Category Archives: wind power

the battery, Snowy Hydro and other stuff

Let’s get back to batteries, clean energy and Australia. Here’s a bit of interesting news to smack our clean-energy-fearing Feds with – you know, Freudenberg, Morrison and co. The Tesla Big Battery successfully installed at the beginning of summer, and lampooned by the Feds, turns out to be doing a far better job than expected, and not just here in South Australia. Giles Parkinson reported on it in Renew Economy on December 19:

The Tesla big battery is having a big impact on Australia’s electricity market, far beyond the South Australia grid where it was expected to time shift a small amount of wind energy and provide network services and emergency back-up in case of a major problem.

Last Thursday, one of the biggest coal units in Australia, Loy Yang A 3, tripped without warning at 1.59am, with the sudden loss of 560MW and causing a slump in frequency on the network.

What happened next has stunned electricity industry insiders and given food for thought over the near to medium term future of the grid, such was the rapid response of the Tesla big battery to an event that happened nearly 1,000km away.

The Loy Yang brown coal fired power station is in south eastern Victoria, so why did South Australia’s pride and joy respond to a problem in our dirty-coal neighbouring state? It surely wouldn’t have been contracted to, or would it? Parkinson also speculates about this. Apparently, when a power station trips, there’s always another unit contracted to provide back-up, officially called FCAS (frequency control and ancillary services). In Loy Yang’s case it’s a coal generator in Gladstone, Queensland. This generator did respond to the problem, within seconds, but the Tesla BB beat it to the punch, responding within milliseconds. That’s an important point; the Tesla BB didn’t avert a blackout, it simply proved its worth, without being asked. And it has been doing so regularly since early December. It seems the Tesla BB has cornered the market for fast frequency control. Don’t hold your breath for the Feds to acknowledge this, but they will have taken note, unless they’re completely stupid. They’ll be finding some way to play it (or downplay it) politically.

As Parkinson notes in another article, the energy industry has been slow to respond, in terms of regulation and accommodation, to the deployment of battery systems and their rapid charge-discharge features. Currently, providing FCAS is financially rewarded, which may have to do with costs involved but the cost/reward relationship appears to be out of kilter. In any case, battery response is much more cost-effective and threatens the antiquated reward system. The AEMC is planning to review frequency control frameworks, but it’ll no doubt be a slow process.

This is an incredibly complex area, combining new, barely-understood (by me) technologies of generation and storage, and the transformation of long-standing energy economies, with a host of vested interests, subsidies and forward plans, but I intend to struggle towards enlightenment, as far as I can.

Neoen’s Hornsdale Wind Farm

Regardless of regulation and grid problems, renewable energy projects keep on popping up, or at least popping into my consciousness through my desultory reading (NY resolution: inform myself much more on what’s going on, here and elsewhere, in clean energy). For example, the Murra Warra wind farm’s first stage will have an output of 226MW,  which has already been sold to a consortium of Australian corporations including Telstra and ANZ. The farm is near Horsham in western Victoria, and will finally have a capacity of up to 429MW, making it one of the biggest in the Southern Hemisphere. And of course there are many other projects underway. Back in August, the Renewable Energy Index, a monthly account of the renewable energy sector, was launched. Its first publication, by Green Energy Markets, was a benchmark report for 2016-7, all very glossy and positive. The latest publication, the November index, shows that rooftop solar installations for that month broke the monthly record set in June 2012 when subsidies were twice to three times what they are today. The publication’s headline is that the 2020 RET will be exceeded and that there are ‘enough renewable energy projects now under development to deliver half of Australia’s electricity by 2030’. The Clean Energy Council, the peak body for Australian dean energy businesses, also produces an annual report, so it will be interesting to compare its 2017 version with the Renewable Energy Index.

Hydro is in fact the biggest clean energy provider, with 42.3% of the nation’s renewable energy according to the 2016 Clean Energy Australia Report. Wind, however, is the fastest growing provider. This brings me to a topic I’ve so far avoided: The $4 billion Snowy Hydro 2 scheme.

