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Posts Tagged ‘renewable energy

a glut of greed – on high gas prices and who’s to blame

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Crisis? What crisis….?

So Australia’s industry minister Ed Husic has come out with a claim that I’ve heard from renewable energy journalists more than once before in recent times – that the gas industry is pocketing record profits while households suffer from record power costs. So what exactly is happening and how can it be fixed?

Husic’s remarks were blunt enough: ‘This is not a shortage of supply problem; this is a glut of greed problem that has to be basically short circuited and common sense prevail.” As I reported before, gas companies are more interested in exporting their product overseas, at great profit, than selling it domestically. All the major news outlets are reporting much the same thing – the political right, under conservative leader Dutton, is blaming the overly-rapid shift to renewables (he wants to open up more gas fields), and gas companies are playing the victim role.

The ACCC has been complaining for some time that there isn’t an effective mechanism to prevent gas companies from selling to the highest bidder, at the expense of the local market. There are, of course, worldwide gas shortages, causing the value of the commodity to shoot to record highs. The Financial Review reported on the situation back in July:

The ACCC says prices for east coast domestic gas that will be delivered in 2023 have rocketed to an average of $16 per gigajoule from $8 per gigajoule. Exporters have also dramatically widened the spread of prices offered to domestic buyers from between $7 and $8, to between $7 and as much as $25. This is despite the fact that the estimated forward cost of production is steady at just over $5.

The government clearly has little control over gas exporters – ‘gentlemen’s agreements’ aren’t really cutting it, and domestic costs are affecting businesses as well as households, adding to the many woes of local manufacturing. So I’ve turned to the ever-reliable Renew Economy website in the hope of hearing about plausible solutions. Their journalist Bruce Robertson, of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, is arguing for a gas reservation policy:

Such a policy on new and existing gas fields means gas companies must sell a portion of their gas into the domestic market – rather than putting it all out for export – with an immediate downward effect on prices. Similar to the reservation policy in place for over a decade in Western Australia, the east coast gas reservation policy could be set at $7 a gigajoule (GJ), a price allowing gas companies to achieve a profit over and above a return on investment. In turn, energy consumers would see their electricity bills cut.

It sounds like magic – like, if it’s that easy why wasn’t it done ages ago? The reason Robertson appears to be putting forward is price-fixing and the unwillingness of east coast governments, and the federal government, to deal with it:

In Australia, gas prices are fixed by a cartel of producers on the east coast… – Shell, Origin, Santos, Woodside and Exxon. For decades they have set the price above international parity prices.

It does seem, well, a little unseemly, that Australia, the world’s largest LNG exporter, is having to pay such exorbitant prices for domestic usage – though, in fact, other countries are suffering more. Locally though, South Australia, where I live, is particularly hard hit. Unlike the eastern states, coal plays no part in our energy mix – it’s all gas and renewables, with wind and solar playing a substantial part, more so than in the eastern states. And yet… Sophie Horvath reported in Renew Economy back in May:

A draft report from the SA Productivity Commission finds that despite the state’s solar and wind delivering some of Australia’s lowest wholesale spot prices, prices faced by the state’s consumers were around 20% higher than consumers in New South Wales. And it warns that without the rapid implementation of market and policy reforms, the situation for consumers will only get worse as more and more renewable energy capacity is added.

This sounds, on the face of it, as if SA’s take-up of renewables has backfired, but the situation is rather more complex, as Horvath explains. One problem is variable demand, which ‘produces challenges for the grid’, and another, highlighted by the SA Productivity Commission, is the ‘various market flaws that are stopping the benefits of renewables being passed through to consumers’.

So what are these market flaws? And what are ‘wholesale spot prices’ and why are they so different from the costs to suckers like us? Here’s an excerpt from a ‘Fact Sheet’ from the Australian Energy Market Commission about how the spot market works:

The National Electricity Market (NEM) facilitates the exchange of electricity between generators and retailers. All electricity supplied to the market is sold at the ‘spot’ price…. The NEM operates as a market where generators are paid for the electricity they produce and retailers pay for the electricity their customers consume. The electricity market works as a ‘spot’ market, where power supply and demand is matched instantaneously. The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) co-ordinates this process.

The physical and financial markets for electricity are interlinked. Complex information technology systems underpin the operation of the NEM. The systems balance supply with demand in real time, select which generators are dispatched, determine the spot price, and in doing so, facilitate the financial settlement of the physical market. And all this is done to deliver electricity safely.

So far, this bureaucratic lingo doesn’t inspire confidence. Complex systems synchronise and balance everything, both financially and powerfully, ensuring our safety. Praise the lord. This Fact Sheet, from early in 2017, goes on for three and a bit pages, and I’m trying to understand it. Maybe Ed Kusic is too.

Meanwhile, back in South Australia, it was reported a few months ago that…

Tens of thousands of SA households are set to be hit with increased electricity bills after the energy industry watchdog made the ‘difficult decision’ to increase benchmark prices by hundreds of dollars a year.

So why indeed was this decision so ‘difficult’? The Australian Energy Regulator (AER – there are a headachy number of acronyms in this business), which sets the Default Market Offer (DMO) – a price cap on the charge to customers who, shockingly, don’t bother to shop around for a better deal – has increased the cap due to an 11.8% increase in wholesale electricity costs ‘driven by unplanned power plant outages and the ongoing war in Ukraine’. The fact that SA experienced massive power outages in the last 24 hours due to extreme weather conditions won’t help the situation. The Chair of the AER, Clare Savage, advises shopping around for cheaper deals rather than just accepting the DMO. The AEC (groan) also recommends shopping around, and even haggling for a better deal from retailers. The state government, in response to criticism from the opposition, emphasises focusing on the long-term and the ongoing shift to renewables. State energy minister Tom Koutsantonis expresses his faith – “Our government will reactivate investment in renewables as a hedge against price shocks on fossil fuels”.

Great – I can’t wait.

References

SA power bills to rise in cost-of-living blow

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-11-03/ed-husic-gas-crisis-corporate-greed-not-supply-shortage/101610072

SA renewables surge bringing down energy prices, but consumers miss out

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2022 at 12:56 pm

an interminable conversation 5: the RET, Mike Cannon-Brookes, and Big Gas issues

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Jacinta: So I’ve heard of this thing called the Renewable Energy Target (RET) – in fact I first heard about it years ago but I’ve paid little attention. Tell me more.

Canto: There’s a government website, the Clean Energy Regulator site, which purports to explain everything. Here’s the briefest statement about it:

The Renewable Energy Target is an Australian Government scheme designed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases in the electricity sector and encourage the additional generation of electricity from sustainable and renewable sources.

Of course they have much more to say, in positive-speak, about it all, but a wee footnote at the bottom caught my attention:

In June 2015, the Australian Parliament passed the  Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2015. As part of the amendment bill, the Large-scale Renewable Energy Target was reduced from 41 000 GWh to 33 000 GWh in 2020 with interim and post-2020 targets adjusted accordingly.

