The potential – and perils – of ‘technological optimism’

| May 6, 2018

Professor Tim Flannery was talking recently about climate change on the ABC Science Show. One idea he mentioned for storing carbon is to produce Kelp.

Most people would know that Kelp is a fast-growing marine plant. At the edge of the continental shelf, off the south coast of Kangaroo Island, there are enormous canyons formed by flowing water when the sea level was much lower than at present.

If nutrient-rich, cold water could be raised closer to the surface then it may be possible to remove carbon from circulation by growing Kelp and ‘tipping’ it down the canyons where it would be permanently stored at depth with the carbon it contains.

To make any difference to climate, Kelp would have to be grown on a very large scale. There was no discussion of what impact this form of carbon capture and storage might have on deep ocean currents, phytoplankton, photosynthesis and oxygen production; the migration of fish and whales or their reproduction and food sources.

Professor Flannery also praised South Australia for going ahead with large-scale battery storage and for the solar desalination horticulture trial at Port Augusta.

Pioneering environmentalists such as Paul Ehrlich argued strongly against ‘Technological Optimism’. Broadly speaking, this is the belief that technological improvements will meet unlimited human demand for resources, including energy.

However, some appear to have embraced this idea wholeheartedly, probably in reaction to the slow response of governments to the threat of climate change. ‘Technologically optimistic’ solutions to global warming include ‘clean’ coal, PV, wind, pumped hydro and lithium batteries.

Perhaps the ultimate in techno-optimism is the idea of spraying aerosols containing sulphate or carbonate into the stratosphere to reflect solar radiation back into space.

Battery storage is another technologically optimistic scheme intended to regulate the (hoped-for) unlimited supply of wind and solar energy.

It is a complex issue and there appears to be uncertainty about economies of scale and the rational use of finance and material resources. Large public battery schemes seem preferable where existing infrastructure is available, but the idea of going ‘off-grid’ by means of small household and ‘community’ schemes appears to be gaining popularity.

Maintaining reliable energy supplies in a fragmenting system is obviously very challenging and there is presumably an increasing risk of assets becoming ‘stranded’ through lack of integrated planning.

Batteries are likely to rapidly become cheaper and may even pay for themselves in the medium-term, but it is doubtful that overall emissions will be reduced. The underlying assumptions are that the world has unlimited supplies of Lithium and that the impacts of the technology are negligible.

Mining and processing of Lithium for battery storage uses very large volumes of water which is sometimes diverted away from local communities. Like other mining operations, Lithium extraction may cause health problems, pollution and social disruption.

More energy has to be to put into a battery than can be taken out, but using ‘excess’ solar and wind power to ‘split’ water thereby releasing hydrogen, has great potential for ‘balancing’ clean energy storage in the long term. Membrane electrolysis and related technologies are advancing fast and could have an important role in the energy mix.

This field is like rocket science, brain surgery and quantum physics all rolled together. The Port Lincoln ‘electrolyser’ power plant trial will provide an opportunity to compare the various technologies against a range of technical, economic and environmental criteria. I’m hoping that happens before the ‘Neo-Techno-Optimists’ take us too far down another wrong track.



  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    May 7, 2018 at 9:48 am

    Nice to see you back, Max. Another thought-provoking article. I looked up the Port Lincoln ‘electrolyser’ power plant on Google. It appears that it revolves around obtaining hydrogen, presumably from water and using that as a power source. In the past that has been fraught by the laws of thermodynamics. Could you please explain how excess energy can be obtained with water as a byproduct even by the use of wind and solar? It seems too good to be true.

  2. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    May 10, 2018 at 9:54 am

    Yes, Alan, it might turn out to be ‘too good to be true’, I guess that’s what the trial is for. There have been promising results with ‘membrane electrodes’ elsewhere. My impression is that the hydrogen wouldn’t be for primary or base load electricity production, just for balancing or filling the wind and solar troughs as batteries are intended to do.

    There’s also a project to look at the feasibility of producing hydrogen from Latrobe Valley brown coal. The idea is apparently to capture waste carbon dioxide for disposal, possibly by pumping it into former oil and gas-bearing formations under Bass Strait. I won’t be buying shares in that.

    The state government also ‘flew a kite’ not long ago regarding an off shore wind farm not far from Wilson’s Prom and close to a major RAMSAR site for migratory birds. It seemed obvious that was intended to wedge The Greens ahead of the upcoming state election.

    The pollies aren’t fair dinkum, but this sort of thing does raise expectations that miracles of ‘green’ technology can transcend thermodynamics and other laws of nature that we still foolishly imagine to be subject to human domination.