Lucky Last – Australia Needs to Wake Up to Its Renewable Resources

Lucky Last – Australia Need to Wake Up to It Renewable Resources

It’s official.  Australians per person are the worst polluters in the world. For a country so well endowed with renewable energy, that’s quite an achievement. But then there’s a big difference between having renewable resources and utilising them. So says Dr Peter Seligman, an associate of the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne and author of the new book “Australian Sustainable Energy – by the numbers”, which is downloadable and free. Read More.

Here’s why Peter said he decided to embark on the book:

I’m an Australian Electrical Engineer. As an engineer I find it annoying that wherever you look, information on renewable energy is unreliable or presented in ways which are not meaningful without calculation and comparison to some relevant standard. The potential of any particular technology is often overstated or understated, depending on the particular bent of the writer. Then there is the simply wrong information, the megawatts per hour, (usually meaning megawatts) the failure to state whether power is average or peak (a factor of 3 to 8 between them).

The next irritation is scale and proportion. You would be led to believe by some, that just by switching off our mobile phone chargers, recycling bottles and cans and putting some solar panels on our roof, we can make a significant difference.

How big a difference? What is it as a proportion of our total energy use? Telling us in tonnes of CO2 or number of homes doesn’t usually help. The Prime Minister announces that we are going to build the world’s largest solar power station2 – 1000MW, equivalent to that of one coal fired power station. What he doesn’t tell you, or maybe even realise himself, is that 1000 MW of peak power from solar is about 250 MW average power. He also doesn’t mention that Australia is using 25,000MWon average so this world’s largest will supply about 1% of our present use of electricity. He doesn’t mention that electricity accounts for about half of our total energy use so that power station will provide 0.5% of our total energy.

Instead he may tell you how many homes it will provide power for, or how many tonnes of CO2 it will save. Big numbers that mean nothing to most people.

Finally, even reputable and very well known authors are capable of making any or all of the mistakes I have mentioned.

When I first encountered Sustainable Energy – without the hot air3 (SEWTHA) by David MacKay, it was like a breath of fresh air, not hot air. Here at last was someone who spoke my language.

On a visit to Cambridge in August 2009 I had the privilege of lunching with David MacKay at Darwin College. At our enjoyable meeting I mentioned that there were many people in Australia who would have been interested in an Australian version of Sustainable Energy – without the hot air (SEWTHA). I also mentioned some material that I have been writing on sustainable energy in Australia. David and I agreed that it would be good to write an OzSEWTHA and we informally agreed that I would attempt it. Rather than being a translation it would be a supplement, with information relating specifically to Australia. Further, I mentioned that I had included financial aspects of sustainable energy in my writing and David said that he welcomed that addition. This is the result. In the event, it has become more than a supplement; it is a book in its own right.

This book differs in one important way from David MacKay’s. David’s book uses a yardstick of kilowatt hours per day per person – kWh/day/person. He then calculates all renewable sources in terms of these units and calculates how much of the UK’s needs could be provided by utilising all the available sources using the same units. The answer is that the UK cannot supply all its needs from renewable energy, it would have to go offshore, or treat nuclear as renewable.

In Australia, the situation is quite different. We could supply all of our needs many times over. In fact, in theory we could supply the whole world with renewable energy, if we were prepared to do it and could transport it. No, in the case of Australia the question is more, what proportion of the country (and it is usually in the order of a few percent), would we require to supply all our needs?

Summary of the book:

It’s official, Australians per person are the worst polluters in the world. For a country so well endowed with renewable energy, that’s quite an achievement. But then there’s a big difference between having renewable resources and utilising them.

In this document I try to identify and quantify the most promising renewable resources. I then examine how they could be used in combination to reduce Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions to practically zero. Following on I consider where we are at and the policy of the government.

As an exercise, I try to design a renewable power system for Australia, which could meet our needs for a comfortable lifestyle. I try to dispel the statement that renewables can’t supply baseload power, not through dogma, but by calculating how it could be done. Contrary to popular belief, the numbers show it is not too expensive to store electricity on a large scale. In fact the cost of pumped water storage, including the powerlines, dams, pumps and pipes is only a fraction of the cost of the wind and solar power sources themselves.

Further I discuss some specific systems that are of particular interest in the Australian context (Wind Farm co-ops, Refrigeration & Cooling). I describe some personal strategies that people can use to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. These are the ones you usually don’t read about in the newspaper, and they are based on a bang-for-buck philosophy.

The thorny issues of Carbon offsetting, Renewable Energy Certificates and Rebates are discussed. Finally – and in implementation, this should come first – I discuss efficiency and waste using some examples drawn from personal experience.

In writing this document I found that costs varied, mostly due to changes in the exchange rate of the Australian dollar. Rather than continually update the document, I have stuck with what I had. The Australian dollar at the time of writing was about 90 cents US, 56 UK pence and 62 Euro cents. In some cases I used US dollars but since at the time of writing they were close to $1, I didn’t differentiate. I don’t think that the rate of exchange will significantly change any of my conclusions.

Conclusions of the book:

1. In theory, Australia could comfortably supply all of its power requirements renewably.

2. In practice, for some interim period, the use of some non-renewable sources may be necessary but the overall carbon footprint can be reduced to zero in time.

3. The major contributors would be geothermal, wind and solar power.

4. To match the varying load and supply, electricity could be stored using pumped hydro, as it is at present on a much smaller scale. In this case, seawater could be used, in large cliff-top ponds.

5. Energy efficiency would be a key aspect of the solution.

6. A comprehensive modelling approach could be used to minimise the cost rather than the current piecemeal, politically based, ad hoc system.

7. Private transport and other fuel based transport could be largely electrified and batteries could be used to assist with storage.

8. In a transition period, liquid fuel based transport could be accommodated by using biofuels produced using CO2 from any remaining fossil fuelled power sources and CO2 generating industries.


Peter Seligman, was born in the UK of Czech parents in 1944 and emigrated to Australia via Czechoslovakia in 1948. He studied engineering at RMIT and then Monash University. In 1966 he worked on a private project to develop a land navigation device which was built, demonstrated and was the subject of a patent application. His final year project in Electrical Engineering was the design and construction of a braille digital multimeter for a blind engineer. This was followed by an “oscilloscope” for the blind. Peter received his B. Eng (elec) at Monash 1968 and PhD in 1973. His thesis topic was “Auditory Pattern Transmission”.

From 1973 – 1979 he worked for the Westinghouse Brake and Signal Company on fail safe electronics and the computer control of railway systems. He was also involved in the design of photovoltaic solar energy systems for railway signalling in remote locations. A private project was the development of a trenching machine to insulate earth for heat storage for solar heating systems. A working machine was demonstrated. This was the subject of a provisional patent.

Dr Seligman was a key member of the team that developed the Melbourne/ Cochlear multiple-channel cochlear implant. He worked in the field for 30 years and was particularly responsible for the development and improvement of speech processors.

He designed the first portable Speech Processor for the University of Melbourne device. He joined Cochlear Ltd (Nucleus) in 1983 and was instrumental in speech processor miniaturisation and signal processing. He holds over 20 patents in the Cochlear Implant field.

In 2009 Dr Seligman was awarded a Doctor of Engineering (honoris causa) by the University of Melbourne for his contribution to the field of cochlear implant signal processing. Since his retirement from Cochlear Ltd in 2009, he has been able to devote more of his time to the area of sustainable energy and conservation, a field in which he has been active for 35 years.

Dr Seligman is an associate of the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne.

For a free download on his book “Australia’s Sustainable Energy – by the numbers”, go to the website.


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