Canto: There isn’t much detail in Lobel’s book about how sensations or the senses can be harnessed to education, but she tantalisingly offers this:
Several studies have shown that peppermint and cinnamon scents improved cognitive performance, including attention and memory; clerical tasks, such as typing speed and alphabetisation; and performance in video games.
Jacinta: Right, so we spray peppermint and cinnamon about the classroom, and genius rises. But is there anything in this approach specifically for language learning?
Canto: Well, a key insight, if you can call it that, of embodied cognition is that not only does the mind influence the body’s movements, but the body influences our thinking. And the relationship can be quite subtle. It’s known from neurophysiological studies that a person’s motor system is activated when they process action verbs, and when they observe the movements of others.
Jacinta: So that’s about mirror neurons?
Canto: Exactly. The basic take-away from this is that activating mirror neurons enhances learning. So as a teacher, combining gestures, or ‘acting out’ with speech to introduce new language, especially verbs, is an effective tool.
Jacinta: Playing charades, so that students embody the activity? This can be done with phrasal verbs, for example, which students often don’t get. Or prepositions. The teacher or students can act them out, or manipulate blocks to show ‘between’ ‘next to’, ‘in front of’, ‘under’, etc. This would be a useful strategy for low-level learning at our college, really engaging the students, but it would also help with higher level students, who are expected to write quite abstract stuff, but often don’t have the physical grounding of the target language, so they often come out with strange locutions which convey a lack of that physical sense of English that native speakers have.
Canto: Yes, they use transition signals and contrast terms wrongly, because they’re still vague as to their meaning. Acting out some of those terms could be quite useful. For example, ‘on the one hand/on the other hand’. You could act this out by balancing something on one hand, and then something of equal weight on the other hand, and speaking of equal weights and balancing in argument, and then getting the students to act this out for themselves, especially those students you know are likely to misconstrue the concept. ‘Furthermore’ could be acted out both by physically adding more to an argument and taking it further in one direction. ‘Moreover’ takes more over to one side. You could use blocks or counters to represent contrast words, a word or counter that shifts the argument to the opposite side, and to represent the additive words, with counters that accumulate the arguments on one side.
Jacinta: So this acting out, and gesturing, all this is very suggestive of the origins of language, which might’ve begun in gestures?
Canto: Yes it’s a very complex communicative system, which may well have begun with a complex gestural system, accompanied by vocalisations. Think of the complexity of signing systems for the deaf – it’s extraordinary how much we can convey through hand gestures accompanied by facial expressions and vocalisations, or even partial vocalisations or pre-vocalisations – lip movements and such. Other primates have complex gestural communisation, and it was in monkeys that mirror neurons were first discovered by neurophysiologists examining inputs into the motor cortex. They are the key to our understanding of the embodied nature of language and communication. When we learn our L1, as children, we learn it largely unconsciously from our parents and those close to us, by copying – and not only copying words, but gestures which accompany words. We absorb the physical framing of the language, the tone in which certain words are conveyed, words and phrases – locutions – associated with physical actions and feelings such as anger, sadness, humour, fear etc, and they fire up or activate neurons in the motor cortex as well as in those centres related to language processing.
Jacinta: I’ve heard, though, that there’s a competing theory about the origin and evolution of language, relating to calls, such as those made by birds and other animals.
Canto: Not just one other. This has been described as the hardest problem in science by some, and I’ve hardly scratched the surface of it, but I recently watched an interview with Giacomo Rizzolatti, whose team discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, and he strongly favours the gestural origin theory, though he also says we need more neurophysiological evidence, for example of mirror neurons in other areas of the brain, or the absence of them, before we decide once and for all. He finds the debate a little ideological at present.
Jacinta: Well the origin of language obviously involves evolution, but there are few traces discoverable from the past. Spoken language leaves no trace. So it’s always going to be highly speculative.
Canto: Well it may not always be, but it long has been that’s for sure. Apparently the Linguistic Society of Paris banned all present and future debate on the origins of language back in 1866, so we could get arrested for this post.
Jacinta: Yeah, a bit hard to enforce that one. So we have no idea about when human language evolved, or did it evolve gradually over hundreds of thousands of years?
Canto: Well, that’s more speculation, but there are continuity theories (language is this extremely complex thing that came together gradually with the accumulation of changes – mutations or brain-wirings – over an extended period), and there are discontinuity theories that favour, for example, a single transformative genetic mutation.
