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more about ozone, and the earth’s greatest extinction event

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the Siberian Traps are layers of flood basalt covering an area of 2 million square kilometres

Ozone, or trioxygen (O3), an unstable molecule which is regularly produced and destroyed by the action of sunlight on O2, is a vital feature in our atmosphere. It protects life on earth from the harmful effects of too much UV radiation, which can contribute to skin cancers in humans, and genetic abnormalities in plant life. In a previous post I wrote about the discovery of the ozone shield, and the hole above Antarctica, which we seem to be reducing – a credit to human global co-operation. In this post I’m going to try and get my head around whether or not ozone depletion played a role in the so-called end-Permian extinction of some 250 mya. 

I first read of this theory in David Beerling’s 2009 book The emerald planet, but recent research appears to have backed up Beerling’s scientific speculations – though speculation is too weak a word. Beerling is a world-renowned geobiologist and expert on historical global climate change. He’s also a historian of science, and in ‘An ancient ozone catastrophe?’, chapter 4 of The emerald planet, he describes the discovery and understanding of ozone through the research of Robert Strutt, Christian Schönbein, Marie Alfred Cornu, Walter Hartley, George Dobson, Sidney Chapman and Paul Crutzen, among others. He goes on to describe the ozone hole discovery in the 70s and 80s, before focusing on research into the possible effects of previous events – the Tunguska asteroid strike of 1908, the Mount Pinatubo eruption of 1991 and others – on atmospheric ozone levels, and then homes in on the greatest extinction event in the history of our planet – the end-Permian mass extinction, ‘the Great Dying’, which wiped out some 95% of all species then existing.

According to Beerling, it was an international team of palaeontologists led by Henk Visscher at the University of Utrecht who first made the claim that stratospheric ozone had substantially reduced in the end-Permian. They hypothesised that, due to the greatest volcanic eruptions in Earth history, which created the Siberian Traps (layers of solidified basalt covering a huge area of northern Russia), huge deposits of coal and salt, the largest on Earth, were disrupted:


The widespread heating of these sediments and the action of hot groundwater dissolving the ancient salts, was a subterranean pressure cooker synthesising a class of halogenated compounds called organohalogens, reactive chemicals that can participate in ozone destruction. And in less than half a million years, this chemical reactor is envisaged to have synthesised and churned out sufficiently large amounts of organohalogens to damage the ozone layer worldwide to create an intense increased flux of UV radiation.

However, Beerling questions this hypothesis and considers that it may have been the eruptions themselves, which lasted 2 million years and occurred at the Permian-Triassic boundary 250-252 mya, rather than their impact on salt deposits, that did the damage. There’s evidence that many of the eruptions originated from as deep as 10 kilometres below the surface, injected explosively enough to reach the stratosphere, and that these plumes contained substantial amounts of chlorine. 

More recent research, published this year, has further substantiated Visscher’s team’s finding regarding genetic mutations in ancient conifers and lycopsids, and their probable connection with UV radiation enabled by ozone destruction. The mutations were global and dated to the same period. Laboratory experiments exposing related modern plants to bursts of UV radiation have produced more or less identical spore mutations.

The exact chain of events linking the eruptions to the ozone destruction have yet to be worked out, and naturally there’s a lot of scientific argy-bargy going on, but the whole story, even considering that it occurred so far in the past is a reminder of the fragility of that part of our planet that most concerns us – the biosphere. The eruptions clearly altered atmospheric chemistry and temperature. Isotopic measurements of oxygen in sea water suggest that equatorial waters reached more than 40°C. As can be imagined, this had killer effects on multiple species. 

So, we’re continuing to gain knowledge on the ozone shield and its importance, and fragility. I don’t know that there are too many ozone hole skeptics around (I don’t want to look too hard), but if we could only get the same kind of apparent near-unanimity with regard to anthropogenic global warming, that would be great progress. 

Written by stewart henderson

October 10, 2018 at 3:15 pm

the battle for and against electric vehicles in Australia, among other things

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Toyota Camry hybrid – hybrids are way outselling pure EVs here, probably due to range anxiety and lack of infrastructure and other support

I’ve probably not been paying sufficient attention, but I’ve just learned that the Federal Energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, is advocating, against the naysayers, for government support to the EV industry. An article today (Jan 22) in The Australian has Frydenberg waxing lyrical about the future of EVs, as possibly being to the transport sector ‘what the iPhone has been to the communication sector’. It’s a battle the future-believers will obviously win. A spokesman for the naysayers, federal Liberal Party MP and AGW-denier Craig Kelly, was just on the gogglebox, mocking the idea of an EV plant in Elizabeth here in South Australia (the town I grew up in), sited in the recently abandoned GM Holden plant. His brilliantly incisive view was that since Holdens failed, a future EV plant was sure to fail too. In other words, Australians weren’t up to making cars, improving their practice, learning from international developments and so forth. Not exactly an Elon Musk attitude.

