Author Archives: David Tranter

Energy from rail

David Tranter suggests that storing energy from a local rail line could help ensure cheap, reliable, renewable power.

David Tranter at the wheel of a Tesla Model 'S'

CANWin Life Member Dr David Tranter looking startled in a Tesla electric car at The Goulburn Group electric vehicle expo, November 2014

Coal-fired power stations are either on or off. When they run, they run at peak capacity to ensure that consumers get all the energy they want all the time, including those few heat wave days each year when the more affluent rely on air conditioning to keep cool. When the grid was privatised in the name of “energy security”, it was “gold-plated” at the expense of the consumer: the needy subsidising the greedy.

Australian coal-fired power stations have access to cheap coal, are heavily subsidised, and do not cover the environmental costs of their production. As a consequence, their production costs are very low by international standards (3-5c/k). They could easily sell electricity on the cheap. In practice, however, they sell their energy at up 10 times its production cost, making a killing at the expense of households and businesses.

To be fair, most energy suppliers offer discount rates of about 15c/kWh for off-peak (night-time) use. But that doesn’t suit most consumers, who continue to pay the peak-hour rate of 20-40c/kWh. Clearly, there is scope in the Australian Energy Market for a more efficient system, one that could guarantee consumers the electricity they need without overheating the atmosphere and de-stabilising the climate.

Renewable energy plays a useful role in stabilising the grid by ironing out its peaks and troughs, since much renewable energy is harvested by day. In practice, however, the grids and conventional energy providers depend more on each other than on potential renewable energy suppliers, which they see as unwanted competition. They deny renewables access to the grid — because they can. It is time, perhaps long past time, for a “smart grid” to provide people and industry with the energy they need, rather than the energy they want.

One way to smooth out peaks and troughs in demand is to store surplus night-time electricity for daytime use. Battery technologies are now evolving fast and costs are tumbling as fast as photovoltaic panels have done over the past 10 years. Lithium ion storage systems are already available on the Australian market for both household and business use, but it will probably be some time before they have the potential, on a grid-wide scale, to meet daytime demand by storing night-time excess.

That being so, NSW could follow the Californian lead and look to gravity storage options, which use off-peak electricity as a resource that can be bought on the cheap and sold at twice the price. Eraring Energy already does this on a small scale. By night they use cheap electricity to pump water from downhill Lake Yarranga into uphill Fitzroy Reservoir. By day they can release the water to generate hydro electricity, which they can sell to the grid for up to twice the price of pumping.

The generation efficiency of this option, however, is limited by the friction between water and pipe. A more efficient alternative to move heavy materials uphill is to use a railroad train, which loses much less energy in friction, an initiative of the Californian company ARES (Advanced Rail Energy Storage).

A variant of that principle is the “regenerative braking” that is being introduced on the new generation of NSW suburban trains which, by their nature, stop and start to pick up passengers. Regenerative braking recovers energy otherwise lost as heat and feeds it back to the source through their overhead power lines. Its limitation as a storage option is that such trains run mainly on gentle gradients by day, rather than by night, a limitation that does not apply to the ARES option.

ARES plans to use a purpose-built railroad up a mountain in Nevada to generate 50mWh of off-peak storage energy to meet peak energy demand. The dimensions of the Nevada railway track (distance 9.2km, grade 7.2%) are remarkably similar to that of the existing Illawarra Mountain Railway that is currently used on a daily basis by coal, limestone and (in season) grain trains that lose their braking energy in heat.

Perhaps there is a case for electrifying the Illawarra Mountain Railway to stabilise the grid by recovering the braking energy that is currently being wasted as heat until such time as NSW can afford to build the proposed electric railway line between Dombarton and Maldon?

David Tranter, D.Sc., OAM

The Prime Minister’s droughts

A version of this article appeared in the Southern Highland News, 2 April 2014. More articles from the CANWin column.

Image: Peripitus via Wikimedia Commons

Image: Peripitus via Wikimedia Commons

As the Prime Minister says, a cycle of drought and flooding rain is normal for Australia. Thirty years ago scientists worked out that the source of this natural cycle is not on land, but in the Pacific Ocean.

In a four-stage cycle called the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO), warmth and moisture move back and forth between Australia and the Americas.

Westerly winds skim off the warm surface layer of the sea, transport it westward and pile it up to the north of Australia. This warm surface layer evaporates, the source of our La Nina rains. Then eastward winds flow back across the Pacific towards central America, bringing rain to Peru and Ecuador but leaving Australasia in El Nino drought.

