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electric vehicles in Australia, a sad indictment

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Toyota Prius

I must say, as a lay person with very little previous understanding of how batteries, photovoltaics or even electricity works, I’m finding the ‘Fully Charged’ and other online videos quite addictive, if incomprehensible in parts, though one thing that’s easy enough to comprehend is that transitional, disruptive technologies that dispense with fossil fuels are being taken up worldwide at an accelerating rate, and that Australia is falling way behind in this, especially at a governmental level, with South Australia being something of an exception. Of course the variation everywhere is enormous – for example, currently, 42% of all new cars sold today in Norway are fully electric – not just hybrids. This compares to about 2% in Britain, according to Fully Charged, and I’d suspect that the percentage is even lower in Oz.

There’s so much to find out about and write about in this field it’s hard to know where to start, so I’m going to limit myself in this post to electric cars and the situation in Australia.

First, as very much a lower middle class individual I want to know about cost, both upfront and ongoing. Now as you may be aware, Australia has basically given up on making its own cars, but we do have some imports worth considering, though we don’t get subsidies for buying them as they do in many other countries, nor do we have that much in the way of supportive infrastructure. Cars range in price from the Tesla Model X SUV, starting from $165,000 (forget it, I hate SUVs anyway), down to the Toyota Prius C and the Honda Jazz, both hybrids, starting at around $23,000. There’s also a ludicrously expensive BMW plug-in hybrid available, as well as the Nissan Leaf, the biggest selling electric car worldwide by a massive margin according to Fully Charged, but probably permanently outside of my price range at $51,000 or so.

I could only afford a bottom of the range hybrid vehicle, so how do hybrids work, and can you run your hybrid mostly on electricity? It seems that for this I would want a (more expensive) plug-in hybrid, as this passage from the Union of Concerned Scientists (USA) points out:

The most advanced hybrids have larger batteries and can recharge their batteries from an outlet, allowing them to drive extended distances on electricity before switching to [petrol] or diesel. Known as “plug-in hybrids,” these cars can offer much-improved environmental performance and increased fuel savings by substituting grid electricity for [petrol].

I could go on about the plug-ins but there’s not much point because there aren’t any available here within my price range. Really, only the Prius, the Honda Jazz and a Toyota Camry Hybrid (just discovered) are possibilities for me. Looking at reviews of the Prius, I find a number of people think it’s ugly but I don’t see it, and I’ve always considered myself a person of taste and discernment, like everyone else. They do tend to agree that it’s very fuel efficient, though lacking in oomph. Fuck oomph, I say. I’m the sort who drives cars reluctantly, and prefers a nice gentle cycle around the suburbs. Extremely fuel efficient, breezy and cheap. I’m indifferent to racing cars and all that shite.

Nissan Leaf

I note that the Prius  has regenerative braking – what the Fully Charged folks call ‘regen’. In fact this is a feature of all EVs and hybrids. I have no idea wtf it is, so I’ll explore it here. The Union of Concerned Scientists again:

Regenerative braking converts some of the energy lost during braking into usable electricity, stored in the batteries.

Regenerative braking” is another fuel-saving feature. Conventional cars rely entirely on friction brakes to slow down, dissipating the vehicle’s kinetic energy as heat. Regenerative braking allows some of that energy to be captured, turned into electricity, and stored in the batteries. This stored electricity can later be used to run the motor and accelerate the vehicle.

Of course, this doesn’t tell us how the energy is captured and stored, but more of that later. Regenerative braking doesn’t bring the car to a stop by itself, or lock the wheels, so it must be used in conjunction with frictional braking.  This requires drivers to be aware of both braking systems and how they’re combined – sometimes problematic in certain scenarios.

The V useful site How Stuff Works has a full-on post on regen, which I’ll inadequately summarise here. Regen (in cars) is actually celebrating its fiftieth birthday this year, having been first introduced in the Amitron, a car produced by American Motors in 1967. It never went into full-scale production. In conventional braking, the brake pads apply pressure to the brake rotors to the slow the vehicle down. That expends a lot of energy (imagine a large vehicle moving at high speed), not only between the pads and the rotor, but between the wheels and the road. However, regen is a different system altogether. When you hit the brake pedal of an EV (with hand or foot), this system puts the electric motor into reverse, slowing the wheels. By running backwards the motor acts somehow as a generator of electricity, which is then fed into the EV batteries. Here’s how HSW puts it:

One of the more interesting properties of an electric motor is that, when it’s run in one direction, it converts electrical energy into mechanical energy that can be used to perform work (such as turning the wheels of a car), but when the motor is run in the opposite direction, a properly designed motor becomes an electric generator, converting mechanical energy into electrical energy.

