Social-technological inertia ‘increasing addiction to coal’

By Neil Perry, University of Western Sydney

Yallourn power plant: building more of these locks us into the existing techno-institutional complex Marcus Wong

HRL’s proposed brown coal-gas hybrid plant in the La Trobe Valley in Victoria was last year limited in size to 300 megawatts by a Victorian Environmental Protection Agency decision.


A challenge to this ruling was upheld by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) in late March which would allow HRL to build a 600 megawatt (MW) plant on the basis that it was ‘best-practice’.

HRL last month announced that it had frozen design and pre-construction work because the decision to allow the size increase was linked to the Federal government’s ‘contract for closure’ approach which is part of their Clean Energy Future Policy. The ‘contract for closure’ approach commits the government to closing the most emissions-intensive plants worth some 2000 MWs by 2020.

The linking of the VCAT decision to this Federal government policy has created too much uncertainty for the plant to go ahead for now. Private funding for the plant is conditional on government grants – a promised $100 million from the Federal government and $50 million from the Victorian State government – and these grants now require the completion of negotiations to close or reduce the scale of higher emitting coal-fired power plants such as Hazelwood, which is also in the La Trobe valley.

Map of the major towns and power plants in the La Trobe Valley Nick Carson

Despite the HRL announcement, the plant could still go head in the future and this is only one example of plans and negotiations to build new coal-fired and other fossil-fuel based power stations. There are many other proposals and commitments in Australia. Around the world, the International Energy Agency estimates that the equivalent of some 1100 new 1000 megawatt coal-fired power stations will be built by 2035 with 86% of these in China, India and the US, a capacity increase of 73% in China and a doubling of installed capacity in India.

What is interesting, then, is the continuing government support for the existing techno-institutional complex of electricity provision. This support is both the result of, and further entrenches, carbon lock-in.

Carbon lock-in refers to the systemic bias against carbon-saving technologies despite their obvious economic and environmental advantages. It results because of inertia at the corporate, government and system-wide levels and these inertia are themselves the result of the historical development of the technological system at hand.

The current system of centralised and large-scale electricity provision is an historical artefact linked to Samuel Insull in the US. Insull, a one time employee of Thomas Edison, vice president of General Electric and eventual controller of his own multi-billion dollar empire created in the early 1900s a centralised network to reap the benefits of economies of scale and monopoly profits from a new coal-fired technology.

Once this design for electricity provision had won out, it became very difficult to change because an entire technological, institutional, governance, and even social system had built up around it.

For example, the techno-institutional complex of electricity provision involves the power producers, the coal-mining industry, their lobbying and financial backing of governments, the relevant labour unions and the industries inventing the gadgets which utilise electricity. It also includes the social institutions surrounding these gadgets such as labour-saving devices in the home and those used for leisure.

The current method of providing electricity is not necessarily, or even probably, the best way for electricity to be provided. This becomes more obvious when environmental externalities are considered. The reason for the continued dominance of the current method is simply the result of carbon lock-in.

As part of the techno-institutional complex, governments continue to support this lock-in through the structure of subsidies, grants and political support for the relevant industries. This may not favour any individual firm but certainly favours the existing techno-institutional system. We can witness this in the current case through the promise of $150 million in government grants.

Even when new plants are built under the ‘contract for closure’ proviso of reducing existing, older plants – for example, in the HRL case – carbon lock-in becomes further entrenched. In particular, the building of new plants extends the life of the existing techno-institutional complex.

In a 2010 Science article, Davis, et al. estimated the cumulative future emissions and global warming from existing transportation and energy infrastructure such as coal-fired power plants. Encouragingly, if we ceased building CO2-emitting devices such as power plants and motor vehicles but allowed all existing devices to live out their normal lifetimes, the resulting CO2 atmospheric concentration would be within the IPCC’s acceptable range. In contrast, continuing to expand the fossil-fuel based infrastructure will lead to atmospheric concentrations well outside the IPCCs acceptable range. This leads the authors to conclude that “sources of the most threatening emissions have yet to be built”.