I believe the ultra-conservative Tony Abbott was PM in 2015, and the Fossils were calling the shots, as Marian Wilkinson’s The Carbon Club relates. Anyway, it’s a certificate system based on megawatt hours of power generated, and the rather pathetic target was apparently reached, based on approvals of large solar and wind installations, in the second half of 2019.

Jacinta: That’s something perhaps, but the IPCC wasn’t particularly impressed. The Clean Energy Council’s website, Ecogeneration, has boosted the achievement, describing the RET as ‘the most successful emissions reduction policy of all time for Australia’s electricity system’. But it hasn’t had any competition! And ominously, Kane Thornton, CEO of the Clean Energy Council, is quoted as saying ‘the industry doesn’t need new subsidies, we just need certainty’, etc etc, which contradicts everything I’ve heard from Saul Griffith, Mike Cannon-Brookes and others… we’ve been subsidising the fossil fuel industry forever, haven’t we? It’s rebuilding our manufacturing base that needs subsidising. Renewable energy has already become the cheaper option, but we have no EV manufacturing here and only one PV manufacturer.

Canto: Interesting Mike Cannon-Brookes interview in the Financial Review, which introduces the term ESG to me. This stands for Environmental, Social and Governance, perhaps in that order, as factors to be considered in any investment. Which all sounds v positive. And he’s very positive about ESG, which is a positive thing.

Jacinta: Yeah, apparently he’s a billionaire. How the fuck do people become billionaires? Why is it ever allowed?

Canto: Yeah, obviously it’s not just about working hard, like the Congolese in the diamond mines, and various slave populations over the centuries, whose only reward was death. Nature just ain’t fair. Herr Cannon-Brookes is co-founder of a company called Atlassian, which I’ve never heard of. Nor have I heard of their major products, such as Jiro and Trello, which are used by ‘teams’, but I don’t think they play soccer.

Jacinta: Sounds like they’re in the business of business, which is certainly none of our business.

Canto: Yeah, it’s probably all about digital environments. We’re about 40 years out of date. We need to stop reading books, paper is so 20th century.

Jacinta: Anyway, getting back to renewable energy …

Canto: Well this interview with Cannon-Brookes, he sounds pretty sincere, for a billionaire. They’re just people I suppose. If a bit weird. He’s very positive about renewables, and running his business that way, and pretty honest about the issues – like offloading the problem onto others, as he admits to having done, and facing that issue squarely. You know, like Australia exports coal and gas, and doesn’t take responsibility for the emissions. Like Norway.

Jacinta: They don’t have to take responsibility, the way the current system works. Apparently, as of July 2020, Australia became the world’s biggest gas (LNG) exporter, overtaking Qatar. That’s from the Climate Council. It’s hard to keep track of all these organisations. Anyway, Australia was exporting about 80 million tonnes of LNG per year two years ago. According to the latest, it was 77.7 MT (in 20-21 financial year). The article said it has ‘retained its crown’ as the world’s largest exporter. Shouldn’t that be a dunce’s cap?

Canto: So many people are late in getting with the program. By the way, China has taken over from Japan as our number one LNG buyer – adding to our problems with that fascist government. In any case the argument would be – and I’ve heard it stated in a public forum – that we owe our wealth as a nation to these exports, and by extension, to our trading relation with China. .

Jacinta: Well, it’s interesting that the price of gas is rising domestically. Presumably this has something to do with so much of our gas going offshore? And renewables, though growing, are hardly ready to fill the domestic energy gap, right?

Canto: So this is all new stuff to get my head around, but a ‘Bloomberg Green’ video linked below has it that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has produced an interim gas report, a forecast for 2023. It predicts that the supply of gas for next year will fall short of demand by about 56 petajoules – 3% of total demand. This doesn’t sound like much, but with rising gas prices… Anyway the ACCC is recommending that the federal government bring into force the ‘Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism’, pressuring LNG exporters to reserve some of those earmarked exports (70 to 75 percent of production) for the domestic market. Now, some 11% of those exports aren’t covered by long-term contracts – they’re available for those as bids for them, and there might be a few countries bidding, considering the global situation.

Jacinta: Hmmm, sounds like a seller’s market, with impoverished buyers, including domestic ones. So the idea is that the government can intervene to force gas exporters to sell some of their stuff here, with reduced profits?

Canto: Yes, but whether they do is a question. The video goes on to talk about Australia’s new emissions reduction target of 43% on 2005 levels by 2030, with the aim of net zero emissions by 2050. Interestingly, the Bloomberg economist says that while it’s good news to get clear targets after years of nothing much, the targets are still a bit weak. Most notably, only 3% of passenger vehicles sold last year were EVs, and with no manufacturing here in the foreseeable future, the chances of EVs reaching 89% of sales by 2030 – Labor’s target – are surely minuscule.

Jacinta: Yes, but all the other cars purchases would be overseas-made vehicles, wouldn’t they?

Canto: Hmmm, so there might have to be legislation to favour EV imports, as well as plenty of infrastructure… And a turnaround in public attitudes, which I don’t presently see.

Jacinta: Returning to gas, the Australia Institute, which appears to be a left-leaning public policy think tank, has a critique of our gas exporters in another, very brief, video. It just advises turning our backs on gas tout de suite. Forget reserving gas for the domestic market – which might involve something more or less in the form of a bribe to the exporters. Instead, electrify everything, of course. More pronto than pronto, to make up for a lost decade of relative inaction. They describe it as a gas export crisis, in which domestic prices are soaring because so much of our gas is going offshore. A win-win for the gas companies.

Canto: So, is this the situation? Gas companies are in the business of profit. They sell gas overseas, even at the expense of the domestic market, because they can, because they’re owned by private individuals, they can sell to the highest bidder. And If this means gas is scarce domestically, and in high demand, because we’ve become dependent on gas, we haven’t been weaned off it, the gas companies can make another killing on the domestic market? They’re holding us to ransom, so to speak?

Jacinta: Oil and gas companies in the US as well as in Australia are making huge profits currently, due to scarcities caused by war, embargoes and such…

Canto: The Australian Domestic Gas Security Mechanism was designed to ensure sufficient domestic supply, but it’s not very efficient, and the domestic supply target is too low. Some state governments, notably Western Australia, have a higher domestic reserve, but of course what we need is to switch to renewable-based electric as quickly as possible, to get out from under the control of the fossil fuel barons.

Jacinta: Are gas companies subsidised here?

Canto: Do koalas shit in the trees? Renew Economy has a scathing article about this, posted today. It describes companies like Santos recording super-massive-record profits this year, and the term ‘war profiteering’ is mentioned. This has also been at the expense of the domestic market. Here’s a quote:

Santos categorically stated its project would not affect the domestic market because it would not buy gas out of the domestic market. But that is exactly what it has done. Santos bought large volumes of gas out of the domestic market in the first half of 2022, forcing domestic prices above export prices in the last six months. These actions have generated super profits, gouged from domestic gas consumer and forcing up domestic electricity prices to unaffordable levels. Santos has broken its approval conditions and IEEFA calls on the government to cancel their export licence.

