The Future History of Adelaide: Energy

Sharon Ede
10 min readJan 3, 2020

This ‘future history’ of Adelaide was based on ‘Los Angeles: A History of the Future’ (1982) by Paul Glover, and is written from the year 2136. It examines how Adelaide became an ‘ecopolis’ — an ecological city — over 150 years, reversing the damage done to the region since European colonisation began in 1836. At the time, there was a proposal for a ‘piece of ecocity’ in Halifax Street, whose features and design principles are referenced as the first fractal of this change. This larger scale proposal did not eventuate, but a smaller scale exemplar, Christie Walk, can be found in the CBD at 105 Sturt Street, Adelaide.

This was written in 1995 at university, as a directed study for history, and reflects my thinking, understanding, available technologies and references at the time. The Ecological Crisis of the 1990s is referred to as ‘EC’ and phrases like ‘200 years EC’ mean 200 years after this Crisis.

Adelaide by night, photograph by Greg Scales, via Wikipedia


The energy technologies of the Kaurna were predominantly fire and human endeavour. They had no use for, nor the means to access, fossil fuel energy — it was simply not considered an energy resource because the Kaurna had no machines which required the burning of fossil fuels.

The early settlers were almost completely dependent on wood for heat and light. The use of candles and lanterns, which utilised vegetable oil and sperm whales’ oil, became widespread. It was not until commercial oil imports began in 1863 that animal and vegetable oils were replaced (Dept Mines & Energy, 1989 p1).

Fuelled By Fossils

South Australia was not very well endowed with fossil fuel energy resources, as local coal and oil supplies were scarce, relative to other energy-intensive cities.

The South Australian Gas Company was formed in 1861, and the first gas was produced at Brompton in 1863, followed by plants at Port Adelaide, and Glenelg (ABS, 1995 p276). In 1866, Adelaide was lit by gas lamps for the first time. However this gas production relied on coal supplies from NSW. It was not until 1963 that major natural gas fields were discovered at Gidgealpa, with the Moomba field discovered in 1966. Adelaide’s supply of natural gas was first discovered and utilised from the Cooper Basin in 1969 (Dept Mines & Energy, 1989 p2; ABS, 1995 p277).

The first systematic production of electricity began in SA in 1895, and the first power station was established at Port Adelaide in 1899 (Dept Mines & Energy, 1989 pp7–8). In 1946, under the Playford government, the Adelaide Electricity Supply Company’s assets were vested in the Electricity Trust of South Australia, ETSA (Dept Mines & Energy, 1989 pp7–8). The state was reliant on supplies of NSW coal, as SA was short of the coal sources needed to power an industrial and electrical society. This was made obvious during the Second World War when munitions industries began to consume much of the available power.

The search began for a local source of coal, but by the time EC hit, there was only one open cut coal mine at Leigh Creek, 550 km north of Adelaide (Dept Mines & Energy, 1989 pp7–8; ABS, 1995 p273). Torrens Island power station opened in 1967, and was generating 1,280 megawatts at the height of EC (Dept of Mines & Energy, 1989 pp7–8; ABS, 1995 p275). The main source of electrical energy in Adelaide during EC, ironically, was gas which comprised roughly half of ETSA’s generation capacity through Torrens Island (ABS, 1995 p275). This was a very indirect and inefficient means of generating electricity, as the gas — which could have otherwise been used directly in a number of appliances — was burned to create steam to drive a turbine to produce electricity for heating, cooking etc.

The search for local oil reserves began in the 1890s, and was stimulated with the Mining (Petroleum) Act of 1940. The South Australian Northern Territory Oil Search Company (SANTOS) was formed in 1954 to these ends (Dept Mines & Energy, 1989 p2). But South Australia mainly relied on external sources of oil and petroleum. Other sources of fossil fuel energy, such as Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), were increasingly used by EC times.

As a result of the oil crisis of the early 1970s, the Dunstan government established the State Energy Research Advisory Council (SENRAC) to look into South Australia’s energy dependency and examine options to allow the state to move towards self-sufficiency in energy (O’Neill in Parkin & Patience, 1992 p181). But by the 1980s under the Bannon government, South Australia agreed to be linked with Victoria and New South Wales into an interdependent electricity grid, extending from Tweed Heads in NSW to Ceduna in SA (O’Neill in Parkin & Patience, 1992 p190).

