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the tides – a massive potential resource?

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A floating tidal turbine, Orkney islands, as seen on Fully Charged

A recent episode of Fully Charged, the Brit video series on the sources and harnessing of clean energy, took us again to the very windy Orkney Isles at the top of Scotland to have a look at some experimental work being done on generating energy from tidal forces. When you think of it, it seems a no-brainer to harness the energy of the tides. They’re regular, predictable, unceasing, and in some places surely very powerful. Yet I’ve never heard of them being used on an industrial scale.

Of course, I’m still new to this business, so the learning curve continues steep. Tide mills have been used historically here and there, possibly even since Roman times, and tidal barrages have been operating since the sixties, the first and for a long time the largest being the La Rance plant, off the coast of Brittany, generating 240 MW. A slightly bigger one has recently been built in Korea (254 MW).

But tidal barrages – not what they’re testing in the Orkneys – come with serious environmental impact issues. They’re about building a barrage across a bay or estuary with a decent tidal flow. The barrage acts as a kind of adjustable dam, with sluice gates that open and close, and additional pumping when necessary. Turbines generate energy from pressure and height differentials, as in a hydro-electric dam. Research on the environmental impact of these constructions, which can often be major civil engineering projects, has revealed mixed results. Short-term impacts are often devastating, but over time one type of diversity has been replaced by another.

Anyway, what’s happening in the Orkneys is something entirely different. The islanders, the Scottish government and the EU are collaborating through an organisation called EMEC, the European Marine Energy Centre, to test tidal power in the region. They appear to be inviting innovators and technicians to test their projects there. A company called ScotRenewables, for example, has developed low-maintenance floating tidal turbines with retractable legs, one of which is currently being tested in the offshore waters. They’re designed to turn with the ebb and flood tides to maximise their power generation. It’s a 2 MW system, which of course could be duplicated many times over in the fashion of wind turbines, to generate hundreds if not thousands of megawatts. The beauty of the system is its reliability – as the tidal flow can be reliably predicted at least eighteen years into the future, according to the ScotRenewables CEO. This should provide a sense of stability and confidence to downstream suppliers. Also, floating turbines could easily be removed if they’re causing damage, or if they require maintenance. Clearly, the effect on the tidal system would be minimal compared to an estuarine barrage, though there are obvious dangers to marine life getting too close to turbines. The testing of these turbines is coming to an end and they’ve been highly successful so far, though they already have an improved turbine design in the wings, which can be maintained either in situ or in dock. The design can also be scaled down, or up, to suit various sites and conditions.

rotors are on retractable legs, to protect from storms, etc

Other quite different turbine types are being tested in the region, with a lot of government and public support, but I got the slight impression that commercial support for this kind of technology is somewhat lacking. In the Fully Charged video on this subject (to which I owe most of this info), Robert Llewelyn asked the EMEC marketing manager whether she thought tidal or wave energy had the greatest future potential (she opted for wave). My ears pricked up, as wave energy is another newie for me. Duh. Another post, I suppose.

As mentioned though in this video, a lot of the developments in this tidal technology have come from shipbuilding technology, from offshore oil and gas technology, and from maritime technology more generally, as well as modern wind turbine technology, further impressing on me that skills are transferable and that the cheap clean energy revolution won’t be the economic/employment disaster that the fossil fuel dinosaurs predict. It’s a great time for innovation, insight and foresight, and I can only hope that more government and business people in Australia, where I seem to be stuck, can get on board.

fixed underwater tidal turbine being tested off the Orkney Islands


Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2017 at 6:27 am

Limi girl: part 4

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Canto: In the next scene, Heigo returns home to find Shugio helping his mother with some chores, and accuses her of sucking up. She cheerfully acknowledges the fact, and mocks his sense of outrage. Heigo tells her he hates her, Shugio says she likes him. When Heigo’s mother sees them disputing, Shugio makes light of it. Next, we see Xiumei selling her collected fleece-flower and gentian, while Heigo dolefully watches her.

Jacinta: We might say ‘stalking’, but it seems a mite unfair in the context. She’s travelling through the rugged neighbourhood with her laden donkey, he’s following at a distance. Then, while fording a stream, she drops her bag in the water. Heigo to the rescue! They both chase the bag downstream, but Heigo gets to it first. Xiumei has no option but to be grateful, and she lets him accompany her…

Canto: It doesn’t really look like a reconciliation. They arrive at a kind of trading post, with young women exchanging goods for money. I think Shugio’s one of them. Abuse and admonitions rain down on Xiumei and ‘Shugio’s Heigo’ for being shamefully together. Xiumei is tearfully mad… She arrives home in a fury, having apparently shaken off her wannabe lover.

