Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if electricity was free?

Tesla is the well-known trademark of entrepreneur extraordinaire Elon Musk and his electric cars, but what about Tesla, the man?

More than 100 years ago, Nikola Tesla (1856-1943) invented alternating current (AC), the polyphase alternating current system, which laid the foundation for today’s mass-produced power supply. 

Nikola Tesla, man or magician?

From the invention of the particle beam to radar, the electric car, robotics, and remote-controlled drones, Tesla mental-modelled solutions to problems with such clarity of mind that he could visualise the individual parts of a machine or mechanism in three dimensions. Then run simulations in his head and check for wear and tear.

He even pioneered interplanetary radio communication with Guglielmo Marconi. Whom he later fell out with when the US Patent Office mysteriously overturned his patents and effectively credited Marconi with the invention of the radio; who was, in fact, using several of Tesla’s patents.  

Tesla was so far ahead of his time, the genius of many of his early inventions — used to develop the radio and television, fluorescent and induction lighting, and MRIs and X-rays –- only came to light after his death.

He dreamed of free electricity for all

Tesla’s long-held dream was to create a source of inexhaustible, clean energy that was free for everyone. He strongly opposed centralised coal-fired power stations that spewed carbon dioxide into the air that humans breathed.

Image: Matthew Henry, Unsplash

He believed that the Earth had “fluid electrical charges” running beneath its surface, that when interrupted by a series of electrical discharges at repeated set intervals, would generate a limitless power supply by generating immense low-frequency electrical waves.

One of Tesla’s most extraordinary experiments was to transmit electrical power over long distances without wires or cables — a feat that has baffled scientists ever since.

His grand vision was to free humankind from the burdens of extracting, pumping, transporting, and burning fossil fuels — which he viewed as “sinful waste”.

“Ignorant, unimaginative people, consumed by self-interest”

Tesla was eventually undone by what he called “ignorant, unimaginative people, consumed by self-interest”— powerful men that sought to protect the immensely profitable, low-tech industries they had spent a lifetime building.

Today’s fossil-fuel industry, a legacy of that past, has fought just as hard in recent decades to protect the same interests — Luddites and laggards afraid of losing their companies to the wind and the sun.

A cohort of carbon-captured conspirators

The title of a new book by award-winning journalist Marian Wilkinson refers to the same cohort of carbon-captured conspirators as the Carbon Club: How a network of influential climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders fought to control Australia’s climate policy.

Wilkinson notes that for decades our “politicians have been fighting the climate wars fuelled by the carbon club. But despite the political carnage, the science of climate change has not been defeated.”

The carbon club feared that Australia’s fossil-fuelled economy would indeed come to an abrupt halt if coal became just the fossilised remnants of ancient plant life and nothing more — a worthless lump of black stuff.

In short: we rode on the sheep’s back for over half a century, and we’re now quite comfortable riding on the back of a coal-fired power station — how utterly unimaginative!

No-one was afraid, just confused at the idiocy

So, what’s the obsession with old-world technology and coal, as opposed to new renewables technology and new jobs, that seems to incite such lunacy? 

It’s difficult to determine, for instance, what prompted our prime minister, Scott Morrison, then treasurer, to bring a lump of coal into parliament during question time in February 2017.

As Guardian Australia’s political editor Katharine Murphy noted: “’This is coal’, the treasurer said triumphantly, brandishing the trophy as if he’d just stumbled across an exotic species previously thought to be extinct. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he said, soothingly, ‘don’t be scared.’”

Of course, no-one was afraid, just confused at the idiocy.

Murphy further described the charade: “The coal was produced as a totem of how the government in Canberra was going to keep the lights on, and keep power prices low, and stop the relentless march of socialism, or prevent random thought crimes against base-load power stations.”

Of course, as we know, this was just the beginning of ScoMo the mesmerising marketeer who would go on to be Prime Minister of Australia, and thus write the book on How to Win an Election on a Shoestring of Substance.

Base-load power: the last of the fossil-fuelled furphies?

Fast-forward to the present and at least the Libs are now able to say the words “climate change” without shuddering, even if there is a strange aura of incongruity around them when they say it. 

But in the push for cheaper, cleaner energy, one obstacle, in particular, has endured: the fossil-fuelled furphy of “base-load power”. 

