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fire season
January 23, 2006 3:46 PM   Subscribe

Every summer, Southern Australia burns. 2005 was the hottest year on record. Over the last weekend, two days of extreme heat, low humidity and high winds sparked the first of the year’s bushfires. Pictures here. With forecasts of temperatures in the low 40s (over 105F) in a few days, firefighters are racing to bring the fires under control.

As the temperature rises, people respond by buying and using air-conditioners resulting in near record energy consumption. Where does the energy come from?

And yet Australia - a country with a lot to lose from global warming - remains a Kyoto dissenter. [aspects of this previously discussed here]
posted by tim_in_oz (35 comments total)

 
[Posts quietly, not wanting to derail...]

Here in Canada, it's election day and we're in the process of choosing a Conservative government which has promised to abandon the CO2 emission limits of Kyoto.

posted by 327.ca at 3:57 PM on January 23, 2006


Way to go!
posted by Baby_Balrog at 4:02 PM on January 23, 2006


There is hope, in the form of my favourite thing evar.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Awesome at 4:04 PM on January 23, 2006


I broke the the dam and flooded Beaverton.

Just while we're at it, Melbourne has had a record number of days under 30 degrees C in January to this point.
posted by sien at 4:08 PM on January 23, 2006


Australia really, really, really needs to get the fuck over its nuclear power fear. For God's sake, build a couple pebble reactors already!
posted by wakko at 4:14 PM on January 23, 2006


Australia can really do stuff about our emmissions. We have heaps of sun, can sequester CO2, could use microbes to scrub CO2, have the largest known reserves of Uranium, enough space to put reactors in fairly safe places and also a low enough population density that we could really take any of these steps.

But remember kids, the important thing for the government is not to fund Australian R and D but to give us another tax cut. Oh well.
posted by sien at 4:21 PM on January 23, 2006


Also, your population is mostly in coastal areas. You could be showing the rest of the world how to make use of tidal energy.
posted by 327.ca at 4:23 PM on January 23, 2006


As long as Australia keeps the Paul Hogan movies coming, I don't give a damn what else they do!
posted by fenriq at 4:32 PM on January 23, 2006


As long as Austrailia doesn't make any more Paul Hogan movies, I don't give a damn what else they do!
posted by loquacious at 4:37 PM on January 23, 2006


So stuff like this isn't going anywhere?
posted by PurplePorpoise at 4:38 PM on January 23, 2006


Oh yeah, that's what I meant, loquacious. Thanks!
posted by fenriq at 4:38 PM on January 23, 2006


In South Australia I was born....

In South Australia, 'round Cape Horn...
posted by Smedleyman at 4:39 PM on January 23, 2006


I probably should have noted in the FPP that much of the bushfire and current weather information is by way of live feeds from various government servers. This is not, I regret to say, an FPP that will make much sense in a few months time. Suffice to say that the links will show you that it has been hot, damn hot and there have been lots of fires which are bad, damn bad.
posted by tim_in_oz at 5:26 PM on January 23, 2006


wakko: Australia really, really, really needs to get the fuck over its nuclear power fear.

Amen to that. Also, what sien said about Uranium.
posted by spazzm at 5:39 PM on January 23, 2006


protocols, PurplePorpoise, the solar tower doesn't seem to be going anywhere unfortunately, due to an inability to raise finance. They still think that the proof of concept is fine, it should work as it says it does, it's just a matter of getting enough brave investors prepared to bet their own money on a first time concept.

And the Government isn't going to invest at all.

Positing direct links between bushfire severity and anthropogenic climate change should still be done with caution. Southern Australia is inherently flammable, the worst ever recorded bushfire was in 1939, while the 1983 Ash Wedensday bushfires claimed 75 lives (including two friends of my family). While CSIRO modelling does predict an increase in severe fire weather, whether or not this is yet happening is quite arguable. The 2003 fires were generally put down to an extended El Nino period rather than ACC.

One final point, while the bushfires are a calamity for people lsoing life and property, and dont necessarily do great things for the environment, this is a system that is adapted to these events and that generally recovers well. Indeed, a certain frequency of fire is entirely necessary for the continuance of many venegation types.

Most of my colleagues are currently fighting the fires at this moment.
posted by wilful at 5:40 PM on January 23, 2006


As for fission - we're the best placed country in the world to get into nuclear. We ahve 40% of the world's supply of uranium, a stable democratic government that doesn't want the bomb, large totally unpopulated areas of geologically stable rock to hide the toxic pollution, skilled engineers and an effective regulatory regime. We're a gimme for it. But the Australian Greens would make it their total cause celebre and run a too effective scare campaign for it to work.
posted by wilful at 5:46 PM on January 23, 2006


wilful:Positing direct links between bushfire severity and anthropogenic climate change should still be done with caution.

Absolutely. If you read the post carefully you will see that I'm not directly attributing one to t'other, simply suggesting that Australia is a place that might face a particular impact from global warming.
posted by tim_in_oz at 5:46 PM on January 23, 2006


Last point: the Paul Hogan movies were scripted and funded out of Hollywood. If yanks didn't love em they would never have been made.

