New Zealand economic development, 1970s

The previous post outlines the background to my first job. The New Zealand government decided it had to do something about developing the economy, and I was hired by the national chemistry laboratory to find a use for lignin, since New Zealand had a lot of timber approaching harvest. Needless to say, I failed. There is now a saying, you can make anything you like from lignin, except money! I am not alone in that failure. In fact I did not stay with it very long because all the country’s troubles were exacerbated in the early 1970s with the first oil crisis. This hit new Zealand very hard because there was even some doubt as to whether we could get any oil, even if we paid enough for it. The government requested their science department to give options of what to do, and I was given the task of finding as much as I could about bioethanol ASAP. (Others were given similar tasks on different energy sources.) I presented my summary in about a week, plus typing and editing time. (No computers then!)  How had I done that so fast? My reasoning was, someone must have had this problem during the war, so I went back into the departmental files, and found all the details of farming practices, costs, processing costs, etc. All I had to do was to update the costs.

The net result of that was that the government knew enough to make ethanol if it wanted to, and it knew what the costs would be, subject to a small uncertainty due to different inflationary effects in different sectors. To the best of my knowledge, very little, if any, bioethanol was made.

This government knee-jerk reaction got nowhere in one sense. The problem was, the government had set up similar quests elsewhere, and the experienced bureaucrats beat the scientists all the time. They set up panels, committees, got large amounts of funding, and then commissioned all sorts of reports. What is interesting about this is that when the energy crisis died down, there must have been hundreds of cubic meters of reports somewhere, and when the next energy crisis came along about 30 years later, these reports were forgotten. Sound familiar?

However, in the 1970s, quite a bit was done on alternative fuels. There were cars running on compressed natural gas (the cylinders taking up most of the boot space on small cars), liquefied natural gas, and methanol/petrol blends. Service stations became interesting puzzles: where did you go in an unfamiliar service station to get what you wanted? The lasting lesson, however, was that once the oil crisis died down, the supply of these alternatives began to die. When that happened, you had to reverse the significant changes to your car. The better strategy, and one I followed, was to stick to petrol and pay the increased price. Also, in some cases, such as with methanol blends, the necessary information remained dispersed across so many reports. Nobody correlated everything, so the chances are, much of what was learned has been forgotten.


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