The light on the hill could soon be solar powered

Feb 25, 2021

Global warming runs amok thanks to our coal, cities are unsustainable, more roads means more trucks, more anti-China Cold War rhetoric, and all undoing the many positive features of Australia and its diverse population.

In 1889, Banjo Patterson published his “Song of the Future” in the Bulletin. He sadly concluded that we have no song, but worse, we have no singer. His assessment might be explained by the later poem by C J Dennis, Ideals. Dennis responded to the Australian Commissioner General in America, Herbert Brookes’ injunction that we should do more to emulate our American cousins. Published in the Adelaide Register News-Pictorial in 1929, Dennis decried:

“We got no ideals of our own, No guiding star to draw us on. “We’re just poor mutts when left alone… Aw, teach us, Uncle, how to reach For dollars deftly. Sit an’ teach These poor fish to be strong — but [pure].”

Many would say that is precisely what we have done post World War II and are continuing to do. This time China is our target of fear.

Following WWII another voice for a better future came briefly from former Prime Minister Ben Chifley’s 1949 Light on the Hill speech. Chifley said:

“We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for.”

The resultant White Paper on Full Employment — not a fashionable concept today — was written and promoted by HC Coombs in 1945. Coombs stressed the essential leading role of public expenditure and that the jobs must be real jobs. These demands are consistent with concepts of sustainability — environmental, social and economic. There is no light on the hill if our global environment is not protected and preserved — only darkness.

I make four observations:

  • Global warming threatens our existence.
  • Inequality is rising and is largely due to unemployment, underemployment and absence of wage justice.
  • Mainstream neoliberal economics has failed and is a major cause of the problems. Sovereign (‘fiat’) currency-issuing governments have the capacity to purchase all resources and labour available in their fiat currency — there is no excuse if they don’t.
  • International engagement based on cooperation must displace a false international politic of competition and conflict.

Australia is a major contributor to global warming, in absolute terms and especially on a per capita basis. Based on the four principles above, I suggest a proposal for a Light on the Hill — a fully-funded Federal Government-owned project to build state of the art Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST) power stations to feed the national energy grid. The specific technology needs to be determined but research already exists based on the proposed Port Augusta CST plant. This proposal failed due to a lack of funding. Government has the prime responsibility here.

The CST plants would replace older generator plants which would be phased out. Preference should be given to stand-alone plants with employment opportunities given to local communities. Such plants would satisfy a range of needs at multiple levels — local, state and national. Additionally, it would assist with an international commitment to the environment. Such a system would only be a start.

These power stations could produce high volumes of desalinated fresh water from seawater, benefitting agriculture, industry and the environment. Sun Drop Farms in South Australia successfully produce hydroponic tomatoes using CST technology. Good jobs, training and viable community building could be facilitated. The finance must come from the government, just as they had to find the money for fighting the pandemic.

The Australian government is the monopoly producer of Australian dollars. It need never be in debt when it buys resources for sale in Australian dollars. Leading Modern Monetary theorists such as Bill Mitchell at the University of Newcastle will attest to this.

An additional benefit of bringing our energy generation system into the 21st century is that it could feed a national transport grid of electric rail to provide sustainability for Australian towns and regions, jobs, reduced isolation, goods and new industry opportunities across the country — reducing road and truck transport. If an infant Australian Federation could build a (19th century) Transcontinental railway to entice Western Australia to federate — we can build much more efficient 21st century rail today.

We are in the “Asian Century”. According to the Lowy Report, Australians support engagement with China. Hostile government and vested interests boost Australian ambivalence to our largest neighbour and trading partner. Fear and greed won’t do. Successful engagement between Australia and China abounds, even in CST. Heliostat technology from the CSIRO will be used for Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST) electricity generation in China.

Partnering with the Chinese company Thermal Focus, Australian low-cost heliostat technology was licensed in China, with a shared revenue stream back to Australia to fund further climate mitigation research. China produced half of global newly built CST capacity in 2019. The CSIRO promote this as another example of “all four pillars of their Strategy 2020 in action; using excellent science to deliver breakthrough innovation, and through global collaboration, increasing renewable energy deliverables”.

Not a submarine or warship in sight!

This agreement with Thermal Focus follows successful international CST partnerships with Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems, and the Cyprus Institute and Heliostat SA here in Australia. Paul Wilson, a nuclear and solar expert, told ABC Radio reporter Rebeka Powell that Australia should not only be using solar thermal power but selling it.

Dr Wilson says there is “no engineering impediment” and a network of small systems could support the country. A parliamentary inquiry last year recommended a partial lifting of the moratorium on nuclear power plants. Dr Wilson criticised this move due to the well-known dangers of nuclear technology.

If CST becomes common, the Light on the Hill might well be solar powered.

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