Why Australia Really Matters

I’ll start this piece with a parable. At first this might be pretty familiar, but I have given it an extra twist at the end.

A ship goes down and a group of people find themselves in a lifeboat. They have food and water for several days, but not, of course, forever. They have oars, but no sails or motor; a compass and map but no means of alerting the world of their location.

After coming to terms with the shock they work out the best direction to go to reach land and start discussing rowing. Amongst the group are a couple of strong individuals who have clearly spent much of their life in the gym. Others however are physically weaker, including some young children as well as the elderly and ill. The gym bunnies announce that they will only take a turn at the oars if everyone else rows the boat an equal distance. When there is a chorus of protest they modify their proposal; they will do an equal amount of time at the oars with everyone else. However, they will not put in more time than the child at death’s door in the corner.

Everyone else can see the madness of this, so they attempt to reach a fair agreement on time contributed while leaving the meat heads out of it. However, some of the strongest of those remaining say that while they were willing to do their fair share, they will not step up and do the part of those who should be doing the most – to do so would let them off the hook. Clearly the weakest will die if this goes on. Perhaps those in the best health will survive until rescue, but even that is hardly certain.

Eventually, out of this mess steps two heroes. Two rather weedy individuals decide they need to set an example. They step to the oars and row with all their might. They do well enough that real progress is visible. Eventually however, they are exhausted and abandon their shift, thinking their work will inspire others. Indeed it does, several also make an effort. However, to the hard men of the gym their work has the opposite effect intended. They point out that the couple could only shift the boat a fraction of the distance required. Clearly if they as the most eager could not do it, no one could, so it is best that they all simply wait for a passing current to push them to shore before hunger and thirst does for the lot of them.

It is not hard to see this as a microcosm of the world’s response to Global Warming. Indeed it is hardly original as such. However, it is worth looking at the parable’s last paragraph. The brave individuals who throw their bodies into the task required might be best matched to Denmark and Germany, nations that have put great effort into tackling climate change by promoting renewables.  The problem is that like the heroes in the story, they are simply incapable of doing as much as others, and their failure is taken as a demonstration that no one can succeed. It’s utter rubbish of course. Larger, more exercised individuals could do more if they wanted to.

Real life is more complex than the parable. Their wealth makes the nations of northern Europe well suited to driving the global boat forwards, and when it comes to developing wind power they are as well suited as anyone. Where they are weak, however, is as locations for hosting solar.

Germany has installed huge quantities of photovoltaic panels, but doing so has come at a large cost. This is not only because many were bought before the recent price crash, but also because there simply is not that much sun in Germany. Germany on average only gets half as much sunlight as Spain, but that isn’t actually the biggest problem. German demand peaks in winter, when heating is required. In Australia however, the opposite is the case – maximum demand occurs on hot days for air conditioning.

Consequently, a solar panel in Melbourne is putting out much more power over the course of the year than one in Munich. Moreover, it puts it out when it is needed, rather than when it is not. It’s hard to calculate how much greater capacity such a panel has for making a difference at an affordable price here, but it’s probably something like a factor of four. Comparing Brisbane with Berlin would obviously make the equation even better.

Robert Wilson at Carbon Counter spends a lot of time debunking claims about the success of solar (and to a lesser extent wind) in the UK and Germany. Reading his blog it is easy to get the impression that solar is a failure in general, and of course the friends of fossil fuels are far worse (just read some of the comments on Wilson’s posts, without even going to the denialist blogs).

However, as Wilson notes, you don’t have to travel outside Europe to find places where solar works.

What you hardly ever see acknowledged however is that when it comes to solar resources the world is actually much more like Australia than the UK, or even Germany. Consider this question: Name a location in the southern hemisphere at an equivalent latitude to Hamburg? The answer is not Melbourne. Nor Hobart, Dunedin. It’s the tiny (by population) Chilean province of Magallanes. Outside South America the nearest location, albeit a little further from the pole, is Macquarie Island.

In other words, there is pretty much nowhere inhabited in the southern hemisphere were German/UK solar challenges are very meaningful. What about the rest of the northern hemisphere though? Well it is true that Alaska is never likely to be able to rely on solar energy. But it is a startling fact (at least to me) that Edmonton is on the same latitude as Hamburg. The average Canadian lives closer to the equator than the average German, let alone Pom (although I imagine the demand curve is even more spiked towards winter).

From a solar perspective we can divide the world into three categories. There are the places that lie more than 45° from the equator. The exact boundaries will vary, depending on prevailing weather conditions but I think 45° marks a pretty good boundary. Here the bulk of energy demand will be in the winter, and solar production will be low. Organic solar cells, which produce suffer less under cloudy conditions than silicon equivalents and may one day be much cheaper will help, but it is always going to be an uphill struggle.

Then there is the range from 30° to 45°. Here solar should be able to compete, but may still have problems in winter. Between the two lines 30° degrees from the equator winter simply is not an issue – the amount of sunlight depends more on the wet and dry season than the angle of the sun and there is never a period where there won’t be enough.

The critical thing is this: The majority of the world’s population lives in the third zone. Most of the rest live in the second. The proportion more than 45° from the equator is tiny less than 10%.

Unfortunately, that 10% has included most of the people who have both the inclination to do something about climate change, and the money to do it.

If we really want to turn the climate emergency around we need serious resources put into solutions that will work for the majority of the world. We have to expect that those solutions will come from the wealthy, and that they will do the heavy lifting of making them practical. But to prove that these things can work we need an industrialised nation with lots of sunlight. Southern Europe was not ideally suited to the task, Madrid is at higher latitude than Melbourne, as is Seville compared to Sydney, but might have been able to were it not for the crisis of the European periphery*.

The only places that can reasonably be expected to be the demonstration models are the southern and south-western states of the US, and Australia. Since the states of the former confederacy are out of the question that leaves us and California. We need to step up to the plate.

*Opponents of renewable energy will try to tell you that Spain’s heavy investment in solar and wind is responsible for its current dire economic shape. It is clear if you do the maths that this is not true – at worst if could only account for a tiny portion of the problem.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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