The IEEFA, for our info, is the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. Bruce Robertson, who wrote the Renew Economy article, has a similar piece on the IEEFA website. The thing is, the domestic reserve could be raised, and made non-negotiable (it isn’t at present) without having much of an effect on these windfall profits. As it is, gas companies are largely ignoring existing reserve requirements. The ACCC has the capacity to prosecute but apparently has no intention of doing so. They’re also doing nothing to tackle these companies’ collusion re price-fixing and tax avoidance. There’s something rotten about all this. Clearly we’re not going to wean ourselves from gas as quickly as we should, but we certainly shouldn’t be pumping up and sending off ever more of the stuff.

Jacinta: Well, yes, considering that the aim is to electrify everything, and people are starting to get on board with this, that means no new gas fields, so what are these companies going to do with these massive extra profits, other than line the pockets of CEOs and their immediate underlings?

Canto: Well, there will still be offshore markets for the foreseeable, so keep on despairing. Two months ago, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an opinion piece by Tony Wood of the Grattan Institute, arguing for a ‘windfall profit tax’ considering that some importers are paying ‘more than four and up to 10 times the contract prices’. The Federal Treasurer, Jim Chalmers, isn’t interested. And so the rich get richer, for the time being….

References

https://www.cleanenergyregulator.gov.au/RET/About-the-Renewable-Energy-Target

Marian Wilkinson, The Carbon Club, 2020

RET reached ahead of 2020 target

https://www.afr.com/policy/energy-and-climate/mike-cannon-brookes-on-esg-agl-and-why-australia-needs-no-more-gas-20220616-p5au3b

What the frack? Australia overtakes Qatar as world’s largest gas exporter

https://www.upstreamonline.com/lng/australia-remains-worlds-top-lng-exporter-but-it-could-lose-its-crown-this-year/2-1-1147625

Santos windfall: Australia is swimming in subsidised gas and we’re giving it away

https://ieefa.org/resources/why-government-must-break-eastern-australias-gas-cartel

https://www.smh.com.au/national/all-australians-should-share-in-record-profits-from-overseas-gas-sales-20220608-p5aryk.html

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

August 17, 2022 at 11:16 pm

green hydrogen? it has its place, apparently

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easy-peasy? don’t be guiled

Canto: So now that Labor has won government in South Australia it’ll be implementing its hydrogen plan pronto, I presume. But so many people seem iffy about hydrogen, I thought we might do another shallow dive on the topic.

Jacinta: Yes, we jointly wrote a piece last June on SA’s hydrogen plan (linked below), and a brief interview today with Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest caught my attention – time to revisit and further our education on the subject.

Canto: Yes, a recent ABC article described Forrest’s ‘green hydrogen hub’ in Gladstone in central Queensland. He’s building the world’s largest electrolyser facility there. We’re talking gigawatts rather than megawatts. He expects – by which he means hopes – that the facility will have the capacity to produce 2 gigawatts (that’s 2000 megawatts) of electrolysers per annum, just for starters.

Jacinta: I’m not sure whether to trust Forrest’s hype, but I like his enthusiasm. He reckons he already has buyers for his electrolysers and that ‘the order list is growing rapidly’

Canto: Interesting – Forrest says that the lack of electrolysers has been a problem for a while, and apparently Australian researchers at the University of Wollongong, associated with a company called Hysata, have achieved a ‘giant leap for the electrolysis industry’, with its ‘capillary-fed electrolysis cells’, which have attained 95% efficiency, up from the previous 75%. This was published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, so it’s not just hot air.

Jacinta: Apparently electrolysers have been around for quite some time, with very few improvements, so this seems important. The researchers describe their approach thus:

The central challenge was to reduce the electrical resistance within the electrolysis cell. Much like a smart phone battery warming as it charges, resistance wasted energy in a regular cell as well as often requiring additional energy for cooling.

“What we did differently was just to start completely over and to think about it from a very high level,” Swiegers said. “Everyone else was looking at improving materials or an existing design.”

Canto: Reducing electrical resistance – that’s always the key to cheaper and more effective electricity, it seems to me. That was at the heart of the AC versus DC battle, and it’s what has made LED lighting such a vital development.

Jacinta: I still don’t understand LED lighting. Photons instead of electrons, yet still connected to an electric circuit driven by electrons in wires…

Canto: Anyway, returning to hydrogen, there’s a presumably new organisation called the Australian Hydrogen Council, whose website has a frequently asked questions section. The key thing about green hydrogen, or otherwise, is where the electricity comes from to produce electrolysis. To be green, obviously, it needs to be from solar or wind, or hydro. The FAQ section also mentions that the electricity can come from carbon capture and storage, resulting in ‘low to zero carbon emissions’.

Jacinta: Hmmm. We’ll have to do a shallow dive on carbon capture and storage soon. I know that ‘greenies’ are generally highly skeptical, but sometimes I feel a bit skeptical of greenies. Am I allowed to say that?

Canto: A generalised skepticism means looking critically at any scientific claims. But I’ve been thinking about electrolysis, particularly the electrolysis of water, which is key to this clean green hydrogen-producing process, presumably. It’s about ‘lysis’ – splitting, or separating – by means of an electrical current. But to paraphrase Woody Allen, ‘I’m two with science’. Or to put it another way, science is to me like a lover I’m passionate about but can never fully, or even partially, understand…

Jacinta: Well I’ve watched a wee citizen science video about doing electrolysis of water at home. You need, according to these guys, distilled  water, nice and pure, and ‘kosher’, non-iodised salt. Mix it together in a heat-resistant beaker, about nine parts water to one part salt, until the salt dissolves, and insert a couple of spoons attached to a nine volt battery into the mix. The salt increases the conductivity of the solution, as pure water isn’t conductive, much. You’ll need an acid, such as vinegar, to neutralise the alkaline solution that results from the experiment. That alkaline solution is essentially sodium hydroxide, NaOH, aka caustic soda or lye, which can cause burns, so home experimenters need to protect themselves accordingly. Then you insert the spoons, each connected to one of the two terminals of the battery, into the beaker. Bubbles of hydrogen and chlorine gas will form, as long as the two spoons are kept separate. Note that inhaling chlorine gas is a v bad idea, so, again, protection. And best to do the experiment outside. So what is happening here? Salt is an electrolyte, an ionically-bonded compound. The ions are what facilitates the transfer of electrical energy. So what we have in the solution are molecules of H, O, Na and Cl, the molecular bonds having been broken by the electrical current. In this home experiment, the hydrogen and chlorine gases escape into the air, but of course the hydrogen will be captured for energy use in the system being developed by Forrest and others.

