What’s Weatherill’s plan for South Australia, and why do we have the highest power prices in the world? Oh, and I should mention Elon Musk here – might get me more hits

(this is reblogged from the new ussr illustrated, first published July 14 2017)

just a superhero pic to rope people in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and more reading for masochists

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-10/tesla-boss-elon-musk-pledges-to-fix-sas-electricity-woes/8344084

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/business/sa-government-announces-who-will-build-100mw-giant-battery-as-part-of-its-energy-security-plan/news-story/9f83072547f41f4f5556477942168dd9

http://www.smh.com.au/business/sunday-explainer-why-is-electricity-so-expensive-20150925-gjvdrj.html

http://www.skynews.com.au/business/business/market/2017/03/27/accc-to-find-out-why-power-prices-are-so-high.html

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/south-australia-will-have-highest-power-prices-in-the-world-after-july-1-increases/news-story/876f9f6cefce23c62395085c6fe0fd9f

http://indaily.com.au/news/business/analysis/2017/03/07/why-sas-power-prices-are-so-high-and-the-huge-risks-of-potential-fixes/

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/graham-richardson/jay-weatherill-must-come-clean-on-elon-musks-battery-deal/news-story/f471b33ebdf140a71b41e0b0bea7894f

http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/climate-change/why-higher-electricity-prices-are-inevitable/news-story/042712e35c08bf798ed993d13ee573ea

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….

Animal-friendly meat

some uncooked ‘Impossible’ patties, from plant-based ingredients, with various side dishes. Photographed by Maggie Curson Jurow

I’m not a vegetarian, and my feelings on the issue of meat-eating range from extreme guilt to resentment to irritation, but perhaps my views are of little account:

Some 41% of all arable land…. is used to grow grain for livestock, while one-third of our fresh water consumption goes to meat production. Add in the use of chemicals and fuel, and the meat we consume represents one of the largest contributors to carbon, pesticides and pollutants on the planet.

So writes ethical philosopher Laurie Zoloth in the most recent issue of Cosmos. And of course we must add to that the massive issue of animal exploitation and suffering. But happily, Zoloth’s article is all about promoting a possible solution, which isn’t about convincing 98% of the world’s population, the meat-eaters, to change their ways.

Synthetic meat. It’s been talked about, and produced in small quantities, for a few years now, and I’ve been highly skeptical from the get-go, especially as the first samples were phenomenally expensive and disappointing taste-wise, according to pundits. But Zoloth has introduced to me a new hero in the field, the high-flying biochemist and activist Pat Brown, formerly of Stanford University. Brown is well aware that there are, unfortunately, too many people like me who just can’t wean themselves from meat in spite of the disastrous (but still psychologically remote) consequences of our behaviour. So he and a team of some 80 scientists are committing themselves to creating  palatable meat from entirely plant-based sources, thus transforming our agricultural world.

Food is, of course, chemistry and nothing but. Top-class chefs may disagree, but really they, like expert cocktail mixers, are just top-class chemical manipulators. Even so, most producers of synthetic meat (aka cultured meat, clean meat, in vitro meat) have started with cells from the animals whose meat they’re trying to synthesise. A company called Memphis Meats has already produced clean chicken and duck  from cultured cells of these birds, which have apparently passed taste tests. However, Pat Brown’s new company, Impossible Foods, is going further with a plant-based burger based essentially on the not-so-secret molecular ingredient, haem. Haem is a molecule found in blood, a constituent of the protein haemoglobin, but it’s also found in soybeans, and that’s where Brown’s team gets it from, at least at the genetic level. With a lot of nifty chemical engineering, they’ve created a burger that sizzles, browns and oozes fat, and they’ve got some billionaire investors such as Bill Gates and Vinod Khosla onside. The so-called Impossible Burger follows up the Beyond Burger, from another company called Beyond Meat, also backed by Gates, but it looks like the Impossible Burger has more potential.

