AUSTRALIA - An Energetic Career

By Richard Harth

A gold rush for new energy forms is unfolding halfway around the world. Daniel Magasanik (Ph.D. GT ’63), a 40-year resident of Melbourne, Australia, is in the thick of it. He works in two of the liveliest—and sometimes contentious—domains: natural gas and renewable energy.

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Photo: Katie Dutton

“Over the last 30 years, the energy sector has been a rapidly developing, chaotic, and fascinating area,” he says. “I wanted to focus my efforts here and apply my expertise.”

Magasanik’s interest in energy began during his early schooling at McGill University in Montreal, where he earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering in 1957. After graduation, while working for a petrochemical complex in Louisiana, he accepted a fellowship at IIT’s Institute of Gas Technology. After receiving his doctorate, he taught classes and continued to pursue his interests in conventional energy forms as well as clean energy alternatives—particularly fuel cell technology.

Through a series of unlikely circumstances, Magasanik migrated to Australia in 1969, taking a position with the newly formed Oil and Gas Division of the continent’s largest company (now BHP Petroleum of BHP Billiton). “I left BHP in 1972 but stayed in Australia, where I established a consulting firm focusing on natural gas and electricity,” he says. “More recently, this has included renewable energy sources and their conversion to usable forms.”

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Wind turbines Gale and Gusto of Hepburn Wind, Australia’s first community-owned wind farm
Photo: Katie Dutton

Indeed, McLennan Magasanik Associates was one of Australia’s leading consultancies specializing in the energy industries until it was taken over by a large engineering company in 2010. Magasanik was also the foundation director of the Energy Research and Development Corporation, an organization funded by the Australian government, focusing on energy efficiency and reducing environmental impacts. Currently, he works on a part-time basis for Marsden Jacob Associates, offering policy advice, due diligence, strategic planning, feasibility studies, and project implementation.

As an authority on Australian gas markets, Magasanik has helped to guide gas-fired electricity generation projects for a range of clients in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland, New South Wales, and Tasmania, as well as overseas. One such project involved a detailed empirical analysis, leading to the first onshore development of natural gas on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula.

In Australia, coal still accounts for nearly 80 percent of the country’s electricity generation. “We have very high-quality and cheap-to-mine coal—very low in sulfur and reasonably low in ash,” Magasanik says. This, combined with high-energy consumption for transportation, has made the country the highest per capita emitter of carbon dioxide among developed countries.

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Photo: Katie Dutton

Australia’s mammoth reserves of natural gas—among the largest in the world—have been touted as a means to help wean the country from its coal addiction, as well as a potential boon for the domestic economy.

As Magasanik notes, however, Australia’s efforts to supplant coal use with natural gas have recently run aground. While an aggressive effort is underway to exploit reserves of coal-seam gas and shale gas—mostly in the eastern part of Australia—the majority of this resource is being exported for sale as liquefied natural gas to the highest bidder. The net effect has been to increase domestic natural gas prices, making gas less economically competitive than coal for electricity generation.

With coal yielding roughly twice the carbon dioxide per unit of electricity generated when compared with natural gas, this development is not good news for environmental efforts to reduce coal use. Magasanik hopes that at least some of this coal will be offset by rapidly growing renewable energy forms. His biggest contribution to clean energy development is through Hepburn Wind, Australia’s first community-owned wind farm, located in Victoria, near the Wombat State Forest.

Local residents, frustrated with government inertia on climate change, decided to take their own initiative and launched the ambitious clean-energy project in 2007, with generation commencing in June 2012. Magasanik currently serves on the board of Hepburn Wind, which features a pair of 2.05 megawatt high-tech wind turbines. The turbines, capable of powering more than 2,000 homes in the surrounding area, were affectionately dubbed Gale and Gusto by a youngster who won a naming competition among community schoolchildren.

The naming contest is an example of the cooperative spirit of the project, which has benefitted from enthusiastic public engagement since the outset. “We raised almost $10 million from cooperative members, of which there are around 2,000,” Magasanik says. “Our borrowings are under $2 million and in addition we received grants of almost $2 million from the state government.”

In addition to electricity, area participants benefit from a generous community sustainability fund, which has provided grants for a broad range of projects to nourish the local area. These include investigations of novel species in the nearby Wombat State Forest and investment in Men’s Sheds, a flourishing countrywide program designed to improve health and foster social interaction.

Hepburn Wind’s modest farm is expected to offset some 12,200 tons of carbon dioxide—the equivalent of planting 45,523 trees every year. The project has inspired green initiatives for wind, solar, bioenergy, and mini-hydro projects across Australia.

“We are the successful example of what can be done,” Magasanik says.