Canto: Yes the salt water is used as an electrolyte, but different electrolysers will use different electrolytes. The US website energy.gov describes three types of electrolysers being used or considered at the commercial level – polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM), alkaline, and solid oxide. The problems with all these types is cost-effectiveness. For example the solid oxide membranes in that type of electrolyser need to operate at very high temperatures – between 700 and 800°C – to function effectively, though promising work is being done to lower the temperature. From what I can gather, the PEM electrolysers are showing the most promise. This uses a solid plastic electrolyte, and for what it’s worth I’ll quote something about how it works:

  • Water reacts at the anode to form oxygen and positively charged hydrogen ions (protons).
  • The electrons flow through an external circuit and the hydrogen ions selectively move across the PEM to the cathode.
  • At the cathode, hydrogen ions combine with electrons from the external circuit to form hydrogen gas.
  • Anode Reaction: 2H2O → O2 + 4H+ + 4e Cathode Reaction: 4H+ + 4e → 2H2

Jacinta: As you’ve said, the cost of electrolysers is a major barrier, and I’ve been unable to find out the type of electrolysers Forrest’s company (Green Energy Manufacturing) is going with. I did find out that Twiggy likes to be called Dr Forrest now, having completed a doctorate in Marine science recently. Also, there’s quite a lot of skepticism about his green hydrogen project.

Canto: Yeah, like there was with SA’s big battery… Stop Press –

The electrolysers produced at the GEM facility will partner FFI’s advanced manufacturing capabilities with cutting-edge Polymer Electrolysis Membrane (PEM) technology developed by NASDAQ-listed company Plug Power to deliver a high-purity, efficient and reliable end product.

That’s advertising blurb from the Queensland government, so we’ll have to wait and see. But getting back to the skepticism about hydrogen as an energy source – what gives? Well, according to Rosie Barnes, Australia’s engineering Wonderwoman, the process of creating hydrogen by electrolysis and then burnng it in a full cell is very energy-inefficient compared to direct or battery electrical energy. That’s three compared to one wind turbine, for example. Also hydrogen takes up a lot of space – remember those massive zeppelins?

Jacinta: Not personally.

Canto: Well, another problem with hydrogen is its flammability. The Hindenburg wasn’t the only hydrogen airship that went up in flames. They can replace hydrogen with helium apparently, but that presents another set of problems. In any case, it looks like hydrogen isn’t going to be the silver bullet for green energy, but it will surely be a part of the energy mix, and with technologies for storage and transport being developed and improved all the time, it’ll be interesting to see how and where green hydrogen finds its place.

Jacinta: Yes I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the projects happening here in Australia, and how the likely change of government at the federal level makes a difference. My feeling is that they’re keeping mum about their energy plans until after the election, but maybe I’m being overly optimistic.

 

References

a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-02-28/andrew-forrest-begins-work-on-green-hydrogen-hub-in-gladstone/100865988

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-022-28953-x

The Sci Guys: Science at home – electrolysis of water (video)

https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-production-electrolysis

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2589299119300035

https://www.statedevelopment.qld.gov.au/news/people-projects-places/breaking-ground-how-aldoga-is-leading-queenslands-renewable-energy-charge

https://skepticalscience.com/hydrogen-fuel.html

Hydrogen and Helium in Rigid Airship Operations

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 18, 2022 at 5:57 pm

some stuff on super-grids and smart grids

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In a recent New Scientist article, ‘The rise of supergrids’, I learned that Australia is among 80 countries backing a project, or perhaps an idea for a project, launched at COP26 in Glasgow, called One Sun One World One Grid, ‘a plan to massively expand the reach of solar power by joining up the electricity grids of countries and even entire continents’. My first reaction was cynicism – Australia’s successive governments have never managed to come up with a credible policy to combat global warming or to develop renewable energy, but they love to save face by cheering on other countries’ initiatives, at no cost to themselves.

Our state government (South Australia) did invest in the construction of a giant lithium ion battery, the biggest of its kind at the time (2017), built by Tesla to firm up our sometimes dodgy electricity supply, and, to be fair, there’s been a lot of state investment here in wind and solar, but there’s been very little at the national level. 

At the global level, the Chinese thugocracy has been talking up the idea of a ‘global energy internet’ for some years – but let’s face it, the WEIRD world has good reason not to trust the CCP. Apparently China is a world leader in the manufacture and development of UHVDC (ultra-high voltage direct current) transmission lines, and is no doubt hoping to spread the algorithms of Chinese technological and political superiority through a globe-wrapped electrical belt-and-road. 

But back in the WEIRD world, it’s the EU that’s looking to spearhead the supergrid system. It already has the most developed international system for trading electricity, according to the Financial Review. And of course, we’re talking about renewable energy here, though an important ancillary effect would be trade connections within an increasingly global energy system. There’s also an interest, at least among some, in creating a transcontinental supergrid in the US. 

Renewable sources such as solar and wind tend to be generated in isolated, low-demand locations, so long-distance transmission is a major problem, especially when carried out across national boundaries. Currently the growth has been in local microgrids and battery storage, but there are arguments about meshing the small-scale with the large scale. One positive feature of a global energy network is that it might just have a uniting effect, regardless of economic considerations. 

But of course economics will be a major factor in enticing investment. Economists use an acronym, LCOE, the levelized cost of electricity, when analysing costs and benefits of an electrical grid system. This is a measure of the lifetime cost of a system divided by the energy it produces. The Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland used this and other measures to analyse the ‘techno-economic benefits of a globally interconnected world’, and found that they would be fewer than those of a national and subnational grid system, which seems counter-intuitive to me. However the analysts did admit that a more holistic approach to the supergrid concept might be in order. In short, more research is needed. 

Another concept to consider is the smart grid, which generally starts small and local but can be built up over time and space. These grids are largely computerised, of course, which raises security concerns, but it would be hard to over-estimate the transformative nature of such energy systems.

Our current grid system was pretty well finalised in the mid-twentieth century. It was of course based on fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – with some hydro. The first nuclear power plant – small in scale – commenced operations in the Soviet Union in 1954. With massive population growth and massive increases in energy demand (as well as a demand for reliability of services) more and more power plants were built, mostly based on fossil fuels. Over time, it was realised that there were particular periods of high and low demand, which led to using ‘peaking power generators’ that were often switched off. The cost of maintaining these generators was passed on to consumers in the form of increased tariffs. The use of ‘smart technology’ by individuals and companies to control usage was a more or less inevitable response. 

Moving into the 21st century, smart technology has led to something of a battle and an accommodation with energy providers. Moreover, combined with a growing concern about the fossil fuel industry and its contribution to global warming, and the rapid development of variable solar and wind power generation, some consumers have become increasingly interested in alternatives to ‘traditional’ grid systems, and large power stations, which can, in some regions, be rendered unnecessary for those with photovoltaics and battery storage. The potential for a more decentralised system of mini-grids for individual homes and neighbourhoods has become increasingly clear.   