Haem (or heme in American) is what makes our blood red. It contains iron and helps in oxygenating the blood. Abundant in muscle tissue, it’s what gives raw meat its pink colour. It also contributes much to the taste of cooked meat. The ‘Impossible’ team transferred the soybean gene encoding the haem protein into yeast, thus ensuring an abundant supply. The associated massive cost reduction is key to Brown’s biosphere-saving ambitions.

Of course, it’s not just cost that will capture the market. Taste, mouthfeel, aroma, je ne sais quoi, so much goes into the meat-munching experience, and the team has apparently worked hard to get it all in there, and will no doubt be willing to tweak well into the future, considering what’s at steak (sorry). If they succeed, it will be something of a slap in the face, perhaps, to those romantics among us who want to believe that food is more than merely chemical.

Yet I fear that the biggest challenge, as with renewable energy, will be to win over, or overcome, those invested in and running the current ‘technology’. That’s the world of people and systems that raise cows, pigs, chooks, and all the rest, for slaughter. It’s an open and shut case from an environmental and ethical perspective, but that doesn’t mean people won’t fight tooth and nail to preserve their bloody businesses and lifestyles. It’s not as if they’re going to be rehired by biotech companies. And as to the religious among us, with their halal and kosher conceptions, that’ll be another headache, but not for me. It will certainly be another scientific stab at the heart of this pre-scientific way of looking at the world and will add to the ever-widening divide between pre-scientific and scientific cultures, with not very foreseeable consequences, but probably not happy ones.

But all that’s still well in the future. It’s unlikely that these new products will hit the market for a few years yet, and it’s likely the inroads will be small at first, in spite of the admirable ambitions of people like Pat Brown and his supporters. In any case I’ll be watching developments with great interest, and hoping to get a not-too costly taste myself some time. Such fun it is to be alive in these days, but to be young, that would be like heaven…

 

solar technology keeps moving toward the centre

thin-film solar modules - a more flexible solution

thin-film solar modules – a more flexible solution

I’ve been hearing that the costs of solar installations are coming down, making the take-up easier and faster, but I haven’t spent the time to research exactly why this is happening, presumably world-wide. So now’s the time to do so. I thought I’d start with something I heard recently on a podcast about revolutionary thin solar cells…

Thin-film solar cells have been around for a while now, and they’re described well here. They’re only one micron thick, compared to traditional 350 microns-thick silicon-wafer cells, and they utilise superconductor materials, usually silicon-based, which are highly efficient absorbers of solar energy. However, according to Wikipedia, this new technology isn’t doing so well in the market-place, with only about 7% of market share, and not rising, though with crystalline silicon being replaced more and more by other materials (such as cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide and amorphous silicon) there’s still hope for its future.

This technology was first utilised on a small scale in pocket calculators quite some time ago but it has been difficult to scale it up to the level of large-scale solar panels. There are problems with both stability and toxicity – cadmium for example is a poison that can accumulate in the food chain like mercury. It doesn’t look like it’s this or any other technological development that’s reducing costs or increasing efficiency, though of course they may do in the future, with graphene looking like a promising material.

So let’s return to the question of why solar has suddenly become much cheaper and is apparently set to get cheaper still. Large manufacturing investment and economies of scale seem to be a large part of the story. This means that the costs of solar modules now make up less than half of the total cost of what Ramez Naam calls ‘complete solar deployments at the utility scale’, and these other costs are also coming down as the industry ‘scales’. His article in Renew Economy from August last year makes projections based on the idea that ‘doubling of cumulative capacity tends to reduce prices by a predictable rate’, though he’s also prepared to heavily qualify such projections based on a multitude of possibly limiting factors. If all goes well, solar electricity costs will become less than half the cost of new coal or natural gas in a generation – without factoring in the climate costs of continuing fossil fuel usage. The extraordinary rise in solar energy usage in China, set to continue well into the future, bolsters the prediction, and India is also keen to incease usage, despite problems with domestic manufacturing and trade rules. Most panels are being imported from China and the USA, while domestic production struggles.

