Victoria is the latest state to take renewable energy into its own hands

File 20170828 1572 7jnrar
The Victorian government is aiming to boost renewable energy to 40%.
Changyang1230/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The Victorian government’s intention, announced last week, to legislate its own state-based renewable energy target is the latest example of a state pursuing its own clean energy goals after expressing frustration with the pace of federal action.

The Andrews government has now confirmed its plan for 40% renewable energy by 2025, as well as an intermediate target of 25% clean energy by 2020. The policy, first flagged last year and now introduced as a bill in the state parliament, seeks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 16% by 2035.

At a general level, these actions are reflective of the increasing frustration states and territories have experienced at perceived inaction at the federal and even international levels. Neighbouring South Australia has also been pursuing clean energy, this month announcing plans to develop one of the world’s biggest concentrated solar plants in Port Augusta.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has remarked that “it up to states like Victoria to fill that void”.

Read more: Victoria’s renewables target joins an impressive shift towards clean energy.

It is also, of course, a product of growing concerns regarding domestic energy security and investment confidence. Victoria’s climate and energy minister Lily D’Ambrosio said: “The renewable energy sector will now have the confidence to invest in renewable energy projects and the jobs that are crucial to Victoria’s future.”

National plans?

The Andrews government’s underlying objective is to reinforce, rather than undermine, federal initiatives such as the national Renewable Energy Target and any future implementation of the Clean Energy Target recommended by the Finkel Review.

But federal Environment and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has apparently rejected this view, claiming that the new Victorian proposals run counter to the development of nationally consistent energy policy. “National problems require national solutions and by going it alone with a legislated state-based renewable energy target Daniel Andrews is setting Victoria on the South Australian Labor path for higher prices and a less stable system,” Frydenberg said.

Read more: Finkel’s Clean Energy Target plan ‘better than nothing’: economists poll.

A nationally consistent plan is somewhat unrealistic in view of the current fragmented, partisan framework in which energy policy is being developed. The federal government’s apparent reluctance to accept Finkel’s recommendation for a Clean Energy Target is generating uncertainty and unrest.

In this context, actions taken by states such as Victoria and South Australia can help to encourage renewable energy investment. Given that Australia has promised to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26-28% (on 2005 levels) by 2030 under the Paris Climate Agreement, it is hard to see how boosting renewable energy production is inconsistent with broader national objectives.

The renewables target rationale

Mandating a certain amount of renewable energy, as Victoria is aiming to do, helps to push clean energy projects beyond the innovation stage and into commercial development. It also helps more established technologies such as wind and solar to move further along the cost curve and become more economically competitive.

Renewable energy targets aim to stimulate demand for clean energy, thereby ensuring that these technologies have better economy of scale. Under both the federal and Victorian frameworks, electricity utilities must source a portion of their power from renewable sources. They can comply with these requirements with the help of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), of which they receive one for every megawatt hour of clean energy generated.

Independent power producers can sell their RECs to utilities to earn a premium on top of their income from power sales in the wholesale electricity market. As well as buying RECs, utilities can also invest in their own renewable generation facilities, thus earning more RECs themselves.

Victoria’s situation

Victoria’s proposed new legislation will serve an important purpose following the retirement of the Hazelwood coal-fired power plant. Renewable energy currently represents about 17% of the state’s electricity generation, and the Andrews government is aiming to more than double this figure by 2025.

This year alone, Victoria has added an extra 685MW of renewable generation capacity, creating more than A$1.2 billion worth of investment in the process. If the new legislation succeeds in its aims, this level of investment will be sustained well into the next decade.

Under the bill’s proposals, D’Ambrosio will be required to determine by the end of this year the minimum renewables capacity needed to hit the 25% by 2020 target, and to make a similar decision by the end of 2019 regarding the 40% by 2025 target.

In mandating these milestones, the state is aiming to set out the exact size of the state’s transitioning energy market, in turn giving greater investment certainty to the renewable energy industry.

Read more: Closing Victoria’s Hazelwood power station is no threat to electricity supply.