The electric vehicles for Elizabeth idea is being mooted by the British billionaire Sanjeev Gupta, the ‘man of steel’ with big ideas for Whyalla’s steelworks. Gupta has apparently become something of a specialist in corporates rescues, and he has plans for one of the biggest renewables plants in Australia – solar and storage – at Whyalla. His electric vehicle plans are obviously very preliminary at this stage.

Critics are arguing that EVs are no greener than conventional vehicles. Clearly their arguments are based on the dirty coal that currently produces most of the electricity in the Eastern states. Of course this is a problem, but of course there is a solution, which is gradually being implemented. Kiata wind farm in Western Victoria is one of many small-to medium-scale projects popping up in the Eastern states. Victoria’s Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change (an impressive mouthful) Lily D’Ambrosio says ‘we’re making Victoria the national leader in renewable energy’. Them’s fightin words to we South Aussies, but we’re not too worried, we’re way ahead at the moment. So clearly the EV revolution is going hand in hand with the renewable energy movement, and this will no doubt be reflected in infrastructure for charging EVs, sometimes assisted by governments, sometimes in spite of them.

Meanwhile, on the global scale, corporations are slowly shuffling onto the renewables bandwagon. Renew Economy has posted a press release from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which shows that corporations signed a record volume of power purchase agreements (PPAs) for clean energy in 2017, with the USA shuffling fastest, in spite of, or more likely because of, Trump’s dumbfuckery. The cost-competitiveness of renewables is one of the principal reasons for the uptick, and it looks like 2018 will be another mini-boom year, in spite of obstacles such as reducing or disappearing subsidies, and import tariffs for solar PVs. Anyway, the press release is well worth a read, as it provides a neat sketch of where things are heading in the complex global renewables market.

Getting back to Australia and its sluggish EV market, the naysayers are touting a finding in the Green Vehicle Guide, a federal government website, which suggested that a Tesla powered by a coal-intensive grid emitted more greenhouse gas than a Toyota Corolla. All this is described in a recent SMH article, together with a 2016 report, commissioned by the government, which claimed that cars driven in the Eastern states have a “higher CO2 output than those emitted from the tailpipes of comparative petrol cars”. However, government spokespeople are now admitting that the grid’s emission intensity will continue to fall into the future, and that battery efficiency and EV performance are continuously improving – as is obvious. Still, there’s no sign of subsidies for EVs from this government, or of future penalties for diesel and petrol guzzlers. Meanwhile, the monstrous SUV has become the vehicle of choice for most Australians.

While there are many many honourable exceptions, and so many exciting clean green projects up and running or waiting in the wings, the bulk of Australians aren’t getting the urgency of climate change. CO2 levels are the highest they’ve been in 15 million years (or 3 million, depending on website), and the last two years’ published recordings at Mauna Loa (2015 and 2016) showed increases in atmospheric CO2 of 3PPM for each year, for the first time since recording began in 1960 (when it was under 1PPM). This rate of CO2 growth, apparently increasing – though with variations due largely to ENSO – is phenomenal. There’s always going to be a see-saw in the data, but it’s an ever-rising see-saw. The overall levels of atmospheric CO2 are now well above 400PPM. Climate Central describes these levels as ‘permanent’, as if humans and their effects will be around forever – how short-sighted we all are.

The relationship between atmospheric CO2 and global warming is fiendishly complex, and I’ll try, with no doubt limited success, to tackle it in future posts.

 

Mustn’t forget my update on Trump’s downfall: the Mueller team has very recently interviewed A-G Sessions, who’s been less than honest about his meetings with Russians. Nobody knows what Sessions was asked about in in his lengthy session (haha) with the inquirers, but he’s a key figure when it comes to obstruction of justice as well as conspiracy. Word now is that Trump himself will be questioned within weeks, which could be either the beginning of the end, or just the end. Dare to hope.

 

Written by stewart henderson

January 26, 2018 at 10:26 am

all renewable energy by 2050? Hang on a tick

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Sir David McKay, who died in 2016 of stomach cancer, aged 49. A great loss.

The late Sir David McKay, physicist, engineer, sustainable energy expert, Cambridge professor and Royal Society Fellow, has just become known to me through his 2012 TED talk and a lengthier exposition of the same ideas presented at Harvard. These talks were designed, to ‘cut through some of the greenwash’ and provide a realistic account of what can be done, on both the supply and the demand side, to reduce fossil fuel consumption and transform our energy economy.

