The allegory of Flinder’s Island
In 2008 US dollars, the Apollo program cost $98 billion, encompassed 17 missions and included six lunar landings. Nobody believes that successfully landing a man on the moon proved that colonising the moon was in any way socially, economic or technically viable. It was a highly focussed technical challenge.
Turning to the recent ABC headline ‘Flinders Island going for green with renewable energy hub, farewells dirty diesel’, one gets the impression that implementing a technical project of reducing diesel consumption in some ways constitutes some sort of Energiewende.
The problem with much of the public discourse is that applying technical responses is seen as somehow resolving the multi layered and difficult economic and social challenges around energy transitions. The dominant framing of energy transitions within the environmental NGO and mainstream media is that the challenges are essentially political (just need the right policies) and technical (just need the right technical fixes). In fact, the more fundamental challenge is that fossil fuels freed humanity from the hard organic limit of agriculture and permitted 2 orders of magnitude greater per-capita energy supply than previously available. The entire post-IR (industrial revolution) economy has been built on the ready availability of energy dense, storable and easily used fuels. The utility of liquid petroleum fuels is not easily substituted. Technical fixes are a necessary but not sufficient condition of navigating a post-carbon pathway.
From a purely technical perspective, these island-based projects are a great idea. Diesel is an expensive way to generate electricity and wind and solar provide off-the-shelf solutions to reducing diesel consumption. These schemes provide an affordable means, from the perspective of the national economy, to try out and demonstrate technical possibilities. But I wonder how many flights are required for the engineers to build and maintain these systems?
The per capita cost of the electricity system on King Island is around seven times higher than the mainland, and when taxable income is included, the relative affordability (excluding subsidies) grow to a tenfold difference.
It is not surprising that the economies of scale and access to much cheaper coal and gas on the mainland provide much cheaper electricity than on King Island. It is also a reminder that the conventional electricity supply model of large centralized generators is a very efficient way of providing affordable and reliable electricity. The most fundamental problem demonstrated by King Island is that its electricity system is highly subsidised by the rest of society; King Island’s export income is insufficient to cover the cost of fuel or the capital to build renewable infrastructure.
In the absence of subsidies and the bureaucratic support from the state and federal governments for public education, universal healthcare, infrastructure, and other services, it would need to resort to selling produce and tourism services in return for hard currency. This would allow it to purchase fuels for essential services, survive with a much lower energy use, and perhaps purchase more modest renewable infrastructure.
Hence, the lessons from the high-penetration renewable system on King Island are mixed. On the one hand, these schemes prove that there is no fundamental technical obstacle to increasing the uptake of wind and solar. But given that the King Island electricity system is highly subsidised both economically and energetically, it is difficult to draw general conclusions as it would apply at a national or global scale.