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Amazing internet, female science communicators and fighting global warming: an interminable conversation 4

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from Renew Economy – SA doing quite well

 

Jacinta: As I’ve said many times – or at least I’ve thought many times – the internet is surely the greatest development in human history for those interested in self-education. Can you think of anything to compare?

Canto: Not really. The printing press was important, but literacy rates were much lower when that came out – which makes me think that universal education, which includes literacy of course, must be up there. But of course it was never really universal, and I suppose neither is the internet, but it appears to have penetrated further and wider, and much faster than any previous technology…

Jacinta: Universal education was more or less compulsory, and so very top-down. Not self-education at all. The internet gives every individual more control…

Canto: And most choose to stay within their own social media bubble. But for those keen to learn, yes the internet just gets more and more fantastic. 

Jacinta: And the trend now is for spoken presentations, with bells and whistles, rather than reams of writing, which can be off-putting…

Canto: Well, our stuff is pretend-speak. We don’t do videos because we’re both extremely ugly, and even our voices are hideous, and we haven’t a clue about bells and whistles. 

Jacinta: Sigh. Consigned to obscurity, but we must perforce mumble on into the vacuum of our little internet space. Even so, I’d like to enthuse, however impotently, about the many excellent female science presenters out there, with their vodcasts or vlogs or whatever, such as Australia’s Engineering with Rosie, as well as Kathy loves physics and history, Sabine Hossenfelder and Dr Becky. And I’ll keep an eye out for more.

Canto: But of course we still love books. The most recent read has been Saul Griffith’s The Big Switch, a call to action on renewables, particularly here in Australia. 

Jacinta: So with a change of government, Australia is now going to try and catch up with the leading nations re renewable energy and generally changing the energy landscape. So it’s time to turn to the Renew Economy website, the best Australian site for what’s happening with renewables. First stop is the bar graph that’s long featured on the site. It shows that the eastern states, Queensland, NSW and Victoria, are the problem states, still heavily reliant on coal. Victoria is arguably worst as it relies on brown coal for about two thirds of its supply. 

Canto: And the other two states use black coal, but they’ve developed a lot more solar than Victoria. They are, of course, a lot sunnier than Victoria. What’s the difference between the two coals, in environmental terms? 

Jacinta: Black coal, aka anthracite, is generally regarded as a superior fuel. It contains less water than brown coal, aka lignite, and more carbon. You have to use quite a lot more brown coal – maybe 3 times as much – to extract the same amount of energy as anthracite. According to Environment Victoria,

Brown coal is pulverised and then burned in large-scale boilers. The heat is used to boil water and the steam is used to drive turbines that generate electricity. When brown coal is burnt it releases a long list of poisonous heavy metals and toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. By world standards these pollutants are poorly monitored & controlled, and they impose a staggering health cost of up to $800 million every year.

I’ve left in the links, which are to other Environment Victoria articles. Clearly this website isn’t government controlled, as it castigates heavily subsidised ‘boondoggle’ projects intended to keep the brown coal afloat (very problematic for mining). These projects have apparently gone nowhere. However the site does mention the ‘recent’ announcement of an electric vehicle manufacturing plant in the Latrobe Valley, providing at least 500 jobs. But since the article isn’t dated, I don’t know how recent it is. PLEASE DATE YOUR ARTICLES. 

Canto: Yeah, and please do your research Jazz. That plant, announced in 2018, was scrapped last November. Apparently it was announced ahead of the 2018 election. And over-hyped, as it was never guaranteed that the ‘promised’ 500 jobs would be created. Politics. 

Jacinta: Sad. Manufacturing has been in a sorry state in Australia for years. As Saul Griffith points out, we rely largely on the raw materials – crushed rocks – we export to keep our economy going, but if we could switch to other crushed rocks for the growing renewable energy economy we would be even better off. Further, if we added value through processing this material at home, we might be even better off financially, and we wouldn’t have to import those processed materials as we do now. Our two biggest imports are petrol and cars. If we could produce that stuff here we wouldn’t be paying for another country’s production costs, according to Griffith. Though I’m not quite sure if it’s that simple. 

Canto: So you’re talking essentially about manufacturing in Australia. The Reserve Bank (RBA) has an interesting article on this topic, and here’s a quote from the opening summary: 

Manufacturing output and employment have fallen steadily as a share of the Australian economy for the past three decades… the increase in the supply of manufactured goods from low-cost sources abroad, exacerbated by the appreciation of the Australian dollar during the period of rising commodity prices, impaired the viability of many domestic manufacturers and precipitated the closure of some manufacturing production over the past decade. While the recent exchange rate depreciation has helped to improve competitiveness of Australian producers, so far there is only limited evidence of a recovery in manufacturing output and investment.