Wikipedia’s article on smart grids, which I’m relying on, is impressively fulsome. It provides, inter alia, this definition of a smart grid from the European Union:

“A Smart Grid is an electricity network that can cost efficiently integrate the behaviour and actions of all users connected to it – generators, consumers and those that do both – in order to ensure economically efficient, sustainable power system with low losses and high levels of quality and security of supply and safety. A smart grid employs innovative products and services together with intelligent monitoring, control, communication, and self-healing technologies in order to:

  1. Better facilitate the connection and operation of generators of all sizes and technologies.
  2. Allow consumers to play a part in optimising the operation of the system.
  3. Provide consumers with greater information and options for how they use their supply.
  4. Significantly reduce the environmental impact of the whole electricity supply system.
  5. Maintain or even improve the existing high levels of system reliability, quality and security of supply.
  6. Maintain and improve the existing services efficiently.”

So, with the continued growth of innovative renewable energy technologies, for domestic and industrial use, and in particular with respect to transport (the development of vehicle-to-grid [V2G] systems), we’re going to have, I suspect, something of a technocratic divide between early adopters and those who are not so much traditionalists as confused about or overwhelmed by the pace of developments – remembering that most WEIRD countries have an increasingly ageing population. 

I’m speaking for myself here. Being not only somewhat long in the tooth but also dirt poor, I’m simply a bystander with respect to this stuff, but I hope to to get more integrated, smart and energetic about it over time. 

References

https://www.afr.com/companies/energy/the-future-of-power-is-transcontinental-submarine-supergrids-20210622-p5837a

Global supergrid vs. regional supergrids

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

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehicle-to-grid

Written by stewart henderson

March 15, 2022 at 7:33 pm

resetting the electrical agenda

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the all-electric la jamais contente, first car to break the 100 kph barrier, in 1899

In his book Clearing the air, Tim Smedley reminds us of the terrible errors we made in abandoning electric vehicles in the early 20th century. Smedley’s focus was on air pollution, and how the problem was exacerbated, and in fact largely caused, by emissions from car exhausts in increasingly car-dependent cities like Beijing, Delhi, Los Angeles and London. In the process he briefly mentioned the electric tram systems that were scrapped in so many cities worldwide in favour of the infernal combustion engine. It’s a story I’ve heard before of course, but it really is worth taking a deeper dive into the mess of mistakes we made back then, and the lessons we need to learn. 

A major lesson, unsurprisingly, is to be suspicious of vested interests. Today, the fossil fuel industry is still active in denying the facts about global warming and minimising the impact of air pollution on our health. Solar and wind power, and the rise of the EV industry – which, unfortunately, doesn’t exist in Australia – are still subject to ridiculous attacks by the heavily subsidised fossil fuel giants, though at least their employees don’t go around smashing wind turbines and solar panels. The website Car and Driver tells a ‘funny story’ about the very earliest days of EVs: 

… Robert Davidson of Aberdeen, built a prototype electric locomotive in 1837. A bigger, better version, demonstrated in 1841, could go 1.5 miles at 4 mph towing six tons. Then it needed new batteries. This impressive performance so alarmed railway workers (who saw it as a threat to their jobs tending steam engines) that they destroyed Davidson’s devil machine, which he’d named Galvani.

If only this achievement by Davidson, before the days of rechargeable batteries, had been greeted with more excitement and wonder. But by the time rechargeable batteries were introduced in the 1860s, steam locomotives were an established and indeed revolutionary form of transport. They began to be challenged, though, in the 1880s and 90s as battery technology, and other features such as lightweight construction materials and pneumatic tyres, started to make electric transport a more promising investment. What followed, of course, with the development of and continual improvements to the internal combustion engine in the 1870s and 80s, first using gas and then petrol – the 1870s into the 90s and beyond was a period of intense innovation for vehicular transport – was a serious and nasty battle for control of the future of private road transport. Electricity wasn’t widely available in the early twentieth century, but rich industrialists were able to create a network of filling stations, which, combined with the wider availability of cheap oil, and the mass production and marketing capabilities of industrialists like Henry Ford – who had earlier considered electric vehicles the best future option – made petrol-driven vehicles the eventual winner, in the short term. Of course, little thought was given in those days to fuel emissions. A US website describes a likely turning point: 

… it was Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T that dealt a blow to the electric car. Introduced in 1908, the Model T made gasoline [petrol]-powered cars widely available and affordable. By 1912, the gasoline car cost only $650, while an electric roadster sold for $1,750. That same year, Charles Kettering introduced the electric starter, eliminating the need for the hand crank and giving rise to more gasoline-powered vehicle sales.

Electrically-powered vehicles quickly became ‘quaint’ and unfashionable, leading to to the trashing of electric trams worldwide. 

The high point of the internal combustion engine may not have arrived yet, as numbers continue to climb. Some appear to be addicted to the noise they make (I hear them roaring by nearly every night!). But surely their days are numbered. What shocks me, frankly, is how slow the public is to abandon them, when the fossil fuel industry is so clearly in retreat, and when EVs are becoming so ‘cool’. Of course conservative governments spend a fortune in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry –  Australia’s government  provided over $10 billion in the 2020-21 financial year, and the industry in its turn has given very generously to the government (over $1.5 million in FY2020, according to the Market Forces website).

But Australia is an outlier, with one of the worst climate policies in the WEIRD world. There will be a federal election here soon, and a change of government is very much on the cards, but the current labor opposition appears afraid to unveil a climate policy before the election. The move towards electrification of vehicles in many European countries, in China and elsewhere, will eventually have a knock-on effect here, but the immediate future doesn’t look promising. EV sales have risen markedly in the past twelve months, but from a very low base, with battery and hybrids rising to 1.95% of market share – still a paltry amount (compare Norway with 54% EVs in 2020). Interestingly, Japan is another WEIRD country that is lagging behind. China continues to be the world leader in terms of sheer numbers. 

The countries that will lead the field of course, will be those that invest in infrastructure for the transition. Our current government announced an infrastructure plan at the beginning of the year, but with little detail. There are issues, for example, about the type of charging infrastructure to fund, though fast-charging DC seems most likely.

In general, I’ve become pessimistic about Australians switching en masse to EVs over the next ten years or so – I’ve read too many ‘just around the corner’ articles with too little actual change in the past five years. But perhaps a new government with a solid, detailed plan will emerge in the near future, leading to a burst of new investment…. 

References

Tim Smedley, Clearing the air, 2019

https://www.caranddriver.com/features/g15378765/worth-the-watt-a-brief-history-of-the-electric-car-1830-to-present/

https://www.energy.gov/articles/history-electric-car

https://www.marketforces.org.au/politicaldonations2021/

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 27, 2022 at 1:07 pm

electric vehicles in Australia – how bad/good is it?

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Hyundai Ionique electric – top marks from the Green Vehicle Guide

 

Following on from the interview with Prof Mark Howden that I reported on recently, I’m wondering what the situation is for anyone wanting to buy an EV in Australia today. What’s on the market, what are the prices, how is the infrastructure, and what if, like me, you might want just to hire an EV occasionally rather than own one?