As I need to keep saying, I’m far from an expert on this stuff, and I’m always impressed by the ingenious developments in the field and the promise of new technology, in batteries and other storage systems – like the compressed air underwater energy storage system being trialled in Lake Ontario, Toronto. But McKay’s contributions are helping me to think more realistically about the enormity of the problem of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels as well as to think more practically about my own domestic usage and the demand side more generally.

While McKay was no renewable energy sceptic or climate change denier, his ‘arithmetical’ view of the future poured a lot of cold hydro on the rosy idea that we’d be living in an all-renewables-powered biosphere within x decades. So I want to take a closer look at some aspects of what he was saying (he also wrote a highly-regarded book, Sustainable energy – without the hot air, available free online).

I particularly want to look at two forms of renewable energy that he talked about; wind and solar. He also talked at some length about two other energy sources, biofuels and nuclear, but I’ve never been much keen on biofuels, which in any case seem to have been largely taken off the menu in recent years, and nuclear, as McKay admits, has a popularity problem – a massive one here in Australia, unfortunately. What I say here about wind and solar will be gleaned largely fromMackay’s Harvard talk, but I’ve downloaded and plan to read his book in the near future.

Mackay has calculated that the current energy production of wind turbines in windy Britain is about 2.5 watts per square metre, and by multiplying per capita energy consumption by population density, you get power consumed per unit area, which for Britain is about 1.25 watts per square metre. This suggests that to cover the consumption of Britain solely by wind, you’d need an area, on land or sea, half the area of Britain. This is clearly not feasible, though of course nobody in Britain, I hope, was ever expecting to have all their energy needs provided by wind. The situation is vastly different for South Australia, two thirds of which is currently powered by wind. SA has vastly more land than Britain and vastly less people.

Though I’m sure it’s possible to quibble with Mckay’s figures and calculations, what he brings to the issues, I think, is a global, as well as a particular perspective that can be lost when you focus, as I have, on local success. For example, South Australia has been very successful in its deployment of wind power over a short period of time, and it’s easy to get carried away and think, if we can do it, why not state x or country y? But SA is a state with a small population and a very large area, and plenty of wind to capture. This just can’t be replicated in, say, Massachussetts, with more than three times the population, a thirtieth of the area, and little wind.

So McKay wasn’t offering global solutions, nor was he dismissing local ones. He was simply pointing out the complexity of the problem in physical and arithmetical terms of weaning ourselves from fossil fuels, as well as getting us thinking about our personal responsibilities on the demand side. Solar isn’t much of a national solution in Britain, though it could be in Australia, which could be a net exporter of renewables, as Elon Musk has suggested, but to which countries, and how exactly do you export solar energy? You’d need conversion and transmission and bilateral agreements. All of this while fighting entrenched interests and upsetting long-standing arrangements. Having said this, more people are hopping on the renewables bus and it’s almost becoming unfashionable, in most western countries outside of Australia, to be dismissive of them, a noticeable change in the last decade.

So what’s the point of this post? It’s to heed McKay’s advice that we need to recognise the complexity of the problem, to keep all possible reasonable solutions on the table, to become more aware, as individuals, communities and states, of our energy consumption, and to recognise that there’s never going to be a one-type-fits-all fix. Environments and needs vary widely, so we need to find particular solutions and we also need to find ways of joining and mixing those solutions together in effective networks. It all sounds pretty daunting, but the fact is, we’re already moving in the right direction, and there’s much to be positive about. Technology and engineering are international, and those in the business are hunting out solutions across the globe and thinking of harnessing and adapting them to their own region, in the process building communication, sharing information and expertise and raising consciousness about energy supply and consumption. And another positive is the endless innovation that comes with thinking about energy solutions in new ways, like small, cheap solar panels to provide energy in developing regions, backyard or small-scale wind-turbines in suitable locations, processing waste to fuel, new developments in batteries and EVs, and so on. So, while there aren’t major, mind-blowing solutions to our fossil-fuel dependence in the offing, we are making progress, incrementally, and the effects of climate change, as they become more impactful, will no doubt accelerate our progress and innovation. We have no option but to think and act positively.

portable solar panels can be surprisingly useful, and cheap

In a future post I’ll look at the demand side, following McKay and many others. Having just moved house, and sadly leaving solar panels behind, it’s time to find out where my meter is, and check our consumption.

 

On Trump’s downfall: Fire and Fury, the overly-discussed tell-all book about Trump and the White House, is unlikely to affect Trump’s base though it will hopefully toughen the opposition. Trump’s rating remains below 40% and nothing much has happened so far this year. There’s talk of Oprah Winfrey standing for the Presidency in 2020 – please no! – but Trump will be in jail by then and Americans will have lost their appetite for ‘celebrity’ candidates. I’m looking out for Elizabeth Warren.