I still don’t get it. Anyway, apparently this type of braking system works best in city conditions where you’re stopping and going all the time. The whole system requires complex electronic circuitry which decides when to switch to reverse, and which of the two braking systems to use at any particular time. The best system does this automatically. In a review of a Smart Electric Drive car (I don’t know what that means – is ‘Smart’ a brand name? – is an electric drive different from an electric car??) on Fully Charged, the test driver described its radar-based regen, which connects with the GPS to anticipate, say, a long downhill part of the journey, and in consequence to adjust the regen for maximum efficiency. Ultimately, all this will be handled effectively in fully autonomous vehicles. Can’t wait to borrow one!

Smart Electric Drive, a cute two-seater

I’m still learning all this geeky stuff – never thought I’d be spending an arvo watching cars being test driven and  reviewed.  But these are EVs – don’t I sound the expert – and so the new technologies and their implications for the environment and our future make them much more interesting than the noise and gas-guzzling stink and the macho idiocy I’ve always associated with the infernal combustion engine.

What I have learned, apart from the importance of battery size (in kwh), people’s obsession with range and charge speed, and a little about charging devices, is that there’s real movement in Europe and Britain towards EVs, not to mention storage technology and microgrids and other clean energy developments, which makes me all the more frustrated to live in a country, so naturally endowed to take advantage of clean energy, whose federal government is asleep at the wheel on these matters, when it’s not being defensively scornful about all things renewable. Hopefully I’ll be able to report on positive local initiatives in this area in future, in spite of government inertia.



Written by stewart henderson

August 15, 2017 at 9:51 am

What’s Weatherill’s 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

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just a superhero pic to rope people in

I’ve written a few pieces on our electricity system here in SA, but I don’t really feel any wiser about it. Still, I’ll keep having a go.

We’ve become briefly famous because billionaire geek hero Elon Musk has promised to build a ginormous battery here. After we had our major blackout last September (for which we were again briefly famous), Musk tweeted or otherwise communicated that his Tesla company might be able to solve SA’s power problems. This brought on a few local geek-gasms, but we quickly forgot (or I did), not realising that our good government was working quietly behind the scenes to get Musk to commit to something real. In March this year, Musk was asked to submit a tender for the 100MW capacity battery, which is expected to be operational by the summer. He has recently won the tender, and has committed to constructing the battery in 100 days, at a cost of $50 million. If he’s unsuccessful within the time limit, we’ll get it for free.

There are many many South Australians who are very skeptical of this project, and the federal government is saying that the comparatively small capacity of the battery system will have minimal impact on the state’s ‘self-imposed’ problems. And yet – I’d be the first to say that I’m quite illiterate about this stuff, but if SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s claim is true that ‘battery storage is the future of our national energy market’, and if Musk’s company can build this facility quickly, then it’s surely possible that many batteries could be built like the one envisaged by Musk, each one bigger and cheaper than the last. Or have I just entered cloud cuckoo land? Isn’t that how technology tends to work?

In any case, the battery storage facility is designed to bring greater stability to the state’s power network, not to replace the system, so the comparisons made by Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg are misleading, probably deliberately so. Frydenberg well knows, for example, that SA’s government has been working on other solutions too, effectively seeking to becoming independent of the eastern states in respect of its power system. In March, at the same time as he presented plans for Australia’s largest battery, Weatherill announced that a taxpayer-funded 250MW gas-fired power plant would be built. More recently, AGL, the State’s largest power producer and retailer, has announced  plans to build a 210MW gas-fired generator on Torrens Island, upgrading its already-existing system. AGL’s plan is to use reciprocating engines, which executive general manager Doug Jackson has identified as best suited to the SA market because of their ‘flexible efficient and cost-effective synchronous generation capability’. I heartily agree. It’s noteworthy that the AGL plan was co-presented by its managing director Andy Vesey and the SA Premier. They were at pains to point out that the government plans and the AGL plan were not in competition. So it does seem that the state government has made significant strides in ensuring our energy security, in spite of much carping from the Feds as well as local critics – check out some of the very nasty naysaying in the comments section of local journalist Nick Harmsen’s articles on the subject (much of it about the use of lithium ion batteries, which I might blog about later).