Inspired by Britain’s Fully Charged show, especially the new episodes entitled Maddie Goes Electric, I’m going to do a little research on what I fully expect to be the bleak scenario of EV availability and cost in Australia. Clearly, we’re well behind the UK in terms of the advance towards EV. One of Maddie’s first steps, for example, in researching EVs was to go to a place called the Electric Vehicle Experience Centre (EVEC), for a first dip into this new world. I cheekily did a net search for Australia’s EVEC, but I didn’t come up completely empty, in that we do have an Australian Electric Vehicle Association (AEVA) and an Electric Vehicle Council (EVC), which I’ll have to investigate further. Maddie also looked up UK’s Green Car Guide, and I’ve just learned that Australia has a corresponding Green Vehicle Guide. I need to excuse my ignorance up to this point – I don’t even own a car, and haven’t for years, and I’m not in the market for one, being chronically poor, and not having space for one where I live, not even in terms of off-street parking, but I occasionally hire a car for holidays and would love to be able to do so with an EV. We shall see.

So the Green Vehicle Guide ranks the recently-released all-electric Hyundai Ioniq as the best-performing green vehicle on the Australian market (that’s performance, not sales, where it seems to be nowhere, probably because it’s so new). It’s priced at somewhere between about $35,000 and $50,000. Here’s what a car sales site has to say:

The arrival of the Hyundai IONIQ five-door hatchback signals Australia is finally setting out on its evolution to an electrified automotive society. The IONIQ is the cheapest battery-electric vehicle on sale in Australia and that’s important in itself. But it’s also significant that Australia’s third biggest vehicle retailer has committed to this course when most majors aren’t even close to signing off such a vehicle. In fact, just to underline Hyundai’s push into green motoring, the IONIQ isn’t just a car; it’s a whole range with three drivetrains – hybrid, plug-in and EV.

I need to find out the precise difference between a hybrid and a plug-in… It’s steep learning curve time.

Anyway, some reporting suggests that Australia’s bleak EV situation is turning around. This Guardian article from August 2019 predicts that EV sales are set to rise significantly, regardless of government inaction:

Modelling suggests the electric vehicle share of new car sales in Australia will rise from about 0.34% today to 8% in 2025. It is predicted to then leap to 27% of new car sales in 2030 and 50% in 2035 as prices of electric car technology fall.

2025 isn’t far off, so I’m a bit skeptical of these figures. Nevertheless, I’ll be monitoring the Australian EV scene more closely from now on.

References

https://www.iea.org/policies/7885-a-national-strategy-for-electric-vehicles

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/14/half-of-all-new-cars-sold-in-australia-by-2035-will-be-electric-forecast

https://www.greenvehicleguide.gov.au/

Maddie Goes Electric, Episode 1: Choosing your electric car (A beginner’s guide) | Fully Charged

Written by stewart henderson

January 19, 2020 at 5:14 pm

climate change – we know what we should be doing

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Professor Mark Howden of the ANU and the IPCC – straight science and economic sense

Here in Australia we have a national government that hates to mention human-induced climate change publicly, whatever their personal views are, and clearly they’re varied. I’ve long suspected that there’s a top-down policy (which long predates our current PM) of not mentioning anthropogenic global warming, lest it outrage a large part of the conservative base, while doing a few things behind the scenes to support renewables and reduce emissions. It’s a sort of half-hearted, disorganised approach to what is clearly a major problem locally and globally. And meanwhile some less disciplined or less chained members or former members of this government, such as former PM Tony Abbott and current MP for Hughes, Craig Kelly, are ignoring the party line (and science), and so revealing just how half-arsed the government’s way of dealing with the problem really is. The national opposition doesn’t seem much better on this issue, and it might well be a matter of following the money…

So I was impressed with a recent ABC interview with Australian climate scientist and leading member of the IPCC, Professor Mark Howden, also director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, who spoke a world of good sense in about ten minutes. 

The interview was preceded by the statement that the government is holding to its emission reduction targets – considered to be rather minimal by climate change scientists – while possibly ‘tweaking’ broader climate change policy. This is another example of ‘don’t scare the base’, IMHO. It was also reported that the government felt it might reach its Paris agreement without using ‘carry-over credits’ from the previous Kyoto agreement.  

The issue here is that our government, in its wisdom, felt that it should get credit for ‘more than meeting’ its Kyoto targets. As Howden pointed out, those Kyoto targets were easy to meet because we’d have met them even while increasing our emissions (which we in fact did). Spoken without any sense of irony by the unflappable professor. 

There’s no provision in the Paris agreement for such ‘carry-over credits’ – however the government has previously relied on them as an entitlement, and in fact pushed for them in a recent meeting in Madrid. Now, it’s changing its tune, slightly. The hullabaloo over the bushfire tragedies has been an influence, as well as a growing sense that reaching the Paris targets without these credits is do-able. Interestingly, Howden suggests that the credits are important for us meeting our Paris commitments up to 2030, as they make up more than half the required emissions reductions. So, if they’re included, we’ll need a 16% reduction from here, rather than a 26 – 28% reduction. But is this cheating? Is it in the spirit of the Paris agreement? Surely not, apart from legal considerations. It certainly affects any idea that Australia might play a leadership role in emissions reductions. 

So now the government is indicating that it might scrap the reliance on credits and find real reductions – which is, in fact, a fairly momentous decision for this conservative administration, because the core emissions from energy, transport, waste and other activities are all rising and would need to be turned around (I’m paraphrasing Howden here). So far no policies have been announced, or are clearly in the offing, to effect this turnaround. There’s an Emissions Reductions Fund,  established in 2014-5 to support businesses, farmers, landowners in reducing emissions through a carbon credit scheme (this is news to me) but according to Howden it’s in need of more public funding, and the ‘carbon sinks’ – that’s to say the forests that have been burning horrifically in past weeks  – which the government has been partly relying upon, are proving to be less stable than hoped. So there are limitations to the government’s current policies. Howden argues for a range of additional policies, but as he says, they’ve rejected (presumably permanently) so many options in the past, most notably carbon pricing, that the cupboard looks pretty bare for the future. There’s of course a speedier move towards renewables in electricity generation – which represents about 30% of emissions, the other 70% being with industry, agriculture, transport and mining (see my previous piece on fracking, for example, a practice that looks to be on the increase in Australia). Howden puts forward the case that it’s in this 70% area that policies can be most helpful, both in emissions reduction and jobs growth. For example, in transport, Australia is well behind other nations in the uptake of EVs, which our government has done nothing to support, unlike most advanced economies. Having EVs working off a renewables grid would reduce transport emissions massively. Other efficiencies which could be encouraged by government policy would be reducing livestock methane emissions through feed and husbandry reforms, such as maintaining shade and other stress-reducing conditions. This can increase productivity and reduce per-unit environmental footprint – or hoofprint. 

