Small Beer

Small things often matter.

I first encountered Science as a stand-alone item of curriculum when I did year 8 at school back in the dark ages. This subject, new to me at this seminal moment of my young life, really caught my imagination.

One of the first things I was taught in this subject was the composition of the air we breathe. Doubtless, you were too. When dry, this air is (in round figures and by volume) 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, together with tiny traces of other things. Among these other things is carbon dioxide (CO2 for short) at 0.04%. Small beer. Very small beer.

But whether such small things are significant depends not so much on how small they are as on whether they are adverse or beneficial to us. An amount 0.04% of cyanide gas in the air would be really bad news for life as we know it. An amount 0.04% of gold in the ground would precipitate a rush of Johnnies-come-lately the likes of which would make the 19th century adventure at Ballarat seem snooze-worthy.

And consider how plants make use of the mere 0.04 % of CO2 in the atmosphere. You’d have to say they thrive on it. We should be grateful for that. Even if you’re not a vegetarian, plants are an essential component in the food chain of all animals. Without plant life there can be no animal life.

You want something really small? Try 0.00001 % for size. Give or take, that’s the content by weight of free oxygen dissolved in water. Fish need oxygen, and this 0.00001 % is all they’ve got. Yet, plucky creatures, they seem to thrive.

Small does matter.

But back to CO2.

When it comes to our planet, small can be as large as the proverbial elephant in the proverbial room. As a consequence of human activity, the CO2 content in the atmosphere has increased from less than 0.03 % before the industrial revolution to more than 0.04 % today. Doesn’t sound like much of a change? Think again. CO2 is a greenhouse gas, which means it traps heat in the atmosphere. As an actual greenhouse does. So, our activity here on earth is causing this increase in CO2 which, in turn, causes atmospheric temperate to rise.

But only by a degree or so, you might be inclined to argue. What’s that between friends? Think again. As we are starting to notice in our daily lives, a degree or so is enough to change the climate in ways that are injurious to our prosperity and welfare. Any more than that, and catastrophe is just over the horizon.

This is the inescapable science.

The lesson we, slow learners, should take from this is: we should burn less fossil fuel so as to make less CO2. We need to phase out coal, which is close enough to being pure carbon. Renewables, such as solar and wind, and which don’t involve the burning of carbon are the obvious way to go. But, as those who presume to be our political masters like to tell us ad nauseam – conveniently pretending ignorance of where the technology is currently at – the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.

Large batteries are the game changing technology to make solar and wind available at any time of day or night, or under any weather conditions. They work. The proof of this can be seen in South Australia, where solar and wind energy are fed, via a gigantic battery and on a regular basis, into the electricity grid. The other states are getting set to follow.

If coal is not a goer – not something our masters are at all ready to concede at this juncture – they’d like us to run our economy by burning natural gas. Describing it in glowing terms as – beware, weasel words coming up – a ‘transition fuel’, they’d like to sell us power stations fueled by natural gas. Certainly, the carbon content of natural gas is less than that of coal. And we, in Australia, are blessed to have the stuff in spades. So what’s the problem?

Shouldn’t we let them build their gas-fired power stations?

Let’s look at some figures. Suppose we want to produce a kilojoule of energy. Producing it by burning coal would give rise to 88.30 kilogram of CO2 emissions. Producing it by burning natural gas would give rise to 50.15 kilogram of CO2 emissions. On these grounds, natural gas is a ‘cleaner’ fuel than is coal, but not spectacularly so. We’re not talking country mile here.

And, as much as our political masters would prefer it to be otherwise, these figures don’t tell the whole story. Natural gas infrastructure – wells, pipelines, power stations, etc. – are notorious for their ‘fugitive emissions’. This colourful expression is code for ‘leaks’. So here’s a turn up for the books. Did you ever expect that natural gas engineers would have a poetic streak?

So leaks it is. But we all know that leaks, or fugitive emissions if you prefer, are only small beer.

Don’t be deceived by ‘small’. It all depends who the fugitive is, i.e. what it is that’s leaking. I’ll give you a clue. It ain’t Ned Kelly.

The culprit is methane, the principal component of natural gas. And that’s a real worry. Methane is a greenhouse gas just like CO2 is. Only methane is 20 times better at mimicking a greenhouse than is CO2.

But leaks can be plugged, can’t they? Sure they can. When you’re talking technology, anything under the sun is possible. But it will cost you.

So, it all comes down to economics. If you want to burn natural gas and to hell with fugitive emissions, then it’s likely to be no better, and possibly worse, than burning coal. If, on the other hand, you’d like to burn natural gas but without fugitive emissions, it’s likely going to be quite a deal more expensive than going down the renewables track.

Don’t let your political masters pull the wool over your eyes. Read the small print. Small things do matter.

They always have. Always will.