Jacinta: And what about the song theory – that’s one I’ve heard. That song, and therefore music, preceded language. I suppose that’s romantic speculation – right up our alley.
Canto: Okay so this is very interesting and something to follow up in future posts, but we should get back to our main subject, the implications of embodied cognition for language learning today.
Jacinta: Aren’t the implications fairly straightforward – that we learned language, that’s to say our L1 – in a thoroughly embodied way, within a rich sensory and physical context, as highly active kids, and so it’s a battle to get students to learn their L2 or another language, because neurons that fire together wire together, and there’s this thing called brain frugality which makes us always look for short-cuts, so we always want to convert the L2 into the familiar, wired-in L1, rather than trying to grasp the flow of a foreign language. We want to work in the familiar, activated channels of our L1. So, as teachers, we can help students to develop channels for their L2 by teaching in a more embodied way.
Canto: Here’s a thought – I wonder if we can measure teaching techniques for L2 by examining the active brain and the feedback mechanisms operating between cortices as students are being taught? Have we reached that level of sophistication?
Jacinta: I doubt it. It’s an intriguing thought though. But what exactly would we be measuring? How much of the brain is ‘lighting up’? How long it’s remaining lit up? And how would we know if what’s being activated is due to language learning? It could be active avoidance of language learning…
Canto: I need to learn much more about this subject. I’ve heard that you can’t and shouldn’t teach an L2 in the way we learn our L1, but what does that mean? In any case, it’s true that the way we teach, in serried rows, facing the front with too much teacher talk and a general discouragement of talking out of turn and even moving too much, it really does smack of an old dualist conception, with disembodied minds soaking up the new language from the teacher.
Jacinta: Well surely you don’t teach that way any more, shame on you if you do, but there are ways in which a more embodied approach can be used, with role-playing, framing and other forms of contextualising.
Canto: Yes, clearly contextualising and incorporating action, sensation and emotion into language teaching is the key, and getting students to use the language as often as possible, to learn to manipulate it, even if ungrammatically at times and with gestural accompaniment….
Jacinta: So, like learning L1? But we ‘pick up’ our L1, we absorb it like little sponges, together with context and connotation. Is that really how to learn an L2? Is the idea to replace the L1 with a thoroughly embodied L2? Or is it to have two – or more – fully embodied, firing-and-wired transmitting and feedback-looping language systems alongside each other. What about energy conservation?
Canto: Okay so let this be an introductory post. I clearly need to research and think on this subject a lot more…
Canto: So I’ve just read a book that details experiments highlighting the effects of, for example, colour, odour, physical comfort and ’embodied metaphors’ on mood, decision-making and creative thinking…
Jacinta: Embodied metaphors?
Canto: I’ll explain later, or not. What I want to do here is lay the groundwork for a future PD talk on how these findings can improve our educational settings and teaching.
Jacinta: So you’re saying our environment can be manipulated, perhaps, to bring out better results in students?
Canto: Yes, think about it. Will sitting in a soft chair help you to think more creatively or efficiently than sitting in a hard chair? Will standing or walking around improve your thinking? Don’t forget Harry Stottle and the Peripatetics. And can these effects be measured? What about the temperature of the room? The view from the window? Inside or outside?
Jacinta: Okay, so can you give me some solid research data on anything that can improve, say, test scores?
Canto: For a start, don’t ask females to indicate that they’re female on the test booklet when they’re sitting a mathematics test. Their results will be impaired. The very act of writing that they’re female apparently brings to mind the idea that girls can’t do maths. The same has been found with African-Americans and maths. This phenomenon is well known in the literature, and has been called stereotype threat.
Jacinta: Okay, but is this really an example of what you were talking about? I thought it was all about the effect of colour, temperature, lighting etc?
Canto: I’m talking about embodied cognition, or physical intelligence, and yes that research is an example – by getting someone to write their gender before sitting a test, it makes them more aware of their gender; their embodiment is brought to mind. But I’m going to give some quite striking examples of the influence of the colour red on test results. A team of American and German researchers conducted a number of experiments, the first involving 71 American undergrads. Each subject was tested individually. They were told they’d be given an anagram test, in which they had to unscramble sets of letters into words. These were of medium difficulty. After a practice run, the students were randomly divided into three groups. All students were given the same anagram tests on paper, with one difference – each participant was given a number, but with one group, the number was coloured red, with another the colour was green, with the third the colour was black. The number on the top of the paper was called to the subjects’ attention at the beginning of the test, with the excuse that this was necessary for processing. The difference in the test results was striking – those who saw a red number at the top of each page performed significantly worse than the green and black groups.
