Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Lowe Tech

Lowe Tech column

Electric Cars Are About to Turn the Corner

By Ian Lowe

Will decreasing battery costs finally enable the electric car to take off?

I used to show my students a quote that acclaimed it as the car of the future: clean, efficient, quiet and non-polluting. All it needed, the proponent said, was an advance in storage beyond the lead-acid battery, and that advance was “just around the corner”. That article was written in1903!

More than 100 years later, the biggest obstacle to the electric car is still the cost and capacity of energy storage, which limits the range of these vehicles. But that corner might finally be in sight.

Nuclear Naïvity

By Ian Lowe

Political posturing over the nuclear industry and higher education reveal scant regard for science.

The proposed Royal Commission into South Australia’s role in the nuclear industry has predictably elicited some naïve assertions. I was particularly struck by announcements to the local media by a Coalition Senator, Sean Edwards, who showed a gullibility that is rare in elected politicians during the run-up to the federal leadership spill motion.

Cheap Petrol Signals End of the Oil Age

By Ian Lowe

Petrol prices have dropped as the Saudis recognise that a cheap barrel now is better than a barrel left in the ground tomorrow.

With world oil prices lower than they have been for years, motorists are relieved to be paying less for fuel. But the price drop has caused some questioning of the whole notion of “peak oil”. If oil is getting scarcer and more expensive to produce, shouldn’t the price still be going up?

The most important change last year was that Saudi Arabia halted its policy of holding back its production to keep the price high. With more oil coming from Saudi Arabia, the price has dropped to about half the level a year ago. Why did the Saudis change their approach?

The Lucky Country – 50 Years Later

By Ian Lowe

How much has changed since Donald Horne labelled Australia “the lucky country” as a warning about its “second-rate leaders”?

Last December was the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Lucky Country, Donald Horne’s acerbic look at Australia and what he called its “second-rate leaders”. His book was dismissed by one reviewer who said it would be forgotten by the end of that summer. Instead it became a runaway best-seller and the title entered the lexicon.

Sea Change Threatened by Coastal Development

By Ian Lowe

Coastal communities are battling to retain their natural assets in the face of increasing tourism and residential developments.

A Victorian community group has come up with an innovative scheme to draw attention to the impact of population growth on endangered species. The Surf Coast Energy Group held a forum on the region’s future in Torquay during the State election campaign. I was one of the invited speakers, along with Melbourne University climate scientist Prof David Karoly and Victorian botanist Geoff Carr. The purpose of the forum was to focus discussion on planning issues that will determine the future of the Surf Coast region.

University’s Share Portfolio Makes Coal Industry Dirty

By Ian Lowe

Selling shares in fossil fuel companies may seem an ethical choice but it may equally be sound investment practice.

The recent decision by the Australian National University to sell its shares in a small number of fossil fuel-intensive companies provoked a real old-fashioned slanging match.

Hands Up If You Want to Store Our Nuclear Waste

By Ian Lowe

The federal Government has called for volunteers to site a nuclear waste repository.

I recently saw a strange announcement by the Australian Government that indicated “the Government’s intention to consider opening a nationwide volunteer process for land owners to nominate land for Australia’s radioactive waste management facility”. This is the latest episode in a long-running saga.

Sensitivity to Smart Meters and Water Bills

By Ian Lowe

The Victorian state election will feature a new party opposed to smart electricity meters on health grounds, while others are campaigning against wifi in schools.

Victorian households are being equipped with “smart meters” that allow electricity suppliers to charge for power according to the time of use. Some consumers are so unhappy about this that a new political party has been formed, People Power Victoria – Stop Smart Meters. It says it has 700 members and will run candidates in the State election scheduled for November. The party’s spokesperson has said that many Victorians “have been adversely affected” by the technology, citing “deteriorating health as a direct result of radiation from smart meters”.

Climate Policy in Limbo

By Ian Lowe

The abolition of the carbon tax has stifled investment in renewable energy.

The balance of the new Senate has dramatically curbed the Abbott Government’s attempts to wind back Australia’s response to climate change. While the interim fixed price on greenhouse gas emissions – the so-called “carbon tax” – was symbolically important, economic studies show it was much too small to have a measurable impact on new investment. It did affect the operating of existing electricity generating capacity, providing an incentive to minimise the use of coal-fired power stations.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

By Ian Lowe

While road funding regulations remain messy, the Abbott government has supported a second Sydney airport over a high speed rail line linking the east coast cities.

The mysterious disappearance of flight MH370 naturally focused attention on the safety of flying. Every day, people board flights expecting to arrive safely at their destination, so it is a shock when things go badly wrong. The data show that flying is actually very safe – and getting safer as systems are improved every time an accident report identifies problems.