and eastern states gas is being largely exported. The Hazelwood brown coal power station, Australia’s largest, and one of the most carbon intensive power stations in the world, will cease operation by April next year.
The difficulty with non-synchronous, distributed, intermittent and variable energy generation (e.g. wind and solar PV) is that these terms seem to be euphemisms for ‘not effing reliable’ in terms of base load, a problem currently being encountered in South Australia and likely to spread to other regions. The report identifies frequency control as a high priority challenge.
Frequency is a measure of the instantaneous balance of power supply and demand. To avoid damage to or failure of the power system the frequency may only deviate within a narrow range below or above 50 Hertz, as prescribed in the frequency operating standards for the NEM.
It’s likely that this narrow range of frequency proved a problem for South Australia when it suffered a blackout in September. I’ll look at what the report has to say about that blackout next time.
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.
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.
For more interesting articles on this issue:
There is more global investment in solar power today than there is in fossil fuels. We’re talking about hard-headed investment for profit by business and governments worldwide, not greenies or special interest groups. And another interesting factoid: China today is generating more energy from wind power than the whole of Australia’s energy production. Not to mention the Chinese government’s massive investment in other renewables. That’s info I got from a recent ABC Science Show podcast. Renewable energy really is making inroads, and this is most encouraging for those around the world fighting the damaging environmental effects of mining and fracking in their regions, though it’s clear that such operations are dying hard.
I remember some time ago at a meeting of skeptics (not climate change ‘skeptics’, just regular sciencey anti-quackery, anti-UFO-type skeptics), when I was spruiking the virtues of wind power, so successfully taken up here in South Australia, being told dismissively that it was too expensive to be really viable. However, wind-power only really has establishment costs. Ongoing costs are quite minimal. Furthermore, a research group conducted by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Global Ecology Department has recently conducted the most wide-ranging expert survey on wind (or any other) energy. Sure, it was a survey of those already heavily invested in wind, but that does make them the experts in the field. Predictions about the cost of wind energy into the future were based on two approachess. First, a projection into the future of falling costs over the past three decades or so – what they call the ‘learning curve’. One would assume those projections would vary from ‘most optimistic’ to ‘most pessimistic’, with consensus somewhere in between. The second approach involved a ‘bottom-up engineering assessment’, looking at the costs of individual turbine components into the future. Science Daily has summarised the findings:
On average, the participants expected wind power costs to continue falling for the next several decades, for three major classes of wind turbines, both onshore and offshore, with prices falling by 24-30% by 2030, and 35-41% by 2050.
Meanwhile governments worldwide are getting on board in a determined effort to drive down the cost of solar. Vox Energy & Environment reports on the US target:
…the US Department of Energy has a program, the SunShot Initiative, devoted entirely to driving down the cost of electricity generated by solar panels — the target is solar power with $1 per watt installed costs by 2020, a 75 percent reduction in costs from 2010.
It’s hard to get the head around the growth of solar energy worldwide since about 2007. It’s been a whirlwind ride, but starting from an extremely low level. And in the US since 2012, large or utility-scale solar has been growing faster than domestic, rooftop solar, and with falling prices and increasing module efficiency, the growth trend in big and small solar should continue well into the future. Yes, there’s government stimulus, but solar is being seen more and more as a sound investment on its own terms. Solar’s steady growth also makes for sound investment against the high volatility of the natural gas market. And this of course is just as relevant for many regions outside the US.
I’ll be taking another look at Australia’s situation, while many of our governments bicker and focus elsewhere, in an upcoming post.
Bonobos separated from chimps maybe less than a million years ago, according to some pundits. We haven’t yet been able to determine a more precise date for the split. So which species has changed more? Have chimps become more aggressive or have bonobos become more caring? Is there any way of finding out?
It’s not just about genes its about their expression. It will take some time to work all that out. Brain studies too will help, as we move towards scanning and exploring brains more effectively and less invasively.
But surely we seek not just to understand the bonobo world but to change our own. Who wouldn’t want a world that was less violent, less exclusionary in terms of sex, more caring and sharing, without any loss of the dynamism and questing that has taken us to to the very brink of iphone7?
