The festival of lights

The boy was slowly walking up the dirt road, following a lonely power line. The sun hasn’t even really risen yet. He thought about the little block of chocolate his mother had bribed him with to get up so early. Not the carob stuff Miss Holland made but the real stuff that was made with rare cocoa that she got from somewhere. He didn’t really want to go but his mom said that he would find it really interesting and that Ms. Lee would give him good marks. As he walked over a low ridge he was able to see the chain link fence and a figure leaning against the post of the open gate. There was no turning back now.

“Are you Michael Robertson?” asked the old man in a voice that sounded like it wasn’t being used that much anymore. Michael tried to say yes but his voice faltered. “Yes, that’s me,” he got out the second time. “Come follow me, there is something I want to show you,” the old man said. He led Michael through the sea of mirrors to the central spire that dominated the area around it. They slowly made their way up the steel staircase that encircled the tower. Michael wondered how high he was off the ground. He was never afraid of heights, but this was different to climbing a tree. He stayed as close to the side of the structure as possible.
After a few minutes they reached the top. Michael was a bit out of breath and tried not to show it. The old man was fit for somebody with so much grey hair.
At the top of the stairs there was a wraparound deck that allowed you to see all the way back to town.
Michael walked around the tower taking in the view.

Marco, “the Sparky”, was known in town as a recluse but people were keenly aware that he kept the power running somehow while most other places had given up on electricity. The old man was leaning against the railing looking at the sea of mirrors.

“It looks like a heart from up in the sky, if you flew in a plane you would see that. I turned the mirrors down so you could see the view. If I didn’t we would be blind by now.”
Michael’s mom had said he might need to guide the conversation and that old people tended to ramble when they reminisced.
“Sir, for my report I need to write about a job from the past, a job that no longer exists.”
“Yes, yes, I know that”, said the old man. “I was just telling you that not everybody gets to stand here during the day. It’s a privilege. Come let me show you what everything is.”
“So this tower is where all the mirrors, or heliostats, aim the sunlight. The sunlight turns water into steam that we use to spin a turbine. The turbine then spins a generator and that then generates electricity.”
Michael nodded not sure if he could ask questions.
The old man continued: “Now our system uses water which means that when the sun goes down the power stops after a while but other places also used to melt salt and store it to do the same thing. That gave you a bit more storage after sundown.”
“How hot does it have to get to melt salt?”, Michael asked after his curiosity got the better of him.
“I don’t know off the top of my head but it is around 800°C. This tower here can reach 650 on a clear day. Let’s get down so that I can get the turbine going,” said the man as he led the way down the stairs.

In the control room Michael was staring out of a cracked window in the direction of the tower. He heard a few button presses behind him and then a slight hum. In front of him hundreds of blocks of light started moving their way towards a central point on the tall tower. Suddenly the tower was glowing as brightly as the sun and he had to look away. He turned to the old man who smiled. “It’s bloody bright. When they built this place the glass use to darken by itself if it got too bright but like most things it broke and nobody could fix it.”
He walked to a little table with an old electric kettle on it. “Your name is Michael isn’t it? Your teacher’s letter spoke very highly of you. Sit, let me make us some tea then you can ask your questions.”