This cycle has been going on for centuries; it’s the normal drought regime. Well done Prime Minister!

FloodedPlaygroundSignsBut our times are not normal, and the sooner you learn the difference, the better it will be for all of us. Man-made greenhouse warming is disturbing the natural balance. If we don’t all take the present global warming trend seriously, man-made greenhouse warming will double the frequency of extreme droughts. Prime Minister, it’s time to listen to the experts.

The experts will tell you that the surface mixed layer in the eastern Pacific gains more heat from man-made fossil fuel emissions than the west, where evaporation has a net cooling effect. This means that extreme droughts (such as 1982-83) are likely to return every 10 years instead of every 20. That leaves the food sources of the nation with not enough time to recover from the last severe drought.

So Prime Minister, why are you so heavily subsidizing dirty coal-fired power stations when renewable alternatives are available? Why do you allow such industries to off-load the costs of their pollution to other industries and the populace at large? Where is the level playing field for electricity generation? Why do you expect people to bear the cost of profligate spending on poles and wires for outdated, grid-based, 19th century technology?”

How about taking care of your grand-children’s future rather than your own?

Boffins, Balls, and Brass Monkeys

We live at much the same latitude south as Texas USA is north. Yet this year Texas has been cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey. How does that fit with the current global warming theory? Have the boffins got it all wrong?

Three wise monkeys, in brassWell no, they haven’t. Global warming turbo-charges the ocean and the atmosphere, generating heat waves here, freezing there, floods here, droughts there. One in a hundred year events, such as extreme bushfires in Australia, are now coming thick and fast. The weather is going haywire. The extra heat is destabilizing the global climate as if it has a fever.

Freezing weather in the southern states of the US, starts with changes in the Arctic. For ten thousand years the Arctic cold was kept in the north by a strong “Polar Front”. That’s a thermal barrier that normally keeps cold in the Arctic and warmth in the tropics, and incidentally drives the Jet Stream.

But the Arctic is warming, and the barrier between Arctic cold and tropic warmth is getting weaker. The Polar Front and the Jet Stream can now meander north and south, bringing Texans a taste of the Arctic and Greenlanders a taste of the tropics.

Those southward meandering loops of Arctic origin eventually pinch off from the jet stream to become separate storms. In the USA these storms sweep southeast across the midlands like fierce tops, spin-freezing unsuspecting Texas and leaving devastation in their wake.

Geology exam cartoonNo, the boffins have not got it wrong.; they predicted such weird events. It is global warming that allows the Arctic to cut loose and sweep across the States. There’s a saying: “To every complex problem there’s a simple answer – but it is usually wrong.” Climate science is a good example.

The good news for ordinary people is that we know how to live with complex science. Medical science, for example, is just as complex as climate science. When we have a health problem we go to medical specialists to find out what’s wrong and what to do about it.

That’s the role of specialists; they specialize, and they become boffins. We respect the advice of boffins because they have specialist knowledge and they’re more likely to be right than wrong.

Same thing with climate boffins. It’s betting against Nature to disregard their advice, and Nature always wins.

Bushfires and global warming

This article is adapted from Links between global warming and NSW bush fires, an article submitted by astone to the website of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science. The full article, with references, is available there.

Bushfires are a natural phenomenon in Australia and a specific fire event as seen in the Blue Mountains in the last week is not caused by global warming.

RFS firefighterThe questions are more around:
• Is global warming increasing the risk of bushfires?
• Did global warming make the recent fires more likely?
• Is there a global warming link to the fires in the Blue Mountains?

Fuel Amount

Global warming does increase the amount of fuel. Elevated CO2 acts as a fertiliser and increases net primary productivity. So far as anyone knows, this effect is not sustainable over the long term due to limits imposed by nutrients. The fertilisation effect works in a farmer’s greenhouse where CO2 is elevated because the farmer also waters and fertilises the crops. We do not water or fertilise native bush.

CO2 Concentration

There is evidence that the Earth’s biosphere is sucking up more CO2 now than in the past, but failing to keep up with the increase in human emissions (Raupach et al., 2008). Whichever way you consider the system, increased CO2, if absorbed into the biosphere, must increase the amount of fuel. Therefore, increased CO2, linked to increased activity by vegetation, has increased fuel loads. This need not lead to more fires, but it means that if a fire occurs then there is more fuel to burn.