In short: because both the sun and the wind are controlled by the fickleness of Mother Nature, intermittently shining and blowing at her will — she might be cheap, but she can’t be bought — we need base-load power grinding away in the background in an anachronistic effort to keep her honest. 

However, Glen Bulled, managing director of Energa in Southeast Queensland, reiterated what industry experts have known all along, that politicians have either misconstrued or misunderstood what base-load power actually is:  

“Base-load power has been used to refer to the minimum power output that coal-fired power stations can generate before shutting down. And shutting them down when usage is at a minimum and renewables are still streaming into the grid, is much too costly as they can take days to fire up again.” 

In fact, as Bulled pointed out, “there’s no such thing as base-load, only load. Base-load is a term used to justify the existence of fossil fuel energy generation — a dying business.” 

Technology has made base-load power obsolete

In truth, technology has rendered base-load power archaic. 

With the flexibility of pumped hydro, wind and solar, and the advent of commercial battery storage, running coal-fired power stations 24/7 should be relegated to the “too dumb basket”. 

South Australia’s Tesla battery that is soon to be upgraded to 150 megawatts is a prime example of science and technology winning over political recalcitrance.

And although South Australia’s “big battery” was severely lambasted by our PM and his co-conspirators, the market operator declared that it dispatched power faster than conventional power stations and was instrumental in pushing down energy prices

Not to mention the even “bigger benefit” of reducing carbon emissions.

It might be cleaner, but will it be cheaper?

Energy prices have skyrocketed over the last decade: between 2007 and 2013 the average price rose 70 per cent in real terms. So, getting back to the “good old days” of pre-2007 prices is unlikely.

The good news is the Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) has projected electricity bills — in the period 2018-19 to 2021-22 — to range between an increase of six per cent in Western Australia (note that residential electricity prices are set by the WA government) and a decrease in Southeast Queensland of 20 per cent. 

Alternatively, the collective bulk-buying of electricity — for apartment buildings and residential complexes, for example — is also regularly advertised as delivering around 40-50 per cent off the standard price through solar sharing technologies. Although there are conditions attached and obstacles to overcome that diminish the full value of the discount.

But our electricity bill, like life, is never quite that simple! 

In a capitalist-driven world, in which executive bonuses remain beholden to maximising profits, will your electricity bill actually be lower?

Not likely if history has any credence. 

The AEMC’s forecasts have little to do with the wholesale cost of electricity, which continually fluctuates, the contracts made in advance, how retailers set their pricing and profits, and what effect current and future policy changes might have.

And your electricity bill has some additional hefty baggage attached. Infrastructure, the poles and wires, account for about half the cost on your electricity bill. Twenty-five per cent is the wholesale cost of the power itself, and the balance is consumed by the retailer’s profit margins and operating costs.

Photo courtesy of Mathew Henry on Unsplash

Oh, and you can add another 10 per cent to the bill for the excess voltage surging through the grid to your home. The allowable range is 216 to 253 volts, and the nominal voltage is around 230 but is often higher. Once again, fixing it is considered too costly.

So, unless your running your own rooftop solar system, a cheaper wholesale price courtesy of renewables might only amount to a few per cent off the overall bill. 

And lest we forget, our already ageing infrastructure can only get older and require more and more maintenance.

Tesla’s biggest mistake was that he cared more about the people than he did about the profit

John J. O’Neill wrote in his biography of Tesla:

“The panorama of human evolution is illumined by sudden bursts of dazzling brilliance in intellectual accomplishments that throw their beams far ahead to give us a glimpse of the distant future, that we may more correctly guide our wavering steps today.”

Photo by Vlad Tchompalov on Unsplash

Just think, a man ahead of his time might have brought clean and free electricity to everyone, and averted dangerous climate change well before it had even begun. 

But unfortunately for Tesla, along with the natural world and all of us living today and the generations to come, JP Morgan and his other backers at the time saw his dream of free energy as a threat to their business model. In short: a threat to capitalism, through which they made their millions. 

Tesla was unable to secure any financial backing after JP Morgan pulled out, and shortly after he was declared bankrupt. 

Like Tesla, we can only dream

Tesla, the genius, whose dream was thwarted by the nature of reality, lived a humble existence in a New York apartment until his death in 1943.

But what would have the world been like if electricity was clean and fee for everyone? 

Like Tesla, we can only dream. 

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