As a developed economy, we have a duty to set the agenda to a more sustainable future and stop building fossil-fuel based power stations. Even when these replace more emissions-intensive, older plants, they continue to support the existing path dependencies and continue to lock us out of a renewable future.

Neil Perry does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Blog: A costly taste of freedom

The tear gas canisters rained down, and the ski-mask wearing police dragged away the youths brandishing the mobile phone cameras.


Journalists were beaten and had their equipment smashed, and for all the world it was a scene from the heady early days of what came to be known as the Arab Spring, when Tunisians showed their neighbours just how to get rid of an unwanted dictatorship.

The demonstration in central Tunis last Monday – my first taste of the wave of democracy which began in this small North African country – heralded the worst violence since the new government took office following the revolution of January 2011, as the police tried to enforce a ban on demonstrations along the city’s main thoroughfare.

Tunisians have fought for their freedom, and many now have a taste for dictating terms with their leaders.

The protests took place on the public holiday set to mark ‘Martyrs’ Day’, in memory of those who died in the struggle against French colonial rule. But for some, the martyrs in mind this year were those who died fighting the last regime, with family members from the deprived towns of the interior joining secular graduates – many jobless – in criticising the new Islamist-led government.

Indeed, unemployment is higher than it was when a young unemployed man set fire to himself to kick off the revolution, and the economic situation is not entirely promising. Tunisians are ‘grumbling’, as one of the scores of newly-liberated, brash newspapers proclaimed on its front page the day after.

Many Tunisians – with different political viewpoints – give the government some credit. A grand coalition of moderate Islamists (Ennahda), leftists and independents, members of Parliament have paid for their place in government with years in exile and imprisonment at the hands of the former regime, which did all it could to crush opposition – particularly of the Islamic kind.

Some Tunisians are willing to admit that democracy took years to flower in Europe, but many have extremely high expectations. There was a real sense amongst protesters last week that police firing tear gas and hitting protesters meant that an Islamist dictatorship is around the corner. Yet a visit to Berlin on May the 1st – or Athens on any given day of protest – would suggest that such police behaviour is not unique to dictatorships.

But in Tunis, patience with such behaviour is in short supply.

Secular demonstrators say their protests are treated more harshly than those displayed by conservative Salafist muslim groups, and express real fear that Ennahda is kowtowing to its fringe. I’ve spoken to religious minority groups here who say they have good reason to be worried.

But the religious right also feels let down. The men who feel confident to grow their beards and the women who feel liberated enough to don the hijab – because that is the word – cannot be relied upon by Ennahda the next time that voting is called for. They argued long and hard for Sharia’s place in the constitution. One Salafist I spoke to says that his new Islamist-government, when it came down to it, did not deliver for him.

Thus the government is pressed on both sides by an increasingly polarised electorate with opinion makers on all sides not afraid to be the one who shouts the loudest, from strike-leading unionists to religious agitators – and Tunisians certainly know how to shout.

The country has experienced a remarkably peaceful period since it overthrew the last government – people see all to visibly what has happened in neighbouring Libya, where arms are awash, and further afield in Egypt, let alone Syria.

Democracy could be the fuel that sets Tunisia further on a path of upheaval, rather than stability – whether the government is doing a reasonable job or not.

“After the revolution everything is different” one young protester told me, before checking himself. “Sorry, I mean at the start of the revolution.”

In the new Tunisia, everyone has an opinion. A friend’s primary school-aged son and his class had had enough of their teacher one day, so began to shout ‘degage’; the French-language refrain which saw President Ben Ali toppled from power.

The same night, the friend’s son insisted that he should have a sandwich, and not couscous, for his evening meal. When his mother refused, he threatened to hold a sit-in of the kinds that are adding to the government’s catalogue of challenges.