While there has been low rainfall over the last 3 and 6 months this is not particularly unusual and it is not possible to prove that the low rainfall has any global warming link. That is, the low recent rainfall cannot be shown to be linked to global warming. This does not mean it is not. It might be, but it might not be, and we cannot say anything more definitive than that. The short story is that global warming explains, to an important degree, observations of warming over Australia and global warming increases the risks of very warm summers and very warm winters a great deal.

Vegetation Dryness

There is a reasonable link between how dry the growing trees are and global warming which we cannot currently put numbers on, but at the very least means no one can say no link exists. So, it is very likely that as a consequence of the unusually hot summer, and the unusually warm winter, the landscape was unusually dry and a natural feedback that cools was switched off. Therefore, the question is, was the last summer and winter unusually warm because of global warming because if it was, then there is a legitimate link between global warming, warmth, and dryness. The short story is that global warming explains, to an important degree, observations of warming over Australia, and global warming increases the risks of very warm summers and very warm winters a great deal.


The risk for fire is linked to temperature, humidity, wind and dryness. One way to link these together is to use the McArthur Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI). Clarke et al. (2012) analysed observations from high quality stations from the Bureau of Meteorology and calculated the FFDI from 1973 to 2010. There is an upward trend overall in FFDI. Most individual stations show an upward trend. No stations show a downward trend. In short, the risk of fire, as measured by FFDI, has increased since 1973 over NSW.

BurntOutTheir results suggested a doubling in risk of extreme bushfire risk by 2050. In short, so far as I know, no study has ever found that fire risk will reduce, or stay the same, in the future; every study points to increasing risks.


Outstanding risk minimisation by emergency services, changes in individual preparedness, improved weather forecasting by the Bureau of Meteorology, better building codes, new fire fighting technologies and a considerable and sustained effort by professional and volunteer fire fighters have all helped reduce the vulnerability of settlements in the Blue Mountains to fire. However, if we continue to drive climate through emissions of greenhouse gases, the risk of fire and associated losses will continue to grow.

Failure to accept a link between global warming and fire risk means not reducing the climate linked risk. It therefore leaves all management of the risk to NSW state agencies and mitigation by Rural Fire Service employees and volunteers. So, the NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell was right in noting a link between climate change and bush fire risk.

Draft guidelines for wind farm developments in NSW

Two days before Christmas NSW Planning Minister Brad Hazzard released a draft of “the toughest guidelines in the world” for wind farm developments in this State (details of where to find a copy at the end of this post). CANWin member David Tranter kicks off our discussions in this post. You can click “Leave a comment” (under the title) to add your thoughts.

The  NSW Government Draft Wind Turbine Strategy states that it supports Australia’s commitment to deliver 20% of the nation’s energy needs by 2020. If this is true, then the primary goal of the strategy should be to establish a level playing field. Up till now, fossil fuel industries have been implicitly subsidized by allowing them to offload their environmental costs to society.

The Government’s proposed Wind Farm Strategy doesn’t just perpetuate that inequity; it exacerbates it. It proposes an elaborate system of regulations for wind farms, which is not applied in equal measure to fossil fuel industries and will eventually prove to be counter-productive. How could any reasonable person believe that a wind turbine is more unsightly than high voltage transmission towers and power lines snaking inexorably across the rural landscape? Continue reading

Clean Energy Australia

David Tranter reports on the passing of Australia’s clean energy bills through the Senate.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011 was a dramatic day in the history of Australia. On this first day of the second consecutive La Nina summer, the Australian Senate passed the Government’s Clean Energy Bills. Our party of three had succeeded in obtaining tickets to the Senate Session at Parliament House that very morning. As we sped through the lush green countryside to Canberra in the early morning air, the world had never seemed so bright. There were even pools of water in dry old Lake George.

As we entered the grand portals of Parliament House, which CanWin Secretary Philip Walker had helped design, I was bowled over by marble pillars illuminated by light streaming in through high windows city-side – pillars that resembled old growth forest giants.

Passes attached ceremoniously to our lapels, we headed for the Senate chamber, accompanied by a guide. Up grand stairs to Security, where we were frisked of half our belongings including steel tipped shoes that raised the alarm, we elevatored up to what we were told was Senate level, where we were given the run around past what seemed endless, glass-paneled doors leading to public galleries securely locked to keep us out. Continue reading