Here’s what I’m garnering from various experts. It’s a storage scheme and that’s all to the good. As a major project it will have a long lead time, and that’s not so good, especially considering the fast growing and relatively unpredictable future for energy storage. As a storage system it will be a peak load provider, so can’t be compared to the Hazelwood dirty coal station, which is a 24/7 base load supplier. There’s a lot of misinformation from the Feds about the benefits, eg to South Australia, which won’t benefit and doesn’t need it, it’s sorting its own problems very nicely thanks. There’s a question about using water as an electricity supplier, due to water shortages, climate change and the real possibility of more droughts in the future. There are also environmental considerations – the development is located in Kosciuszko National Park. There’s some doubt too about the 2000MW figure being touted by the Feds, an increase of 50% to the existing scheme. However, many of these experts, mostly academics, favour the scheme as a boost to renewable energy investment which should be applied along with the other renewables to transform the market. In saying this, most experts agree that there’s been a singular lack of leadership and common-sense consensus on dealing with this process of transformation. It has been left mostly to the states and private enterprise to provide the initiative.



is wind power prohibitively expensive? apparently not

(this is reblogged from the new ussr illustrated, first published July 3 2017)

that’s a bloody big blade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

we need to support innovative design in renewables

Merkel tells Obama about the size of the problem (against a 'hey, the climate looks effing good to me' background)

Merkel tells Obama about the size of the problem (against a ‘hey, the climate looks effing good to me’ background)

Unfortunately Australia, or more accurately the Australian government, is rapidly reaching pariah status on the world stage with its inaction on carbon reduction and its clear commitment to the future of the fossil fuel industries, particularly coal. In a recent UN conference in Bonn, Peter Woolcott, a former Liberal Party apparatchik who was appointed our UN ambassador in 2010 and our ‘ambassador for the environment’, a new title, in November 2014, was asked some pointed questions regarding Australia’s commitment to renewable energy and combatting climate change. The government’s cuts to the renewable energy target, its abandonment of a price on carbon, and its weak emission reduction targets all came under fire from a number of more powerful nations. Interestingly, at the same time the coal industry, highly favoured by the Abbott government, is engaged in a battle, both here and on the international front, with its major rival, the oil and gas industry, which clearly regards itself as cleaner and greener. Peter Coleman, the CEO of Woodside Petroleum, has mocked ‘clean coal’ and claimed that natural gas is key to combatting climate change, while in Europe oil companies are calling for the phasing out of coal-powered plants in favour of their own products. In the face of this, the Abbott government has created a $5 billion investment fund for northern Australia, based largely on coal.

So, with minimal interest from the current federal government, the move away from fossil fuels, which will be a good thing for a whole variety of reasons, has to be directed by others. Some state governments, such as South Australia, have subsidised alternative forms of energy, particularly wind, and of course the rooftop solar market was kick-started by feed-in tariffs and rebates, since much reduced – and it should be noted that these subsidies have always been dwarfed by those paid to fossil fuel industries.

The current uptake of rooftop solar has understandably slowed but it’s still happening, together with moves away from the traditional grid to ‘distributed generation’. Two of the country’s major energy suppliers, Origin and AGL, are presenting a future based on renewables to their shareholders. Origin has plans to become the nation’s number one provider of rooftop solar. Currently we have about 1.4 million households on rooftop solar, with potential for about five million more.

Meanwhile, thanks in large part to the persuasive powers of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who’s been a formidable crusader for alternative energy in recent years, Canada and Japan, both with conservative governments and a reluctance to commit to policies to combat global warming, have been dragged into an agreement on emission reductions. So the top-down pressure continues to build, while bottom-up ingenuity, coming from designers and innovators in far-flung parts of the world and shared with greater immediacy than ever before, is providing plenty of inspiration. Let me look at a couple of examples in the wield of wind power, taken initially from Diane Ackerman’s dazzling book The human age: the world shaped by us.