Michael took out his pencil and paper and prepared to take notes. He sharpened his pencil. “Sir, I was hoping you could start by telling me about this place and how it was built?”
The old man looked at him. “Call me Marco, kids are scared enough of me without them having to use titles for me.”
He sat down and handed Michael his tea in a chipped mug with a faded logo on it.
“Well, about 40 years ago the debt collectors came to the door of our nation. Fossil fuel depletion and the climate crises were here to call in the debts made to Mother Nature. Here in Victoria we were used to heat waves. There was usually one, maybe two, a year but in 2021 we crowned the king. It went above 47°C for ten days and above 50°C for two. We lost many old people during those two weeks. By that time it had also become more common for the power to black out during the summer. They always made a reasonable excuse like a fire in a coal yard somewhere unseen or the heat causing some issue with the transmission lines but during that heat wave the power outage was a death sentence to anybody who relied on air conditioning. After the twelve day heat wave and a four day power outage the government’s ability to deny that we were in trouble had evaporated like most of the water in the state. I was just glad we had the desalination plant. I heard horror stories of other poorer countries where people killed each other over access to water.”
“Politically things changed faster than I thought possible. The prime minister was ousted or stepped down, I can’t remember exactly. People were suddenly clamouring for somebody with some environmental sense to save them. I knew at this point that it was too little and too late. Which just goes to show you how wrong you can be when you underestimate people who are committed and convinced of an ideal. I knew this new regime wasn’t just symbolic when they closed the Hazelwood power station over night. Hazelwood was one the biggest and most polluting old coal power stations in the first world at that time. And in Victoria the only coal was brown coal, the dirtiest coal. But the government closed the station and people were willing to pay the price for the closure in dollars and reduced usage. Granted the government’s actions were late but they were not little. The federal government marshalled the whole country to take part in a program to switch over to renewable energy as soon as possible. They gave tax incentives to people who invested their pension funds in the program and this unlocked the capital to get many things done quickly. Australia didn’t really have the skills or industry to construct wind turbines on a large scale but we had plenty of sunlight and a defunct car manufacturing industry that was salvaged to construct CSP’s, concentrated solar thermal power plants. This plant along with most of the others in the country were built during the mad scramble at the end of the renewable energy build program. By then imports were becoming harder to come by and even more costly and the government had also started bending certain laws and patent rules. This installation is based on a Spanish design that we adapted to be more robust and easier to manufacture and maintain. The tradeoff was made for power quality and reliability. Even though it was easier to maintain all the mechanisms and electronics they still had to be maintained frequently. The occasional hiccups caused by our modified generator design caused a gradual killing off of weaker electrical items as well as the occasional power outage but people were more than happy to put up with the problems as long as it meant that the energy was “clean” and that the other countries couldn’t fine us anymore for our contribution to climate change.”
Michael had found that he had stopped making notes and was just listening. He had heard some of these stories before, but his mother was really young when all of these things took place and she didn’t really know all the details. “So this,” he scanned his notes quickly, “generator makes electrical things go hubbo?”
Marco laughed. “You know where that term comes from?”. Michael shook his head.
“A few years after the 2021 heat wave the petrol price hit $4 liter and I knew we were in trouble. I had followed peak oil and believed in it on an intellectual level but it really sank in when I started having to make choices I had never made before. Choices like a hot shower or a hot meal, I couldn’t afford the gas for both anymore. I wasn’t the only one having a hard time. $4 per liter petrol must have been a mental barrier for most people and after that barrier was broken people lost it. That winter protests broke out all over Australia. People were upset over prices, everything was expensive, food, fuel, gas and electricity. The thing that made people livid was the fact that we as a country were selling our natural gas to other countries while Australians had to endure cold water and cooking with wood because gas on the international market was climbing higher and higher and people in colder places were more willing and desperate to pay to get it. But I knew peak oil was being accepted by the mainstream when the term ‘hubbo’ became common place. Australians like to make language their own and this included the mention of Marion King Hubbert and his peak oil theory. After a few mentions in the media the term ‘hubbo’ came to describe anything that was declining, going down hill, breaking, broken or diminishing.”
“To answer your original question, no, this place doesn’t make every electrical thing go hubbo, just the more sensitive things. Things that were designed for a different time when electricity was limitless and faultless.”