Jacinta: Her parents, sitting together husking corn, see something’s up. Her mother goes to her, and Xiumei just bawls in her arms. But soon after, she’s back at work, sorting out her baskets of herbs and roots, while her father watches from behind, at a loss as to how to help his daughter.

Canto: And in the next scene the father is visiting a school. We find that he’s asked her former teacher to come and talk to Xiumei. So the teacher comes to her home, expresses sorrow that things haven’t worked out for her, and offers her work as a substitute teacher. But she declines, she wants to pass the exam and leave her village once more. ‘It’s not easy for you or your father,’ he says, but she’s determined, though apologetic, even fearful.

Jacinta: So our brave heroine is next seen on the hills, dancing with young Gaidi, finding reasons to be cheerful, but of course Heigo is lurking. He approaches them, and Xiumei tells him the good news that her old teacher has promised to help were with a student loan if she passes her exam. Heigo looks none too happy about this, but Gaidi invites him to dance.

Canto: And surprise surprise, there they are innocently dancing when who should happen along but Shugio…

Jacinta: Some cinematic conventions are inevitable. Ahhh, but it turns out not to be Shugio… these village girls look much the same in their native costume. It’s another village girl who then hurries back to tell Shugio that ‘her’ Heigo is dancing and hugging with Xiumei – something of an exaggeration. Shugio jumps on her motorbike…

Canto: So it’s her motorbike after all. At least we’ve sorted one thing out…

Jacinta: But it won’t start. So she heads off on foot. She finds the three of them dancing together, and tries to separate them, talking of shamelessness, which naturally riles Xiumei. ‘Who do you think you are?’ yells Heigo. ‘I’m your fiancée,’ is Shugio’s tearful reply, (so goes the translation, though I suspect the romantic French word doesn’t quite capture it. Maybe betrothed?). Heigo looks put-upon and unimpressed, Xiumei, doesn’t want to know, and Shugio just runs off. It’s becoming tragic.

Canto: Not to mention claustrophobic. In the next scene we see Xiumei’s father, feeding the donkey, and Shugio turns up – presumably straight from the dancing altercation, saying ‘Uncle’. So they’re all a bit close for comfort. He invites her to come inside, and that’s where the scene ends. We can imagine… And so in the next scene Heigo is sitting having a drink with a friend, in the dark, under a full moon. ‘Wumulong is so beautiful’, says the friend, and I think he’s talking about their village. Heigo says, everyone wants to leave, and then they come back, then they want to leave again… He’s talking about the younger gen, no doubt. His friend (or is it his cousin), though, gives him no comfort, saying it’s natural for people to miss their homes. Heigo goes on, speaking about why people leave, but his friend keeps bringing him back home, to the right place, to belonging.

Jacinta: Outside of this dark circle of conversation is a young child, and, presumably, a wife, his friend’s wife. The woman, barely seen, is saying ‘go back to sleep’, but the child says no, no, no, no, louder and louder, and the defiant sound rings in Heigo’s defiant ears. It’s a nicely-caught moment from the director. I like this director.

Canto: The talk turns to Xiumei and Shugio, and again Heigo’s advised, in spite of his feelings, to stick with Shugio as ‘your daily necessity. You’ll understand in the future’. The whole scene emphasises Heigo’s isolation.

Jacinta: We next find Heigo arriving at Xiumei’s place – it’s quite confusing who lives where in this film, and their actual kin relations! Xiumei has locked herself in, and her mother is trying to interest her in some dinner. Heigo addresses Xiumei’s mother as ‘aunty’, and she tells Heigo that, after Shugio’s visit in which she told ‘everything’!?, Xiumei’s father scolded her (Xiumei). Heigo tries to communicate with Xiumei, but gets nowhere, and then her father asks to talk to him. Clearly this isn’t going to turn out well for poor Heigo.

Canto: Yes so Heigo has to endure the expected. Family reputation is the most important thing for Limi people, the elder says, and one day Xiumei, too, will marry (assuming of course that Heigo must marry Shugio. So, the elder says, if you really feel for Xiumei, you must simply help her towards a bright future.

Jacinta: Though what about Heigo’s future, forced to marry someone he doesn’t love? But Heigo, who is generally respectful to his elders – apart maybe from his mother – says that he understands, and the conversation ends. Has he really given up on Xiumei? As for that ‘family reputation’ thing, it makes me think of honour killings and the like. But this is how marriage was in other times, and is in other places…

Canto: And the elder’s statement that Xiumei too will marry, as if it’s the family’s decision, not hers, that’s kind of chilling to a western viewer. In the next scene, the wedding is being arranged by the adults, with Shugio present. The snare is tightening. And we learn in this conversation that Heigo’s father died when he was young – this explains his obstinacy, his mother apologises.