Recent remarks by Australia’s Treasurer, Joe Hockey, and then our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, about the ‘ugliness’ of wind farms, together with the PM’s speculations about their negative health effects, give the impression of being orchestrated. Abbott, whose scientific imbecility can hardly be overstated, is naturally unaware that the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), the Australian government’s own body for presenting the best evidence-based information on health matters that might impact on the public, released two public papers on wind farms and human health in February 2015. Their conclusion, based on the best available international studies, is that there is no consistent evidence of adverse health effects, though they suggest, understandably, that considering public concerns, more high-quality research needs to be done.

the Windstalk concept

the Windstalk concept

As to the aesthetic issue, one has to wonder whether Hockey and Abbott really prefer the intoxicating beauty of coal-fired power stations. More importantly, are they opposed for aesthetic or other reasons to the very concept of harvesting energy from the wind? Because the now-traditional three blade wind turbine is far from being the only design available. One very unusual design was created by a New York firm, Atelier DNA, for the planned city of Masdar, near Abu Dhabi. It’s called Windstalk, and it’s based on a small forest of carbon fibre stalks each almost 60 metres high, which generate energy when they sway in the wind. They’re quieter than three-blade turbines and they’re less dangerous to birds and bats. As to the energy efficiency and long-term viability of the Windstalk concept, that’s still a matter for debate. There’s an interesting Reddit discussion about it here, where it’s also pointed out that the current technology is in fact very sophisticated in design and unlikely to be replaced except by something with proven superiority in all facets.

a wind wheel, using Ewicon technology

a wind wheel, using Ewicon technology

Still there are other concepts. The ‘Ewicon’ wind-converter takes harvesting the wind in a radically new direction, with bladeless turbines that produce energy using charged water droplets. The standard wind turbine captures the kinetic energy of the wind and converts it into the mechanical energy of the moving blades, which drives an electric generator. The Ewicon (which stands for electrostatic wind energy converter) is designed to jump the mechanical step and generate electricity directly from wind, through ‘the displacement of charged [water] particles by the wind in the opposite direction of an electrical field’. The UK’s Wired website has more detail. Still at the conceptual stage, the design needs more input to raise efficiency levels from a current 7% to more like the 20% plus level to be viable, but if these ideas can find needful government and corporate backing, this will result not only in greater and faster improvement of existing concepts, but a greater proliferation of innovative design solutions. 

wind power in South Australia

Starfish Hill wind farm, near Cape Jervis, SA

Starfish Hill wind farm, near Cape Jervis, SA

I was unaware, until I recently listened to a forum panel on renewables broadcast by The Science Show, that wind power has really taken off in SA, where I live. Mea culpa. By August last year 27% of the state’s electricity production was from wind, and it’s now well over 30%, thanks to a new facility outside Snowtown, which came on stream in November. That’s half of Australia’s installed capacity, and it compares favourably with wind production in European countries such as Denmark (20%), Spain and Portugal (16%), Ireland (15%) and Germany (7%). It’s one of the great successes of the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target, introduced in a modest form by the conservative federal government in 2001 and expanded under the Labor government in 2009. The RET, like those in other countries, mandates that electricity retailers source a proportion of energy from renewables. South Australia’s renewable energy developers, under the longest-serving Labor government in the country, have been provided with tax incentives and a supportive regulatory framework to build wind farms throughout the state, to take advantage of the powerful Roaring Forties blowing in from the west.

The first wind turbine in SA was a small affair at Coober Pedy, but from 2004 onwards this form of energy generation has taken off here. The Snowtown wind farm mentioned above is the second in the region, and SA’s largest, with 90 turbines giving it an installed capacity of 270MW. We now have some 16 wind farms strategically located around the state, with an installed capacity of almost 1500MW. As far as I’m aware, we’re in fact the world leader in wind power – always remembering that, in population terms, we would be one of the smallest countries in the world, if we were a country.