It’s also interesting that Harmsen himself, in an article written four months ago, cast serious doubt on the Tesla project going ahead, because, as far as he knew, tenders were already closed on the battery storage or ‘dispatchable renewables’ plan, and there were already a number of viable options on the table. So either the Tesla offer, when it came (and maybe it got in under the deadline unbeknown to Harmsen), was way more impressive than others, or the Tesla-Musk brand has bedazzled Weatherill and his cronies. It’s probably a combo of the two. Whatever, this news is something of a blow to local rivals. What is fascinating, though is how much energetic rivalry, or competition, there actually is in the storage and dispatchables field, in spite of the general negativity of the Federal government. It seems our centrist PM Malcolm Turnbull is at odds with his own government about this.

So enough about the Tesla-Neoen deal, and associated issues, which are mounting too fast for me to keep up with right now. I want to focus on pricing for the rest of this piece, because I have no understanding of why SA is now paying the world’s highest domestic electricity prices, as the media keeps telling us.

According to this Sydney Morning Herald article from nearly two years ago, which of course I can’t vouch for, Australia’s electricity bills are made up of three components: wholesale and retail prices, based on supply and demand (39% of cost); the cost of poles and wires (53%); and the cost of environmental policies (8%). The trio can be simplified as market, network and environmental costs. Market and network costs vary from state to state. The biggest cost, the poles and wires, is borne by all Australian consumers (at least all on the grid), as a result of a massive $45 billion upgrade between 2009 and 2014, due to expectations of a continuing rise in demand. Instead there’s been a fall, partly due to domestic solar but in large measure because of much tighter and more environmental building standards nationwide as part of the building boom. The SMH article concludes, a little unexpectedly, that the continuing rise in prices can only be due to retail price hikes, at least in the eastern states, because supply is steady and network costs, though high, are also steady.

A more recent article (December 2016) argues that a rising wholesale price, due to the closure of coal-fired power stations in SA and Victoria and higher gas prices, is largely responsible. Retail prices are higher now than when the carbon tax was in place in 2013.

This even recenter article from late March announces an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) into retail pricing of electricity, which unfortunately won’t be completed till June 30 2018, given its comprehensive nature. It also contains this telling titbit:

A report from the Grattan Institute released earlier in March found a decade of competition in the market had failed to deliver better deals for customers, with profit margins on electricity bills much higher than for many other industries.

However, another article published in March, and focusing on SA’s power prices in particular (it’s written by former SA essential services commissioner Richard Blandy), takes an opposing view:

Retailing costs are unlikely to be a source of rapidly rising electricity prices because they represent a small proportion of final prices to consumers and there is a high level of competition in this part of the electricity supply chain. Energy Watch shows that there are seven electricity retailers selling electricity to small businesses, and 12 electricity retailers selling electricity to households. Therefore, price rises at the retail level are likely to be cost-based.

Blandy’s article, which looks at transmission and distribution pricing, load shedding and the very complex issue of wholesale pricing and the National Energy Market (NEM), needs at least another blog post to do justice to. I’m thinking that I’ll have to read and write a lot more to make sense of it all.

Finally, the most recentest article of only a couple of weeks ago quotes Bruce Mountain, director of Carbon and Energy Markets, as saying that it’s not about renewables (SA isn’t much above the other states re pricing), it’s about weak government control over retailers (could there be collusion?). Meanwhile, politicians obfuscate, argue and try to score points about a costly energy system that’s failing Australian consumers.

I’ll be concentrating a lot on this multifaceted topic – energy sources, storage, batteries, pricing, markets, investment and the like, in the near future. It exercises me and I want to educate myself further about it. Next, I’ll make an effort to find out more about, and analyse, the South Australian government’s six-point plan for our energy future.