Jacinta: Next we find Xiumei visiting houses with her donkey, wanting to buy medicinal herbs for some reason. And then we switch to Gaidi in another part of the neighbourhood, being teased by some children as a ‘Szichuan girl’, but then Heigo arrives saying he’s bought a new ‘car’, though it’s actually a motorbike, and he offers her a ride, which she gladly accepts. The point of this scene, I now realise, is that Heigo has asserted his independence from Shugio by buying his own bike rather than riding hers. Switch back to Xiumei, who encounters another young woman on the mountain trail. It’s someone who was her classmate in elementary school, though Xiumei doesn’t recognise her at first. It’s been ten years. They walk the trail chatting, talking about Xiumei’s studies and the problems of working and studying, and the gossip about Heigo. It’s Xiumei’s classmate who does most of the talking. After a while, Xiumei tells her she should go, back to her husband. Her old friend complies, and then she turns back, and says, ‘Xiumei, you must go back to college, don’t end up having a life like mine!’ I’ve seen this film a few times now, and this scene gets me every time. The music comes on to heighten the significance of the moment, and it’s painfully effective, damn it.

Canto: Yes it’s a key moment, Xiumei watches her friend’s retreating back, no doubt feeling she’s carrying more than her own hopes into the future. So Xiumei wends her way home, to find Gaidi waiting for her. Uncle is sick, she says, and he’s been taken to the hospital.

Jacinta: That must be Xiumei’s dad? She rushes off to the hospital, and we see her confusion as she negotiates the wards. She finds Heigo and her mother. The doctor says he needs an operation, and asks for payment. Xiumei rushes off again to make the payment… is this money she has saved?

Canto: But we don’t see her make the payment, all we get is that it costs 1600 RMB, and next we find her visiting Shugio, in a desperate bid for money. Shugio is drying herbs and tries to ignore her, but when Xiumei kneels before her, Shugio quickly relents, and pays her 500 RMB for a few herbs. She has to force Xiumei to take all the money, and then turns her back when Xiumei tries to thank her.

Jacinta: Though of course she’s concerned. So back at the hospital, Xiumei is feeding and tending to her father. Devotion and tenderness, with all the underlying tensions…

Canto: So here ends part 4 of our near-endless review, or walk-through, of this very interesting movie. We will wrap it up in part 5.


Written by stewart henderson

September 26, 2017 at 8:52 am

on the Rohingyas, and introducing the first of many heroes, Wai Wai Nu

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Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya woman, a feminist, a democrat, and a humanist, working to bring communities together in the Arakan region, Myanmar

I haven’t posted for a bit, as I was writing a lengthy piece on the Rohingyas, their history and their plight, but I’ve decided to abandon that as there are many others, investigative journalists, historians and the like, who could do a far better job. Of course the main purpose of my writing is to inform myself, but I soon found, with this Rohingya business, it’s the same old story of ‘they don’t belong here’ ultranationalists, and the political expediency of national leaders who need the support of these types, together with the carping of neighbours who have their own nationalist agendas and sordid histories.

So I want to be more brief and positive, and of course feminist (though I’ll leave references to the more interesting analyses I’ve read about the situation), and write about one heroine who has been inspired by her experiences to do something about this.

I’m thinking this could be the first of many posts about women setting great examples in the world.

Wai Wai Nu is a young Rohingya woman who, as an 18-year-old law student, was imprisoned, along with other family members, by the military dictators of Myanmar in 2005, at a time when thousands of people were locked up for opposing the junta, or indeed for any trivial reason. She was sentenced to 17 years, but was finally released in 2012. She was then able to complete her law degree, but she has described her years of incarceration in an infamous prison as her true university years, years spent among the victimised poor. Having said that, she comes from a political, pro-democratic family, her father having been elected to parliament in 1990, an odd fact considering that a citizenship law of 1982 rendered the Rohingyas officially stateless, which they’ve been ever since – and other laws enacted since have denied them every right that they might possibly be entitled to, including even the right to call themselves Rohingyas.

In recent years Wai Wai has founded two NGOs promoting peace and women’s rights, the Women’s Peace Network – Arakan, and Justice for Women, a legal aid support group for women in Myanmar. Her work is the kind of work women have done for decades at the coal-face, educating the next generation, promoting inter-faith dialogue, empowering women and the poor, and bringing disparate communities together, while being mocked or ignored by bully-boy nationalists with their generally sickening and infantile agendas (but ok, I’m beginning to sound like a bully boy myself…). I would highly recommend listening to this softly spoken but determined woman’s speech at the Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway in May this year.

