Dick Smith flies planes, weighs energy futures

Future energy choices can’t just be based on which technology is most emotionally appealing. Elaina Elaina/Flickr

There’s something just so energetic about Dick Smith.

We all know he’s the man behind the face that used to be on the Dick Smith Electronics sign; the man who sought to nationalise our yeast extract spread industry; the man who towed a fake iceberg into Sydney Harbour.

But he’s also a famed aviator, magazine creator, land claimer (he claimed Ball’s Pyramid for Australia in 1979 though I’m not sure of the legality of that claim), car radio installer, political activist and sometime daredevil.

So it’s fitting that a man who produces and uses such massive amounts of energy has made a documentary discussing our energy futures. In Ten Bucks a Litre (8:30 tonight on ABC1), Smith looks at the technologies that could provide our energy over the coming century. He not only looks at them – he drives, flies and fangs them one after the other.

See Dick in a plane! See Dick in a helicopter!

His main point - and it’s a point that needs to be made over and over and over again - is that we face some crucial choices in the years ahead. As Smith points out, the fuels of the 20th Century - coal and oil - must be abandoned if we are to limit our carbon emissions. But there will be costs.

See Dick in a Commodore. See Dick in a coal truck!

Given he only has an hour, Smith gives a robust account of our energy futures. He hasn’t taken the simplistic frames of analysis often seen in energy discussions. But gaps remain in his analysis and problems with his framing that should be discussed.

See Dick in an ultralight. See Dick in an electric car!

Our addiction to coal - both in terms of burning it for our own energy and selling to the rest of the world - is the driving story of the Australian economic and political landscape. Coal is discussed as uniformly cheap, though both carbon intensive and associated with significantly increased lung cancer rates in communities near power plants.

It is excellent to see this point raised - should we not factor in this increase in cancer treatment in our power bills? Or should all of society, including those who have opted for non-coal fired power, bear this burden?

See Dick in a Mini Minor. See Dick in a four wheel drive!

Smith’s discussion of nuclear power - perhaps echoing the wider sentiments of his generation and gender - presents it as a cheaper option than renewables. He asks the question “Why is there so much fear of nuclear power?” then tells a story based on his emotional connection with a nuclear power plant, saying it “felt like the energy of the future”.

These emotional reactions - either for or against nuclear power - are critical to understanding how nuclear power will fare in Australia. But Smith fails to address other key issues including cost and the role of government.

Nuclear power plants are highly complex builds, prone to significant budget overruns. They call for massive government financing (are commercial lenders really likely to get involved?) and would, if successful, drive out nearly all other players in the grid. Decommisioning old plants is a massive expense, and rarely factored into cost calculations. As energy commentator Evan Beaver has noted, “if nuclear is the answer [in Australia] then you don’t understand the question”.

Portraying renewables as a wacky option is a skewed view. ABC TV

Renewables (chiefly solar and wind) are given significant space, but sadly Smith frames this discussion with the dancing and music of a country fair … and an argument that it is the option of the enthusiastically delusional. The implication that renewables are the preserve of hippies disconnected from reality is strong. “Here at the Bellingen Energy Festival, there’s plenty of optimism,” he says. “I love innovation, but I think all this enthusiasm needs a reality check”.

It’s strange - in the context of every other technology, Smith happily listens to the experts and engages in a dialogue. But here he needs to tell the crowd - and us - that reality is pointing in another direction. This just ain’t the case, but more on that later.

Smith’s presentation points to one of the significant image problems for renewable energy technologies in general: they are so often portrayed as whacky ideas and miracle technologies either not likely to make economic sense or not ready now. This is aided and abetted by press releases for the latest renewable technology “breakthroughs”: roads that are solar panels, shower heads with minature turbines, solar powered tornado generating machines, footpaths that convert footsteps into electricity, and flying turbines.

Some - perhaps all - of these technologies may be economically viable one day or in particular niches. But giving them wider air time before they are ready is not harmless. It actively sows doubt about the entire renewables sector, suggesting that rather than making economic sense now we need to wait for some breakthrough miracle technology.

So it’s sad that what isn’t really mentioned is the massive - perhaps game changing - growth of renewables technologies. Quite simply, existing renewable technologies work, are being used, and are rapidly getting cheaper. The intermittency of renewable power - discussed at length by Smith - is an issue that needs to be solved one day. But it is not a deal-breaker today.

One of the more commendable elements of Ten Bucks a Litre is Smith’s discussion of the critical role of energy efficiency. At this point he might have mentioned that, in recent years, Australian economic growth has decoupled from energy use growth. Surely this is a critical marker in the transformation of our economy?

Dick said he liked the trains, but he didn’t get to ride one. Dick didn’t get to ride a bus. Dick didn’t get to ride a bike. :(

Smith concludes with a worried glance over our vast outer suburbs, calling them potential energy ghettoes of the future. He is right: this is a serious concern. For too long we have designed our cities focused on the boundless freedom and energy of the car. Smith understands this attraction - he clearly loves the freedom that fossil fuels and machines have given us - but he recognises that this can’t go on forever.

It’s a pity, then, that he didn’t spend just a bit of time while making this documentary on the bikes, buses, trams and trains that are really part of our energy future. Worried about petrol at ten bucks a litre? There’s a solution right there.