It’s interesting that solar and other renewable technologies are now being spruiked as mainstream by mainstream and even conservative sources, such as Fortune and oilprice.com. Fortune’s article also usefully points out how the cost of different power sources to the consumer is heavily dependent on government policies relating to fossil fuels and their alternatives, as well as to the natural assets of particular regions. Even so, it’s clear that the cost of fossil-fuel based electricity is rising everywhere while wind and solar electricity costs are falling, creating an increasingly clear-cut scenario for governments worldwide to deal with. Some governments are obviously facing it more squarely than others.

US residential solar costs. Beyond 2013, these are estimates, but already out of date it seems

US residential solar costs. Beyond 2013, these are estimates, but already out of date it seems

 

buildings that reduce energy consumption

average energy use in an Australian home, 2011

average energy use in an Australian home, 2011

The energy solutions world has obviously been given a big boost by the decisions in Paris recently, so all the more reason to analyse the success of changes to building designs, and how they can lead to lower emissions worldwide in the future. As I wrote last year, Australia has been consuming less electricity of late, a turnaround which is a historical first, and the main cause has been energy-efficient new buildings and appliances, regulated by government here, no doubt in conformity with other western regulatory systems. So what exactly have these changes been, and how far can we go in creating energy-efficient buildings?

In Australia, all new buildings must comply with the Building Code of Australia, which prescribes national energy efficiency requirements and here in South Australia the government has a comprehensive website outlining those requirements as well as, presumably, state additions. New buildings must achieve a six star rating, though concessions can be made in some circumstances. In South Australia, energy efficiency standards are tied to three distinct climate zones, but the essential particulars are that there should be measures to reduce heating and cooling loads, good all-round thermal insulation, good glazing, sealing and draught-proofing, good ventilation, effective insulation of piping and ductwork, energy efficient lighting and water heating, and usage of renewable energy such as solar.

SA has developed a strategic plan to improve the energy efficiency of dwellings by 15% by 2020, targeting such items as air-conditioners and water heaters, and in particular the energy efficiency of new buildings, as retro-fitting is often problematic. However, the state government reports success with the energy efficiency of its owned and leased buildings, which had improved by 23.8% in 2014, compared to 2001. They are on target for a 30% improvement by 2030.

But energy efficiency for new housing doesn’t end with the buildings themselves. The Bowden housing development, which is currently being constructed in my neighbourhood, aims to reduce energy consumption and emissions through integrated community living and facilities, green spaces, effective public transport and bikeways, convenient shopping, dining and entertainment, and parks and gardens for relaxation and exercise. It all sounds a bit like paradise, and I must admit that, as I grow older, the final picture is still a long from taking full shape, but as we move away from oil, upon which we still rely for transport, this kind of integrated community living could prove a major factor in reducing oil consumption. The national broadband system will of course play a role here, with more effective internet communication making it easier to conference nationally and internationally without consuming so much jet fuel. It’s probably fair to say that this is an area of great waste today, with large amounts of greenhouse gases being emitted for largely unnecessary international junkets.

Recently it was announced that the Tesla Powerwall, the new energy storage technology from Elon Musk’s company, will begin local installation in Australia, with the first installations happening this month (February 2016). There are other battery storage systems on offer too, so this is another burgeoning area in which residential and other buildings can be energy-efficient.

So we’re finally becoming smarter about these things, and it’s making measurable inroads into our overall energy consumption. Other strategies for lightening our environmental footprints include embodied energy and cogeneration. These are described on the Urban Ecology Australia website. Embodied energy is:

The energy expended to create and later remove a building can be minimised by constructing it from locally available, natural materials that are both durable and recyclable, and by designing it to be easy to dismantle, with components easy to recover and reuse.

