Monthly Archives: November 2016

Australian Outback via The Ghan

Australia has about 75% of the area of the United States, roughly 3 million versus 4 million square miles. The real difference is in population. Australia with under 25 million is less the 8 % of the US population, about 320 million. Most the residents are on the coast, with the east and south coasts the more populous.

The first humans in Australia, the Aborigines, arrived around 50,000 years ago. European exploration and subsequent immigration came much later than that of the Americas. The British established a penal colony in southeast Australia in the late 18th century and population gradually grew thereafter. Exploration and habitation of the coasts greatly preceded the central region, the outback, known for the vast expanses of arid to semi arid deserts.

dragon lizard

dragon lizard

By early in the nineteenth century journeys through the outback were aided by caravans of camels imported initially from India and Pakistan. Caravans of up to 70 camels each carrying nearly a half ton of goods each, were driven by teams of Afghans who apparently excelled in camel herding. The camel caravans were used to supply remote mining sites, a few sheep stations (ranches) and to aid the construction of the first telegraph lines from the north to the south of Australia.

7 foot tall termite mound

7 foot tall termite mound

Today the Afghan herded camel “trains” no longer ply the desert. To a large degree they have replaced by rail service. As the camels were no longer needed they were simply released to the wild to fend for themselves. There are now estimated to be over a million feral camels.

The Ghan

The Ghan

Sections of a rail line began as early as 1858, but completion of the line connecting Darwin in the north with Adelaide in the south wasn’t completed until late in the twentieth century. The almost 1800 mile trip can be completed nonstop in 48 hours. A popular passenger rail service called the Ghan (after the Afghan camel drivers) now makes the trip with side excursions over 4 days.

Darwin , Northern Territory

Darwin , Northern Territory

We boarded the train in Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory (NT). Darwin on the northern coast has a tropical climate, lying about 12 degrees south of the equator. From there we headed south for several hours before arriving in Katherine, NT. Nearby is the Nitmiluk National Park. The Katherine river flows through the park where it has cut deep gorges in the Sedimentary rock, dated to 1.2 billion years old.

Katherine River

Katherine River

Farther south is the quaint town of Alice Springs, essentially the geographic center of Australia. It is equidistant to Darwin and Adelaide, 900 miles each way. Desert climates can be severe. Summer high temperatures can reach 120 degrees, and winter lows, especially on clear nights can dip well below freezing.

Near Alice Springs

Near Alice Springs

South of Alice Springs is the town of Coober Pedy, renowned as the richest source of opals in the world. The climate is so extreme here that over half the town’s inhabitants live underground to escape the heat.

Opal Mines

Opal Mines

The end of the line on the southern coast of Australia is Adelaide, the capital of the state of Southern Australia. It is the most centralized city in Australia with over 70% of the state’s population in the greater metropolitan area.

Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest

Port Douglas, Queensland, Australia is located in a semitropical region on the northeastern side of the continent. A major claim to fame here is the Great Barrier Reef which lies only a few kilometers off shore.

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the single largest structure on the planet made by living things.
The organisms that make up the reef are some of the smallest living things – coral polyps and photosynthetic algae. The GBR consists of several thousand separate reefs and about nine hundred islands. It extends as an arc some 2300 kilometers along the east and northeast coast of Australia and north towards Papua New Guinea in the Coral Sea.

bob in the Coral Sea

bob in the Coral Sea

Because of the enormous value of tourism to the region, much is done by governments to protect this UNESCO World Heritage Site. Diving and snorkeling in and around the reefs is a big tourist industry but those doing so are not permitted to touch, much less damage the coral. If a ship wants to “park” in the vicinity of the reef, they can only do so by attaching to an established mooring spot rather than dropping an anchor.

starfish

starfish

Although the reef is generally protected from direct human depredation, global warming is taking a toll. Coral reefs are suffering “bleaching.” This is a phenomena where the symbiotic algae, zooxanthellae, abandon the coral due to warming or more acidic ocean waters, both of which are due to global warming. Without the symbionts, the coral polyps die off and the result is colorless, dead reef.

