It’s easy to see something as large as climate change as inevitable. Indeed it is hard to imagine how humans, being what we are, were ever going to build a high-tech society without messing with the planet’s thermostat to some extent. However, I believe small events can have big consequences, and some moments, apparently insignificant at the time, could have dramatically changed the scale of the threat we are facing. I think it doesn’t just make for intriguing science-fiction scenarios; it can change the way we think about what we have to do now. And perhaps it makes it easier to see the challenges as beatable.
A week ago, when I wrote an article on the approval of the Port Augusta Solar Thermal plant I discovered something I had not known before: The first deployment of solar thermal technology for electricity production was more than a century ago, rather than in the 1970s as I’d have guessed.
My follow-up thought was this: If Sir John Monash, or someone of similar capacity, had been from Adelaide rather than Melbourne, there is a fair chance we would have Global Warming down to manageable proportions by now.
Find this hard to believe? (Particularly any overseas readers who don’t know who Monash was?) Let me take you through it.
The solar thermal technology was first deployed on a commercial scale in Egypt in 1912. As you would expect, early versions weren’t a patch on the efficiency of today, but that wasn’t what killed it. World War I greatly interfered with the development of technologies without military applications, but there were bigger obstacles still.
The main thing was that, the technology wasn’t suited to the economy of the world at the time. Any form of solar power will work a lot better in Brisbane than Berlin, but solar thermal is considerably more susceptible to cloudy or humid weather than photovoltaics. For the UK, Germany or even France, this was no answer to their electricity needs. Even in the US, it couldn’t produce power were most of the people were. Arizona and Nevada between them had a smaller population than South Australia, and much smaller economies.
If you were looking for a wealthy sun-drenched city in need of an alternative source of electric power, Adelaide and Los Angeles were the era’s prime examples, of similar sizes.
Moreover, South Australia was not at the time a place rich in competition for electricity production, whereas Los Angeles was an oil mining town that could burn its product for power. SA has no black coal, even its brown coal deposits are more inconveniently placed than Victoria’s, and hydropower was never an option. Until the 1940s electricity production depended on black coal imported at great expense from New South Wales.
Sir John Monash, Australia’s premier general of the first World War, and some would argue the most talented leader of the entire conflict, established Victoria’s electricity system on his return. To do so he had to find a way to make the then-unusable brown coal deposits of the La Trobe Valley into a viable power source.
If some outstanding engineer, with a sufficiently wide-ranging mind to have become aware of the Egyptian trial (perhaps from being stationed there during the war, as Monash was) had come from South Australia and decided to give solar thermal a go, it would probably have flourished. No doubt there would have been many teething problems, and would certainly have been rather inefficient, but as demand grew each iteration would have been better than the last.
With the example there, it is likely other sunny parts of Australia, particularly those lacking local coal resources, would have followed suit. Eventually the vastly-improved technology would have attracted the attention of those seeking to power the now-rapidly growing south-west of the US, and subsequently other places with suitable climates.
By the time the oil-crisis struck, and people began to fear the running out of fossil-fuels (or the control by hostile powers of those that had to be imported), solar thermal would have been a well developed option at an affordable price. Although not as well suited to Italy or Spain as to Egypt or South Australia, it would have been a possibility at least worth investigating, and various refinements would have gradually expanded the area over which it could operate until much of the world was covered. Expanding grids would have meant now-cheap solar thermal power from the south-west of the US could have been brought from its source at least as far as Denver or Houston, allowing a substantial portion of even the developed world to operate this way.
The billions of tonnes of greenhouse gasses avoided would give us a slightly wider buffer to avoid catastrophic climate change, but the more important consequences would have been political. The existence of a large industry with enthusiasm to change that could act as a counter-weight to the fossil fuel lobby, along with the clear demonstration that a clean grid was possible, would have changed the political landscape.
Clinton’s proposal for a carbon tax would likely have sailed through on the votes of northern Democrats and sun-belt Republicans. Solar thermal will never be viable at high latitudes, but in this way it could have been a battering ram for other clean energy technologies.
History is not inevitable. The Port Augusta plant may be almost a century late, but who knows how much it can change the future.