And cogeneration is defined thus:

Cogeneration involves reusing the waste heat from electricity generation, thus consuming less fuel than would be needed to produce the electricity and heat separately.
Small, natural gas powered electricity generators in industrial or residential areas can supply heat for use by factories, office buildings, and household clusters.
The heat can be used for space heating, hot water, and to run absorption chillers for refrigeration and air-conditioning. It can be used in industry for chemical and biological processes.

Clearly there’s no over-arching technological fix for energy reduction, at least not in the offing, but there are a host of smarter solutions with a combinatorial effect. And governments everywhere can, and should, play a useful, example-setting role.

Australia ranks 10th of these 16 countries for energy efficiency. However, we're 16th for energy-efficient transport, so presumably we're further up the ladder for housing

Australia ranks 10th of these 16 countries for energy efficiency. However, we’re 16th for energy-efficient transport, so presumably we’re further up the ladder for housing

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. 

LED lighting

colourful solutions

colourful solutions

The most recent Nobel Prize for physics was awarded to the developers of the blue light emitting diode (LED), not something I’ve known much about until now, but a recent article or two in Cosmos magazine has more than whetted my appetite about the future of LEDs.

This is an amazing technology that I feel I should be availing myself of, and advertising to others. But first I need to get a handle on how the technology works, which I suspect will be no mean feat. Here goes.

The name of Oleg Losev should be better known. This short-lived Russian (he died of starvation during the Siege of Leningrad in 1942 aged 38) is now recognised among the cognoscenti as the father of LEDs. He did some of the world’s first research into semiconductors. Semiconductors are materials whose electrical properties lie between conductors such as copper and insulators such as glass. While working as a radio technician, Losev noticed that when direct current was passed through a point contact junction containing the semiconductor silicon carbide (carborundum), greenish light was given off at the contact point, thus creating a light-emitting diode. It wasn’t the first observation of electroluminescence, but Losev was the first to thoroughly describe and accurately theorise about the phenomenon.

LED technology continues to develop, but now it seems to have reached the stage where it’s not only commercially viable, but has eclipsed all other forms of lighting. I’m more than a bit interested in promoting this form of lighting for the Housing Association I’m living in, especially as the relatively expensive fluoro bulbs in my own home keep blowing. 

In issue 60 of Cosmos, Australia’s premier popular science mag, Alan Finkel waxed lyrical on the coming of age of LED lighting, which he now has installed in his home:

Our LEDs are brighter than the [halogen] lights they replaced, they use less electricity, they mimic the colour of sunlight, they have not visibly aged since they were installed, they work with dimmers, and they are safer in the ceiling cavity because they do not run nearly as hot as the halogens

It’s only quite recently that LED lighting for homes – and everywhere else that bright sunshine-like light comes in handy – has become available on competitive terms, and to understand why we need to return to the history of LED development.

Oleg Losev’s creation of the first LED in 1927 wasn’t capitalised on for decades, but experiments in the fifties in the USA reported infrared emissions from semiconducting materials such as gallium arsenide, gallium antimonide and indium phosphide. By the early sixties the first practical applications of infrared and visible red LEDs emerged. Ten years later, yellow LEDs were invented, which increased the brightness by a factor of 10. In the mid-seventies, optical fibre telecommunications systems were developed by the creation of semiconductor materials adapted to the fibre transmission wavelengths, further enhancing brightness and efficiency. It was around this period that we started to see patterned LEDs in radio and TV displays, and in calculators and watches. At first these were quite faint, and expensive to manufacture, but many breakthroughs in the field have brought down costs while improving efficiency markedly, and the field of high power LEDs has experienced rapid progress, particularly with the development of high-brightness blue by the Nobel prize winning Japanese researchers in the early nineties. The blue LEDs could be coated with a material which converted some of the blue light to other colours, resulting in the most effective white LED yet created. The blue LED was also the last piece of the puzzle for creating RGB (red, green, blue) LEDS, enabling LEDs to produce every visible form of light.