Victoria’s renewable energy scheme is designed to work coherently with the federal Renewable Energy Target, which given current usage projections is aiming to source 23.5% of national electricity consumption from renewables by 2020.

The federal government is yet to decide on any clean energy policy beyond the end of the decade, whether that be a Finkel-recommended Clean Energy Target or something else. In the absence of confirmed federal policy, the states have assumed the responsibility of accelerating renewable energy production through legislative initiatives designed to sustain and progress market development. This is consistent with federal commitments to global climate change imperatives.

The ConversationIt is hoped that these initiatives will act as a stepping stone for the eventual introduction of comprehensive state and federal clean energy regulation, and the advent of some much-needed national cohesion.

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Finkel’s Clean Energy Target plan ‘better than nothing’: economists poll

Bruce Mountain, Victoria University

Few topics have attracted as much political attention in Australia over the past decade as emissions reduction policy.

Amid mounting concern over electricity price increases across Australia and coinciding with blackouts in South Australia and near-misses in New South Wales, the Australian government asked Chief Scientist Alan Finkel to provide a blueprint for reform of the electricity industry, in a context in which emissions reduction policy was an underlying drumbeat.

In a new poll of the ESA Monash Forum of leading economists, a majority said that Finkel’s suggested Clean Energy Target was not necessarily a better option than previously suggested policies such as an emissions trading scheme. But many added that doing nothing would be worse still.

Read more: The Finkel Review: finally, a sensible and solid footing for the electricity sector.

The Finkel Review’s terms of reference explicitly precluded it from advising on economy-wide emissions reduction policy, and implicitly required it also to reject emission reduction policies such as an emissions tax or cap and trade scheme.

One of the Finkel Review’s major recommendations was a Clean Energy Target (CET). This is effectively an extension of the existing Renewable Energy Target to cover power generation which has a greenhouse gas emissions intensity below a defined hurdle. Such generation can sell certificates which electricity retailers (and directly connected large customers) will be required to buy.

The ESA Monash Forum panel was asked to consider whether this approach was “preferable” to an emission tax or cap and trade scheme. As usual, responses could range from strong disagreement to strong agreement with an option to neither agree nor disagree. Twenty-five members of the 53-member panel voted, and most added commentary to their response – you can see a summary of their verdicts below, and their detailed comments at the end of this article.

A headline result from the survey is that a large majority of the panel does not think the CET is preferable to a tax or cap and trade scheme. None strongly agreed that the CET was preferable, whereas 16 either disagreed or strongly disagreed, and four agreed.

Of the four who agreed, three provided commentary to their response. Stephen King preferred the CET on the grounds of its ease of implementation but otherwise would have preferred a tax or cap and trade scheme. Michael Knox agreed on the basis that the CET was preferable to the existing Renewable Energy Target. Harry Bloch unconditionally endorsed the CET.

Of the five who neither agreed nor disagreed, three commented and two of them (Paul Frijters and John Quiggin) said there was not much to distinguish a CET from a tax or cap and trade scheme. Warwick McKibbin, who disagreed with the proposition, nonetheless also suggested that the CET, tax and cap and trade scheme were comparably effective if applied only to the electricity sector.

However, closer examination of the comments suggests much greater sympathy with Finkel’s CET recommendation than the bare numbers indicate. Even for those who strongly disagreed that the CET was preferable, none suggested that proceeding with a CET would be worse than doing nothing. But eight (Stephen King, Harry Bloch, Alison Booth, Saul Eslake, Julie Toth, Flavio Menezes, Margaret Nowak and John Quiggin) commented that proceeding with the CET would be better than doing nothing. Interestingly none of these eight explained why they thought doing something was better than doing nothing. Does it reflect a desire for greater investment certainty or a conviction that reducing emissions from electricity production in Australia is important?

Seven respondents (Stephen King, Alison Booth, Saul Eslake, Julie Toth, Gigi Foster, Lin Crase and John Quiggin) alluded to the political constraints affecting the choice, of which several drew attention to Finkel’s own observations. None of these seven suggested that the political constraint invalidated proceeding with the CET.