References and more reading for masochists

Written by stewart henderson

July 14, 2017 at 10:55 am

South Australia and electricity revisited

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Canto: So what’s the latest on SA’s statewide blackout of September 28 last year, who’s to blame, who’s blaming who, and what solutions are in the offing, if any?

Jacinta: Well the preliminary report on the NEM, which we’ve been reading and writing about, has a few things to say about this, and they’re based on the findings of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) in its own preliminary report.

Canto: He said she said.

Jacinta: Well maybe sort of. So the SA blackout is presented as a case study. Here in SA we have a very high proportion of VRE (variable renewable energy) generation – one of the highest in the world. Our peak demand as a region is 3300 MW, and our supply capacity is almost 2900 MW of gas, almost 1600 MW of wind, and 700 MW of installed solar. We’re connected to the rest of the NEM by two interconnectors, an AC connector with a capacity of 600-650 MW, and a DC connector with a capacity of 220 MW. With electricity demand here declining, or at least not growing, synchronous generation and supply have reduced, with a resultant reduction in system inertia.

Canto: I presume by system inertia you mean the tendency for a machine, a vehicle, or a generator, whatever, a system to keep going once the power’s switched off. Like the QE2 has a lot of system inertia.

Jacinta: Right, but it’s a particularly important term in reference to power generation. There are some neat explanations of this online, but I’ll give a summary here. Coal-fired power stations work through the burning of coal which generates steam to turn a turbine, putting energy into the grid, and being massive, it has a lot of spinning inertia. Slow to fire up, slow to wind down. Solar, though, doesn’t work that way. It has no spinning or even moving parts. When the sun’s off, it’s off, but when it’s on it’s on. There’s really no inertia at all in a conventional solar PV system.

Canto: And wind? That’s the principal renewable energy here.

Jacinta: Yes that has inertia, certainly, but it’s variable and not as significant as perhaps it could be. So anyway on the morning of the blackout weather forecasts were grim, but not enough for AEMO to put out alerts for a ‘credible contingency event’. As it turned out there were at least seven tornadoes in the north of the state that day, as well as numerous lightning strikes and high winds which caused structural damage to transmission lines. At blackout time electricity demand in the state was a little over 1800 MW, with nearly half of it being supplied by wind farms, and of the rest about a third came from gas-fired generators, and the other 600 or so megawatts came through the interconnectors from Victoria. The main Heywood connector was approaching its operating limit. Short circuits to the transmission lines, caused by lightning, were the probable proximal cause of the blackout. Thirteen wind farms were in operation at the time, and eleven of them experienced ‘voltage dips’. What happens in these circumstances is that ‘fault ride-though’ responses are invoked. However, nine of the eleven farms had a lower pre-set limit for the ride-through response to proceed, and after a number of dips those nine wind farms cut their connection. The other two had higher pre-set limits and continued operation.

Canto: Ahh, so those preset limits were set too low?

Jacinta: Maybe – that’s one for further investigation. So the lack of generation from the wind farms caused an overload on the Heywood interconnector, and it was disconnected as per protection systems, resulting in frequency failure on the grid, and blackness fell upon all the land.

Canto: Right, so how did things get restarted? What’s the normal procedure?

Jacinta: Well, there’s this contracted service, called the System Restart Ancillary Service, which in SA is contracted to two major electricity generators (unnamed in the report), who can supposedly restart regardless of the grid situation, and provide power to the transmission network, but these servers failed for unexplained reasons, and power was finally restored through the Heywood interconnector together with the Torrens Island power station.

Canto: Okay, so now the fallout. How could things have been done differently?

Jacinta: Some near-term fixes have been implemented already. Firstly, having to do with frequency rates which I won’t go into here, and secondly in relation to wind farms. Five of them have made changes to their fault ride-through settings, and AEMO is looking at this issue for wind farms across the NEM. The Australian Energy Regulator, another bureaucratic body, will have completed a full analysis of the blackout by early next year to determine if there were any breaches of regulations. Obviously it’ll be looking at the conduct of AEMO throughout, as well as that of the transmission operator, ElectaNet. It’ll also look at these fault ride-though settings of wind farms and the failures of the System Restart Ancillary Service. It all sounds as if everything’s being done that can be done, but the major problem is that grid security as it stands can only be provided by large generators. The report again mentions gas-fired generators as the best solution, at least in the short to medium term.

