Tilting at windmills …

Fortune,” said Don Quixote to his squire, as soon as he had seen them, “is arranging matters for us better than we could have hoped. Look there, friend Sancho Panza, where thirty or more monstrous giants rise up, all of whom I mean to engage in battle and slay, and with whose spoils we shall begin to make our fortunes. For this is righteous warfare, and it is God’s good service to sweep so evil a breed from off the face of the earth.

Australia’s Renewable Energy Target has been in the news this week. To the forces of one side of the climate war any change would be an attack on clean energy. To the other side the RET is a cursed impost on consumers and manufacturers that is reducing our standard of living by pushing up energy costs. It is not disputed by either side that the clean stuff can only compete with the dirty stuff if government tilts the playing field by means of regulation and subsidies.

Energy is a fundamental requirement of life. Animals must eat. In fact animals must eat the primary production of plants. A typical terrestrial food chain is three-tiered, eg grass, rabbit, fox. Longer chains are possible eg algae, zooplankton, copepod, little fish, big fish, seal, shark. At each step up the chain there is a reduction of very approximately 90% in biomass. If there is less than about ten times as much prey than predator food is hard to catch. If food requires more energy to catch than the energy it yields the predator starves. It is a biological reality that energy returned must be greater than energy invested (variously abbreviated EROI – energy returned on investment, or EROEI – energy returned on energy invested). And it explains why big fierce animals are rare.

Prior to the industrial revolution most people had to make do with the power of their own bodies plus the odd draught animal. The rich and powerful could put others to work on their behalf and parasitise their labours. Cheap energy makes us all rich and powerful. Buckminster Fuller went to the trouble of converting the energy being put to work in the world to its equivalent in slaves. In 1950, every human on earth had the equivalent of 38 full-time slaves. It would be more now. Our capacity to grow and distribute food, educate our community, enjoy manufactured goods and fight off the barbarians who would like to behead us depends on the availability of enough energy.

There is a fear upon the land that carbon dioxide, essential to that very first step in the food chain, photosynthesis, is a pollutant and will cause us to fry. There have been a number of initiatives aimed at reducing the human output of carbon dioxide. It would be reasonable to expect that such initiatives would reduce the output of CO2 but that doesn’t seem to be essential to their adoption. Burning biomass for example produces more CO2 per unit of energy than does coal or gas but enjoys the blessing of the EU. And then there is wind …

A slight breeze at this moment sprang up, and the great vanes began to move.

“Though ye flourish more arms than the giant Briareus  ye have to reckon with me!” exclaimed Don Quixote, when he saw this.

And of course he said his prayers, lowered his lance and charged.

A slight breeze can spring up at any moment or die away. It means that wind is of little value for base load power. The fossil fuel power station can’t be turned off and on willy nilly so when the wind blows the impact on coal or gas usage is small and the CO2 output is little diminished.

The answer, my friend, is storage. Why don’t we build a very large battery?

Which brings us back to EROEI.

A plant that only generates as much energy as it took to build it has an EROEI of 1 (and had better be pretty). Weißbach et al. investigated the figures for a variety of energy sources and compared them with their estimate of the EROEI required to maintain civilisation at a standard comparable with the US or Germany which is about 7.



Energy Returned on Energy Invested, derived from Weißbach et al.,with and without energy storage (buffering).  CCGT is closed-cycle gas turbine.  PWR is a Pressurized Water (conventional nuclear) Reactor.  Energy sources must exceed the “economic threshold”, of about 7, to yield the surplus energy required to support an OECD level society.

You can see from the graph that our conventional power plants have an EROEI of 30. Energy is stored simply by storing coal. We set one slave to work, in return we get the output of thirty slaves. Good value. Civilisation flourishes.

Wind performs quite well at 16. Civilisation can flourish whenever the wind blows.