Of the 19 economists who provided comments on their response, 16 thought a tax or cap and trade scheme better than a CET. Numbers were equally drawn (three each) as to whether a tax or cap and trade was better than the other, with the remaining 10 invariant between a tax or cap and trade.

My overall impression is that in judging Dr Finkel’s CET recommendation, most of the panel might agree with the proposition that the “the perfect is the enemy of the roughly acceptable”. I surmise that in a decade past, many members of the panel would have held out for greater perfection, but now they think prevarication is more cost than benefit, and it is better to move on and make the best of the cards that have been dealt.

In emissions reduction policy the mainstream advice from Australia’s economists has not been persuasive. But this is hardly unique to Australia, as the pervasiveness of regulatory approaches in other countries shows. Perhaps an unavoidably compromised policy that is nonetheless well executed may be better than a brilliant policy that is poorly executed. Even if they could not have been more persuasive in design, Australia’s economists should still have much that is useful to contribute in execution. Hopefully more can be drawn into it.

Read the panel’s full responses below:

The ConversationThis is an edited version of the summary of the report’s findings originally published by the ESA Monash Forum.

Bruce Mountain, Director, Carbon and Energy Markets., Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Antarctic ice reveals that fossil fuel extraction leaks more methane than thought

File 20170823 13299 1u60k1n
The analysis of large amounts of ice from Antarctica’s Taylor Valley has helped scientists to tease apart the natural and human-made sources of the potent greenhouse gas methane.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

Hinrich Schaefer, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric

The fossil fuel industry is a larger contributor to atmospheric methane levels than previously thought, according to our research which shows that natural seepage of this potent greenhouse gas from oil and gas reservoirs is more modest than had been assumed.

In our research, published in Nature today, our international team studied Antarctic ice dating back to the last time the planet warmed rapidly, roughly 11,000 years ago.

Katja Riedel and Hinrich Schaefer discuss NIWA’s ice coring work at Taylor Glacier in Antarctica.

We found that natural seepage of methane from oil and gas fields is much lower than anticipated, implying that leakage caused by fossil fuel extraction has a larger role in today’s emissions of this greenhouse gas.

However, we also found that vast stores of methane in permafrost and undersea gas hydrates did not release large amounts of their contents during the rapid warming at the end of the most recent ice age, relieving fears of a catastrophic methane release in response to the current warming.

The ice is processed in a large melter before samples are shipped back to New Zealand.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

A greenhouse gas history

Methane levels started to increase with the industrial revolution and are now 2.5 times higher than they ever were naturally. They have caused one-third of the observed increase in global average temperatures relative to pre-industrial times.

If we are to reduce methane emissions, we need to understand where it comes from. Quantifying different sources is notoriously tricky, but it is especially hard when natural and human-driven emissions happen at the same time, through similar processes.

Read more: Detecting methane leaks with infrared cameras: they’re fast, but are they effective

The most important of these cases is natural methane seepage from oil and gas fields, also known as geologic emissions, which often occurs alongside leakage from production wells and pipelines.

The total is reasonably well known, but where is the split between natural and industrial?

To make matters worse, human-caused climate change could destabilise permafrost or ice-like sediments called gas hydrates (or clathrates), both of which have the potential to release more methane than any human activity and reinforce climate change. This scenario has been hypothesised for past warming events (the “clathrate gun”) and for future runaway climate change (the so-called “Arctic methane bomb”). But how likely are these events?

Antarctic ice traps tiny bubbles of air, which represents a sample of ancient atmospheres.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

The time capsule

To find answers, we needed a time capsule. This is provided by tiny air bubbles enclosed in polar ice, which preserve ancient atmospheres. By using radiocarbon (14C) dating to determine the age of methane from the end of the last ice age, we can work out how much methane comes from contemporary processes, like wetland production, and how much is from previously stored methane. During the time the methane is stored in permafrost, sediments or gas fields, the 14C decays away so that these sources emit methane that is radiocarbon-free.