Written by stewart henderson

January 11, 2018 at 9:03 am

the SA government’s six-point plan for energy security, in the face of a carping Federal government

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South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, right, with SA Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis

The South Australian government has a plan for energy, which you can take a look at here. And if you’re too lazy to click through, I’ll summarise:

  1. Battery storage and renewable technology fund: Now touted as the world’s largest battery, this will be a storage facility for wind and solar energy, and if it works, it will surely be a major breakthrough, global in its implications. The financing of the battery (if we have to pay for it!) will come from a new renewable energy fund.
  2. New state-owned gas power plant: This will be a 250 MW capacity gas powered facility designed initially for emergency use, and treated as a future strategic asset when (and if) greater energy stability is achieved at the national level. In the interim the state government will (try to?) work with transmission and distribution companies to provide 200 MW of extra generation in times of peak demand.
  3. Local powers over the national market: The government will legislate for strong new state powers for its Energy Minister as a last-resort measure to enable action in South Australia’s best interests when in conflict with the national market. In addition, all new electricity-generation projects above 5 MW will be assessed as to their input into the state electricity system and its security.
  4. New generation for more competition: The SA Government will use its own electricity contract (for powering schools, hospitals and government services) to tender for more new power generators, increasing competition in the market and putting downward pressure on prices.
  5. South Australian gas incentives: Government incentives will be given for locally-sourced gas development (we have vast untapped resources in the Cooper Basin apparently) so that we can replace all that dirty brown coal from Victoria.
  6. Energy Security Target: This new target, modelled by Frontier Economics, will be designed to encourage new investments in cleaner energy, to increase competition and put downward pressure on prices. The SA government will continue to advocate for an Emissions Intensity Scheme (EIS), contra the Federal government. It’s expected that the Energy Security Target will morph into an EIS over time – depending largely on supportive national policy. Such a scheme is widely supported by industry and climate science.

It’s an ambitious plan perhaps but it’s definitely a plan, and definitely actionable. The battery storage part is of course generating a lot of energy already, both positive and negative, as pioneering projects tend to do. I’m very much looking forward to December’s unveiling. Interestingly, in this article from April this year, SA Premier Jay Weatherill claimed 90 expressions of interest had been received for building the battery. Looks like they never stood a chance against the mighty Musk. In the same article, Weatherill announced that the expression of interest process had closed for the building of SA’s gas power plant, point two of the six-point plan. Thirty-one companies from around the world have vied for the project, apparently. And as to point three, the new powers legislation was expected to pass through parliament on April 26. Weatherill issued a press release on the legislation in late March. Thanks to parliamentary tracking, I’ve found that the bill – called the Bill to Amend the Emergency Management (Electricity Supply Emergencies) Act – was passed into law by the SA Governor on May 9.

Meanwhile, two regional projects, one in the Riverland and another in the north of SA, are well underway. A private company called Lyon Group is building a $1 billion battery and solar farm at Morgan, and another smaller facility, named Kingfisher, in the north. In this March 30 article by Chris Harmsen, a spokesperson for Lyon Group said the Riverland project, Australia’s largest solar farm, was 100% equity financed (I don’t know what that means – I’ll read this later) and would be under construction within months. It will provide 300MW of storage capacity. The 120 MW Kingfisher project will begin construction in September next year. Then there’s AGL’s 210MW gas-fired power station on Torrens Island, mentioned previously. It’s worth noting that AGL’s Managing Director Andy Vesey spoke of the positive investment climate created by the SA government’s energy plans.

So I think it’s fair to say that in SA we’re putting a lot of energy into energy. Meanwhile, the Federal Energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, never speaks positively about SA’s plans. Presumably this is because SA’s government is on the other side of the political divide. You can’t say anything positive about your political enemies because they might stop being your enemies, and then what would you do? The identity crisis would be intolerable.

I’ve written about macho adversarial systems in politics, law and industrial relations before. Frydenberg, as the Federal Minister, must be well aware of SA’s six-point plan (found with a couple of mouse-clicks), and of the plans and schemes of all the other state governments, otherwise he’d be massively derelict in his duty. Yet he’s pretty well entirely dismissive of the Tesla-Neoen deal, and describes the other SA initiatives, pathetically, as ‘an admission of failure’. It seems almost a rule with the current Feds that you don’t mention renewable, clean energy positively and you don’t mention the SA government’s initiatives in the energy field except negatively. Take for example Frydenberg’s reaction to recent news that the Feds are consulting with the car industry on reducing fuel emissions. He brought up the ‘carbon tax’ debacle (a reference to the former Gillard government’s 2012 carbon pricing scheme, repealed by the Abbott government in 2014), declaring that there would never be another one, as if the attempt to reduce vehicle emissions – carbon emissions – had nothing to do with carbon and its reduction, which was what the carbon pricing scheme was all about. This is the artificiality of adversarial systems – where two parties pretend to be further apart than they really are, so that they can engage in the apparently congenial activity of trading insults and holier-than-thou tirades. It’s so depressing. Frydenberg was at pains to point out that the government’s interest in reducing fuel emissions was purely to benefit family economies. It would’ve taken nothing but a bit of honesty and integrity to also say that reduced emissions would be environmentally beneficial. But this apparently would be a step too far.

