Political roadblocks to Sydney's electricity evolution


In the early 1990s Allan Jones, an engineer in a London suburb, Woking, proposed taking the borough off the grid by establishing a system of tri-generation. Tri-generation generates power locally, eliminating the wastage associated with transmission over long distances. It also combines heat and power. Rather than throwing the heat generated from power transmission away, it is recovered to heat buildings, provide hot water, and generate chilled water for air conditioning and refrigeration.

Tri-generation plantJones promised that, by taking Woking off the national grid, emissions would drop sharply and power would actually become cheaper. He was so successful the approach is now being rolled out across London.

The Sydney City Council employed Jones in 2009 to bring the same approach to Australia. Jones told this author in an interview that he was hoping to demonstrate the efficacy of the method in Sydney in order to roll out the idea across Asia.

Jones, as the pioneering engineer, rightly gets most of the attention. But there were some other heroes who are never mentioned, the politicians in the Woking Council who decided to take the risk with such an ambitious plan.

They are very much out of the ordinary. If there is an enduring lesson from the tri-generation story it is that the main challenges with tackling global pollution are not technical, they are political. Most politicians lack the vision, courage and skill to take such risks, especially when it involves facing down the powerful business lobbies that usually fund them.

In Sydney, Jones found that the prevailing regulations allowed installation of a tri-generation plant in a single building, but made it extremely difficult to install bigger, more efficient plants that could supply electricity to a cluster of neighbouring buildings. The way the regulations worked, the network charges to move electricity across the road could be as large as bringing it down from the Hunter Valley.

Needless to say, this arrangement greatly favoured the incumbent power companies, and is preventing any meaningful change. The Sydney Council, which had taken a lead, has been left petitioning for a relaxation of the rules.

It is a familiar tale of regulations from previous eras being a barrier. Most pollution problems have design solutions; if we really want things fixed we should put engineers like Jones in charge. But that, of course, does not happen.

In light of this, clearly we need a new way of thinking about politics and policy. More than that though, we also need a reassessment of what it is to be human.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs describes the current era as the Anthropocene: a time when we are able to shape the natural world to an unprecedented degree. It has proved to be a two headed beast. There has never before been anything like the human pressures on the environment. Yet at the same time the successes in creating sustained and broad-based improvements of wellbeing have been unprecedented.

We are now able to profoundly alter the biological world because of the advances in life sciences, and the inanimate world after developments in areas like nano-technology.

Our creation of the Anthropocene leads to a much greater requirement for self-examination. Instead of nature being the enemy, the enemy increasingly becomes our own natures. In order to develop systems that will not eventually undo us, we will have to find new ways of dealing with ourselves.

Following from this, there is a requirement to redesign our systems: sustainable energy, non-polluting cities, systems of biodiversity that are more resilient. A redesign of the financial system is necessary to avoid a repeat of the toxic effects of the GFC. A redesign of work and income distribution may be required if technological advances prove as disruptive as feared.

As Sachs points out, many of the great technical and design innovations of the industrial era, which conquered nature, have led to a dangerous despoliation of nature, threatening our survival.

It is hard to see where such radical changes in thinking and collective action will come from. Engineers do not run for office, and would probably lose if they did. Business, especially big business, tends to adapt to existing systems, not to lead. But until ways are found to emulate the political courage of Woking Council, it is unlikely that the dangers will diminish.

David JamesDavid James is a business journalist with a PhD in English literature. He edits Personal Super Investor.

Topic tags: David James, Woking, Allan Jones, tri-generation, environment, Sydney



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Existing comments

This is an excellent analysis of the systemic problems we face when opportunities arise for improvement of our urban environment. In another comment in this edition of ES, I argued that we have time to adjust to the gradual impact we can expect from climate change. Trigeneration is already a well-established technology which will give us even more time. Necessary change in political-economic systems are likely to retard technological mitigation of climate change.

Ian Fraser | 05 November 2015  

Thank you David James. I know I shouldn’t be surprised, but in fact I am shocked by the level of self interest and lack of concern for the common good. Praise to the Council for at least trying and showing that intelligent, workable alternatives are available.

Plain Jane | 08 November 2015  

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