Economics isn’t my strong suit, but I think I understand what ‘exchange rate depreciation’ means. Something like the exchange rate has swung a bit more in our favour (for home-grown manufacturing) than it was before..

Jacinta: But wouldn’t the exchange rate between us and other countries vary greatly from country to country? Or maybe they take an average, that’s to say of the countries we tend to trade with?

Canto: I suppose so. The article goes on to say that manufacturing hasn’t declined so much as commodity exports have increased. Commodities being raw materials, mostly. And by the way, this article is from the June quarter of 2016, and I suspect things have gotten worse for this gap between manufacturing and commodities. So, not so out-of date re trends. It claims that ‘over the 2000s, strong Asian demand for Australian commodities led to a sharp increase in the terms of trade and an appreciation of the Australian dollar’. 

Jacinta: Well, we all appreciate the Aussie dollar…

Canto: Appreciation just means a rise in value. An increase in the terms of trade means an increase in the trading price agreed by any two countries, for example Australia and China, our big bogey man trading partner. Here it might mean beneficial terms of trade for Australia specifically. So basically, manufacturing has stagnated, and declined as a percentage of total output, which includes commodities. Manufacturing industries as an employer have declined quite sharply – as I can personally attest to. I’ve worked in five different factories in my life, all of which have since closed down – for which I take no responsibility. 

Jacinta: So there would be a lack of skilled workers in manufacturing, unless… do we make solar panels here? And what about the old car factories we had here – Mitsubishis and Holdens, remember? Though I presume making EVs would require a whole different skill-set, and besides, wouldn’t it be largely automated? 

Canto: Well, in February – that’s 2022 – the Australia Institute posted a highly optimistic media release entitled ‘Australia ready to become sustainable EV-making powerhouse: new research’. And with the new federal government elected in May, this hope, expressed in a report from the AI’s Carmichael Centre, Rebuilding Vehicle Manufacturing in Australia: Industrial Opportunities in an Electrified Future, may actually be realised, at least partially. But before I explore that report – solar photovoltaic manufacturing in Australia. A recent (early July) Guardian article reports that ‘China controls over 80% of the global photovoltaic (PV) solar supply chain, with one out of every seven panels produced worldwide being manufactured by a single factory’. And China is actually increasing production, so as to dominate the market. Diversification is urgently required. Meanwhile, Australia is suffering a labour shortage in the field. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that ‘one in three installation jobs in Australia – including electricians and installers – were unfilled and at risk of remaining unfilled in 2023’. Tindo Solar is our only home-grown PV manufacturer, and is expanding its output, but clearly this is dwarfed by China’s production. Also there’s a problem with expending production here because, currently, it actually creates more carbon emissions. We need to ‘create renewables with renewables’, which local experts are saying is now more cost-effective than ever. So, back to the report on vehicle manufacturing in Australia. It’s a job trying to access the full report, so I’ll rely on the media release. It describes our country as ‘uniquely blessed’ to rebuild our car manufacturing capabilities, retooled to EVs, but this will require essential government input – a view very much consistent with Griffith’s. Here are some of the recommendations from the report:

  • Establishing an EV Manufacturing Industry Commission
  • Using tax incentives to encourage firms involved in the extraction of key minerals – primarily lithium and rare earths – with local manufacturing capabilities, especially emerging Australian EV battery industries
  • Introducing a long-term strategy for vocational training, ensuring the establishment of skills to service major EV manufacturers looking to set up operations Australia
  • Offering major global manufacturers incentives (tax incentives, access to infrastructure, potential public capital participation, etc) to set up – especially in Australian regions undergoing transition from carbon-intensive industries
  • Introducing local procurement laws for the rapid electrification of government vehicle fleets

Jacinta: So, as Griffith points out, we need to do some lobbying for this ourselves. Here in SA, we have a sympathetic state government as well as a federal government keen to make up for lost time, or at least saying all the right things. Where do we start? 

Canto: The Clean Energy Council has a website that encourages everyone to get educated (they cite a number of resources such as Renew Economy and ARENA), to spread the word, and of course to actually invest in renewable energy, which we, as impoverished public housing renters, aren’t in a great position to do, though we are trying to get our Housing Association to explore renewable options, and to lobby the government in our name. 

Jacinta: I think I’m starting to feel more optimistic…

References

Saul Griffith, The big switch: Australia’s electric future. 2022

Difference Between Black and Brown coal

Nem Watch

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-10/electric-vehicle-factory-deal-in-latrobe-valley-collapses/100608074

Australia ready to become sustainable EV-making powerhouse: new research

Click to access bu-0616-4.pdf

https://www.carmichaelcentre.org.au/rebuilding_vehicle_manufacture_in_australia

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jul/08/australia-could-see-a-solar-cell-renaissance-if-global-supply-chain-is-diversified

https://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/herenow/get-involved

Written by stewart henderson

August 6, 2022 at 7:29 pm