Jacinta: They saw red, and fell apart? But why would they do that? Has this study been replicated? Maybe the group with the red numbers were just bad at anagrams?
Canto: Good questions, and of course it’s the sort of study that could easily be replicated, but the results are in line with similar studies. Unfortunately I could only read a brief abstract of the original study as the detail is behind a paywall, but all these studies have been written about by Thalma Lobel in her book Sensation: the new science of physical intelligence, and, according to her, this particular study took into consideration the abilities of the groups and made sure that this wasn’t the cause of the difference. Also, the same researchers did a follow-up test in Germany, with altered experimental conditions. Instead of using anagrams they used analogy tests, such as:
legs relate to walk like:
1 tongue to mouth
2. eyes to blink
3. comb to hair
4. nose to face
Jacinta: Right, so the correct answer is 2, though it’s not the best analogy.
Canto: Well, eyes to see might be too easy. Anyway, 46 subjects were given 5 minutes to come up with 20 correct analogies. The analogies were presented on paper, each with a cover page. The subjects were divided into 3 groups and the only difference between the groups was the colour of the cover page. The first group had red, the second green, the third, white. This time their exposure to the colours was shorter – only seconds before they were asked to turn the page, and they weren’t exposed to the colour during the test itself, after they’d turned the page. Still the results were much the same as in the first experiment – exposure to the red cover page resulted in poorer scores.
Jacinta: Sooo, red’s a colour to be avoided when doing tests. What about the other colours? Were any of them good for improving test scores?
Canto: No, not in these experiments. And again, Lobel assures us that the study controlled for the variable of differential ability. The researchers conducted other studies on a range of participants – using verbal and non-verbal (e.g. mathematical) tests, and the results were consistent – exposing subjects to the colour red, and making them conscious of that colour, resulted in poorer scores.
Jacinta: And they have no explanation as to why? Presumably it’s some sort of connotative value for red. Red is danger, red is embarrassment…
Canto: Nature red in tooth and claw – but red is also the heart, the rose, the Valentine. Red has all sorts of contradictory connotations.
Jacinta: So isn’t it the way that red is seen in our culture? What about controlling for cultural connotations, however contradictory?
Canto: You mean trying it out in Outer Mongolia, or a remote African village? It’s a good point, but you know red is the colour of blood..
Jacinta: And of my life-producing vagina.
Canto: Yeah but look at the wariness with which women are treated for having one of those. Anyway I’m not sure they’ve done the study in those places, but they’ve varied the settings – labs, classrooms, outdoors – and the age-groups and the test-types, and the results haven’t varied significantly. And they did other tests to measure motivation rather than performance.
Jacinta: So you mean how seeing red influenced people’s motivation? Presumably negatively.
Canto: Yes. The same research team tried out an experiment on 67 students, based on the assumption that, if you’re an anxious or under-confident employee, you’ll knock on the boss’s door more quietly, and with fewer knocks, than if you’re a confident employee. That’s assuming you find the door closed, and you don’t actually know why you’ve been asked to see the boss. Reasonable assumptions?
Canto: So here’s the set-up. The 67 students were told they would be taking one of two tests: analogies or vocal. The students were shown a sample question from each of the tests, to convince them of the process, though it was all subterfuge basically. They were given white binders, and asked to read the name of the test on the first page. They found the word analogies printed in black ink on a coloured rectangle. The colour was either red or green. Next they were asked to walk down the corridor to a lab to take the test. The lab door was closed, but it had a sign saying ‘please knock’. It was found that those who saw the test title on a red background consistently knocked less often and less insistently.
Jacinta: So they were de-motivated and made more anxious simply by this sight of red. Again, why?
Canto: Learned associations, presumably. Red with danger, with anger, with disapproval.
Jacinta: But – just seeing it on a binder?
Canto: That’s what the evidence says.
Jacinta: Okay – I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced, but all this is a bit negative. Granted we could avoid exposing students to red just in case it inhibits learning, but what about studies that show what might be done to improve learning? That’s what we should be aiming for, surely?
Canto: Okay, so now we’ve eliminated the negative, I promise to accentuate the positive in the next post.