Rohingyas in Arakan aren’t allowed an identity, and have no freedom of movement outside of Arakan province. They’re not even allowed to marry outside their own group, as that would obviously complicate matters re their extinction within Myanmar. The current aim of the national government appears to be to force them out of the country altogether, but this is as unlikely to be successful as the attempt to assimilate (and so dilute to the point of non-existence) Australia’s indigenous population by earlier governments here. So it will be a long struggle, but with people like Wai Wai Nu doing the kind of work she does, and the ongoing struggles and activities of those she has inspired, we have good reason to hope for a fairer future for the Rohingyas, and for women throughout Myanmar. And here’s hoping Wai Wai Nu doesn’t enter politics, where her talents are likely to be compromised… or maybe not…


Written by stewart henderson

September 17, 2017 at 2:38 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

nones, rinos and new australians – we’re becoming more secular, but also more religiously complex

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So the census data on religion, and everything else, has just come out, and it wasn’t as I’d predicted (in my mind). I expected a rise in the nones but I opted for a more conservative result, partly because of so many wrong predictions (in my mind) in the recent past, but mainly because I didn’t really expect the accelerating rise in recent censuses to continue for too much longer, I expected a few wobbles on the path to heathenism. Not so much two steps forward and one step back, more like a mixture of giant strides and baby steps.

So the result is encouraging and more people are taking note and it has clear implications for areas of social and political policies in which religion plays a part, such as funding for religion in schools, marriage equality, abortion rights, euthanasia, tax exemptions for religious organisations, school chaplains and the like.

So let’s take a closer look at the findings. The graph I present at the top of this post is identical to the one I posted about 5 years ago, except that the last bar, representing the 2016 figures, is added. And it’s quite a spectacular finding, showing that the acceleration is continuing. The drop in the assertively Christian sector is way bigger than expected (in my mind), from a little under 60% to just over 50%. That’s really something, and there’s no doubt that figure will be well under 50% by next census. So much for the twilight of atheism – at least in this benighted backwater. The figure for the assertively non-religious has taken a bigger jump than in any previous census – we only started measuring the category in 1971. That was a surprise, as was the size of the drop in Catholics (and the Anglican population continues to diminish). The figure of 30.1% for the nones, up from 22.3% in 2011, should be supplemented by a goodly percentage of the ‘not-stated/inadequately described’ category, which makes up about 10%, barely changed from last census. This would make for a figure of more than a third of our population professing no religion.

The figure for ‘other religions’ continues to rise but it’s still under 10%. It’s hardly cause for concern exactly, but we should always be vigilant about maintaining a thoroughly secular polity and judiciary. It has served us, and other secular countries, very well indeed. Meanwhile the mix of other religions makes for greater complexity and diversity, and hopefully will prevent the dominance of any particular religious perspective. We should encourage dialogue between these groups to prevent religious balkanisation.

These results really do give hope that the overall ‘no religion’ figure, now at around 30%, will overtake the overall Christian figure, at about 51%, in my lifetime. If the trend continues to accelerate, that may well happen by 2026. Meanwhile it’ll be fascinating to see how these results play out in the political and social arena in the near future, and what Christian apologists have to say about them.

Of course, the census hardly provides a fine-grained view of the nation’s religious affiliations. I’ve not said much about the ‘rino’ population before – that’s those who are ‘religious in name only’. In fact I only heard that acronym for the first time two days ago, but I’ve long been aware of the type, and I’ve met a few ‘Catholics’ who fit the bill. It really does gripe me that more of these people don’t come out as non-believers, but of course I can’t get inside their heads. Certainly church attendance has dropped markedly in recent years, but it’s impossible to know whether these nominal believers would follow religious lines on hot-button topics like euthanasia or abortion.

The census results, as always, have been published with accompanying ‘expert’ commentaries, and on the religious question they’ve said that the figures don’t really give comfort to Christians or atheists. It’s cloud cuckoo talk, but it doesn’t surprise me. The results speak volumes and give plenty of comfort to those who want religion to be kept well out of politics, and who never want to see a return to powerful Christian lobbies and their incessant and often ridiculous propaganda. Politicians, please take note.


Our recent power outage – how to prevent a recurrence. part 1 – preliminary remarks

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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.


Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2016 at 7:54 pm

the renewable energy juggernaut

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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.