The future for LEDs is so bright that it’s been called the biggest development in lighting since the electric light bulb, The question for the everyday consumer like me, then, is – should I get on board with it now, or should I wait until the technology becomes even cheaper and more energy-efficient?

As we know, the incandescent bulb is going the way of the trilobite. Hugely sucessful worldwide for decades, it has been outcompeted in recent times by the cheaper and more efficient CFL (compact flourescent lamp), and its extinction has been assured by state energy laws. But the CFL is now recognised as a stop-gap for the far more versatile and revolutionary technology of LED. LEDS are already beginning to outstrip CFLs in terms of life-span, but up-front costs are high. As this American C-net article has it,

The minimal energy savings you get from going from CFL to LEDs reflects that LED bulbs are only slightly more efficient, when measured on lumens per watt. And, of course, CFLs have come way down in price over the past few years, while LEDs are still at the top of a projected downward cost curve. If you have incandescent bulbs, saving $4 a year with an LED is more compelling, but that’s still a long pay back.

So for many of us it’s a matter of waiting and watching those costs diminishing down to the proportions of our meagre bank balance. Meanwhile, it will be fascinating to see where LED technology takes us. It’s very likely that it will outgrow the old light-socket techology, from what i’ve been reading, but that’s still a way off, and will require a real change of mindset for the average consumer.

Current trends in solar

Barak Obama talking up the solar power industry

Barak Obama talking up the solar power industry

i was reading an article recently called how solar power workswhich was quite informative, but it mentioned that some 41,000 homes in Australia had solar PVs on their rooves by the end of 2008, and this was expected to rise substantially by 2009. This sounded like a very small figure, and I wondered if there was more recent data. A quick search turned up a swag of articles charting the rise and rise of rooftop solar installations in recent years. The data in just about every article came from the Australian Clean Energy Regulator (ACER). Australia swept past 1 million domestic solar installations in March 2013 with solar advocates predicting a doubling, at minimum, within the following two years. That hasn’t happened, but still the take-up has been astonishing in the past six or seven years. This article from a month ago claims 1.3 million PVs, with another 170,000 systems going up annually, though it doesn’t quote sources. Others are saying that the industry is now ‘flagging’, due to the retreat of state-based subsidies, though the commercial sector is now getting in on the act, having recently tripled its share of the solar PV market to 15%. The current federal government seems unwilling to make any clear commitment to domestic solar, but the Clean Energy Finance Corp, which was established by the Gillard government, and which the Abbott government wants to axe, is now engaged in a deal with ET Solar, a Chinese company, to help finance the solarisation of shopping centres and other commercial energy users. Shopping centres, which operate all day virtually every day, would seem to be an ideal target for solar PV installation. Presumably these projects will go ahead as the Abbott government seems unable or unwilling to engage in Senate negotiations which will allow its policies, including those of axing the entities of previous governments, to progress.

There’s so much solar news around it’s hard to keep track of, but I’ll start locally, with South Australia. By the end of 2014 some 23% of SA homes had solar PV, a slight increase on the previous year. One effect has been to shift the peak power period from late afternoon to early evening (just after 7PM). South Australia leads the way with the highest proportion of panels, with Queensland close behind. Australia’s rapid adoption of rooftop solar is surpassed only by Japan. The Japanese are now voting decisively against nuclear energy with their panels.

SA-Bozing-day-solar

This graph  (from the Renew Economy website) shows that on Boxing Day last year (2014) rooftop solar in SA (the big yellow peak) reached one third of demand in the middle of the day, and averaged around 30% from 11.30am to 3.30pm. With our heavy reliance on wind power here, this means that these two renewable power sources accounted for some two thirds of demand during that period. Sadly, though, with the proposed reduction of the Renewable Energy Target, wind and solar (small and large scale) are being forced to compete with each other for more limited opportunities.