Jacinta: Good, we really need to latch onto the affirmative, without messing with Ms In-between…
Chapter 5 of the report focuses on the challenges to NEM system reliability caused by increasing VRE penetration, and on possible reforms to the system to accommodate these changes. Price signals, bidding, and market cap prices and floors, as well as many other terms dealt with in this chapter, are definitely outside my sphere of knowledge or interest, but I feel duty bound to try and make sense of them. For a useful beginner’s guide to the NEM, check out this ABC site, though it dates from 2010, and it’s fascinating to note how things have changed since then. The AEMO was only established in 2009.
The NEM is an ‘energy-only’ market, rather than a capacity market. An energy-only market is one in which the companies generating energy are paid for the electricity they sell. In a capacity market they would be paid for keeping generation capacity available to cover what might be a fluctuating demand. With an energy-only market, producers would presumably be focused on demand, not wishing to provide more of something they can’t sell when demand is down, as it has been in recent times. However, base load demand, which is intermittent and unpredictable, becomes a particular problem when investment in the kind of generators that provide base load power is low. The report has this to say on the matter:
The NEM relies on price signals (subject to market price caps and floors), performance standards and market information to incentivise the development and retirement of generation infrastructure. When there is sufficient baseload supply, average prices tend to be low, signalling that no new investment in base load generation is needed. When base load supply tightens, average prices increase, signalling that investment in base load generation is needed. Peaking generators respond to similar patterns but look to higher price periods associated with peak demand.
I don’t really understand this, especially the bit about peaking generators, which sounds as if there are separate generators for peak demand, but that can’t be right. In any case, what this chapter tells me is that the economics of electricity generation in a transforming and uncertain market are fiendishly difficult to comprehend and control. The review ends the chapter, and all other chapters, with consultation questions which help concentrate the mind on the issues at stake. These include questions about the NEM’s reliability settings, liquidity in the market for forward contracts to ensure supply for business and commercial enterprises (and the effect of increasing levels of VRE on forward contracts, and how this can be catered for), and other questions about creating or ensuring future investment.
Chapter 6 deals with the problem of the seemingly ever-increasing cost of electricity to the consumer. The chapter divides itself into sections on wholesale costs and retail pricing. It seems Australia no longer experiences low electricity costs by OECD standards. Network investments have recently driven prices up, and further rises are expected due to generator closures, the international price of gas, and constraints on gas supply. Again the report emphasises the role of gas, at least in the interim:
Gas has the potential to smooth the transition to a lower emissions electricity sector. Gas generation provides the synchronous operation that is key to maintaining technical operability with increased renewable generation until new technologies are available and cost-effective. Furthermore, gas is dispatchable when required.
It seems there’s an intergovernmental understanding that reform is desperately needed to develop and incentivise the local gas market. There are many roadblocks to successful reform, which are currently affecting wholesale costs which will lead to higher retail prices.
Some 43% of current residential electricity prices are made up of network charges, mostly for distribution. Many network renovations were necessary to meet revised standards. A 2013 Productivity Commission inquiry criticised ‘inefficiencies in the industry and flaws in the regulatory environment’ in respect of the planning of large transmission investments and management of demand. Consumer concern about rising prices is driving reform in this area, but we’re yet to see any clear results. Also, there is a difficult balance to be struck between system reliability and cost. A significant proportion of consumers have expressed a willingness to live with reduced reliability for reduced cost.
There has been a difficulty also in forecasting demand, and therefore the spread of cost. Reduced peak demand in the period 2008 to 2013 wasn’t foreseen. The reduction, likely driven increasing electricity costs, was a result of many factors, such as solar installations, energy efficiencies and reduced consumption. There’s a plan to introduce ‘cost reflective pricing’, which means ‘charging prices that accurately reflect the cost of providing network services to different consumer groups’. This is expected to reduce peak demand overall, as will increasing use of solar and, in the future, battery storage.
Retail pricing is another matter, and according to the report there is a lack of transparency in the retail market. Retailing electricity is obviously complex and involves covering wholesale costs as well as billing, connections, customer service, managing bad debts, marketing, return on investment, inter alia. We can only determine whether the retail market is operating fairly when these costs are open to scrutiny.
Chapter 7 deals with energy market governance from a national, whole-of-system perspective. The report stresses urgency on this, though given the complexity of the system and the divided views of policy-makers, it’s unlikely that decisions on integrating the system and making it more flexible will be forthcoming in the immediate future. The governance of the NEM is divided between policy-maker (the COAG Energy Council), rule-maker (AEMC), operator (AEMO) and regulator (AER, the Australian Energy Regulator). None of these bodies, the report notes, are integrated with bodies advising on emissions reduction. Again, the report doesn’t advance a plan for an improved governance system, but posts consultation questions for how improvements might be made. These include amendments to various rules and guidelines, methods for improving accountability and transparency, and expedited decision-making in a rapidly transforming market.