Written by stewart henderson

September 16, 2016 at 8:57 am

clever Charlie Darwin

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A photo taken by me! King Charles seated in state in the Musuem of Natural History, London. It was a thrill to be granted an audience

A photo taken by me! King Charles seated in state in the Musuem of Natural History, London. It was a thrill to be granted an audience

I recently decided to reread Darwin’s Origin of Species, which was really reading it for the first time as my first reading was pretty cursory, and I could barely follow the wealth of particular knowledge he used for cumulative effect to adduce his theory. This time I’ve been doing a closer reading, and becoming increasingly impressed, and I’ve only read the first chapter, ‘Variation under Domestication’.

Darwin’s argument here of course is that domesticated horses, dogs, birds and plants have been artificially selected over long periods of time, and often unconsciously, to suit human needs and tastes. This might seem screamingly obvious today, and to a degree it was recognised in Darwin’s time, but because of an inability to take the long view, and also because of the then-prevalent paradigm of the fixity of species, breeders and nurserymen tended to under-estimate their own cumulative powers, and to claim, for example, that dogs and pigeons had always come in many varieties. Even Darwin was uncertain, and was willing to concede – writing of course before the advent of Mendelian genetics, never mind the revolution wrought by the identification and analysis of DNA as the molecule of inheritance – that in some cases the breeders might be right:

In the case of most of our anciently domesticated animals and plants, I do not think it is possible to come to any definite conclusion, whether they have descended from one or several species.

He was even prepared to concede that it was ‘highly probable that our domestic dogs have descended from several wild species’, while at the same time arguing that the breeding of dogs, in Egypt, other parts of Africa and Australia (where, in his Beagle travels, he observed dingoes, which he may have seen as semi-domesticated by the Aborigines) extended back far further in time than most people suspected. We now know that Darwin’s concession here was ‘premature’. The latest research strongly suggests that our domesticated dogs trace their ancestry to a group of European wolves dating from 19,000 to 32,000 years ago, and probably now extinct. That’s a time-frame Darwin would’ve baulked at, and it’s both funny and kind of tragic that this is something I’ve ‘discovered’ after 30 seconds of selective internet searching. There’s no doubt, though that Darwin’s bold but always informed speculations were heading in the right direction.

Particularly informed –  and bold – were his speculations about pigeons. This is hardly surprising as he spent several years studying and breeding them himself. Interestingly, he started doing so because he’d become convinced that all the fancy pigeons then on show were most likely derived from one common species, the rock pigeon or rock dove (Columba livia), a view already held by some naturalists but few breeders.  He devotes several pages in Chapter 1 to arguing his case, for example pointing out that the ‘several distinct species’ argued for by breeders can be crossed with complete success, that’s to say with no signs of sterility or more than usually defective offspring.

So, as with dogs, I decided to look up what the latest research was on the ancestry of English carriers, short-faced tumblers, runts, fantails, common tumblers, barbs, pouters, trumpeters and laughers, to name some of the pigeons Darwin mentions in the chapter, and was excited to find that a piece of research published as recently as 2013 has confirmed Darwin’s hypothesis. Cheaper and faster genome sequencing technologies have enabled researchers to sequence the genomes of many wild and domesticated birds, and they’ve found that all of the latter are clearly closer to C livia than to any other wild species. It only took just over 150 years for Darwin to be proven correct.

Close reading like this really does reap some fun rewards, and I’ll finish with two more examples. Darwin wrote of how in the world of breeding, quite a drastic change can be brought about in one breeding step, as in the case of the fuller’s teasel with its hooks. He goes on:

So it has probably been with the turnspit dog; and this is known to have been the case with the ancon sheep.

Not knowing wtf he was talking about, I irritatedly decided to look up these unknown creatures. The turnspit dog is a now-extinct breed, bred specifically from around the 16th century to provide the dogpower to turn meat on a spit, the only conceivable way of cooking large joints of meat in your average fancy household for a couple of centuries. The dog, or dogs, because the system worked better if you had two of them engaged in shift work, turned a wheel by running inside it, rat-like, until the meat was cooked. They were known to be long-bodied and short-legged, but details of how they were bred aren’t known, as they were apparently beneath scholarly consideration. They certainly weren’t seen as cuddly pets – if you treat creatures as slaves it heightens your contempt for then (cf Aristotle) – and they were even taken to church as foot-warmers. They’d disappeared entirely by the end of the 19th century.

It's a dog's life?

It’s a dog’s life?

The ancon sheep was a short-legged type, apparently bred from a single individual in the USA in the late nineteenth century, its short legs having the singular advantage, to some, of curtailing its hopes of freedom by jumping the fence. The term ‘ancon’ has since been used by breeding researchers to describe strains of creatures arising from an individual with the same phenotype.


Written by stewart henderson

June 4, 2016 at 11:00 am