Canto: So, as the grid, and the general provision of electricity, undergo these transformations, we’ll no doubt experience a few more of these hopefully minor setbacks, which we can learn from as we develop security for a more diverse but more integrated system…

Jacinta: Greater integration might require less squabbling about the future of energy. I can’t see that happening in the near future, unfortunately.

Written by stewart henderson

December 25, 2016 at 4:04 pm

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

our planet home – arctic sea ice is diminishing

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Records of Arctic sea ice have been regularly kept since 1980 or so, and there’s been some satellite mapping since the late seventies. The sea ice starts its growth in autumn, reaching its greatest extent at the end of the northern winter. This year has been unusual – after a more rapid freeze-up than usual in September, the growth of ice has slowed substantially, and by the end of October the sea ice extent had reached a new record low for this thirty-five year period. Two principal causes of this slow growth were the high surface temperatures in open waters of the arctic region, as well as high air temperatures. The USA’s National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) provides lots of useful information on the issue and does its best to explain the complex local and general factors driving arctic ice formation and melting.

Arctic sea ice is ice that forms and deforms in the ocean rather than on land, so it doesn’t include icebergs or glaciers. It’s covered in snow most of the year, and its bright surface reflects 80% of sunlight back into space, whereas melted ocean water absorbs 90% of sunlight, causing a positive feedback loop, an acceleration of global warming effects. The term used to describe the whiteness or reflectivity of a surface is albedo. For our planet, albedo is affected primarily by ice and cloud cover.

While it may be that we’ll record the lowest ice maximum ‘on record’ by the end of this winter, we should recall that thirty-odd years isn’t much of a period in geological terms. Nor does melting sea ice substantially affect sea level rise, unlike melting ice sheets and glaciers. The main concern is this change in albedo, and its effect on ocean temperatures, which will not only effect ocean life in the region but also the melting of frozen coastal regions, and weather conditions, in largely unforeseeable ways.

Another issue is that ‘old sea ice’, the type that survives the annual freeze and melt cycle, has reduced substantially since records have been kept. This old ice stretched over a distance of 1.9 million square kilometres back in 1984, but this year that has reduced to about 110,000 square kilometres, according to a report from episode 592 of the SGU. This is a measure of sea ice extent, rather than volume, which would be much more difficult to measure. In any case, it’s a massive reduction in just a generation or so, but again we don’t have long-term data to tell us whether or not the planet has experienced these sorts of rapid changes before. It’s reasonable to suspect not, and that the great volumes of greenhouse gases we’ve been emitting into our atmosphere are having unprecedented effects, but we can’t be sure. In any case, our activities are certainly affecting our planet home, and theatening island and coastal populations around the globe. As mentioned, the warming of the oceans, and of the atmosphere above them, affects the polar jet stream and can have knock-on effects world-wide. The rise in sea level is generally the effect most human populations are concerned with, though the most wealthy residents of low-lying areas seem breezily unconcerned, as this podcast episode from climate one, discussing the response of residents in the San Francisco Bay area, clearly shows.

Arguably though, it’s not so much complacency as bewilderment that’s hampering responses. Projections of sea-level rise are notoriously varied, in keeping with the enormous complexity of the interacting effects of warming. We’re on much safer ground when making observations of past effects than when predicting future ones, and even then it’s tricky, because we don’t have direct measurements beyond a fairly recent time period. It’s generally agreed that the oceans have risen by about 15-20 cm in the last century, but predictions of the rise over the next thirty-odd years to mid-century vary wildly, with climate scientists bickering over the damage such varied estimates is wreaking on their profession.

So what is to be done? Allowing our bewilderment to inhibit all action is obviously counter-productive. We should continue to monitor, model and project, and to speed up the process of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, with smart solutions to our energy needs as well as ways of minimising those needs, while considering matters of equity and opportunity re developing and developed regions. And we should continue to pressure and push our politicians towards promoting these reductions and solutions.