In my next post I hope to get my head around battery storage technology, and lithium-ion batteries.

References/links

https://ussromantics.com/2017/07/14/whats-weatherills-plan-for-south-australia-and-why-do-we-have-the-highest-power-prices-in-the-world-oh-and-i-should-mention-elon-musk-here-might-get-me-more-hits/

https://ussromantics.com/2011/06/25/adversarial-approaches-do-we-need-them-or-do-we-need-to-get-over-them/

http://ourenergyplan.sa.gov.au/

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-13/sa-gas-fire-power-station-gains-international-interest/8442578

https://www.premier.sa.gov.au/index.php/jay-weatherill-news-releases/7263-new-legislation-puts-power-back-in-south-australians-hands

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-13/sa-gas-fire-power-station-gains-international-interest/8442578

https://www.parliament.sa.gov.au/Legislation/BillsMotions/SALT/Pages/default.aspx?SaltPageTypeId=2&SaltRecordTypeId=0&SaltRecordId=4096&SaltBillSection=0

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-30/new-solar-project-announced-for-sa-riverland/8400952

http://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/equityfinancing.asp

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_pricing_in_Australia

 

Is wind power prohibitively expensive? Apparently not

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that’s a bloody big blade

Recently I heard retiring WA liberal senator Chris Back being interviewed, mainly on funding for Catholic schools, on ABC’s breakfast program. He was threatening to cross the floor on the Gonski package, but while he was at it he took a swipe at wind power, claiming it was heavily subsidised and not cost effective. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to find the whole interview online, to get his exact words, but as someone interested in renewables, and living in a state where wind power is prominent, I want to look more carefully at this issue.

On googling the question I’ve immediately been hit by link after link arguing that wind power is just too expensive. Is this a right-wing conspiracy? What are the facts? As I went deeper into the links – the second and third pages – I did become suspicious, as attacks on wind power spread to solar power and renewable energy in general. It seems there’s either a genuine backlash or there’s some manipulating going on. In any case it seems very difficult to get reliable, unbiased data one way or another on the cost-effectiveness of this energy source.

Of course, as with solar, I’m always hearing that wind power is getting cheaper. Thoughts off the top of my head: a standard wind farm of I don’t know how many units would be up-front quite expensive, though standardised, ready-tested designs will have brought per unit price down over the years. Maintenance costs, though, would be relatively cheap. And maybe with improved future design they could generate power at higher wind speeds than they do now. They seem to be good for servicing small towns and country regions. How they work with electricity grids is largely a mystery to me. There’s a problem with connecting them to other energy sources, and they’re not reliable enough (because the wind’s not reliable enough) to provide base-load power. I don’t know if there’s any chance of somehow storing excess energy generated. All of these issues would affect cost.

I also wonder, considering all the naysayers, why hard-headed governments, such as the Chinese, are so committed to this form of energy. Also, why has the government of Denmark, a pioneering nation in wind power, backed away from this resource recently, or has it? It’s so hard to find reliable sources on the true economics of wind power. Clearly, subsidies muddy the water, but this is true for all energy sources. It’s probably quixotic to talk about the ‘real cost’ of any of them.

Whatever the cost, businesses around the world are investing big-time in wind and other forms of renewable energy. In the US, after the bumbling boy-king’s highly telegraphed withdrawal from the Paris agreement, some 900 businesses and investors, including many of the country’s largest firms, signed a pledge to the UN that there were still ‘in’. The biggest multinational companies are not only jumping on the bandwagon, they’re fighting to drive it, creating in the process an unstoppable global renewable energy network.

The Economist, an American mag, had this to say in an article only recently:

In America the cost of procuring wind energy directly is almost as cheap as contracting to build a combined-cycle gas power plant, especially when subsidies are included…. In developing countries, such as India and parts of Latin America and the Middle East, unsubsidised prices at solar and wind auctions have fallen to record lows.

Australia’s current government, virtually under siege from its conservative faction, is having a hard time coming to terms with these developments, as Chris Back’s dismissive comments reveal, but the direction in which things are going vis-à-vis energy supply is clear enough. Now it’s very much a matter of gearing our electricity market to face these changes, as soon as possible. Without government support this is unlikely to happen, but our current government is more weakened by factionalism than ever.