(and it's prawns, not shrimp).
posted by wilful at 5:47 PM on January 23, 2006


wilful: But the Australian Greens would make it their total cause celebre and run a too effective scare campaign for it to work.

Indeed. All they have to do is allude to nuclear bomb testing and the resulting radioactive waste.

Why all this fuss about radioactive waste in a place already so covered in natural radioactivity that you can't stay there on a calm day?
posted by spazzm at 6:11 PM on January 23, 2006


wilful writes "(and it's prawns, not shrimp)"

Maybe in Pinko-ville it is!
posted by brundlefly at 6:52 PM on January 23, 2006


A quick derail -

I've yet to see a good run-down about it, but the heat may bode well for Australia's 2005 vintage - from what little I know, the main grapes used in Australia all respond extremely well to weather like this (as in the 2003 Rhone vintage). A few wineries have checked in, but nothing solid has been said yet.

I might die in brush fires or drown when the polar ice caps melt, but I'll go down drinking damn good wine.
posted by suckerpunch at 7:25 PM on January 23, 2006


What about some windmills?
posted by storybored at 7:58 PM on January 23, 2006


I'm betting the solar tower will never be built, in the sense that I sold my enviromission shares some time ago. The cost to manufacture a wind turbine or photovoltaic cell will fall over the next few years and decades, but the cost to build a 1km concrete tower won't. If Australian solar power research saves the world it is more likely be via photovoltaic technology - sliver cells or crystalline silicon on glass.
posted by Canard de Vasco at 8:02 PM on January 23, 2006


Why does the cost of manufacturing the tower have to drop? If the power they say that they will get comes up then the thing would work as planned won't it?
posted by sien at 8:12 PM on January 23, 2006


I've noticed that many people with air-conditioners seem to overuse them. Slightly warm? Turn on the AC instead of opening the window, or changing into cooler clothes. Going out for the day? Better leave the AC on so the house is cool when we get back. Maybe if the price of coal-derived electricity wasn't being effectively subsidized by ignoring the true costs to the environment, people might not be so quick to crank up the AC.

In addition, the idiot government seems to be making it *more* costly for people to do the right thing by the environment. In recent years they've been reducing the subsidies on home photovoltaic cell systems, but continue to subsidize the aluminium industry with cheaper coal-derived electricity ($250 million worth per year). Completely backwards. Likewise, I personally don't mind paying about 30% more for the privilege of using wind energy to power my home, but I understand why other people don't feel the same way.
posted by gooddoggy at 8:19 PM on January 23, 2006


Sien, sure it would work in a technical sense, but that's not the same thing as paying for itself, and it sure isn't enough to justify building it if there are more cost effective alternatives.
I know that Enviromission have cut back their plans since, but at one point their estimate reached $1 billion for 200MW of power (peak), that's $5/W, about the same as for today's photovoltaic cells, and not at all competitive with an ordinary wind turbine ($1 million per MW). The one advantage of the tower (and I admit it's a big one) is that it would produce power on a more predictable schedule and at the right time of day for feeding air conditioners.
posted by Canard de Vasco at 9:03 PM on January 23, 2006


Meh. South Australia has always been stinking hot & bushfire-prone in summer. A tinderbox remains a tinderbox regardless of whether the average is 39 or 40 degrees.

Instead of worrying about energy consumption & global warming, people would be better off not flicking their cigarette butts at wombats as they drive along bush roads.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:04 PM on January 23, 2006


Australia really, really, really needs to get the fuck over its nuclear power fear.

I'm both Australian and am very pro-nuclear power. I remember studying it in physics while we also analysed our current coal power stations (I even visited one, and not only do the plant itself mean much land clearing, but they have lifespan of a decade).

I think the major problem here is that Australians are pretty ignorant about nuclear power, save for stories about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 11:48 PM on January 23, 2006


I'm both Australian and am very pro-nuclear power. I remember studying it in physics

It's pity you didn't study it in economics - you might realise the likeliest reason Australia probably hasn't gone ahead with it.
posted by biffa at 3:09 AM on January 24, 2006


It pisses me off that there's all this renewed debate about building nukes here. People are quite prepared to write off My Favorite Solar Tower (which I still hold shares in, incidentally) on the grounds of cost, but somehow skip that part for nukes. The capital cost per megawatt of a nuclear power plant is now the highest of any option, and that's even before considering fuelling costs (admittedly quite low), waste disposal costs (unknown - never actually been done), maintenance costs (high) and end-of-life decommissioning costs. More here.

It also pisses me off that people don't understand that unless you figure in the cost of some kind of energy storage technology (vanadium redox batteries perhaps?) it's not fair to compare the installed cost per design megawatt of a wind farm with that of genuine baseload generation technologies. Windfarms don't produce anything like their rated output longterm, because wind isn't reliable; so the more windfarms you add to the grid, the more reserve generators you also have to add to it to paper over the gaps when the answer isn't blowin' in the wind. Canard de Vasco is correct to point out that this is the Solar Tower's compelling advantage.