In the absence of strong environmental change and industrial fossil fuel production, all radiocarbon-free methane in samples from, say, 12,000 years ago will be from geologic emissions. From that baseline, we can then see if additional radiocarbon-free methane is released from permafrost or hydrates during rapid warming, which occurred around 11,500 years ago while methane levels shot up.

Tracking methane in ice

The problem is that there is not much air in an ice sample, very little methane in that air, and a tiny fraction of that methane contains a radiocarbon (14C) atom. There is no hope of doing the measurements on traditional ice cores.

Our team therefore went to Taylor Glacier, in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Here, topography, glacier flow and wind force ancient ice layers to the surface. This provides virtually unlimited sample material that spans the end of the last ice age.

A tonne of ice yielded only a drop of methane.
Hinrich Schaefer, CC BY-ND

For a single measurement, we drilled a tonne of ice (equivalent to a cube with one-metre sides) and melted it in the field to liberate the enclosed air. From the gas-tight melter, the air was transferred to vacuum flasks and shipped to New Zealand. In the laboratory, we extracted the pure methane out of these 100-litre air samples, to obtain a volume the size of a water drop.

Only every trillionth of the methane molecules contains a 14C atom. Our collaborators in Australia were able to measure exactly how big that minute fraction is in each sample and if it changed during the studied period.

Low seepage, no gun, no bomb

Because radiocarbon decays at a known rate, the amount of 14C gives a radiocarbon age. In all our samples the radiocarbon date was consistent with the sample age.

Radiocarbon-free methane emissions did not increase the radiocarbon age. They must have been very low in pre-industrial times, even during a rapid warming event. The latter indicates that there was no clathrate gun or Arctic methane bomb going off.

So, while today’s conditions differ from the ice-covered world 12,000 years ago, our findings implicate that permafrost and gas hydrates are not too likely to release large amounts of methane in future warming. That is good news.

Wetlands must have been responsible for the increase in methane at the end of the ice age. They have a lesser capacity for emissions than the immense permafrost and clathrate stores.

Geologic emissions are likely to be lower today than in the ice age, partly because we have since drained shallow gas fields that are most prone to natural seepage. Yet, our highest estimates are only about half of the lower margin estimated for today. The total assessment (natural plus industrial) for fossil-fuel methane emissions has recently been increased.

In addition, we now find that a larger part of that must come from industrial activities, raising the latter to one third of all methane sources globally. For comparison, the last IPCC report put them at 17%.

The ConversationMeasurements in modern air suggest that the rise in methane levels over the last years is dominated by agricultural emissions, which must therefore be mitigated. Our new research shows that the impact of fossil fuel use on the historic methane rise is larger than assumed. In order to mitigate climate change, methane emissions from oil, gas and coal production must be cut sharply.

Hinrich Schaefer, Research Scientist Trace Gases, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Capturing the true wealth of Australia’s waste

File 20170823 13308 ce4edu
Methane is produced in landfill when organic waste decomposes.

William Clarke, The University of Queensland and Bernadette McCabe, University of Southern Queensland

One of the byproducts of landfill is “landfill gas”, a mixture of mostly methane and carbon dioxide generated by decomposing organic material. Methane is a particularly potent greenhouse gas, but it can be captured from landfill and used to generate clean electricity.

Methane capture is a valuable source of power but, more importantly, it can significantly reduce Australia’s methane emissions. However the opportunity to produce energy from waste is largely being squandered, as up to 80% of the potential methane in waste is not used.

If more councils were prepared to invest in better facilities, Australians would benefit from less waste in landfill and more energy in our grids. Even the by-product from using state-of-art processing methods can be used as a bio-fertiliser.

Read more: Explainer: how much landfill does Australia have?

And while these facilities are initially more expensive, Australians are generally very willing to recycle, compost and take advantage of community schemes to reduce waste. It’s reasonable to assume that a considerable percentage of our population would support updating landfill plants to reduce methane emissions.

Recycling in Australia

Australia may have a bad rap when it comes to waste recycling, but there are plenty of positives.

Australians produce approximately 600 kilograms of domestic waste per person, per year – no more than most northern European countries, which set the benchmark in sustainable waste management.

