Engineers: Masquerading as socialists?

Technological ingenuity, given the chance, could enrich our lives while addressing climate change. If only our politicians listened to innovative and passionate engineers instead of assuming climate change was socialism masquerading as environmentalism.

A few days ago I wrote about how former Prime Minister John Howard could recognise that humans have an incredible capability to come up with technologies to counter resource constraints (Reading Howard's sceptic mind, November 6). Yet this belief seemed to stop at the idea of being able to develop affordable substitutes for fossil fuels (or, at least, mop up the CO2 from fossil fuels). 

It struck me that Howard was rejecting the idea that global warming was a problem, not because of a deeply informed evaluation of the science, but because he felt the solution was unpalatable and represented an underlying socialist political agenda. This was echoed by the government stating this week they would reject climate change policies they saw as "socialism masquerading as environmentalism".

Howard, and I suspect a fair chunk of our parliamentarians, including on the Labor side, seem to believe that substantial reductions in carbon emissions must involve widespread sacrifice and government control over all those things that energy supply makes possible. 

Yet human ingenuity doesn’t suddenly halt in the area of developing substitutes for fossil fuels (or mopping up its CO2 emissions). There seems to be no limit to the wonderful ideas and innovations talented engineers are dreaming up to address this challenge. And I suspect it is these engineers that we need to hear more from, if we are to persuade people aligned with Howard to accept global warming as a problem.

I met one of those engineers this week, Professor Michael Weinhold, chief technology officer of Siemens global energy division. See the video of the interview here. For him global warming doesn’t represent an irresolvable problem to run away from, so much as a great stimulating challenge to embrace.

During our chat I said to him that plenty of people want to move to wind and solar yet the reality is that the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. His response stood out to me as symbolic of what I encounter with a number of talented technologists I have the fortune of meeting:

“Yeah, well, some people at that time say, oh boy, it will not work, let’s stop.

“Some say, hey, that’s where the business starts, let’s do it.

“And that’s how I am thinking. Let’s work out the solution. I’ve been working for more than eight years as an assistant planner designing energy systems ... And this is fun work for system planners to design a system that works perfectly under such conditions.”

Coming from Siemens Energy's chief technology officer this should count for something. Around 20 per cent of the globe’s electricity supply is generated by Siemens’ equipment. And they aren’t just in the renewables business; they supply a fair chunk of the steam and gas turbines burning fossil fuels around the world. Their equipment also happens to make up an important part of electricity transmission and distribution systems that transport and regulate our power supply.

It’s worth noting that Weinhold isn’t a one-eyed renewables guy. He notes that coal will be important to development in China and India, but he is optimistic about capturing and sequestering CO2. He also points out the value of using gas where new turbines can go from idle to full output within 30 minutes, helping to temper the variability of wind and solar.

And he is far from convinced that solar PV in conjunction with batteries will represent a cost-effective option that will allow for large scale abandonment of the grid by households. 

What comes across from Weinhold is that there is an almost unlimited set of technological possibilities that will help us reduce carbon emissions, with the only limit being our imagination. He’s like a machine gun of ideas covering such diverse topics as:

– The potential for LED lighting, heat-pumps and electric vehicles to reduce our energy demand while supporting a more flexible electricity system;

– thinking of heating and cooling of homes as a source of energy storage;

– expanding the grid (rather than abandoning it) to level out variability of renewables;

– increasing the flexibility of fossil fuel power plants and even mixing in hydrogen to complement renewables; and

– using the vastly increased computing power we now have available to forecast, plan and manage a grid with variable renewables.

Australia can choose to bet on humanity’s endless appetite to gobble up more and more resources. No doubt this bet will pay off for the next 10 years. But beyond this I wouldn’t want to bet against human ingenuity to dream-up alternatives to fossil fuels.

See the first part of the interview with Siemens' Michael Weinhold by clicking here.

*EDIS: The numbers behind the repeal bill, November 14.

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