Written by stewart henderson

November 24, 2016 at 7:12 am

our recent power outage – how to prevent a recurrence. part 2

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dispatchable solar energy to local areas - a possible solution

dispatchable solar energy to local areas – a possible solution

Jacinta: So the problem is, or was, that the whole state of South Australia was left without power for a long period of time – more than 24 hours in some places, it varied between regions. This affected some 1.7 million people, endangering lives in some instances.

Canto: And how did it come to be a problem? First because of storm conditions, particularly north of Adelaide, described as unprecedented. This might be seen as the proximate cause, with many describing the ultimate cause as anthropogenic global warming, which will see conditions such as these arising more often.

Jacinta: Well another cause, whether proximate or ultimate, might be degraded transmission infrastructure – the big towers. The transmission network, which is operated and managed by ElectraNet, is the long-distance network, carrying power to the distribution network – the poles and wires – which connects homes and businesses. The distribution network is owned and managed by SA Power Networks, which is 51%  owned by Cheung Kong Infrastructure/Power Assets (CKI), a Hong Kong Chinese company. But it’s ElecraNet that we need to focus on. It’s apparently owned by a consortium of companies, but the largest share is 46.5%, owned by China’s State Grid Corporation (SGCC), the largest electric utility company in the world. I’ve heard rumours that there were complaints by technicians regarding rusty and poorly-maintained towers, complaints dating back over five years, but I’ve found nothing as yet to confirm those rumours.

Canto: So overseas ownership may feature in answering the question of how this came to be a problem. Another factor might be the interconnectors.

Jacinta: Yes, to be clear, there are two interconnectors between SA and Victoria, with some speculation about a third being built connecting us to NSW, and allowing us to export our renewables-based energy to that state from time to time…

Canto: Can you describe what an interconnector actually is, and how it works? I’ve heard that they actually work as surge protectors, among other things, shutting down the system when it’s overloaded or in crisis.

Jacinta: It connects transmission systems between different states, or different countries, allowing states to import or export power according to differential capabilities at different times, which helps stabilise or standardise the power available to interconnected states or regions. I should point out that SA imports far more power than it exports, so we are reliant on the national electricity grid, as we always have been I think, for regular, stable supply. Apparently, in terms of area, this is the largest electricity grid in the world. In 2013-2014 SA’s import to export ratio was 6 to 1.  If you look at the chart on the SA government website, you’ll notice that SA generates less power within its borders than any other state, including Tasmania, which gets most of its power from hydro. But this varies – not long ago, when Tasmanian dams were low, that state was the least productive. The two interconnectors to Victoria are the Heywood interconnector, with a 460MW capacity, and the smaller Murray Link, which was not operational at the time of the storm. An ABC article quotes the SA Premier as saying the interconnector ‘played no role in the blackout’, but the same article quotes Paul Roberts of SA Power Networks: “We believe — and this is only early information — that there may have been some issue with the interconnector but the state’s power system is shut down I think possibly as a protection”. This statement is vague – it tends to contradict the Premier, but it doesn’t say that the interconnector had a direct role in the statewide shut-down.

Canto: Sounds like people are being cagey and defensive right from the start.

Jacinta: Well, of course – avoiding blame here is a big thing, in terms of money as well as reputation. It’s probably being overly naive to assume that nobody really knows whether the shut-down was caused by the interconnector, or whether that shut-down, if caused by the interconnector, was absolutely necessary. But it looks like nobody’s going to admit knowledge.

Canto: So the problem may or may not have been related to the interconnector, but it was definitely caused by a major storm north of Adelaide, which may or may not have been due to anthropogenic global warming, and it caused damage to infrastructure which may or may not have been avoided if that infrastructure was being upgraded effectively by ElectraNet. Sounds like we’re getting nowhere fast.

Jacinta: What about this idea that the state’s relying too much on renewables. What evidence is there about that?

Canto: Well, unsurprisingly, the state’s opposition leaders and their fellow-travellers are lining up to score points out of this event. SA’s conservative party leader Steven Marshall says there should be an investigation into the state’s ‘lack of base-load power generation’, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who now heads a conservative government in spite of having been a long-time advocate of renewables, has ‘rebuked’ state labor governments for having ‘ideological’ renewable energy targets, and the populist MP Nick Xenophon has expressed a rather vague but passionate outrage.

