Johnathan Holmes has done another excellent 4 Corners program on energy and greenhouse issues, this time specifically on renewable energy. If you have a decent internet connection, the whole thing is viewable online, and if you’ve got a spare 45 minutes I thoroughly recommend it (and, indeed, the other programs he’s done on energy issues).
Television is not the greatest medium for discussing complex engineering and financial issues, but Holmes has given a nice survey of the potential, and the challenges, facing the sector.
For those who have been following this issue for a while, the technical highlight of the show was perhaps the discussion of solar thermal power, something that has come up a lot here before in discussions and one that deserves a post discussing the technology in more detail. Solar thermal power is the very simple idea of using mirrors to heat up something (usually a tube containing a liquid) which can then be put through a steam turbine to produce power. There were a number of bold claims from the director of Solar Heat and Power that their solar thermal power system will produce power at a cost competitive with coal-fired power very soon, and supports large-scale heat storage so the system can continue to produce power for 24 hours without direct sunlight (solar thermal needs direct sunlight to trap heat – if it’s behind clouds it simply doesn’t work as the diffuse light cannot be focussed on the collector).
Holmes, moreover, leads to the big question facing the renewables sector in the next few years. Emissions trading is almost certainly coming soon. However, the renewables sector (or at least the head of the renewable energy generators association here) claims it will require specific assistance, in the form of higher government mandated targets for renewable energy, if it is to expand. If there is no expansion of the MRET, even with an emissions trading scheme they won’t be able to compete.
If the claims of the geothermal energy and solar thermal people pan out, they shouldn’t have any problem competing in a carbon-constrained energy market. If they can’t, well, isn’t the point of the exercise to cut carbon emissions, not build renewable energy systems for the sake of it?
Disclosure: the 4 Corners program above made the writer a couple of hundred dollars richer. His Geodynamics shares went up a fair bit today…