Michael smiled at this word origin story. “So what is your job exactly?”, he asked. He looked out the window at some of the mirrors that were pointing straight up. Like dead fish in a pond. “It seems a few of your mirrors have gone hubbo.”
The old man shifted his chair so that his legs were in the path of the sun that was starting to creep through the window.
“You’re a clever kid. Yeah, about a third of our heliostats are beyond repair. Heliostat is the proper name for these mirrors that track the sun through the sky. My job, when I started, was just to oversee the operation and running of the facility. I had about six other people helping me at the beginning but as the going got tougher they all moved away or looked for easier work. I used to just make sure that things were working and that spare parts were ordered and installed. At the beginning spare parts were easy to come by as long as you got your order in early and you were willing to wait. Sadly luck dealt us a double blow with the parts. We had a big fire in one of the main gear stamping factories and we never really had the capacity for large scale electronics manufacturing. They were able to rebuild the factory somewhat but the Chinese wanted sole access to our gas and the government could not afford that so it was almost impossible to get the circuits we needed from them. I was able to make due with the parts I had on hand for a while but at some point I had to start thinning the herd – so to speak. You see the heliostats need to follow the sun and their tracking mechanism is usually the first to go. These units only had stamped metal and rough castings for gearboxes and did not last forever. The electronics that made it work was also very finicky and were meant to be replaced after a decade. Mechanically I was able to keep things going for longer because your uncle Tony has that machine shop in his shed and he has helped me fix some of the smaller parts for a long time but sadly I don’t have the means to fix the main gear once it runs into trouble.
When I was much younger I learned a skill called ‘circuit grafting’ from a guy I worked with. Basically you graft a working piece of a circuit board into a broken section of another circuit board. This technique has allowed me to keep much of the trackers’ electronics working for much longer than in other places. So in a way every part that goes hubbo gives life to something else. These days my list of donors grows smaller as the list of needy recipients grows.
So I guess these days I am more of a caretaker looking after a fleet of ageing machines from a bygone era.”

Michael was saddened to learn that heliostats were busy dying out like some of the animals he learned about in school. “I though a sparky could fix anything.”
Marco looked up. “A sparky used to describe a person who worked as an electrician but as people had to get used to living with less it came to describe anybody who could decipher and work with the magic of electricity. As an electrical engineer I was more skilled in this magic than most but I can only work within a system that supplies me with materials and knowledge and tools. Sadly, we sparky’s can’t fix everything. ”

Michael sat in silence for a while. Trying to imagine what things must have been like when they were getting better not just going hubbo all the time. He glanced over his notes and decided that he had enough material to write his report. He thanked Marco, said goodbye and made his way home. Marco watched the boy walk down the road from the door of the operations centre. He suddenly felt very old. Maybe it is time he took on an apprentice he thought?

—-

Michael was standing on the tower just after dusk. He watched the few remaining heliostats rotate into position, ready to catch the dawn in the morning. He made sure that valves leading to and from the concentrator had locked correctly and then climbed down again. Marco had died about three years ago from a bad flu that swept the town that winter. Old people never seemed to bounce back from illnesses anymore. Michael had spoken at his funeral and made sure the town understood how much the man had done for them and how he worked tirelessly to allow them to keep enjoying electricity, a luxury from another age. Thankfully he had learned most of what he needed to know to run the facility from the old sparky before he passed away. He had also spoken to the mayor about voluntarily taking some of the heliostats offline as spares to make them last longer. This meant that even less electricity would be available to the townspeople. He had discussed it with the mayor and one of the things they would no longer be able to do was charge the circuits to run the streetlights for that precious hour or so after dusk. He knew that Marco would never have agreed to this. Seeing the glow of the town for a few hours after dusk always made him smile a tiny bit. Unfortunately the electricity and the heliostats creating it could be better used for other more important things. And Michael knew on a more basic level what the extinctions of the heliostats meant. He had discussed the preservation of the heliostats with the mayor and had her agreement. The town was throwing a big party in honour of the last performance of the town streetlights.

Michael set the timer on the load shedding module in the control room and then left to attend the festival.

He was lying on his back looking at the insects swarming around the lights of the park when the power cut out. A part of him felt saddened, like something he couldn’t quite put his finger on had gone, something more than just the streetlights. A sudden insight gripped him. How similar we are to moths. We couldn’t really help ourselves when the glow of perceived progress was lit by fossil fuels and we couldn’t help but migrate to be in it’s light. Around him people were slowly lighting candles and the flickering of fires became more apparent as his eyes adjusted. We had come this far, surely we could adapt again. He fell asleep thinking about chocolate.