The report includes a number of appendices, the first and most important being a comparison of the NEM with other energy systems and markets worldwide, including those with a large market share of VRE, such as Denmark and Ireland. It is noted that the transformation of these markets, as well as larger markets in Spain and Germany, is being managed apparently without compromising energy security. However, the variety and complexity of many overseas markets and systems makes comparisons well-nigh impossible for someone as uninitiated as myself. Suffice to say that the role of interconnectors for system security is very important in many European regions, and support from governments for a more flexible system to accommodate VRE is more widespread.
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.
Jacinta: So it’s been a while, but let’s return to that fascinating movie about identity, ambition, entrapment and dislocation, Limi Girl.
Canto: After this poignant moment when Xiumei and Heigo recognise the difficulty of living independently, of controlling the forces around them, Heigo announces his arranged marriage to Shugio – ‘but it’s you I want to marry.’ When Xiumei rather cruelly ticks him off about this, he apologises, says he was joking.
Jacinta: And he clearly wasn’t, poor fellow. He’s fighting a losing battle.
Canto: Men chase, women choose. Desperately, he warns her that going to college is no guarantee of a good future. But she’s resolute in her irresolute way – it’s the closest thing to her dream. She walks off, leaving him to wonder if the chase is off.
Jacinta: In the next scene we see Shugio at home, apparently mixing farm work with school work – first writing on a blackboard (there appears to be a calculator on the table), then sifting some kind of foodstuff, then reading some paper. It looks she might be learning some basic literacy and numeracy. She looks happy, no doubt dreaming of her marriage, till she sees Xiumei go by at the bottom of the hill, followed by Heigo. It’s more like a funeral procession than a chase, though. Angrily, she throws a basin of water down towards him.
Canto: Poor Heigo’s not too popular with the womenfolk. The next scene is quite obscure for non-Mandarin speakers. Heigo’s home with young Gaidi, having cooked her dinner. He finds her absorbed in watching a Chinese TV program with a lot of people staring at the Chinese flag, with a soothing voice-over. Looks like propaganda. He turns away, looking slightly perturbed.
Jacinta: Yes, don’t know what to make of it. But in the next scene Gaidi is in bed with her aunt, and has woken up in the middle of the night. She says she wants to go to school. To college in Szichuan, like Xiumei. To find her mother and father. So presumably the program she was watching has influenced her. Her aunt isn’t sympathetic. Shugio didn’t go to school and is having a good life. Xiumei, on the other hand… besides, she doesn’t have the money to waste on such things.
Canto: So Xiumei is being denigrated, but the more aspirational, such as Gaidi, see her as an inspiration. In the next scene, Xiumei is out with her fellow-villagers, all female, working in the ‘fields ‘(actually tough, wooded mountainsides) digging up fleece-flower roots (used in TCM – traditional Chinese medicine – and therefore of very doubtful efficacy). One of the girls steals a root that she has dug up, leading to a confrontation. Another girl joins in and they mock the ‘college student’, who finally storms off, vowing to go back to college. Clearly there’s jealousy here, and a fear/dislike of ‘difference’, typical of a traditional culture.
Jacinta: I’m interested in these fleece-flower roots. Apparently they’re used for hair growth by ‘increasing blood circulation’, but that was on a beauty site. A google search turns up numerous sites, none of them particularly trustworthy in my estimation. A Chinese site states this, in quite scientific-sounding, if garbled, language:
Modern researches showed that fleeceflower root has effects in lowering blood lipids and sugar, preventing atherosclerosis, immune enhancement [?], expanding blood vessels, promoting adrenal gland secretion and blood cell productions, smooth heart and brain circulations [?], protecting liver functioning, enhancing neural and bowel transmissions [wow?!], promoting hair growth, anti-septic and anti-aging [?].
All of which sounds absurdly impressive, but the reference it provides takes us nowhere. Still, I hope it really is the good oil, for the Limi people’s sake…
Canto: Yes, there are no reliable scientific treatments of this ‘superflower’ on the search list, and Wikipedia merely tells us that ‘fleeceflower’ is a common name for several different plants, so it’ll be a tough job getting to the truth of it all. And the fact that this somewhat marginalised culture is relying, at least in part, on these doubtful TCM products for survival is another worrisome sign.