As to the old carbon pricing argument – Howden points out that during the brief period that carbon pricing was implemented in Australia, core emissions dropped significantly, and the economy continued to grow. It was clearly successful, and its rescinding in around 2015 has proved disastrous. Howden feels that it’s hard to foresee Australia meeting its 2030 Paris targets without some sort of price on carbon – given that there won’t be any deal on carry-over credits. There’s also an expectation that targets will be ramped up, post-2030. 

So, the message is that we need to sensibly revisit carbon pricing as soon as possible, and we need to look positively at abatement policies as encouraging growth and innovation – the cost of doing nothing being much greater than the costs involved in emissions reduction. And there are plenty of innovations out there – you can easily look them up on youtube, starting with the Fully Charged show out of Britain. The complacency of the current Oz government in view of the challenges before us is itself energy-draining – like watching a fat-arsed couch potato yawning his way towards an early death. 

References

https://iview.abc.net.au/show/abc-news-mornings

https://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/government/emissions-reduction-fund/about

https://ussromantics.com/2020/01/02/fracking-hell/

Written by stewart henderson

January 16, 2020 at 10:37 am

Electric aircraft? It’s happening, in a small way

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the Ampaire 337

I no longer write on my solutionsok blog, as it’s just easier for a lazy person like me to maintain the one site, but as a result I’ve not been writing so much about solutions per se, so I’ll try to a bit more of that. The always entertaining and informative Fully Charged show on YouTube provides plenty of material about new developments in renewable energy, especially re transport, and in a recent episode, host Robert Llewelyn had a bit to say about electric planes, which I’d like to follow up on.

Everyone knows that plane travel has been on the up and up haha for decades, and you may have heard that these planes use up a lot of fossil fuel and produce lots of nasty emissions. According to the Australian government’s Department of Infrastructure and Many Other Things (DIMOT – don’t look it up) Australia’a civil aviation sector contributed 22 million tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions in 2016. That’s of course a meaningless number but safe to say it’s dwarfed by the emissions of the major aviation countries. I assume the term ‘C02-equivalent’ means other greenhouse gases converted into equivalent-impacting amounts of CO2. For aircraft this includes water vapour, hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, lead and other atmosphere-affecting nasties. More innovative and less polluting engine designs have failed to halt the steady rise of emissions due to increased air travel worldwide, and there’s no end in sight. It’s really the only emissions sector for which there is no obvious solution – unlike other sectors which are largely blocked by vested interests.

So, while few people at present see electric aircraft as the big fix, enterprising engineers are making steady improvements and trying for major breakthroughs with an eye to the hopefully not-too-distant future. Just a couple of days ago, as reported on the nicely-named Good News Network, the largest-ever hybrid-electric aircraft (it looks rather small), the Ampaire 337, took flight from Camarillo airport in California (of course). The normally twin-engine plane was retrofitted with an electric motor working in concert with the remaining fuel engine to create a ‘parallel hybrid’, which significantly reduces emissions. After this successful test run, there will be multiple weekly flights over the next few months, and then, if all goes well, commercial short-haul flights are planned for Hawaii.

Of course, here in Australia, where electric cars are seen by power-brokers as some kind of futuristic horror set to destroy our way of life, there’s no obvious appetite for even wierder flying things, but our time will come – or perhaps we should all give up and invade western Europe or California. Meanwhile, Fully Charged are saying ‘there’s no shortage of aircraft companies around the world [including Rolls Royce] developing electric aircraft’, as well as converting light aircraft to electric (the Ampaire 337 mentioned above is actually a converted Cessna 337). A Canadian airline, Harbour Air, is converting 3 dozen seaplanes to electric motors, with first passengers flights expected by late 2021. These will only be capable of short flights in the region of British Columbia – range, which is connected to battery weight, being perhaps the biggest problem for electric aircraft to overcome. Again according to Fully Charged, there are over 100 electric aircraft development programs going on worldwide at present, and we should see some results in terms of short-haul flights in five years. Perfect for Europe, but also not out of the question for Adelaide to Melbourne or Port Lincoln, Canberra to Sydney and so on. Norway has a plan to use electric aircraft for all its domestic passenger flights in the not-too-distant future.

A name dropped on Fully Charged, Roei Ganzarski, seems worth following up. He says ‘By 2025, 1000 miles in an electric plane is going to be easily done. I’m not saying 5000 miles, but 1000 miles, easily.’ Ganzarski is currently the CEO of magniX, an ‘electric propulsion technology company’, based in Seattle. His company made the motors for the Ampaire 337, I think.

It should be pointed out that UAVs (unmanned – or unpersonned? – aerial vehicles), aka drones, are small electric aircraft, so the principle of electric flight is well established. It’s also worth noting that electricity doesn’t have to come from batteries, though they’re the most likely way forward. Solar cells, for example, can directly convert sunlight into electricity, and in 2015/16, using two alternating pilots, Solar Impulse 2 became the first fixed-wing, piloted, solar-powered aircraft to circumnavigate the globe. Fuel cells, particularly using hydrogen, are another option.

At the moment, though, hybrid power is all the go, and the focus is on light aircraft and short-haul flight. General aviation is still a long way off because, according to this Wikipedia article, ‘the specific energy of electricity storage is still 2% of aviation fuel’. As to what that means, I have very little idea, but this steal from a Vox piece on the topic helps to clarify:

The key limitation for aircraft is the energy density of its fuel: When space and weight are at a premium, you want to cram as much energy into as small a space as possible. Right now, some of the best lithium-ion batteries have a specific energy of 250 watt-hours per kilogram, which has already proved viable in cars. But to compete on air routes up to 600 nautical miles in a Boeing 737- or Airbus A320-size airliner, Schäfer estimated that a battery would need to have a specific energy of 800 watt-hours per kilogram. Jet fuel, by comparison, has a specific energy of 11,890 watt-hours per kilogram.

So, specific energy is essentially related to energy density, and I know that getting batteries to be as energy-dense as possible is the holy grail of researchers. So, until that ten-fold or 100-fold improvement in energy density is achieved by the battery of batteriologists beavering away at the big plane problem, we should at least push for light aircraft and short-haul flights to go completely electric asap. Ausgov, do us proud.

Written by stewart henderson

June 12, 2019 at 9:47 am

the ACCC, coal, renewables, arguments, and the future

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Well as I watch my readership reduce to almost zero in its usual ups and downs I wonder whether to write just for myself or to attract a readership, so I’ll just go ahead and write, but I was amused to listen to Senator Matt Canavan, our Minister for Resources and a member of the Nationals, responding to the ACCC’s recommendations for bringing energy prices down. At one point he remarked ‘who cares where we get our fuel from?’, and compared the different fuel varieties to different types of ice-cream in a sweet shop. Presumably he was referring to encouraging an energy mix, but for someone who presumably knows something about resources, since he holds that portfolio (though that’s hardly ever proof of expertise in government), it struck me as bizarre. Who cares where we get our fuel from or what type it is? The Chinese government cares, for one. It has worked hard in recent years to combat pollution in Beijing, largely  in response to adverse publicity. China’s capital, ranked as the fifth most polluted city in China in 2011, has since dropped out of the top twenty, largely due to the adoption of cleaner, greener energy and technology. Unfortunately, many other cities in China’s highly populated and industrialised north-western region still suffer from an environment which has reduced life expectancy there by some 5.5 years, according to a joint study by Chinese and American university teams in 2013. This sadly suggests that the Chinese government appears to be more concerned with its international image than with protecting its own citizens from hazardous emissions. On the bright side, Beijing’s improvement indicates what can be done to improve environments when governments and industry get their act together.