As for protests on Tunis’s main avenue, the howls of outrage from a hostile media saw the ban lifted just a few days later; the coming weeks will show if Tunisians have the urge to take to the streets en masse once more.

If Tunisia’s government can pull through the next six months with a population as keen on change for change’s sake as this one is, then more power to them.

Review: Apple’s new iPad

After months of speculation, Apple’s new CEO Tim Cook last week announced its third-generation iPad during a keynote speech in San Francisco.


SBS’s Trevor Long was there, and for the past week he’s been testing one of the few 2012 iPads currently in Australia – here are his thoughts.

The new iPad is called just that – the new iPad – dropping the number from the name is likely a sign toward simplicity in naming for the long term as well as possible future spin-off variations to the standard device.

One of the big selling points of Apple’s 2012 iPad is its new “retina” display which features a higher pixel density on the screen, making for a better viewing experience as well as richer colours. The “retina” display first featured in the iPhone 4 in 2010.

I’ve been using the new iPad for a week now and there really is a stark difference in the screen when you compare it side by side with the iPad 2 or use one after the other.

The other key visual difference is the thickness and weight. The device is 0.6mm thicker (unnoticeable unless you sit them side by side and look really hard!) and weighs an additional 50 grams or so – the weight is something you can notice if you’re a regular iPad 2 user.

Once switched on, the new quad-core processor will provide developers with the opportunity to boost the graphics performance of apps, in particular games with some full-featured action titles set to take full advantage of this power.

The 5 megapixel rear camera has been upgraded and includes some of the technology introduced to the iPhone 4S last year. This is nothing ground-breaking in the portable device market, however the still images it produces are a dramatic improvement on the iPad 2. The tablet’s video recording capabilities have also been upgraded to record full HD at 1080p.

There were rumours the next iPad would feature Apple’s heavily marketed ‘personal assistant’ Siri – however that did not eventuate. Instead, the device features a new dictation feature allowing one-tap dictation of any written field.

Australian English is supported, however, as with most voice recognition systems, the accuracy leaves a little to be desired unless you work hard to specifically talk to the device in a way it expects.

Finally, the device was unveiled with great fanfare as supporting “4G LTE” on the AT&T and Verizon networks in America.

In Australia, Telstra is currently the only telco with a 4G network, and tests have confirmed the device operates on a different spectrum to its system. This means that we’re buying a 3G, rather than 4G, device when operating in Australian conditions.

The largely unwritten upside though is that the new iPad does support Dual Carrier HSPA+ – in layman’s terms this effectively means double-speed 3G.

Telstra is the only network to support this technology, so if you have a new iPad on the Telstra network you can expect download speeds well into the 10-12Mbps range compared to 4-5Mbps with the iPad 2 on 3G.

My tests showed speeds up to 12Mbps and as low as 1-2Mbps, however each time a test was conducted the iPad 2 at the same time and location it getting half that speed.

Now for the pricing – for the second year in a row we’ve benefited from the strong Aussie dollar with the retail price of the iPad coming down once again.

The first iPad started at $649, while the iPad 2 started at $579. The new iPad will be available from $539 to $899, depending on specs.

Interestingly, Apple are also keeping the iPad 2 on sale for $429 ($150 less than its original RRP). This large range of tablets means a tough challenge for competing Android device manufacturers.

Overall, the third generation iPad takes the design and technology successes of the iPad 2 and improves them in some small and some very large ways.

At these price points, there’s no foreseeable end to the domination of Apple in the Australian tablet market.

Trevor Long travelled to San Francisco as a guest of Apple.

Meares breaks world cycling record

Anna Meares kicked off the defence of her sprint crown at the world track cycling championships Thursday by setting a world record of 10.


782sec for the 200 metre flying start.

Meares’s time, set during qualifying for the first round of the women’s sprint tournament, beat the previous mark of 10.793 set by Lithuania’s Simona Krupeckaite in Moscow in May 2010.