Urban Demands, Global Crisis

In Adelaide during EC — along with all other developed cities and towns — energy needs were almost completely supplied by burning fossil fuels, namely coal, oil and gas. Fossil fuel deposits were formed millennia ago, and are in fact carbon stores of long dead plants and animals.

During the Industrial Revolution, people discovered that by burning these fuels, we were able to drive engines and machines. The energy base on which much of human society then developed up until EC was created by natural processes over millions of years. The Industrial Revolution resulted in humanity not only extracting a resource which in human terms was irreplaceable and therefore priceless, but caused the alteration of the earth’s atmosphere. Burning fossil fuels released the carbon dioxide (CO2) which had been locked into coal/oil/gas for millions of years. CO2 is the ‘scientific’ name for the gas we exhale when breathing. It is recycled into the oxygen we need to breathe by trees and other plant life. But because we steadily burnt carbon based fuels for well over two centuries, CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere rose 30% so that by EC times, CO2 constituted only 0.03% of the atmosphere but contributed to over 50% of global warming (Myers, 1985 p116; Gribbin & Gribbin, 1992 p41).

Many people thought this talk of global warming, rising seas and wild weather patterns was just scaremongering, but what they failed to understand was that seemingly minor changes in the composition of the earth’s atmosphere could result in drastic consequences. After all, a drop of only a few degrees in the earth’s temperature was the cause of Ice Ages (Gribbin & Gribbin,1992 pp19–23). The boiling frog syndrome was alive and well. We had to reduce our energy consumption and find different ways to produce energy.

Cooling Down

The first step taken in the quest to address energy issues was to reduce energy demand. Developing energy efficient appliances and products helped the cause, but it was through changing the way cities were designed and built that the greatest reductions in energy requirements were made.

Building materials and methods used in development began to reflect low-energy priorities. Materials were reused and recycled wherever possible, with preference for new materials going to the least energy-intensive (in manufacturing) products. Engineering methods were also costed in terms of energy efficiency.

Architectural processes began to reflect a commitment to low-energy techniques. Buildings aligned north-south maximised natural cooling systems which required no energy generation (this method, of course, operated differently in different places and climates). As a result of warm air rising on the heated side of the buildings, cool air could be drawn through buildings from the shaded sides.

There was a greater emphasis on public transport, the bicycle and the pedestrian as alternatives to the energy-intensive private car. Integration of all transport methods provided a more attractive, energy-efficient and less polluting alternative to the car. Ultimately, as the city form reshaped into higher density regional centres, people’s need to travel at all was dramatically reduced.

The type of energy sources used in EC society also had to change, as not only were fossil fuels polluting and a major contributor to global warming, but they were a finite resource. They would eventually run out. The sprawling, car-dependent, electrical & computerised Adelaide of EC times was a product of cheap, fossil fuel energy, without which the city would have ground to a halt — Adelaide was a fossil fuel junkie. Renewable sources of energy had to become the energy base of a post-EC society.

Renewable Energy Sources

Renewable energy is energy harnessed from natural forces: the sun, wind, water, heat. The following outlines some options for renewable energy resources which were being experimented with, researched and developed before and during EC:

Geothermal: This type of energy is harnessed by tapping the heat from below the Earth’s surface, where the temperature increases with depth. The steam produced by hot water from underground aquifers can be used to drive turbines. This type of energy is best suited to certain geological conditions and geographic locations, such as New Zealand.

Hydropower: The movement of water — the tidal power of the sea, or the current flow of rivers — can be used as a source of energy. However, our technology allows only a fraction of the might of the oceans to be harnessed for energy, and damming of rivers can cause adverse effects for local ecosystems. Hydrogen energy is created by electrolysis, and when burnt produces water and oxygen — and therefore no pollution.

Wind Power: Wind turbines and farms have a high capital cost — and there are the aesthetics to consider — but they provide clean, renewable energy. The surface area of wind farms depends on the amount of energy required, and they are often not suitable for inner city areas.