But the thing that pisses me of most of all is the incredibly small amount of press given to the most cost-effective emission-reduction strategy available: demand management via improved end-use energy efficiency. The Victorian SEC (State Electricity Commission) was all over this, before it was busted up and privatised; the way the market's structured now, there's no real financial incentive to do anything except add more generation capacity to the grid. Every time I drive through Melbourne's new northwestern suburbs, and see more and more acres of boundary-to-boundary McMansions with black concrete tile roofs and those huge friggin' chillers sticking out the top, it makes me want to weep.
posted by flabdablet at 3:14 AM on January 24, 2006


Windfarms don't produce anything like their rated output longterm, because wind isn't reliable; so the more windfarms you add to the grid, the more reserve generators you also have to add to it to paper over the gaps when the answer isn't blowin' in the wind. Canard de Vasco is correct to point out that this is the Solar Tower's compelling advantage.

Solar Towers are a great solution if you can afford it and don't need power during night-time.

As an aside, solar towers might work fine in sunny climates like Australia, but it won't work in climates such as Sweden, to whom Australia exports a lot of its uranium.
posted by spazzm at 1:10 PM on January 24, 2006


I live in an area that has a history of severe bush fires. I was talking to a friend who grew up here. He said "there used to be lots of fires each summer, but we haven't had one since they caught the guy that was lighting them."
So its not just global warming and a fire-favouring environment.
As for alternative energy, nuclear gets a 'maybe' from me. I'd much prefer to see the Chinese take some of our photo-voltaic technology and apply their manufacturing scale to it.
Imagine solar cells falling in price as fast as DVD palyers have.
That is when we will see a change in the cost per watt. And judging from the way solar garden lights have plummeted in cost, I think we are already seeing the beginning of it.
Consider what would happen if the cost of the infrastructure dropped below the current government subsidy of $4000 (which is being phased out).
posted by bystander at 3:34 PM on January 24, 2006


I was born in Canberra on the 29th of Jan, 1983 no doubt during the Ash Wednesday Bush Fires. Interestingly Canberra was a planned city and designed by Chicago architect Walter Burley Griffin. It really is an amazing designed city in how it incorporates the Bush with modern buildings. That's why it is called the "Bush Capital" I guess. It has an amazing Hydro-Electric project called the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Scheme.

Anyway. I moved to Adelaide in 1994 and damn is it hot! We have days of constant 40°C (104°F) to 45 days. Sometimes even 46°C (114.8°F) up to 47°C (116.6°F) on the hottest days. I forget if it's ever been hotter than that. I've been in Adelaide for over 10 years and having been born and bred in Canberra where I can remember a day when in snowed once (very odd for an Australian City) I'm still not used to this weather.
What I'd give for 12 months of Autumn a year.

As for power generation. I don't believe in putting all resources into just one type. I think the best thing to do is to use many different types where they are most effective. For example, Wind power where the greatest amounts of wind is. Solar with the most sunlight. Geothermal where the hottest earth is and so on. Why put all your eggs into one basket?

I think Nuclear Power is overrated. Compare it to say Wind, Solar or Hydro-Electric. With Nuclear you have an upfront cost and then have to keep buying fuel. With renewable energies you set it up and then you don't have to pay for fuel. Surely that is better? Also Nuclear still releases CO2.

Other than having a good amount of R & D behind it. I just can't see what's so good about Nuclear. At least you won't have a meltdown with Solar.
posted by D-503 at 7:13 AM on January 25, 2006


Also Nuclear still releases CO2.

It does?
posted by spazzm at 12:59 PM on January 25, 2006


Solar Towers are a great solution if you can afford it and don't need power during night-time.
Solar Towers actually do generate power at night, because the heat stored in the earth under the greenhouse canopy maintains the temperature differential between the bottom and top of the chimney.

In fact, you can tune the daytime vs. nighttime energy output balance by changing the amount of water you store under the canopy. Water stores a tremendous amount of heat without changing its temperature very much, so the more water you store under the canopy, the more you shift the balance toward nighttime output.

This controllability is the Solar Tower's key advantage, and is what makes it a genuine competitor for hydroelectricity as a baseload renewable energy technology.
solar towers might work fine in sunny climates like Australia, but it won't work in climates such as Sweden, to whom Australia exports a lot of its uranium.
So let's make lots of these things in sunny Australia, and replace our uranium export trade with a hydrogen export trade!
Also Nuclear still releases CO2.
This is a bit of a furphy. The CO2 in question is that released by the use of fossil fuels in fuel extraction, refining and transport. Naturally, this is several orders of magnitude less than the amount of CO2 released by generating a nuke-equivalent amount of electricity by burning fossil fuel directly.
posted by flabdablet at 4:12 PM on January 29, 2006


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