Jacinta: I like the way Xiumei stands up for herself when she’s mocked. She’s always feisty. So she heads back home with her donkey, but when she stops to drink at a stream, her donkey jogs off, after shrugging off its load – baskets full of plants. Xiumei has to carry the load herself. Meanwhile Gaidi, who recovers her donkeys, sets out with Haigo to find and help her. They find her struggling uphill with her baskets. Heigo chides her for ‘being like this’ – presumably referring to her stubborn independence. Xiumei, exhausted, complains tearfully that everybody, even the animals, are bullying her. Nevertheless she lets herself be ‘rescued’ by her ‘sister’ and her suitor. They ride off on what appears to be the village motorbike.
Canto: Yes, a most versatile machine, now carrying three people and a couple of hefty baskets. Next we see Shugio, again doing physical work – she appears to have a herbal medicine-type business operating from home – together with some kind of study, as she examines papers. She sees Heigo arrive from her window, with baskets, and looks pissed off. Heigo announces that he has come to sell herbs. Shugio’s angry because she knows the herbs have been harvested by her arch-rival Xiumei. She agrees to buy the stuff but – never again! Heigo then returns with the empty baskets to Xiumei and Gaidi, who are hiding round the corner. He hands Xiumei the money from Shugio, then tries to talk her out of trying to earn money for her education in such a piecemeal, grinding way. This time young Gaidi speaks up, defending her ‘sister’ and announcing that she too will earn money by her hard work, so that she can go to college in Sichuan and find her parents. Still Heigo insists on giving Xiumei some money, which she reluctantly accepts via Gaidi.
Jacinta: And these scenes highlight the interconnectedness of village life, where enemies must still have commercial connections, where one person’s actions influence another’s – everyone is in each other’s way, and co-operation is necessary for survival.
Canto: So the trio ride off again on the motorbike, taking Xiumei home, apparently with Shugio’s blessing, though Heigo claims, probably rightly, that she’s only faking civility.
Jacinta: Next we see that Xiumei and Gaidi have been dropped off, and then the two females separate, at a kind of outdoor entrance constructed of wood. I’m fascinated by the depictions of rural life here – everything is indoor-outdoor, a far cry from our constructed indoor worlds. Anyway, it seems the pair live side by side, but not together. Or maybe Gaidi is just seeing her elder ‘sister’ to the door.
Canto: In the next scene we have book-burning, always a bad sign, and a heavy symbol. Xiumei’s father is angrily tearing up her college books and throwing them into the fire. Her mother rescues some of them, then Xiumei arrives and protests passionately. Her father, half-brought to his senses, half-relents and stomps off. Her mother consoles her, defends her tormented husband, and brings news of the village gossip. She shouldn’t be hanging out with the engaged Heigo, and she should reconsider all this college malarky. Xiumei, devastated and tearful at all these forces arrayed against her, sobs out that she ‘will not submit to fate’.
Jacinta: It’s another powerful yet low-key moment. I want to shout for her and I want to cry. How well this captures the struggles of the poor. No, not the poor, but those trapped in a web of culture, a culture that understandably wants to maintain itself as it has been for centuries, huddled in a sense with its back to the changing, widening and deepening world around it. We often see these cultures, off-handedly, as lacking, smothering – their shared knowledge of soil, seasons and locality irrelevant to the modern world. Xiumei is half-keen to strip off that knowledge and take on modern clothing, but she’ll inevitably be caught between two worlds and may not succeed or be happy in either.
Canto: Well meanwhile life and the movie goes on. In the next scene, Xiumei’s tormented father visits her as she sleeps in her bedroom, tries to make sense of the schoolbooks there, the posters on her wall, and tucks her in gently. Next morning, Heigo is waiting on his motorbike to take Xiumei to the fields, but she ignores him, saddling up her donkey. As she passes him, she says that his fiancée should ‘watch her mouth’ – presumably it’s Shugio who’s spreading the gossip – and her father later shouts to him a reminder that he’s due to be married (the poor sod), and he also reminds him who the motorbike belongs to.
Jacinta: Yes, but without telling the viewers. Who does that bloody bike belong to? Maybe it’s a community bike. Maybe he’s reminding Heigo of the community values he’s apparently trashing as he chases Xiumei while being engaged more or less against his will to Shugio. The cultural web is doing its ensnaring job.