The direct beneficiaries of these new farms are, of course, regional South Australians. An example is the 46 MW, 23-turbine Canunda wind farm near Millicent in the state’s south-east, which opened in 2005. The farm provides clean electricity generation to the region and has increased the viability of agricultural production. The facility has generated enough interest from the local community for tours to be undertaken.

Of course, one of the principle purposes of utilising renewable energy – apart from the obvious fact that it’s renewable – is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And South Australia’s emissions have indeed declined in spite of increased electricity demand, due to the high penetration of wind power into the market.

This development has of course had its critics, and these are pretty well summed up on Wikipedia – linked to above:

There has been some controversy with respect to the impact of the rising share of wind power and other renewables such as solar on retail electricity prices in South Australia. A 2012 report by The Energy Users Association of Australia claimed that retail electricity prices in South Australia were then the third highest in the developed world behind Germany and Denmark, with prices likely to rise to become the most expensive in the near future.[24] The then South Australian Opposition Leader, Isobel Redmond, linked the state’s high retail prices for electricity to the Government’s policy of promoting development of renewable energy, noting that Germany and Denmark had followed similar policies. On the other hand, it has been noted that the impact of wind power on the merit order effect, where relatively low cost wind power is purchased by retailers before higher cost sources of power, has been credited for a decline in the wholesale electricity price in South Australia. Data compiled by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) shows South Australian wholesale electricity prices are the 3rd-highest out of Australia’s five mainland states, with the 2013 South Australian Electricity Report noting that increases in prices were “largely driven by transmission and distribution network price increases”.

The issue of cost to the consumer (of energy in general) is without doubt extremely important (and complex), and I’ll try to wade into it, I hope, in another post, but for now I want to look just at the costs for wind, and whether there are any further developments in the offing.

According to this site, which is informative but perhaps not as regularly updated as it could be in such a changing energy environment, SA’s Premier last year renewed his government’s pledge to have 50% of the state’s annual power supplied by renewable energy by 2025, a very realistic target considering that, according to the same site, wind and solar were already at 38% of annual supply, as of December 2013. However he pointed out that this would be difficult if the federal government reduced its RET target, then at 41TWh by 2020. In October federal industry minister Ian Macfarlane and environment minister Greg Hunt proposed a reduction of the RET to 27TWh.

A more recent article on the Renew Economy website argues that, though the government appears to have upped the proposed figure to around 31 or 32TWh, it may be targeting large-scale wind power projects by trying to incorporate rooftop solar, which has been taken up rapidly in recent years, into the large-scale target. The initial target was 45TWh overall, with a projected rooftop solar take-up of 4TWh, leaving 41TWh for large-scale renewable energy projects. We’re currently at 7TWh for rooftop solar, and the Warburton Review expects this to double by 2020. Hints by the government ministers that the take-up of rooftop solar should be reflected in the renewed target are adding to uncertainty in the industry, which is said to be in limbo at present. It may take a change of government to resolve the situation. Meanwhile however, South Australia leads the way with wind, and if the graph on the Renew Economy website is to be believed, we’ve already passed our 50% target for renewables (though the graph appears to fluctuate from moment to moment). The graph shows that we’re currently generating 710MW from wind, 527MW from natural gas and 179MW from brown coal. That makes just on 50% from wind alone. Compare this with Victoria, a much more populous state, which generates almost as much from wind – 592MW. However, that’s only about a tenth of what it currently generates from brown coal, its principle energy source (5670MW).

A new wind farm has been approved for Stony Gap, near Burra, but there may be delays in the project due to industry uncertainty about the RET and the federal government’s plans. Energy Australia, the project’s developers say ominously: We are now re-assessing the project based on current market conditions as well as government policy and legislation.  