Jacinta: Okay so let’s look first at SA’s lack of base-load power generation. Hasn’t this been a perennial problem for SA? As I’ve already said, we’ve been importing a lot of power from interstate, on a variable basis, really since the year dot. Or since we’ve been able to do so, via the interconnectors.

Canto: Well there’s something of a new mantra among the renewable advocates that the base-load concept is out-dated, but I’d rather not get into that now, I’m really a novice about electricity markets and grids and such. The fact is that SA is running neck-and-neck with Tasmania as the state that produces the least electricity in the nation, though of course SA is a much bigger state. It’s just that now we’re generating more from wind, so we’ve shut off our coal generators. So the argument will be that renewables had nothing to do with the outage, which damaged transmission lines and initiated a shut-down of our only operating interconnector. This would’ve happened regardless of the power source, though there may be questions about the interconnector, and about the maintenance of the transmission lines.

Jacinta: Okay, that’ll do, though I’d like us to discuss the whole topic of renewable energy, in SA and elsewhere, on an ongoing basis in the future. It’s a hot topic, with a lot of people implacably opposed to it, particularly readers of the rather reactionary Australian newspaper, apparently. All very amusing. And perhaps we can educate ourselves a bit more about the National Electricity Market (NEM), the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) and the future of grids and off-grid electricity supply.

For more interesting articles on this issue:


Written by stewart henderson

October 15, 2016 at 5:15 pm

the renewable energy juggernaut

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There is more global investment in solar power today than there is in fossil fuels. We’re talking about hard-headed investment for profit by business and governments worldwide, not greenies or special interest groups. And another interesting factoid: China today is generating more energy from wind power than the whole of Australia’s energy production. Not to mention the Chinese government’s massive investment in other renewables. That’s info I got from a recent ABC Science Show podcast. Renewable energy really is making inroads, and this is most encouraging for those around the world fighting the damaging environmental effects of mining and fracking in their regions, though it’s clear that such operations are dying hard.

I remember some time ago at a meeting of skeptics (not climate change ‘skeptics’, just regular sciencey anti-quackery, anti-UFO-type skeptics), when I was spruiking the virtues of wind power, so successfully taken up here in South Australia, being told dismissively that it was too expensive to be really viable. However, wind-power only really has establishment costs. Ongoing costs are quite minimal. Furthermore, a research group conducted by the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Global Ecology Department has recently conducted the most wide-ranging expert survey on wind (or any other) energy. Sure, it was a survey of those already heavily invested in wind, but that does make them the experts in the field. Predictions about the cost of wind energy into the future were based on two approachess. First, a projection into the future of falling costs over the past three decades or so – what they call the ‘learning curve’. One would assume those projections would vary from ‘most optimistic’ to ‘most pessimistic’, with consensus somewhere in between. The second approach involved a ‘bottom-up engineering assessment’, looking at the costs of individual turbine components into the future. Science Daily has summarised the findings:

On average, the participants expected wind power costs to continue falling for the next several decades, for three major classes of wind turbines, both onshore and offshore, with prices falling by 24-30% by 2030, and 35-41% by 2050.

Meanwhile governments worldwide are getting on board in a determined effort to drive down the cost of solar. Vox Energy & Environment reports on the US target:

…the US Department of Energy has a program, the SunShot Initiative, devoted entirely to driving down the cost of electricity generated by solar panels — the target is solar power with $1 per watt installed costs by 2020, a 75 percent reduction in costs from 2010.

It’s hard to get the head around the growth of solar energy worldwide since about 2007. It’s been a whirlwind ride, but starting from an extremely low level. And in the US since 2012, large or utility-scale solar has been growing faster than domestic, rooftop solar, and with falling prices and increasing module efficiency, the growth trend in big and small solar should continue well into the future. Yes, there’s government stimulus, but solar is being seen more and more as a sound investment on its own terms. Solar’s steady growth also makes for sound investment against the high volatility of the natural gas market. And this of course is just as relevant for many regions outside the US.

I’ll be taking another look at Australia’s situation, while many of our governments bicker and focus elsewhere, in an upcoming post.


Written by stewart henderson

September 16, 2016 at 8:57 am