Australia is 17th in the world for wind power, with a number of new wind farms becoming operational in the last year or so. South Australia’s push towards wind power in regional areas is well known, and the ACT is also developing wind power in its push towards 100% renewable energy by 2020. Australia’s Clean Energy Council provides this gloss on the wind energy sector which I hope is true:

Technological advances in the sector mean that wind turbines are now larger, more efficient and make use of intelligent technology. Rotor diameters and hub heights have increased to capture more energy per turbine. The maturing technology means that fewer turbines will be needed to produce the same energy, and wind farms will have increasingly sophisticated adaptive capability.

The US Department of Energy website has a factsheet – ‘top 10 things you didn’t know about wind power’, and its second fact is bluntly stated:

2. Wind energy is affordable. Wind prices for power contracts signed in 2015 and levelized wind prices (the price the utility pays to buy power from a wind farm) are as low as 2 cents per kilowatt-hour in some areas of the country. These rock-bottom prices are recorded by the Energy Department’s annual Wind Technologies Market Report.

As The Economist points out, in the article linked to above, Trump’s ignorant attitude to renewables and climate science will barely affect the US business world’s embrace of clean energy technology. I’m not sure how it works, but it seems that the US electricity system is less centralised than ours, so its states are less hampered by the dumbfuckery of its national leaders. If only….

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2017 at 2:11 pm

on the preliminary report into the future of the NEM – part 2

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session-3-impact-on-us-ancillary-services-markets-from-variable-renewable-energy-3-638

Chapter 5 of the report focuses on the challenges to NEM system reliability caused by increasing VRE penetration, and on possible reforms to the system to accommodate these changes. Price signals, bidding, and market cap prices and floors, as well as many other terms dealt with in this chapter, are definitely outside my sphere of knowledge or interest, but I feel duty bound to try and make sense of them. For a useful beginner’s guide to the NEM, check out this ABC site, though it dates from 2010, and it’s fascinating to note how things have changed since then. The AEMO was only established in 2009.

The NEM is an ‘energy-only’ market, rather than a capacity market. An energy-only market is one in which the companies generating energy are paid for the electricity they sell. In a capacity market they would be paid for keeping generation capacity available to cover what might be a fluctuating demand. With an energy-only market, producers would presumably be focused on demand, not wishing to provide more of something they can’t sell when demand is down, as it has been in recent times. However, base load demand, which is intermittent and unpredictable, becomes a particular problem when investment in the kind of generators that provide base load power is low. The report has this to say on the matter:

The NEM relies on price signals (subject to market price caps and floors), performance standards and market information to incentivise the development and retirement of generation infrastructure. When there is sufficient baseload supply, average prices tend to be low, signalling that no new investment in base load generation is needed. When base load supply tightens, average prices increase, signalling that investment in base load generation is needed. Peaking generators respond to similar patterns but look to higher price periods associated with peak demand.

I don’t really understand this, especially the bit about peaking generators, which sounds as if there are separate generators for peak demand, but that can’t be right. In any case, what this chapter tells me is that the economics of electricity generation in a transforming and uncertain market are fiendishly difficult to comprehend and control. The review ends the chapter, and all other chapters, with consultation questions which help concentrate the mind on the issues at stake. These include questions about the NEM’s reliability settings, liquidity in the market for forward contracts to ensure supply for business and commercial enterprises (and the effect of increasing levels of VRE on forward contracts, and how this can be catered for), and other questions about creating or ensuring future investment.

Chapter 6 deals with the problem of the seemingly ever-increasing cost of electricity to the consumer. The chapter divides itself into sections on wholesale costs and retail pricing. It seems Australia no longer experiences low electricity costs by OECD standards. Network investments have recently driven prices up, and further rises are expected due to generator closures, the international price of gas, and constraints on gas supply. Again the report emphasises the role of gas, at least in the interim:

Gas has the potential to smooth the transition to a lower emissions electricity sector. Gas generation provides the synchronous operation that is key to maintaining technical operability with increased renewable generation until new technologies are available and cost-effective. Furthermore, gas is dispatchable when required.

It seems there’s an intergovernmental understanding that reform is desperately needed to develop and incentivise the local gas market. There are many roadblocks to successful reform, which are currently affecting wholesale costs which will lead to higher retail prices.

Some 43% of current residential electricity prices are made up of network charges, mostly for distribution. Many network renovations were necessary to meet revised standards. A 2013 Productivity Commission inquiry criticised ‘inefficiencies in the industry and flaws in the regulatory environment’ in respect of the planning of large transmission investments and management of demand. Consumer concern about rising prices is driving reform in this area, but we’re yet to see any clear results. Also, there is a difficult balance to be struck between system reliability and cost. A significant proportion of consumers have expressed a willingness to live with reduced reliability for reduced cost.