And the cost? This is hard to gauge. As with solar, the cost of wind power has come down markedly in recent times. Basically the cost is for initial capital rather than running costs, but some argue that, because wind farms require back-up, presumably from fossil fuels, for those windless days, this should be incorporated into the cost.

energy solutions: nuclear power, part one – the problematic past


jordan-nuclear-energy-protest2    images

Here in South Australia, our Premier (the leader of the government) has recently announced a major inquiry into the viability of nuclear power for the state, and this is raising a few eyebrows and bringing on a few fevered discussions. The Greens are saying, what need for that old and dangerous technology when we have the prefect solution in renewables? Many scientists are arguing that all options should be on the table, and that our energy future should be flexible with many different technologies in the mix – solar, wind, geothermal but also perhaps clean coal (if that’s not an oxymoron), a new-look nuclear technology, and maybe even a technology of the future, such as fusion – not to mention the harnessing of anti-matter, mentioned to me recently by an enthusiastic 12-year-old.

South Australia already has a great rep for adopting new technologies. According to wind energy advocate Simon Holmes a Court, in a talk podcasted by The Science Show recently, SA gets more than 30% of its energy from wind, and some 5% from solar. If SA was a country, it would be at the top of the table for wind power use, a fact which certainly blew me away when I heard it.

Of course, South Australia also has a lot of uranium, a fact which has presumably influenced our young Premier’s thinking on nuclear energy. I recall being part of the movement against nuclear energy in the eighties, and reading at least one book about the potential hazards, the catastrophic effects of meltdowns, the impossibility of safe storage of nuclear waste and so forth, but I’ve also been aware in recent years of new safer types of fuel rods, cooling systems and the like, without having really focused on these developments. So now’s the time to do so.

But first I’m going to focus on the nuclear power industry’s troubled past, which will help to understand the passion of those opposed to it.

No doubt there have been a number of incidents and close things associated with the industry, but the general public are mostly aware of three disturbing events, Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and Fukushima (2011). I won’t go into too much detail about these, as you’ll find plenty of information about them here, here and here, and in the links attached to those sites, but here’s a very brief summary.

The Three Mile Island accident was the result of a number of system and human failures, which certainly raised questions about complex systems and the possibility/inevitability of an accident occurring, but the real controversy was about the effects, or after-effects, of the partial melt-down. It’s inevitable that anti-nuclear activists would play up the impact, and nuclear proponents would play them down, but the evidence does suggest that, for all the publicity the accident garnered, the effects on the health of workers and residents of the area were minor and, where strongly claimed, largely unsubstantiated. Anti-nuclear activists have claimed widespread death and disease among animals and livestock in the region, while the local (Pennsylvania) Department of Agriculture denied any link. Research is still ongoing, but with so much heat being generated it’s hard to make sense of any light. One thing is certain, though. When an accident does happen, the costs of a clean-up, one that will satisfy everyone, including many of the nay-sayers, is astronomical.

Two reactors were built at the Three Mile Island site in 1974, and they were state-of-the art at the time. The second reactor, TMI-2, was destroyed by the accident, but TMI-1 is still functioning, and ‘remains one of the best-performing units in USA’, according to the World Nuclear Association, which, unsurprisingly, claims that ‘there were no injuries or adverse health effects from the accident’.

A much more serious accident occurred at Chernobyl in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. It has received a level 7 classification on the International Nuclear Event Scale, the highest possible classification (Fukushima is the only other accident with this classification; Three Mile Island was classified level 5). Thirty-one people died as a direct result, and long-term radiation effects are still under investigation. The figures on cancer-related deaths are enormously varied, not necessarily due to ideological thinking, but due to different methodologies employed by different agencies in different studies. The difficulties in distinguishing the thousands of cancers resulting from the radiation and the millions of cancers suffered by people in the region over the 20 years since the accident can hardly be underestimated. Most analysts agree, however that the human death toll is well into the thousands.