If you would like power when the wind isn’t blowing we must have some storage. The cheapest form of storage is to pump water uphill when the wind blows and generate hydroelecticity when you need it. This is practicable where the terrain permits. This drops the EROEI to 3.9 …  civilisation collapses, we are all beheaded. Any form of battery or chemical storage requires the investment of at least 10 times more energy … you would be better off putting real slaves in a treadmill.


The bird mincers, therefore, are good for only a small proportion of electricity production. Photovoltaic solar and biomass will not cut it. At all. Full stop. In a competitive market no-one would invest money in those technologies. The redirection of taxes or the imposition of regulation to foster these technologies is truly corporate welfare. The Solar Generators that concentrate the sun’s rays on a central boiler or any passing bird or insect by reflection scrape above the line but at a cost to the environment that should be unacceptable. Their EROEI would be somewhere between 19 and 9 unless you shut civilisation down every night.

The population that we have on earth today cannot be sustained without cheap energy. Famine is the result of political failure. If we cannot produce the energy required to grow and distribute food in a stable society there will be war.

Hydro power has an excellent EROEI but requires a particular combination of water and terrain. More of it would be good but in the long run the true solution is inescapable. We will embrace nuclear power or leave the earth to the cockroach.

Sources …

Weißbach et al.

The catch 22 of energy storage. John Morgan.




It’s bloody cold in Rutherglen …

Back in my home state now and thinking ahead to the next vintage. Bud burst is just around the corner, I have delayed pruning this year in the hope that it will set it back enough to escape the November frosts. Of course the best Victorian reds come from Rutherglen …

Fringed by the Victorian Alps to the south and mighty Murray River to the north, Rutherglen is nestled in a special little corner of North East Victoria. Whilst the town’s foundations were built on gold, it is a passion for wine that has shaped the town’s fortunes in the 150 years since.

Ah, Rutherglen, close as well to some excellent birdwatching places, Chiltern and Warby Ranges.

It made the news these last few days for an entirely different reason. Jennifer Marohasy, an Australian biologist and currently adjunct Research Fellow at Central Queensland University, wonders what the Bureau of Meteorology has been up to in Rutherglen. Her graph …

Screen-Shot-2014-08-27-at-4.22.55-AMScience often starts with the measuring of things. Temperature springs to mind. We’ve had the good old calibrated mercury thermometer since it was invented by Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit 1714. Used carefully it can give you a good idea of the whether the world has been warming or not. The Bureau of Meteorology is a committed believer in anthropogenic global warming. The increasing sprawl of bitumen tends to bias the thermometer record in favour of their point of view, the well-known urban heat island effect. However a cooling trend is an embarrassment. Read Dr Marohasy to find out how this can easily be fixed.

Farewell Madagascar …

There is this awful sense that if you don’t see it soon you won’t see it at all. Madagascar, a crucible of evolution in isolation, is losing its distinct suite of habitats. Virtually every lemur species is endangered.
Threats to Madagascar’s biodiversity and ecosystems
  1. Deforestation and habitat destruction.
  2. Agricultural fires.
  3. Erosion and soil degradation.
  4. Overexploitation of living resources including hunting and over-collection of species from the wild.
  5. Introduction of alien species.

You can read all about it at wildmadagascar.org

How did it come to this?

The industrial revolution has hardly touched this place. At every turn you see people at work, not machines at work. People dig fields with shovels, not tractors. They carry or pull their loads. They make crushed rock by taking a hammer and cold chisel to large chunks of granite.


The majority of homes are not connected to an electricity supply.

When it comes to their carbon footprint the Malagasy lead exemplary lives. Their environment is going to hell in a handcart.

It is worth noting that the main source of cooking fuel is charcoal. That’s what the guy has on his back in the sack capped with grass to stop it falling out. That’s what the wood in the photo below is destined to become. The two men have dragged the three wheel cart up the hill. The journey down is gravity assisted and not without hazard.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACharcoal is a renewable.