There has been a difficulty also in forecasting demand, and therefore the spread of cost. Reduced peak demand in the period 2008 to 2013 wasn’t foreseen. The reduction, likely driven increasing electricity costs, was a result of many factors, such as solar installations, energy efficiencies and reduced consumption. There’s a plan to introduce ‘cost reflective pricing’, which means ‘charging prices that accurately reflect the cost of providing network services to different consumer groups’. This is expected to reduce peak demand overall, as will increasing use of solar and, in the future, battery storage.

Retail pricing is another matter, and according to the report there is a lack of transparency in the retail market. Retailing electricity is obviously complex and involves covering wholesale costs as well as billing, connections, customer service, managing bad debts, marketing, return on investment, inter alia. We can only determine whether the retail market is operating fairly when these costs are open to scrutiny.

Chapter 7 deals with energy market governance from a national, whole-of-system perspective. The report stresses urgency on this, though given the complexity of the system and the divided views of policy-makers, it’s unlikely that decisions on integrating the system and making it more flexible will be forthcoming in the immediate future. The governance of the NEM is divided between policy-maker (the COAG Energy Council), rule-maker (AEMC), operator (AEMO) and regulator (AER, the Australian Energy Regulator). None of these bodies, the report notes, are integrated with bodies advising on emissions reduction. Again, the report doesn’t advance a plan for an improved governance system, but posts consultation questions for how improvements might be made. These include amendments to various rules and guidelines, methods for improving accountability and transparency, and expedited decision-making in a rapidly transforming market.

The report includes a number of appendices, the first and most important being a comparison of the NEM with other energy systems and markets worldwide, including those with a large market share of VRE, such as Denmark and Ireland. It is noted that the transformation of these markets, as well as larger markets in Spain and Germany, is being managed apparently without compromising energy security. However, the variety and complexity of many overseas markets and systems makes comparisons well-nigh impossible for someone as uninitiated as myself. Suffice to say that the role of interconnectors for system security is very important in many European regions, and support from governments for a more flexible system to accommodate VRE is more widespread.

Written by stewart henderson

January 2, 2017 at 9:09 am

on the preliminary report into the future of the NEM – part 1

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Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, who also happens to be a regular columnist for Cosmos, Australia’s premier science magazine, of which I’m a regular reader, has released his panel’s preliminary report on our national electricity market (NEM), and it has naturally received criticism from within the ranks of Australia’s conservative government, which is under pressure from its most conservative elements, led by Tony Abbott amongst others, who are implacably opposed to renewable energy.

The report confirms that the NEM is experiencing declining demand due to a range of factors, such as the development of new technologies, improved energy efficiency and a decline in industrial energy consumption. It makes a fairly reasonable assumption, but one unwelcome to many conservatives, that our electricity market is experiencing an unprecedented and irreversible phase of transition, and that this transition should be managed appropriately.

The NEM has been in operation for over 20 years, and the recent blackout here in South Australia (late September 2016) was its first real crisis. The issue as identified in the report is that variable renewable energy (VRE) sources are entering and complicating the market, which heretofore has been based on the synchronous generation of AC electricity at a standard system frequency. VRE generation is multiform and intermittent, and as such doesn’t sit well with the traditional system.

There are a number of other complicating issues. Improvements in building design and greater public awareness regarding emissions reduction have led to a decrease in overall energy consumption, while high peak demand on occasion remains a problem. Also the cost of electricity for the consumer has risen sharply in recent years, largely due to network investment (poles and wires). It’s expected that prices will continue to climb due to the closure of coal-fired power stations and the rising cost of gas. Interestingly, the report promotes gas as a vital energy source for this transitional period. It expresses concern about our overseas sales of gas, our low exploration rates, and negative attitudes to the fuel from certain states and territories. Rooftop solar systems, numbering more than 1.5 million, have further complicated the market, as the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) understandably finds it difficult to measure their impact. System integration, which takes solar and wind energy system contributions into account, is clearly key to a successful NEM into the future.

The report also stresses Australia’s commitment to emissions reductions of 26-28% by 2030. It points out that business investors are turning away from fossil fuels, or what they call ’emission intensive power stations’, and financial institutions are also reluctant to back such investments. Given these clear signals, the report argues that a nationally integrated approach to a system which encourages and plans for a market for renewables is essential. This is clearly not what a backward-looking conservative government wants to hear.

So the report describes an ‘energy trilemma’: provision of high level energy security and reliability; affordable energy services for all; reduced emissions. More succinctly – security, affordability and the environment.