Just as oils aint oils, fuels aren’t just fuels. Remember kerosene? I remember huddling over a kerosene heater in the seventies, along with student housemates. But in other parts, kero isn’t a past-tense energy source. In many of the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, it’s used for lighting, even though it’s toxic, causes frequent burns and fires, and produces inferior light. It has proved difficult to wean consumers from kerosene in these countries, even though there are potentially cheaper options available. There’s an interesting article about the problems and possible solutions here.

But really, since energy generation (i.e. using x,y, or z as fuel) is the number one cause of air pollution and global warming emissions, it’s not like comparing caramel praline with black raspberry crunch. Coal is of course the worst in terms of emissions. As of 2016, some 44% of US electricity comes from coal, but it accounts for 80% of that country’s power plant carbon emissions. Australia has great reserves of coal, but it exports much of it to China and, more recently, South-East Asia. In fact Australia has experienced a recent boom in coal exports, earning a record $56.5 billion in 2017. Unsurprisingly many conservative pollies are clamouring for more coal mines and more local use of the resource as a solution to our seemingly ever-rising energy costs. Maybe we too can pull out of the Paris Agreement? Of course, our massive coal exports do tend to undermine that agreement, while the government can congratulate itself on keeping domestic use within more or less acceptable limits (see graph above). Currently, we’re the largest coal exporter and the third largest exporter of carbon pollution in the world, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia. But of course it’s not our fault that other countries want to pollute with our resources, is it? We just take the money and keep our country clean (as do Norway, Denmark and Indonesia).

So considering our dubious status in terms of global emissions (but, as many experts point out, it’s a little arrogant to expect developing and transitioning countries like China, our biggest coal customer, to rapidly abandon a fuel that the developed world has used for so long, thereby gaining ascendancy), it’s interesting to note that AGL, Australia’s largest owner of coal fired power stations and biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, is continuing its push away from coal in spite of government pressure. Of course the government itself is divided on this, with Turnbull and Frydenberg largely at odds with the Nationals on the question of transition, but looking into the future, it seems inevitable that demand for coal will decline – the only question is the rate of that decline, which of course depends on how quickly other nations move away from coal. All of those nations have signed the Paris Agreement. Already, coal ports such as Newcastle, and Australia’s mining regions, are looking to diversify, and energy experts are debating the pursuance of a coal tax to support the industry as it transitions.

But Canavan and the Nationals are having none of this. They point to the above-mentioned boom and a currently accelerating demand, though Canavan is realistic enough to admit that future forecasts are reliably unreliable. Much will depend on cost declines and advancing technology in renewables, as well as various political scenarios.

Naturally the renewable energy sector is looking critically at what one of its experts calls the ‘series of scattershot proposals’ by the ACCC on reducing our electricity costs. The ACCC’s recommendation that the small-scale renewable energy scheme (SRES), a subsidy which mainly applies to rooftop solar, should be wound down, is seen as unfair if not counter-productive by the sector. The SRES is already slated to be wound down by 2030, and its earlier abolition (by 2021, according to ACCC recommendations) would mainly affect low-income and rental householders. There’s currently a new boom in rooftop solar, with rising energy costs being the main cause. So penalising future adopters of rooftop solar seems an odd way to reduce the problems they’re adopting solar to avoid. As to the possibility of new gas- or coal-fired power plants, a dream of the Nationals and renegade ultra-conservative Tony Abbott, that’s unlikely, considering changing public attitudes and the reasonable likelihood of a change of federal government by next year. The good thing about the ACCC’s analysis is that the behaviour of retailers, and the phenomenon of price gouging, have finally been criticised, and the idea of states writing down the value of their networks has been floated. Consumers shouldn’t have to bear the burden of extra energy infrastructure and errors in predicting future energy demand.

There have been many interesting responses to the report, to say the least. Danny Price, a leading analyst of the national energy market over three decades, regards the report as overly political in that it shies away from criticising the lack of a much-needed bipartisan approach to energy policy. Confusion and ideological squabbling over carbon pricing – the disastrous scrapping by the Abbott government of a carefully formulated carbon tax being the low point – has been a disincentive to major investment, and banks here are refusing to finance new coal-fired power stations, which would only be built via massive government subsidies. Consequently we’ve seen an upsurge in interest in renewables from consumers and business, which also reflects worldwide growth, with major oil companies like BP joining the fray.

Of course the problem of reliable back-up power remains, and analyst Ian Verrender has criticised the ACCC report for omitting his best solution – gas. Gas turbines are more flexible than coal generators as well as producing fewer emissions. Australia is a major exporter of gas, but our companies have been providing little for domestic consumption, a situation which was only partly remedied by recent federal intervention. Yet the Nationals are more interested in coal than gas, in spite of its many problems, and its inefficiencies in providing precise back-up supply. Gas, hydro and batteries are far more efficient in this respect.

A recent study by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) has also backed renewables (though apparently the current federal government isn’t listening). It has released its Integrated Systems Plan, reported on here by Giles Parkinson:

Based on its “neutral” scenario, which comprises existing federal and state government policies, the lowest cost replacement [for retiring coal-fired suppliers] will be solar (28GW), wind (10.5GW) and storage (17GW and 90GWh). Just 500MW of flexible gas plant will be needed, and no new coal. It says this portfolio in total can produce 90TWh (net) of energy per annum, more than offsetting the energy lost from retiring coal fired generation.

AEMO has also highlighted the need for new transmission infrastructure, as transformative and disruptive energy developments continue around the country. The need for forward planning should be obvious and governments – especially the federal government – ignore this at their peril. A change of federal government may be the answer, but only if the incoming government has a thorough-going plan to integrate and manage this clear and obvious national move away from fossil fuels. Such plans are already being drawn up – we just need the will, and some bipartisan support, to implement them.

 

 

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 17, 2018 at 5:01 pm

Posted in ACCC, gas

Tagged with , , , , , ,

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:

http://www.smh.com.au/business/energy/sa-power-outage-caused-by-cascading-series-of-events-20161004-grv29c.html

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/opinion/sam-johnson-solar-power-must-be-provided-to-regional-centres-such-as-port-augusta-to-provide-electricity-security/news-story/4ffcdfeb9fc35ef3f8cbfe0eea1c9bdc

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-06/appalling-management-to-blame-for-prolonged-black-out-in-sa/7908032

 

Written by stewart henderson

October 15, 2016 at 5:15 pm