The European Union gives its blessing to burning an American forest in one of England’s power stations. Renewable … but it would require the consumption of the entirety of British forests to keep it going and it would not be renewed in our grandchildren’s lifetime.

Conservation is the privilege of affluent nations. For poor nations survival is the only priority. Energy poverty is not the saviour of our world.

Birds of Madagascar …

Travel without a purpose entails all the hassle, expense, risk and inconvenience as travel directed at some specific end. The results though are a matter of chance. Here, on my country estate in the goldfields region of Victoria, Australia, the nearest neighbours to my south have just returned from a tour of British farms. They found the chance to compare their own farming with agriculture in a place where it rains fascinating. We had a chat about it all yesterday and they were radiant in the telling of their story.

My principal reason for travel is birdwatching. Trip accounts from birdwatchers can easily turn into a series of lists. I try to avoid that, although if I’d had succumbed to that on this trip the lists would have been mercifully brief. Seventeen days in Madagascar produced a list of just 85 species, the busiest day was 31 species, most days were less than 20. A single day out in Victoria would turn up more than the entire trip.

The paucity versus other tropical sites is worth some thought. The way to ratchet up the numbers is to visit as many habitats as you can. We did that. Forests of various types, mangroves, agricultural areas, wetlands, seashore, higher altitude, mid-altitude and sea-level. Madagascar’s long isolation will have played a role. Islands tend to have a subset of the birds of the nearest continent. Africa is extremely rich but its contribution to Madagascar is quite small (the prevailing wind is from the east). The total list for Madagascar is not much more than 250 species, some 115 are endemic. Five bird families are found nowhere else.

Nor was it a case of beating a handful of common species off with a stick. The population density was low. For a tropical destination birds were surprisingly scarce.

My best guess is that this is due to competition from those pesky mammals. The lemurs can reach every inch of the trees all the way to the outermost leaves and they work in shifts 24 hours of the day. They must take a good part of the available resource.

Here are a few examples of what is on offer.

A male Madagascar Magpie-robin.


A male Madagascar Paradise-Flycatcher.


A Common Sunbird-Asity.


Madagascar Scops Owl.


Dimorphic Egret, the grey form is more common at the coast, the white form more common inland.




Blue Coua.


Sickle-billed Vanga.


Madagascar Kingfisher.


Madagascar Fish Eagle.




Lemur …

Lemurs are our very distant relatives although you would have to climb a very long way up our family trees before you found our last shared ancestor perhaps about 65 million years ago. That is when the Haplorhini and the Strepsirrhini went their separate ways. You and I, the monkeys and the apes are haplorhine.

Not too long after that the ancestors of today’s Lemurs made their split with the ancestors of the other Strepsirrhini, the Lorises and Galagos, by the not so simple means of migrating to Madagascar. That was somewhere in the vicinity of 60 million years ago. Madagascar was already an island having split from Africa about 100 million years  prior and from India about 30 million years prior. (There is, incidentally, a nice animation of the breakup of Gondwana <HERE> . You can drag the pointer through time and take in the break up at your own pace).

Nowadays such a journey would mean swimming, against the current, at least 560 km from Mozambique. 60 million years ago Africa and Madagascar were just as far apart but further south and ocean currents were likely to have been more favourable to animals washed out to sea on a raft of floating vegetation. Representatives of only five orders of terrestrial mammals established populations in Madagascar so it can’t have been too easy. It is considered most likely that the arrival of just one raft load gave rise to all the various lemurs.