The Chernobyl disaster is notorious, of course, for the response of the Soviet government. No announcement was made to the general public until two days afterwards. When it came, it was as brief as possible. Workers and emergency services personnel who attempted to extinguish the fire were exposed to very high (that’s to say fatal) levels of radiation. Others involved in the massive clean-up were also heavily exposed. The cost of the clean-up, and of building a new containment structure (the largest civil engineering task in history) amounted to some 18 billion roubles. A half a million workers were involved.

The Fukushima disaster was caused by a tsunami triggered by a 9 magnitude earthquake, and the destruction caused (a meltdown of 3 of 6 of the plant’s reactors and the consequent release of radioactive material) was complicated by the damage from the tsunami itself. It was a disaster waiting to happen, for a number of reasons, the most obvious of which was the location of the reactors in the Pacific Rim, the most active seismic area on the planet. Some of the older reactors were not designed to withstand more than magnitude 7 or 8 quakes, but the most significant design failure, as it turned out, was a gross under-estimate of the height required for the sea-wall, the fundamental protection against tsunamis. To read about the levels of complacency, the unheeded warnings, the degree of ‘regulatory capture’ (where the regulators are mostly superannuated nuclear industry heavyweights with vested interests in downplaying problems and overlooking failures) and the outright corruption within and between TEPCO (the Tokyo Electric Power Company) and government, is to be alerted to a whole new perspective on human folly. It is also to be convinced that, if the industry is to have any future whatsoever, tight regulation, sensible, scientific and long-term decision-making, and complete openness to scrutiny by the residents of the area, consumers and the general public must be paramount.

Though there’s ongoing debate about the number of fatalities and injuries caused by the nuclear power industry, that number is lower than the numbers (also hotly debated of course) caused by other major energy-generating industries. Commercial nuclear power plants were first built in the early seventies and 31 countries have taken up the technology. There are now more than 400 operational reactors worldwide. The Fukushima disaster has naturally dampened enthusiasm for the technology; Germany has decided to close all its reactors by 2020, and Italy has banned nuclear power outright. However, countries such as China, whose government is rather more shielded against public opinion, are continuing apace – building almost half of the 68 reactors under construction worldwide as of 2012-13.

It’s probably fair to say that Fukushima and Chernobyl represent two outliers in terms of operating nuclear power plants, both in terms of accident prevention and crisis management, and the upside of these disasters is the many lessons learned. I presume modern reactors are built very differently from those of the seventies, So I’m interested to find out what those differences are and what ongoing innovations, if any, will make nuclear fission a safer and more viable clean energy option for the future. That’ll mean going into some technical detail, for my education’s sake, into how this energy-generating process works. So that’ll be next up, in part 2 of this series.

What is the future for renewable energy in Australia?


It’s the energy of the future, according to its promoters. I’m talking about solar, wind and other sources of renewable energy. It seems, though, that due to ‘institutional dysfunction’, as one pundit describes it, renewable energy is facing a bleak future in Australia, at least in the short term.

Recently a review of the nation’s renewable energy target (RET), by a panel chosen by the Prime Minister’s office, has recommended substantially reducing the target. The panel was headed by a former chairman of Caltex Oil, Dick Warburton, who is unconvinced that increased carbon dioxide causes global warming. He’s wrong about that.

The RET is currently set at 41,000 gigawatts an hour of renewable energy by 2020, and it apparently represents a threat to the traditional energy companies at a time when electricity consumption is falling. As Ross Gittins points out in The Sydney Morning Herald, the fall in consumption over the last four years is unprecedented and has taken the industry completely by surprise.

So why has consumption fallen? According to an Australia Institute report by Dr Hugh Saddler, the decline has been entirely at the expense of coal-fired generators, many of which are struggling to be profitable. The main cause is simply an increase in energy-efficient buildings and appliances, due to regulations brought in in the late 90s. Other factors, in order of significance, include the economic shift from electricity-driven industry (with major steelworks, aluminium smelters and oil refineries, either shutting down or cutting back), the failure of many other electricity-guzzling industries to grow as expected, and, since 2010, consumer response to higher electricity prices and the carbon tax (either the real one or the slightly scarier one concocted by the conservatives in opposition). The price hikes, ironically, were largely a result of expenditure on upgraded poles and wires to meet expected new peaks in summer demand. The decreased residential usage provided intriguing proof that we can, if needs must, wean ourselves from ever-spiralling consumption. Meanwhile the increased capacity, for which consumers will continue to pay into the future, remains unused.