“I was nowhere near expecting that,” said Meares, the only rider from the 24 qualifiers to dip under the 11-second mark.

“I would have been really pleased with a low nine (10.9) high eight (10.8) which is right around a PB (personal best) mark for me. Anything in the eight (10.8) would have been perfect.”

After catching a glimpse of her time on the scoreboard, Meares put her hands to her mouth in disbelief.

“I was surprised during the effort because I remember when I sat down I was thinking to myself ‘this doesn’t feel good. Go! Go! Go!, Go harder!” she added.

“I probably should do that every time I do a 200 because I ended up breaking the world record.”

Although fast qualifying times are a good indicator of a rider’s form, the sprint tournament is a notoriously difficult exercise in which tactics and timing play decisive roles over several gruelling rounds of duels.

“For me that’s a new benchmark. It’s a new level I’ve reached and I’m really proud of that but speed’s only one part of this game,” said Meares.

“It’s down to tactics, it’s down to nerves, it’s down to decision-making and speed doesn’t win it for you. I’ve got to get it right across the board if I want to come home with that world title.”

However Meares, said to be on the form of her life, looks well-positioned to defend the maiden world sprint title she won in the Netherlands last year — seven years after a runner-up place at the 2004 Melbourne worlds.

The Australian’s 2011 feat brought an end to the domination of Britain’s Victoria Pendleton, the Olympic champion from Beijing who had been gunning for a sixth world title in the event.

Meares, who finished runner-up to Pendleton in Beijing only months after a crash had left her in a wheelchair, also beat the Englishwoman at the London Olympic velodrome in February when the final leg of the World Cup was held as an Olympic test event.

Meares’s world record was the fourth to be set at the Hisense Arena in two days.

On the opening day Wednesday the German team sprint duo of Kristina Vogel and Miriam Welte twice beat the British-held world record of 32.754sec for the two-lap power event in 32.630, then 32.549.

Later Wednesday the British men’s pursuit team broke their own world record of 3min 53.314sec, set during the Beijing Olympics, on their way to beating Australia to gold in a time of 3:53.295.

Spurs pay 30 million euros for Valencia’s Soldado

“Valencia have reached an agreement with Tottenham Hotspur Football Club, pending the corresponding medical examination, for the transfer of Roberto Soldado for the amount equivalent to that of his release clause,” the club said in a statement on their website (www.


A Valencia spokesman told Reuters the buyout fee was 30 million euros, which will be a record transfer for the north London club.

Spurs spent some 17 million pounds ($25.94 million) to bring in Brazil midfielder Paulinho from Corinthians last month, a similar amount to the record fee they paid Blackburn Rovers for winger David Bentley in 2008.

Valencia’s president, Amadeo Salvo, had said on Wednesday that a deal was in place but the formalities were being held up until a problem with the player’s agents had been resolved.

“The club wishes Roberto the best of luck in this new professional phase and we also wish to point out the professionalism and great performance of the footballer in the matches where he has worn the Valencia shirt,” the La Liga side added.

The 28-year-old Soldado, who scored 30 goals in 46 appearances for Valencia last season, is part of a growing number of Spain internationals who are leaving their homeland to play in the Premier League.

Eight of Spain’s recent Confederations Cup squad will be plying their trade in England next season, a figure that has gradually increased over the years.

One player who could be heading in the opposite direction is Tottenham forward Gareth Bale, who is strongly linked with a move to Real Madrid.

Media reports say the Spanish giants have offered a world-record fee in excess of 85 million pounds for the 24-year-old Wales midfielder.

Soldado began his career in Real Madrid’s B team where he scored 63 goals in 120 league appearances.

He has played 11 times for Spain and scored six goals. ($1 = 0.7531 euros) ($1 = 0.6596 British pounds)

(Reporting by Toby Davis and Iain Rogers in Barcelona; editing by Patrick Johnston and Clare Fallon)