That last remark will date very quickly… Nah, I’ll leave it in.
So we can learn lessons, and of course we’re already on that path. Advanced societies, if that’s not too presumptuous a term, are less patriarchal than they’ve ever been, without losing any of their dynamism. On the contrary, it can easily be seen that the most male-supremacist societies in the world are also the most violent, the most repressive and the most backward. Some of those societies, as we know, have their backwardness masked by the fact that they have a commodity, oil, that the world is still addicted to, which has made the society so rich that their citizens don’t even have to pay tax. The rest of the world is supporting tyrannical regimes, which won’t change as long as they feel well-fed and secure. Not that I’d wish starvation and insecurity on anyone, but as Roland Barthes once said at one of his packed lectures, the people standing at the back who can’t hear properly and have sore feet must be wondering why they’re here.
Maybe a bit of discomfort, in the form of completely shifting away from fossil fuels for our energy needs haha, might bring certain Middle Eastern countries to a more serious questioning of their patriarchal delusions? Without their currently-valuable resource, they might wake to the fact that they need to become smarter. The women in those countries, so effective on occasion in forming coalitions to defend their inferior place in society, might be encouraged to use their collective power in more diverse ways. That could be how things socially evolve there.
Meanwhile in the west, the lesson of the bonobos would seem to be coalitions and sex. We’ve certainly arrived at an era where sexual dimorphism is irrelevant, except where women are isolated, for example in domestic situations. The same isolation also poses a threat to children. The bonobo example of coalitions and togetherness and sharing of responsibilities, and sexual favours (something we’re a long way from emulating, with our jealousies and petty rivalries) should be the way forward for us. Hopefully the future will see a further erosion of the nuclear family and a greater diversity of child-rearing environments, where single-parent families are far less isolated than they are today, and males want to help and support and teach children because they are children, not because they are their children…
Canto: So Michelle Obama thinks America is the greatest country on Earth…
Jacinta: Not just thinks, but tearfully feels, in every cell of her body, but you know, even she must realise it’s all rhetorical baloney.
Canto: I prefer to call it balderdash – less American.
Jacinta: But you can’t blame pollies for getting all jingoistic come election time, can you?
Canto: I do. I can’t stand it at any time. But I want us to reflect for a while on the meaning of ‘the greatest country on Earth’. Is greatness measurable? Is there currently a fifteenth greatest country on Earth? What are the measuring criteria?
Jacinta: I think you’re taking it all too seriously, but it’s interesting – we’ve observed this before – that every nation in history that has had economic and military superiority over others has assumed this entailed moral superiority. Whereas in the world of realpolitik it just means they’re an apex predator.
Canto: I’m sure Donald Frump would agree, though I think he’s wrong to claim that the USA is no longer an apex predator. There can be room for more than one at the top, though it wouldn’t do to let that space get too crowded.
Jacinta: Yes, so ‘greatest’ can only mean ‘most powerful’, it’s not the kind of term you use to measure a nation’s quality for its own citizens.
Canto: But why are Americans so keen to trumpet their nation’s superiority? I mean methinks they do protest too much.
Jacinta: Well a couple of centuries ago, when the Brits had the strongest economy, weren’t they the same?
Canto: Well, not really… I mean, that wouldn’t be British, would it? I mean they thought they were morally superior of course, but they weren’t so utterly boorish as to proclaim it while banging their tits.
Jacinta: Well you’re making a good point. When imperialist nations or superpowers or whatever start believing they’re better than others in some moral way, they may act accordingly, pushing their weight around, hectoring, lecturing, even taking it upon themselves to punish other nations for not being like them.
Canto: Or invading other nations to show them how ‘being great’ is done. So that’s why we need correctives. We need more objective measures, not for measuring national greatness, which is just a term of power, or just rhetoric, but for measuring success in terms of the well-being, happiness, freedom or whatever of the members of that nation.