In its first chapter, the report looks at new technology. The costs of zero-emission wind turbines and solar PVs are falling, and this will maintain their appeal at least in the short term. Other such technologies, e.g. ‘concentrated solar thermal, geothermal, ocean, wave and tidal, and low emission electricity generation technologies such as biomass combustion and coal or gas-fired generation with carbon capture and storage’ (p13), are mentioned as likely technologies of the future, but the report largely focuses on wind and solar PV in terms of VRE generation. The effect of this technology, especially in the case of rooftop solar, is that consumers are engaging with the market in new ways. The penetration of rooftop solar in Australia is already the highest in the world, though most of our PV systems have low capacity. Battery storage systems, a developing technology which is seeing cost decreases, will surely be an attractive proposition for future solar PV purchasers. Electric vehicles haven’t really taken off yet in Australia, but they are making an impact in Europe, and the AEMO has projected that 10% of cars will be electric by 2030, presenting another challenge to an electricity system based largely on the fossil fuels such vehicles are designed to do without.

The management of these new and variable technologies and generators may involve the evolution of micro-grids as local resources become aggregated. Distributed, two-way energy systems are the likely way of the future, and an Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap has been developed by CSIRO and the Energy Networks Association to help anticipate and manage these changes.

In chapter 2 the report focuses on consumers, who are becoming increasingly active in the electricity market, which was formerly very much a one way system – you take your electricity from the national grid, you pay your quarterly bill. With distributed systems on the rise, consumers are becoming traders and investors in new forms of generation. The most obvious change is with rooftop PV. The national investment in these systems has amounted to several million dollars, with the expectation that individual households will be generating electricity more cleanly, more efficiently, and also more cheaply, notwithstanding the traditional electricity grid. Developments in battery storage and other technologies will inevitably lead to consumers moving off-grid, likely creating financial stress for those who remain. The possibilities for developing micro-grids to reduce costs will further complicate this evolving situation. Digital (smart) metering and new energy management software empower consumers to control usage. And while this is currently occurring mostly at the individual level, industrial consumers will also be keen to curb usage, creating added pressure for a more flexible and diverse two-way market. The report emphasises that the focus should shift more towards demand management in terms of grid security. One of the obvious problems from the point of view of consumers is that those on low incomes, or renters, who have little capacity to move off-grid (or desire in the case of passive users), may bear the burden of grid maintenance costs at increasing rates.

Chapter 3 deals with emissions. In reference to the Paris Agreement of 2015, which has been ratified by Australia, the report makes this comment which has been picked up by the media:

While the electricity sector must play an important role in reducing emissions, current policy settings do not provide a clear pathway to the level of reduction required to meet Australia’s Paris commitments.

The current Renewable Energy Target does not go beyond 2020 and national policy vis-à-vis emissions extends only to 2030, causing uncertainty for investors in an already volatile market. Clearly the report is being critical of government here as it has already argued for the primary role of government in developing policy settings to provide clarity for investment. The report also makes suggestions about shifting from coal to gas to reduce emissions at least in the short term. The report discussed three emissions reduction strategies assessed by AEMO and AEMC (Australian Energy Market Commission): an emissions intensity scheme, an extended large-scale renewable energy target, and the regulated closure of fossil-fuelled power stations. The first strategy is basically a carbon credits scheme, which was assessed as being the least costly and impactful, while an extended RET would provide greater policy stability for non-synchronous generation, so adding pressure to the existing grid system. Closure of coal-fired power stations would reduce low-cost supply in the short to medium term. Base load supply would be problematic in that scenario, so management of closures would be the key issue.

Chapter 4 looks at how VRE might be integrated into the system. It gets a bit technical here, but the issues are clear enough – VRE will be an increasing part of the energy mix, considerably so if Australia’s Large-scale renewable energy target is to be met, along with our international commitment vis-a-vis the Paris Agreement. However, VRE cannot provide spinning inertia or frequency control, according to the report. Basically this means that they cannot provide base load power, at a time when coal-fired power stations are closing down (nine have closed since 2012) and eastern states gas is being largely exported. The Hazelwood brown coal power station, Australia’s largest, and one of the most carbon intensive power stations in the world, will cease operation by April next year.

The difficulty with non-synchronous, distributed, intermittent and variable energy generation (e.g. wind and solar PV) is that these terms seem to be euphemisms for ‘not effing reliable’ in terms of base load, a problem currently being encountered in South Australia and likely to spread to other regions. The report identifies frequency control as a high priority challenge.

Frequency is a measure of the instantaneous balance of power supply and demand. To avoid damage to or failure of the power system the frequency may only deviate within a narrow range below or above 50 Hertz, as prescribed in the frequency operating standards for the NEM.

It’s likely that this narrow range of frequency proved a problem for South Australia when it suffered a blackout in September. I’ll look at what the report has to say about that blackout next time.

national electricity consumption - apparently on the rise again?

national electricity consumption – apparently on the rise again?

Written by stewart henderson

December 22, 2016 at 7:15 pm