Looking at kerbside bins we, on average, recycle 30-35% of that waste, saving much of our paper, glass, aluminium and steel from landfill (which also saves and reduces emissions).

Although the household recycling rate in Australia is less than the best-performing EU recycling rates of 40-45%, this is primarily due to a lack of access to (or awareness of) schemes to recycle e-waste and metals. Data therefore suggests that at the community level, there is a willingness to minimise and recycle waste.

Read more:

Australia is still miles behind in recycling electronic products

Campaigns urging us to ‘care more’ about food waste miss the point

Between 55% and 60% of kerbside waste sent to landfill in Australia is organic material. Over 65% of this organic fraction is food waste, similar to the make-up of the EU organic waste stream, comprised of 68% of food waste.

Despite this large fraction, approximately half of the household organic we produce – mostly garden waste – is separately collected and disposed, again demonstrating high participation by the community in recycling when collection and disposal options are available.

Turning waste into energy

Energy recovery from waste is the conversion of non-recyclable material into useable heat, electricity, or fuel. Solid inorganic waste can be converted to energy by combustion, but organic waste like kitchen and and garden refuse has too much moisture to be treated this way.

Read more: Explainer: why we should be turning waste into fuel

Instead, when organic waste is sent to landfill it is broken down naturally by microorganisms. This process releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Around 130 landfills in Australia are capturing methane and using it to generate electricity. Based on installed power generation capacity and the amount of waste received, Australia’s largest landfills use 20-30% of the potential methane in waste for electricity generation.

Ravenhall in Melbourne processes 1.4 million tonnes of waste per year, and proposes to generate 8.8 megawatts (MW) of electricity by 2020. Roughly 461,000 tonnes of waste goes to Woodlawn in NSW, and in 2011 it generated 4MW of electrical power. Swanbank in Queensland receives 500,000 tonnes a year and generates 1.1MW.

The remainder of the methane is flared due to poor gas quality or insufficient transmission infrastructure, is oxidised as it migrates towards the surface of the landfill, or simply escapes. The methane generating capacity of waste is also diminished because organics begin composting as soon as they reach landfill.

But there are more efficient ways to capture methane using specialised anaerobic digestion tanks. The process is simple: an anaerobic (oxygen free) tank is filled with organic waste, which is broken down by bacteria to produce biogas. This is similar to the natural process that occurs in landfill, but is much more controlled and efficient in a tank.

Read more: Biogas: smells like a solution to our energy and waste problems

The biogas can be combusted to produce electricity and heat, or can be converted to pure biomethane to be used either in the mains gas grid, or as a renewable transport fuel. In contrast to landfills, 60-80% of the methane potential of waste is used to generate electricity in anaerobic digesters, with most of the remainder used to power waste handling and the digestion process.

The nutrient-rich sludge that remains after anaerobic digestion, called digestate, is also a valuable biofertiliser. It can support food production, and further reduce greenhouse gases by decreasing our reliance on energy-intensive manufactured fertilisers.

The use of food waste as a feedstock for anaerobic digestion is largely untapped in Australia but has huge potential. A site in Sydney’s geographic centre (Earth Power Technologies) and Richgro’s Jandakot facility near Perth are part of a handful that are converting food waste to energy using this technology.

The future of organic recycling

Local council recycling and waste infrastructure is typically not a priority election issue, except for those close to existing or proposed landfills.

Read more: Australian recycling plants have no incentive to improve

Ratepayers are generally not informed of the possibility of separately collecting food waste, either for industrial-scale composting or methane capture. We have the right to this information, with costs and benefits presented in the context of the costs we already pay for waste management, and relative to the environmental performance of landfill.

As an example, landfill operators often promote the number of homes they power by electricity generated from methane as a key measure of sustainability. But how does this compare to the electricity and heat that might be obtained from an anaerobic digester that processes the same waste?

The ConversationGiven the choice, the Australian community may have an appetite to extend organic recycling beyond well-established garden waste composting. They only have to be asked.

William Clarke, Professor of waste management, The University of Queensland and Bernadette McCabe, Associate Professor and Principal Scientist, University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.