Leading A Dumb Horse To Water


If an economist had a fail-safe strategy to alleviate the financial crisis, world leaders would be falling over each other to get to it. If a mining company announced it had struck enough oil to end the global shortage, government licences and co-investment contracts would be jamming their letterbox.

So why is it that when Gippsland farmer and inventor, Fred Sundermann, devised a breakthrough renewable energy alternative which could be used to help tackle a similarly serious global problem, our governments apparently don’t want to know about it?

Global warming is no far-away problem, and presents us with some very specific and unavoidable challenges: "We need a program to replace existing coal plants with zero-carbon energy sources," warns the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The failure of state and federal governments to capitalise upon (or at least investigate) Sundermann’s invention is one sign that they are not doing nearly enough.

The biggest hurdles we face in moving to renewables are the problems (some actual, some merely perceived) with their ability to cope with our power demands, relying as many of them do on sometimes unpredictable power sources like wind, water flows or sunshine.

Although still largely unknown, for over a year now the Sundermann Water Turbine has been considered an exception. Where it differs from other water turbines is its simple practicality.

Typical models are built like a fan, which, in a low-pressure flow suffers a lot of drag, reducing its efficiency. In the Sundermann turbine, each blade pivots on its own axis as it rotates around the central hub, like a planet, presenting its whole face to the full force of the water for more of its cycle. After being pushed downstream with the flow, each blade revolves back to the top of the cycle through a narrow slit, minimising the drag it suffers during the part of the cycle when it is moving against the flow. The individual pivoting of each blade creates the lowest possible overall resistance by the turbine, and allows the turbine to trap the water.

"The water has nowhere to go but out," explains Mr Sundermann, "it can’t escape without being turned into energy." The turbine is cost-efficient, able to extract power from low-head, low-velocity water (6–12 knots), ocean tidal movements and, most importantly, has the capacity to generate electricity constantly.

One of these turbines has the capacity to continuously power 30 households. Sundermann Water Power has drafted a proposal for 36 larger and more powerful models of the turbine to be installed 25 metres underwater in Port Phillip Bay, which could produce 1260 megawatts — the equivalent of a medium-sized coal-fired power station.

"Fred’s idea is brilliant," was the response from Don Walters, the company’s consulting engineer. That’s the typical reaction from experts worldwide, too, prompting many to wonder why such a simple, effective design had not been thought of before.

John Gould, for instance, a consultant at SKM and a lecturer in water-turbine technology, believes that the turbine will work, and will work well. It has even attracted the attention of one of Australia’s most decorated industry professionals, Don Fry — a recipient of Engineers Australia’s most prestigious awards and inductee to their hall-of-fame. Fry has such confidence in the design that he has opted to join the company’s board of directors.

But that same excitement is not shared by government. The engineering company manufacturing the turbine has had talks with the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE), which indicated that while it is keen on the idea, it’s not willing to contribute any funding for research and development.

With the aid of Victorian MLC Peter Hall, Sundermann Water Power subsequently wrote to the State Minister for Energy and Resources, Peter Batchelor, only to be palmed off to a junior public servant.

Mr Sundermann says he is frustrated that the rhetoric about the necessity of renewable energy is not reflected by action. It seems to him that government is more interested in ways it can make dirty coal cleaner than in actually adopting anything in its place.

Not only has the Victorian Government so far declined to provide any financial support, but bureaucracy has blocked them almost every step of the way.

When Sundermann Water Power was denied funding, it hired a company that specialises in obtaining government grants — a company which only takes on clients who they believe will be successful. But the DSE advised that a test-run needs to be conducted before a grant would be considered.

Now, as Sundermann prepares to trial a prototype at Port Albert in coming weeks, State Government officials have intervened. The test-run requires a Government-appointed engineer to attend and inspect, and he costs $350 per hour, along with $1000 per night for accommodation to go to Port Albert — a minimum of $10,000 in total.

In addition to this, the engineer will need to be positioned above the turbine to examine the process in action. Therefore, it must be tested and certified as a vessel. A raft of safety checks will have to be conducted, and a naval engineer will need to be engaged to determine its centre of gravity and ensure it won’t topple over during inspection.

It seems to be one thing after another. And it raises questions over why determined innovators with so much to contribute are made to jump through hoops, delaying or jeopardising potentially vital innovations. Why isn’t government establishing agencies that can go out and proactively evaluate up-and-coming technologies? Instead, the Victorian Government is standing in its way the same way a local council might stand in the way of high-rise development.

This lack of constructive action from government isn’t limited to Victoria. As Greens Senator Christine Milne said six months ago, "The Australian renewable energy industry, which thought it faced such a bright future when the Rudd Government was elected, is increasingly alarmed by 12 months of inaction."

After 18 months of the Rudd federal Government, solar, wind and water power alternatives have still not been implemented widely enough for them to be considered much more than environmental tokenism.

Internationally, however, other water turbine projects have received private investment and are beginning to get underway. One Australian company, Atlantis Resources, for example, has recently received US$14 million for a similar turbine from overseas investors, but early testing suggests that the Sundermann model betters it by leaps and bounds.

The Electric Energy Society Australia held a seminar on tidal power at Monash University earlier this year, which heard that Atlantis’s Nereus turbine is computer-operated and, along with all requisite infrastructure, costs around $800,000 to manufacture. The Sundermann turbine, on the other hand, costs only $60,000, and engineers anticipate that its output will be able to match that of the Nereus model.

But Sundermann says they don’t have the money for the same publicity, and without government backing, it is proving a long and drawn-out process just to test a prototype. "We thought it would be months ago," he says. "We keep having to put it off and put it off."

In spite of it all, he remains determined to see the turbine put into action. He is already looking into specific applications for the turbines where its particular advantages will be most valuable.

Sundermann Water Power’s initial target markets will be isolated communities in Australia, and in developing countries which lack cheap and reliable power. In Australia, they have already had interest from representatives of the remote Indigenous communities in the north west of Western Australia. As enormous amounts of diesel have to be freighted 200 kilometres from Broome every three months, even with some government subsidy, certain communities are paying up to 62 cents per kilowatt more than everyone else.

A representative from the Kimberly Enterprises Aboriginal Corporation, Victor Hunter, says he is seeking a sustainable alternative which the community could part-own, and at this point, the turbine seems to fit all his criteria.

Some of these sites northwest of Broome, like One-Arm Point, have excellent tidal-flows of up to 18–20 knots, which would allow the turbine to generate at least 100 kilowatts. At this efficiency, compared to what they’re currently paying for diesel power, the turbine would benefit the communities by achieving considerable savings, as well as by providing a reliable and greener source of energy.

Sundermann is far from alone in losing patience with government on this issue. Australia’s six leading climate scientists, following the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, have said that while they would normally refrain from proposing policy, the direction we continue to take in this country is "so clearly at odds with the scientific evidence. We are at a key point in history and failure to act decisively now will have severe ramifications for generations to come."

In the meantime, the manufacturing company hired by Sundermann to build the turbine will soon be busy on a project for a different client — fabricating machinery for one of the big coal companies.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.