So what has this to do with renewable energy, and why does the Prime Minister’s panel recommend downgrading the RET? According to Peter Martin, the economics editor of The Age, it’s because the renewable energy sector has gotten too big for its boots and is significantly cutting into the profits of the fossil fuel industries. However, the repealing of the carbon tax was a big win for those industries, and the abandoning of the old RET, assuming the panel’s recommendations will be acted upon, will be another boost.

It looks like the federal government, probably under pressure from the fossil fuel lobby, is set to reduce or abandon the RET. The Warburton panel was set up in February by a Prime Minister who has stated at a public meeting that anthropogenic global warming is ‘bullshit’ (though he has tried to backpedal furiously from this since). The conservatives have chosen to ignore a review of the RET by the Climate Change Authority, released in December 2012. The Climate Change Authority was set up under the Gillard labor government in July 2012 to conduct climate change research and to regularly review associated policies, but the conservatives are trying to scrap it, though their first attempt was blocked in the Senate in March of this year, and the Authority now appears to be in limbo. It’s difficult not to conclude that the Warburton panel, which includes other industry heavyweights, has been set up to deliver the government what it wants.

So, bearing in mind the guidelines to problems and solutions I’ve taken from David Waltner-Toews, what exactly are the problems here, and how can we move towards solutions?

Not surprisingly, there’s more than one problem. For example, one problem is with the Warburton panel itself. The strong perception within the renewable energy sector and its potential investors is that the panel’s findings are already known, and that RET targets will be reduced or abandoned, leading to job losses and a substantial loss in investor confidence. In fact investors are already backing out because of the new climate of uncertainty.

Of course the panel isn’t bent on destruction. It presumably sees the problem elsewhere – a substantial decrease, at least domestically, in fossil fuel consumption. But why would anyone want to preserve a highly polluting industry when there are clean alternatives available? Well I can think of two reasons, apart from the obvious vested interests. First, job losses. The Greens and other clean energy advocates are heavily emphasising the job and investment losses in that market if the RET were to be abandoned, but of course the fall in consumption together with the challenge of the new technologies were leading to the same problems on the other side, and of course losses on one side can’t be simplistically balanced by gains on the other, and I’ve no idea how the actual numbers would fall out. Second, these industries aren’t simply limited to the domestic market. In fact the industry has long been heavily subsidised by the federal government because its exports are a major contributor to government revenues and to foreign exchange earnings. The government protection of the industry has of course been strongly criticised by the renewable energy sector, which is keen to point out that Australia is the highest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, with the fossil fuel industry playing the primary role in maintaining that record. But it’s difficult, especially for a conservative government with little obvious concern for the greenhouse issue, to see beyond the substantial revenues that coal and natural gas are bringing in.

Before we start talking solutions, we need to squarely face the evidence. Anthropogenic global warming is happening, and climate scientists are only in disagreement about rates and precise consequences in what is an enormously complex climate system. As just mentioned, Australians  have the worst per capita record in the world in contributing to the problem, and our coal industry produces about 38% of our total greenhouse gas emissions.

The aim should be to reduce our emissions while still providing all the energy required to maintain our lifestyles – though all the while being mindful that some tweaking of those lifestyles might substantially reduce emissions. We need to win the battle with government, as to the value and the necessity of emissions reduction, but we also need to be realistic. How much of our energy needs can be met by renewables, now and in the near future? Is it worth trying to clean up the fossil fuel industry? Is clean coal a possibility, or a myth?