There are some short-term concerns. Clearly the federal government isn’t being particularly supportive of renewables, but it’s highly likely the conservatives will be out of office after the late 2016 election, after which there may be a little more investment certainty. There’s also clear evidence now that small-scale solar uptake is declining, though it’s still happening. Profit margins for solar companies are suffering in an increasingly competitive marketplace, so large-scale, more inherently profitable projects will likely be the way of the immediate future. Still, the greater affordability of solar PV over the last few years will ensure continued uptake, and a greater proportion of households taking advantage of the technology. According to a recent International Energy Association (IEA) publication:

The cost of PV modules has been divided by five in the last six years; the cost of full PV systems has been divided by almost three. The levelised cost of electricity of decentralised solar PV systems is approaching or falling below the variable portion of retail electricity prices that system owners pay in some markets, across residential and commercial segments.

The 2014 publication was a ‘technology roadmap’, updated from 2010. Based on the unexpectedly high recent uptake of solar PV, the IEA has revised upwards its share of global electricity production from 11% to 16% by 2050. But on the barriers to expansion, the IEA’s remarks in the foreword to this document read like a warning to the Australian government

Like most renewable energy sources and energy efficiency improvements, PV is very capital-intensive: almost all expenditures are made up-front. Keeping the cost of capital low is thus of primary importance for achieving this roadmap’s vision. But investment and finance are very responsive to the quality of policy making. Clear and credible signals from policy makers lower risks and inspire confidence. By contrast, where there is a record of policy incoherence, confusing signals or stop-and-go policy cycles, investors end up paying more for their finance, consumers pay more for their energy, and some projects that are needed simply will not go ahead. 

The four-year gap between each IEA roadmap may be too long, considering the substantial changes that can occur in the energy arena. There was greater growth in solar PV capacity in the 2010-2014 period than there was in the four previous decades. The possibilities of solar energy really began to catch on with the energy crisis of the seventies, and the technology has received a boost more recently due to climate change and the lack of effective leadership on the issue. The charge was led by European countries such as Germany and Italy, but since 2013 China has been leading the pack in solar PV adoption.

What, though, of the long-term future? That’s a subject best left for another post, but clearly solar is here to stay, and its energy share will continue to expand, a continued expansion that is causing problems for industries that have traditionally (though only over the past couple of centuries actually) profited from our expanding energy needs. Our future is bound up in how we can handle transitions that will be necessary if we are to maintain energy needs with a minimum of damage to our biosphere.

anti-matter as rocket fuel?

easy peasy

easy peasy

This post is in response to a request, I’m delighted to report.

I remember learning first about anti-matter back in about 1980 or 81, when I first started reading science magazines, particularly Scientific American. I learned that matter and anti-matter were created in the big bang, but more matter was created than anti-matter. If not for that I suppose we wouldn’t be here, unless we could be made from anti-matter. I’m not sure where that would leave anti-theists, but let’s not get too confused. We’re here, and so is anti-matter. Presumably there are plenty of other universes consisting mostly of anti-matter, though whether that excludes life, or anti-life, I’ve no idea. Confusion again. If you’re curious about why there’s this lack of symmetry, check out baryogenesis, which will feed without satisfying your curiosity – just what the doctor ordered.

The next time I found myself thinking about anti-matter was in reading, again in Scientific American, about positron-emission tomography (PET), a technology for scanning the brain. As the name implies, it involves the emission of positrons, which are anti-electrons, to somehow provide a map of the brain. I was quite amazed to find, from this barely comprehensible concept, that anti-matter was far from being theoretical, that it could be manipulated and put into harness. But can it be used as energy, or as a form of fuel? Due to anti-matter’s antagonism to matter, I wondered if this was feasible, to which my 12-year-old patron replied with one word – magnets.