Jacinta: I think that people like Obama, and so many Americans, really believe in this rhetoric though. They take a term like ‘great’, and they really think it refers to all those other things – opportunity, well-being, smarts, etc.
Canto: Which is why reality checks are in order. Take the ‘land of opportunity’ rhetoric. What this refers to is social mobility. Anyone has the chance to be anything. But there are surely ways to measure social mobility, which are more or less objective.
Jacinta: Certainly more objective than just making the claim. And it’s interesting, we’ve looked at a few national surveys, based on various criteria, and I can’t recall the USA ever coming in the top ten in any of them. Usually it’s well down the list.
Canto: So it’s time to revisit those surveys. First the OECD survey that was posted on in the past, its better life index. The Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)…
Jacinta: Such a positive, feel-good internationalist title.
Canto: Isn’t it? It was founded in 1948, another of those positives to come out of the negativity of warfare. It’s headquartered in Paris, it has 35 member countries and its purpose is pretty well self-explanatory.
Jacinta: Yes, but while its focus is obviously on economics, primarily, the better life index is a kind of side project, which is almost saying ‘money ain’t everything’, there are all these other factors as well as the economic, to consider when striving for a better life, and a better country.
Canto: Yes they consider 11 factors in all: housing, income, jobs, community, education, environment, civic engagement, health, life satisfaction, safety, and work-life balance. People can give different weightings to these factors, and on their website they allow you to change the weightings so that you’ll come up with a different top ten or twenty of the 35 participating countries.
Jacinta: But according to the weightings they favour, the USA comes a fairly creditable ninth behind Norway, Australia, Denmark, Switzerland, Canada, Sweden, New Zealand and Finland, in that order. But since we’re in Australia we can surely permit ourselves some eye-rolling at your standard Yank jingoism.
Canto: Surely but of course many will say that these ‘objective’ assessment criteria are highly suspect, and possibly anti-American.
Jacinta: Naturally, and we haven’t the resources or the time to evaluate them, so instead we’ll look at a number of these surveys with the assumption that they’re not all anti-American, to see how our chauvinistic allies fare. But it’s interesting that the OECD survey doesn’t highly rate any of the non-Scandinavian European counties. A Scandinavian bias perhaps?
Canto: Well here’s another rather different international survey, which looks instead at cities.
Jacinta: Very relevant considering the world’s rapid urbanisation shift.
Canto: The Mercer Quality of Living rankings looks at living conditions in hundreds of cities ‘according to 39 factors, grouped in 10 categories’: Political and social environment, Economic environment, Medical and health considerations, Schools and education, Public services and transportation, Recreation, Consumer goods, Housing, and Natural environment. And again, you may want to believe its findings are biased and you may be right, but its highest ranking American city is Honolulu at number 31.
Jacinta: Honolulu? Hardly the heart of America.
Canto: Compare neighbouring Canada, which has 5 cities in front of Honolulu. Vancouver (4), Ottawa (14), Toronto (16), Montreal (21) and Calgary (28). Australia and New Zealand also rate far better than the USA with Aukland ranked at 4 (tied with Vancouver), Sydney ranked 10, Wellington 12, Melbourne 18, Perth 21 and Canberra 26. Some 16 European cities are in the top 25, with Vienna being ranked the number one city for the past 6 years in a row. There are no Asian, African or South American cities in the top rankings.
Jacinta: Mercer, by the way, is a human resources consulting firm headquartered in New York, and it’s really hard to get full data from it because it restricts full access to ‘professionals’, presumably behind a paywall. Nosy impoverished amateurs like us are unwelcome. So most of the data we’re using is from back in 2010 (and that’s only from press releases, with little detail) but I doubt that the USA has become any ‘greater’ since then. So it’s clear that the USA is no great shakes, city-wise – in fact it would be classed as probably the lowest-ranked western country in the world, according to this survey…
Canto: Conducted by a New York based firm…
Jacinta: Insofar as the liveability of it’s cities are concerned. And that’s where most people live, after all.
Canto: So it’s not looking good for the bad old USA. Any more surveys?