The taxonomy is, of course, in a state of utter chaos. In 1994 there were 33 species, by 2008 there were about 100. DNA analysis is finding splits especially in the nocturnal species where the outward appearance is fairly uniform. I filched the version below from Wikipedia and modified it slightly …

The extant Lemurs comprise five families (and there are three extinct families)

  • Family:Daubentoniidae: aye-aye
    • Genus: Daubentonia (1 extant species, 1 extinct species)
  • Family:Cheirogaleidae
    • Genus: Allocebus: hairy-eared dwarf lemur (1 extant species)
    • Genus: Cheirogaleus: dwarf lemurs (6 extant species)
    • Genus: Microcebus: mouse lemurs (21 extant species)
    • Genus: Mirza: giant mouse lemurs (2 extant species)
    • Genus: Phaner: fork-marked lemurs (4 extant species)
  • Family:Indriidae
    • Genus: Avahi: woolly lemurs (9 extant species)
    • Genus: Indri: indri (1 extant species)
    • Genus: Propithecus: sifakas (9 extant species)
  • Family: Lemuridae
    • Genus: Eulemur: true lemurs (12 extant species)
    • Genus: Hapalemur: bamboo lemurs (5 extant species, 3 extant subspecies)
    • Genus: Lemur: ring-tailed lemur (1 extant species)
    • Genus: †Pachylemur (2 extinct species)
    • Genus: Prolemur: greater bamboo lemur (1 extant species)
    • Genus: Varecia: ruffed lemurs (2 extant species, 3 extant subspecies)
  • Family:Lepilemuridae: sportive lemurs
    • Genus: Lepilemur (26 extant species)

I was lucky enough to see and photograph at least one representative of every family except the Daubentoniidae … the Aye-aye is very hard to find in the wild.

Family: Cheirogaleidae represented by a Mouse Lemur


Family: Indriidae represented by the Indri


Family: Lemuridae represented by the Common Brown Lemur


Family: Lepilemuridae represented by the White-footed Sportive Lemur


Lemurs have a low basal metabolic rate, as much as 20% below the values predicted for mammals of similar body mass. This may have been a trait that enabled the founding population to survive their time on the raft. It may also be as much as they can manage on their fairly energy poor diet, the larger lemurs mainly subsist on leaves, the smaller ones mainly on fruit. Various behaviours such as huddling and opening themselves to the morning sun serve to increase their body temperature …


Nonetheless they are extremely agile and athletic. When Sifakas cross open ground they do so by bounding on their hind legs and are likely to finish the journey by bounding well up the trunk of the tree they are heading for.


And if the trees are close together why not fly?


An Australian is inclined to compare a lemur with the Koala, similarly arboreal, similar diet but one a gymnast and the other a couch potato. Why? The quick answer is the Fosa (pronounced Foossa – long O soft S). This is Madagascar’s largest carnivore, it is somewhat catlike but with a longer body. It will climb trees and it does take lemurs. Thus they need the agility to evade predation.

There is a major flaw in this argument. The DNA studies show that the Aye-aye split from the other lemurs early after colonisation. The radiation that brought about the diverse forms seen today occurred between 42 million years ago and 30 million years ago. Madagascar was without mammalian predators until about 20 million years ago. The Fosa may have sharpened their skills but the skill set existed for more than 10 million years before the Fosa arrived.

A bird’s eye view …

Anjajavy, a luxurious hotel in a spectacular setting, was the ideal place to finish a tour of Madagascar.

From there it was back into the Cessna Caravan for the flight to Antananarivo and the farewell Madagascar by South African Airlines to Johannesburg.

The two trips across country in the Cessna gave opportunities for some aerial photography …


Starting from the west coast in the vicinity of Anjajavy.  Then leaving the coastal strip and climbing onto the central plateau.



OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAApproaching Antananarivo



In the last view we are looking almost exactly due south across the Ivato Airport, Antananarivo. In Google maps the tower behind the terminal is shown as the Sheraton Hotel, but a quick search of Antananarivo Hotels will not turn up a Sheraton. To the immediate right of the tower is the Madagascar International Conference Center built in 2008 for the African Union summit which was to be held in Madagascar the following year. The hotel was to have housed the visiting dignitaries. The 2009 coup put an end to Madagascar hosting the summit. The extravagant facilities have had very little use.