Equally interesting onshore is another World Heritage site, the Daintree National Park. It is an ancient rainforest (annual rainfall around 110 inches.) A variety of plants found in this rainforest trace their ancestry to the earliest land plants. Primitive tree ferns, giant cycads, and the earliest angiosperms (flowering plants) exist here essentially unchanged from the Cretaceous era, the age of the dinosaurs.

The park is drained by the Daintree river, named after an early explorer of the area. The water is brackish for several miles upstream of its mouth on the coral sea and is home to the salt water crocodile. These ancient reptiles can get to over 23 feet long and weigh in at over a ton. They are the world’s largest living reptiles. dsc00808

Also among the largest animals in this forest is the endangered Cassowary, a six foot tall flightless bird. The males at four feet tall are smaller than the females. They take on the job of brooding the eggs and caring for the chicks.

Cassowary

Cassowary

The proximity of the off-shore reef and inland rainforest make this area an unrivaled tourist destination, attracting an international clientele. Because of the semitropical climate, there is little seasonal variation in weather. All in all it is a wonderful site for a south Pacific vacation. Next up the Australian Outback. Stay tuned.

Booming Solar

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Sustainable energy is currently the most rapidly expanding form of energy in the United States. The same is true here in Arkansas. Whereas we are not well set for wind as our neighbors are to the west, solar panels (PV) that generate electricity are effective, and getting cheaper by the day. Solar arrays now cost less than half of what they cost just 10 years ago.

The price is now so low as to be competitive with more conventional power sources such as coal and natural gas, and infinitely cleaner. Current solar capacity (as of 2015) is 20.1 megawatts (MW.) This is an unbelievable 640 % increase over all PV power installed up through 2014. The new power installed in 2015 is dominated by utility scale power, 15.4 MW. Commercial industries and businesses installed 0.24 MW and the residential sector 0.46 MW. This represents a 56 million dollar investment in clean energy and jobs.

Solar power has come of age, not just for people wanting a little power for an off-grid cabin in the woods, but residents tied to the grid, industries, and especially power companies. One real advantage of solar power is its scalability. If a power company needs to expand their energy supply a small amount, they can add a small solar field. If they need a lot of power, they install a bigger field. No alternative has this scalability. You just can’t build a (cost effective) small coal or nuclear plant. Not even natural gas fired turbines are as scalable.

The L’Oreal plant in North Little Rock will install several thousand PV panels, about 1 MW’s worth. In March 2016 a private-public consortium consisting of two Arkansas Electric Cooperative Corporations, and Aerojet Rocketdyne will install a 12 MW solar field near East Camden. The largest install this year will be an 81 MW solar farm to be installed by Entergy near Stuttgart.

Generally installs of home solar arrays are booming also. Most cost effective for the consumer is a grid-tied net metered array. This system allows the home owner to remain connected to the grid in addition to the solar panels. When the sun shines the panels provide energy to the house, but when the sun is not shining, the home can draw power from the grid just like any other home.

PV systems can be sized to provide all or any fraction of the power needed for the home. If a particular array actually produces more energy than can be consumed in a given month, the law allows the excess to be carried over to a month when energy is needed.

The consumers gain is however the power companies loss, and they don’t like it. They lose profits by not selling as much electricity and even worse net metering threatens the vertically integrated structure of the business. They are the power generators, the wholesalers, the distributors and the retailers, and they want to keep it that way. Other states, notably Arizona and Oklahoma, have instituted additional fees for home solar which will severely limit the development of truly distributed clean energy.

The Public Service Commission here in Arkansas is empowered by law to set rates and rate structures of electric utilities. Over the next year they will be conducting studies to determine if changes are needed (read additional costs to home solar users.) The utilities will be arguing that they have to claw back their profits to remain in business. Stay tuned.