Mike Cannon-Brookes: energy tunnel vision

Mike Cannon-Brookes, son of a global banking executive and co-creator of the Atlassian empire, has weaponized his stake in AGL and aims to shut down their coal plants ahead of time. Meanwhile, Europe is in panic with a cold winter looming, Nordstream pipelines leaking and its energy industry collapsing.

Mike co-created the JIRA bug tracker as the first step to becoming a super successful entrepreneur. At heart, he is a software engineer. I worked with talented software engineers at McLaren. They have an incredible ability to systematize complex problems. On the other hand, they tend to suffer from tunnel vision, seeing the world one-dimensionally. “For the man with the hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

The laws of nature and the behavior of weather and climate are anything but one-dimensional. As vehicle dynamics engineers, we were on the front lines of physics, constantly encountering discrepancies between what we expected and what real-world results were telling us.

Pragmatically, we needed to ensure that the car’s aerodynamics, fluid dynamics (hydraulic suspension) and stability control systems were designed for a car that performed, was stable and ultimately was safe. The interaction between natural laws and software models was fed back in real time.

Errors in software models were ruthlessly punished. I remember testing the first McLaren sports car to have an active differential. The power-on mode had not been fully calibrated. The car almost knocked me off the track at 150km/h on corner exit.

Climate models do not report in real time. They take years to unfold and are used to escaping predictions – who can forget Al Gore’s prediction of an ice-free Arctic within five years in 2008? Or Daniel Andrews’ statement in 2019 that “there is no point building new dams because climate change means there won’t be enough water flowing through them”?

Mike’s game might be fair. History may show that his climate concern is long-term, but today’s geopolitical landscape shows that he suffers greatly from tunnel vision.

I have to admit that Mike Cannon-Brookes’ ability to manipulate the Australian energy market really triggered me when I first read about it.

Questions like “Have you seen what is happening in Europe? or “Why are you replacing Australia’s energy self-sufficiency with green dependence on the People’s Republic of China?” and “Why are you turning off a reliable and robust base load supply at this point in the story?” came to mind at five o’clock in the morning.

I had never heard of billionaires being able to control something so critical to the masses. Like a medieval king or duke, it seems they can intervene without parliamentary scrutiny, as in pre-revolutionary England.

In a strange outlier in history, tech stocks were historically overvalued, while energy stocks were historically undervalued.

In stages, a benevolent tech billionaire is deciding our energy future.

The geek-come-tech billionaires, who did nothing to create Australia’s energy infrastructure but only reaped non-linear benefits from it, can – without any accountability mechanism – contemplate the average Australian who pays the AGL electricity bills.

I am for green energy. I would prefer a world where we don’t pump gas out of Russia, indirectly funding an inhumane war. I would prefer a world where we don’t pump 1.6 trillion liters of oil from the Middle East and pump in trillions of dollars every year, inadvertently sponsoring ISIS in the process. I am convinced that there is enough renewable energy for all of us, but I think we all know now that not everything is as carbon neutral as those pushing Net Zero would have us believe.

The war on carbon dioxide underestimates the adaptive nature of the planet we live on and the people we share it with. While working in China, I saw chemical plants flowing in rivers, which alarmed me much more than coal-fired power plants operating at over 40% thermal efficiency. The fish for lunch made me sick to my stomach and not because of the bacteria.

On each of my 12 trips to China, between 2008 and 2014, the smog was so strong that I never saw the ground in flight – all year. I have never seen the ground while flying over Australia, even while flying over our Loy Yang power station.

China dominates the renewable energy market, with 84% of global solar panel production and 79% of global lithium-ion battery production. Australia has 0 percent.

How much of the ethically sourced (read, child-mined) Congolese cobalt, shortage lithium, and diesel container ships bringing minerals for electric vehicle batteries to China is carbon neutral anyway?

Chinese and Congolese industries do not have the environmental safeguards of our EPA.

While we’re at it, how long do solar cells and lithium-ion batteries last? What happens to the chemicals they contain when we throw them away? Is electronic waste containing lead, cadmium and glass toxic to the environment?

What is the total embodied energy of any of them when you count the energy to extract the ores, ship them to China for refining, drive them from the refinery in some part of China to the factory in batteries or solar panels in another part of China, ship them to Australia, truck them through the desert, and bring Chinese-produced aluminum power lines back to the cities?

Sure, it’s a cool infrastructure project that will provide remote (but not necessarily family) jobs, but what part is carbon neutral?

Green is not carbon neutral, and carbon neutral is not green.

Wouldn’t it be wise, given the current geopolitical turmoil and supply chain vulnerabilities, to perhaps transition to green energy calmly and not cut our knees with the incredibly abundant energy source that we are fortunate to have at our disposal here in Australia?

Coal is a dirty word, but it has huge geopolitical and supply chain advantages. Take Loyang. The coal is mined in the Latrobe Valley and shipped to the power plant, which is in the Latrobe Valley. It seems sturdy and efficient. What part of switching off and depending on China is robust and effective?

Isn’t a coal-fired power station spectacularly efficient? As in, running a constant and well-controlled combustion? Isn’t it more efficient than the trains, trucks and ships of the green solution? Isn’t a basic power supply, with all the infrastructure in place, a very good idea? Sure, change can be good and necessary, but in the real world, away from the ones and zeros of software development, let’s look at things holistically.

Mike Cannon-Brookes started with the goal of beating a salary of $48,000. Atlassian products are fantastic and inspired my app (www.LifeMapp.app), but their tool wouldn’t have evolved without the internet. The Internet was built on phone lines and electricity. Perhaps he should spare a thought for the families of the electricians who built the infrastructure that made him successful. Their grandchildren won’t be able to heat their homes or feed themselves when they graduate on $48,000.

Paul Batten is the founder of www.LifeMapp.app – a tool of life, and a former Senior Vehicle Dynamics Engineer at McLaren Automotive. His father worked at Tahmoor Colliery.

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