On this latter issue, a US organisation, the Union of Concerned Scientists, has this to say:

Technology is evolving that has the potential to substantially reduce coal’s contribution to global warming by capturing carbon emissions before they are emitted. This technology could become an important part of the battle against global warming, but it remains to be seen whether it will work at a commercial scale and at what cost.

So here’s one weighty problem. We’re still heavily reliant on fossil fuels, though that reliance is reducing, as well as our overall energy usage. Reduced energy usage is seen as a problem rather than a victory, which may be a perception problem rather than a real problem, but it is a real problem insofar as the fossil fuel industry is losing revenue locally, which is affecting its ability to be competitive in the overseas market. Around 70% of Australia’s coal production is sent overseas, making Australia proportionally the world’s largest coal exporter. Coal is our second biggest export earner, worth more than $40 billion per annum.

Another problem is that we’re paying, into the future, for the new infrastructure above-mentioned. Arguably, we’re paying for the lack of foresight of the fossil fuel industry, which is passing on to the consumer the costs of an unnecessary extra capacity. Presumably if more consumers switch to solar for their domestic energy supply, this infrastructure cost burden will be shared among fewer people.

Also, those that want to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions through reduction of our fossil fuel production and exports have to counter the argument that our exports represent some 5% of global coal consumption, while the economic cost to us of cutting exports would be very substantial. It’s the ‘great pain for little gain’ argument.

There’s also another good point made by Chris Greig, Professor of Energy Strategy at the University of Queensland. We make the mistake, living as we do in an energy-rich nation, of assuming that our supply of coal is simply adding to the abundance, with disastrous consequences, but there are many parts of the world that are energy-poor, and would be deprived of opportunities to rise from poverty if the fuel supply from nations such as ours were to be cut off. By all means we should try to improve the efficiency of the fuel we export, and we should be looking to renewable alternatives in these energy-deprived regions, but some renewables are not suitable for some regions, and most cannot deliver base-load power as they currently stand. There are no easy solutions to this problem. Curently – and this returns me to my previous post – there’s a huge problem of indoor pollution in developing countries due to the lack of a clean, or cleaner, energy supply. Professor Greig effectively summarises the issue:

Few Australians realise that two million people in developing countries die each year due to indoor air pollution from biomass combustion – typically a black smoke containing fine particulates, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. The indirect consequences are also far-reaching. The relentless harvesting of biomass wood for fuel is responsible for depleting groundwater systems and declining agricultural productivity, which in turn leads to food and water shortages and reinforces the poverty cycle. And let’s not forget the one billion tonnes of CO2 that are released annually as a result of this rudimentary burning of biomass materials.

All of this is further evidence of the complexity and messiness of the issues involved. Clearly they won’t be fully covered in this post, and I’ll be returning to the subject in the future, to look at nuclear power among other things. I’ve also got Naomi Klein’s monumental opus, This changes everything, a tale of climate change and capitalism, to plough through.

Meanwhile, the Australian situation with regard to renewables is still very much up in the air, with Federal Environment Minister now making assurances that the RET will not be scrapped, while not ruling out a downgrading. Climate Change Authority head Bernie Fraser, along with Business SA, suggest retaining the 41,000GWh target but extending the time-frame beyond 2020. This might help to maintain business investment while taking a little pressure off the fossil fuel industry, which might take the opportunity to review and improve future planning, with perhaps a greater focus on exports.

Whatever the future for all these businesses and technologies, the aim of a more sustainable, less carbon-intensive and less polluting energy supply should be paramount. If that means job losses as the dirtiest and least efficient power plants are closed, then that needs to be faced, unless they can be profitably cleaned up.

Having said that, Australia’s future lies in renewables, especially wind and solar. Our current government seems to be having trouble taking the long view on this, and it’s positively embarrassing to find a country that is in many areas among the most modern and technologically developed in the world falling behind so badly in a field we should be leading. I await with interest the government’s coming announcement on the RET. I’m sure they realise what’s at stake.