The physicist Hans Georg Dehmelt received a Nobel Prize for his role in the development of ion traps, devices which capture particles of different kinds and charges, including antiparticles, within magnetic and electrical fields, so clearly my patron was onto something and it’s not just science-fiction (as I initially thought). It’s obvious from a glance through the physics of this field – using ion traps to analyse the properties and behaviour of charged subatomic particles – that it’s incredibly arcane and complex, but also of immense importance for our understanding of the basic stuff of the universe. I won’t be able to do more here than scratch the surface, if there is a surface.

The idea is that antimatter might be used some time in the future as rocket fuel for space travel – though considering the energy released by matter-antimatter annihilation, it could also have domestic use as a source of electricity. To make this possible we’d have to find some way of isolating and storing it. And what kind of antimatter would be best for this purpose? The sources I’m reading mostly take antiprotons and also anti-electrons (positrons) as examples. The potential is enormous because the energy density of proton-antiproton annihilation is very many times that of equivalent fission reactions. However, experts say that the enormous cost of creating antimatter for terrestrial purposes is prohibitive at the moment. Better to think of it for rocket propulsion because only a tiny amount would be required.

Three types of antimatter rocket have already been proposed: one that uses matter-antimatter annihilation directly as a form of propulsion; another that uses the annihilation to heat an intermediate material, such as a fluid, and a third that generates electricity from the annihilation, to feed an electric spacecraft propulsion system. Wikipedia puts it this way:

The propulsion concepts that employ these mechanisms generally fall into four categories: solid core, gaseous core, plasma core, and beamed core configurations. The alternatives to direct antimatter annihilation propulsion offer the possibility of feasible vehicles with, in some cases, vastly smaller amounts of antimatter but require a lot more matter propellant. Then there are hybrid solutions using antimatter to catalyze fission/fusion reactions for propulsion.

A direct or pure anti-matter rocket may use antiproton annihilation or positron annihilation. Antiproton annihilation produces charged and uncharged pions, or pi mesons – unstable particles consisting of a pair of quarks – as well as neutrinos and gamma rays (high energy photons). The ‘pion rocket’ channels this released energy by means of a magnetic nozzle, but because of the complex mix of energy products, not all of which can be harnessed, the technology currently lacks energy efficiency. Positron annihilation, on the other hand, only produces gamma rays. To use gamma rays as a form of propulsive energy has proved problematic, though it’s known that photon energy can be partially transferred to electrons under certain conditions. This is called Compton scattering, and was an early proof of the particulate nature of light. Recent research has found that intense laser beams can produce positrons when fired at high atomic number elements such as gold. This could produce energy on an ongoing basis, eliminating the need for storage.

The more indirect types are called thermal antimatter rockets. As mentioned, these are divided into solid, gaseous and plasma core systems. It would be beyond my capacity to explain these technologies, but the finding so far is that, though plasma and gas systems may have some operational advantages over a solid system, the solid core concept is much more energy efficient, due to the shorter mean free path between energy-generating impacts.

It’s fairly clear even from my minuscule research on the subject that antimatter rocketry and fuel are in their early, speculative stages, though already involving mind-numbing mathematical formulae. The major difficulties are antimatter creation and, where necessary, storage. Current estimates around the technology are that it would take 10 grams of antimatter to get to Mars in a month. So far, storage, involving freezing of antihydrogen pellets (cooled and bound antiprotons and positrons) and maintaining them in ion traps, has only been achieved at the level of single atoms. Upscaling such a system is theoretically possible, though at this stage prohibitively expensive – requiring a storage system billions of times larger than what has so far been achieved.  There are many other problems with the technology too, including high levels of waste heat and extreme radiation. There are relativistic problems too, as the products of annihilation move at relativistic velocities.

All in all, it’s clear that antimatter rockets are not going to be with us for a long time, if ever, but I suspect that the technical issues involved and the solutions that might be nutted out will fascinate physicists and mathematicians for decades to come.