Jacinta: And in case people quibble about the term ‘western’, let’s be a little more precise. The USA, in terms of the quality of its cities for their own residents, lags behind Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
Canto: That way greatness tells lies.
Jacinta: There’s a website called numbeo which claims to provide ‘the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries worldwide. Numbeo provides current and timely information on world living conditions including cost of living, housing indicators, health care, traffic, crime and pollution.‘ Its ‘quality of life index’, based on countries, looks somewhat similar to that of the OECD, with the USA ranked tenth, well below Australia and New Zealand, ranked third and fourth respectively. However it differs from the OECD in that it ranks a number of non-Scandinavian European countries above the USA, namely Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Spain. And it ranks Canada below the USA, which is unusual. And again the top rankings are dominated by western countries, with Japan being the top Asian country at 16.
Canto: I’ve never heard of numbeo, what are their bonafides and how do they gather data?
Jacinta: It’s a crowd-sourcing site, founded in 2009 by one Mladan Adamovic, a former Google software engineer. It’s evolving, and its findings suggest it’s not particularly an outlier, though at this stage not perhaps as reliable as the OECD.
Canto: Well, with crowd-sourcing, there would be some nation-participants where information would be scarce, or virtually non-existent.
Jacinta: That’s right, but all of these survey organisations and websites face the same problems, and it’s pretty likely that the places from which info is scarce wouldn’t be in the top rankings in any case. If you know your country’s doing well, you’d want to share it.
Canto: Okay, so we’ve looked at three sources. One more?
Jacinta: Yeah well a few more, which I’ll summarise. Monocle magazine, a British lifestyle magazine, has been doing an annual quality of life index based on cities since 2006. Its criteria are ‘safety/crime, international connectivity, climate/sunshine, quality of architecture, public transport, tolerance, environmental issues and access to nature, urban design, business conditions, pro-active policy developments and medical care’, and it ranks Tokyo at number one, whereas Mercer ranked it 44th! It did rank Vienna at number two, however. And it ranked Melbourne at 4 and Sydney at 5, so it must be very objective.
Canto: And the US?
Jacinta: Its highest ranking city was Portland Oregon at 25. So there’s definitely a pattern emerging.
Canto: Where’s Adelaide?
Jacinta: They’ve never heard of it. Another survey based on cities comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), from the London-based group that publishes The Economist. They go into a lot of detail about their criteria on their website, so I won’t go into it here. I only had access to their current top 10. It shows Hong Kong at number one, and Sydney at 5. No US cities make the ten, and Vienna isn’t there either. Tokyo comes in at 10. It should be added that they seem to have drastically amended their criteria recently – before that, Vienna regularly came in at number 3, with Melbourne and Vancouver also in the top 5 regularly. Melbourne ranked number 1 in 2011.
Canto: That’s interesting about Hong Kong, because I read elsewhere that life expectancy of its residents is about the highest in the world. So the city must be doing something right.
Jacinta: Well I’m sure the Chinese government will put a stop to that.
Canto: Okay I think we’ve done enough survey of surveys – let’s summarise. We started with Michele Obama, in typical US pollie style, proclaiming the greatness of her country.
Jacinta: I.e. not just great but ‘the greatest on Earth’. So we had a look at a handful of the most well-known global surveys of nations and cities, based essentially on liveability criteria. Though it’s impossible to be entirely objective in these surveys, they collectively present a pattern. In none of them did the USA distinguish itself, and in terms of its cities it really did quite badly, as a western nation. As to why that might be the case, we leave that for the reader’s speculations, for now. The gap between US perceptions and reality, I would contend, is largely caused by the assumption that if you’re globally dominant in economic terms, you’re in a ‘great’ country in any or every other way.
Canto: Roman economic hegemony, in the old days, was largely based on a substantial slave population, wasn’t it?
Jacinta: Well, that and being able to dictate terms of trade with others, as every dominant nation or empire has been able to do. But you’re right, a lot of economic success in the past has involved the exploitation of a populous underclass. The USA is by far the most populous of the traditional western countries, and it effectively has no minimum wage. That’s very handy for the McDonald Frumps of that great nation.