Biomass: The gas produced from decomposing organic matter known as methane can be harnessed as a fuel. Biomass energy is doubly effective, as methane is another prominent greenhouse gas. This type of energy was being tapped in Adelaide during EC. Gas from landfill dumps at Wingfield, Tea Tree Gully, Garden Island, Highbury, Pedler’s Creek and Lynton were generating 28 megawatts of electricity per day, enough to power 12,000 houses (Rush, 1994).

But ultimately all energy, with perhaps the exception of geothermal energy, is sourced from the thermonuclear reactor we call the sun.

Solar Power — Nuclear Energy From The Sun

There are three forms of solar energy (Dept Mines & Energy, 1988 p3):

Solar atmospheric — this energy is captured through the earth’s thermodynamic processes ie. hot air rises, cool air sinks. As the sun is what powers the hydrological cycle and causes differences in air pressure which make the wind blow, hydroelectricity and wind power are derivations of solar energy.

Solar biological — this energy is captured chemically through photosynthesis of plants and animals ie. the sun’s energy fuels the growth of plants and animals (human beings — and other animals — gain energy through eating these). Fossil fuel energy, human power and biomass are forms of this energy.

Solar radiant — capturing solar energy through non-biological processes. Solar thermal energy involves heating a black liquid to hundreds of degrees and creating steam to drive turbines, while photovoltaic energy uses the sun on silicon based cells to directly generate electricity. Solar power is clean, unlimited — and as the EC Solar Car Challenges demonstrated — an efficient competitor for fossil fuel energy.

During EC, it was recognised that South Australia is ideally placed to take advantage of solar energy.

There was a daily average of 10 hours sunshine in January, and a daily average of 4.5 hours sunshine in June. Over an average year, this amounted to 6.9 hours of sunshine per day (ABS, 1995 p12). It is a source of amazement to us today that despite this abundant energy source, Adelaide was powered almost entirely by fossil fuels!

Fossil Fuel Economy to Solar Economy

The Halifax EcoCity Project, constructed in Adelaide during EC, was the first example of a piece of city making which dealt with energy issues of the late 20th century in a comprehensive way.

The EcoCity made a conscious effort to reduce energy consumption by bringing people back into the city, where all the facilities and benefits of living in the city were readily accessible with a minimum of travel required. The EcoCity’s climate responsive basis included passive solar design in order to harness convective energy by creating cool spaces on the southern, shady sides and warm spaces on north facing sunny areas. Building materials like rammed earth walls were able to store and reradiate heat because of their sheer mass (400mm thick).

Solar energy was generated via solar photovoltaic panels. This system of energy generation gained further points in the efficiency stakes because unlike fossil fuel energy, it was generated on site. The nearer the source of energy generation to the point of use, the less energy is lost and the more efficient the system is. Following other EC examples in Queensland and Victoria, this local energy generation system was ‘plugged into’ the mains grid, allowing the use of — but not dependence on — existing infrastructure. At times when the energy yield was high, surplus electricity was sold to ETSA. At times of low yield, the electricity was repurchased. This arrangement allowed the EcoCity to operate with an optimum level of power, without the need for storing it in lead acid batteries.

Most importantly, the EcoCity demonstrated that it was possible to switch from an economy based on finite, polluting, global warming fossil fuel energy to an economy based on the clean, unlimited energy already available in the form of solar energy.


Australian Bureau of Statistics (1995) South Australian Yearbook, 1995. Government Printer, Adelaide.

Department of Mines & Energy (1988) ‘Renewable energy sources — solar energy’. South Australian Energy Resources: Fact Sheet 7. Energy Information Centre, Adelaide.

Department of Mines &Energy (1989) ‘History of development’. South Australian Energy Resources: Fact Sheet 2. Energy Information Centre, Adelaide.

Gribbin, Mary & Gribbin, John (1992) Too Hot To Handle. Corgi Books, London.

Myers, Norman (Gen Ed) (1985) The Gaia Atlas of Planetary Management. Pan/Gaia Books, London.

Parkin, Andrew & Patience, Allan (Eds) (1992) The Bannon Decade: The Politics of Restraint in South Australia. Allen & Unwin, St Leonard’s, NSW.

Rush, Ed (1994) ‘Garbage gas to generate power’. The Advertiser, 6/4/94.



Sharon Ede

Regenerative Cities Activist | Circular Economy Catalyst | South Australian Government | Award Winning Author | |