Solar Pie-in-the-Sky

June 28, 2012 at 5:23 pm

How plans to run an entire Australian town on solar energy failed miserably.

click for full article

I came across an interesting article today. It’s from the Reuters news service, is dated November 2007, and has a headline that reads:

Australian town to run on solar power in 2 years

The article says that a sun-drenched town in a remote part of northern Queensland was chosen as the site of a $7 million, 10-megawatt solar thermal power station

as part of a push to make Cloncurry one of the first towns to rely on solar power alone.

The article explained that the station would use 8,000 mirrors in conjunction with graphite blocks (rather than photovoltaic panels) and said the facility was expected to be in operation by early 2010.

Tellingly, the journalist made a point of reminding readers that Australia had, at that juncture,

refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol…[and that] Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are among the world’s highest per-capita… [backup link]

The article expressed not one iota of skepticism about the solar plant being completed on time or within budget. Nor did it mention the rather salient fact that Cloncurry’s population is a mere 2,400 people.

So here we are 4.5 years later. How did things work out? Is Cloncurry a shining example of the clean, green, renewable future to which we should all aspire? Is the entire community humming along on “free energy” harvested from the sun?

I’m afraid not. Three years after that news story appeared, the project was abandoned. According to a follow-up news clipping “significant reflective glare issues” – and possible adverse health impacts – had been identified (backup link).

In January of this year, the project was resurrected briefly. But the new design would have cost the same $7 million and only powered a fifth of the town. Last month, the Queensland government withdrew financing, thus saving taxpayers a pile of money.

I’m a huge fan of both technology and innovation. I also think that, in order to develop a successful invention, one must often experience outright failure – sometimes repeatedly.

The difficulty is that whenever renewable energy is the topic of conversation politicians and journalists seem to lose all ability to do basic math – and to think critically. The headline of that 2007 news story didn’t say:

Australian town hopes to run on solar power

The headline – which is all many people would ever read – declared it a fact. A done deal. A safe assumption.

In reality, it was anything but.

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Entry filed under: media, predictions that failed. Tags: , , , , .

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