The sunlight that powers solar panels also damages them. ‘Gallium doping’ is providing a solution


Shutterstock

Matthew Wright, UNSW; Brett Hallam, UNSW, and Bruno Vicari Stefani, UNSWSolar power is already the cheapest form of electricity generation, and its cost will continue to fall as more improvements emerge in the technology and its global production. Now, new research is exploring what could be another major turning point in solar cell manufacturing.

In Australia, more than two million rooftops have solar panels (the most per capita in the world). The main material used in panels is silicon. Silicon makes up most of an individual solar cell’s components required to convert sunlight into power. But some other elements are also required.

Research from our group at the University of New South Wales’s School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering shows that adding gallium to the cell’s silicon can lead to very stable solar panels which are much less susceptible to degrading over their lifetime.

This is the long-term goal for the next generation of solar panels: for them to produce more power over their lifespan, which means the electricity produced by the system will be cheaper in the long run.

As gallium is used more and more to achieve this, our findings provide robust data that could allow manufacturers to make decisions that will ultimately have a global impact.

The process of ‘doping’ solar cells

A solar cell converts sunlight into electricity by using the energy from sunlight to “break away” negative charges, or electrons, in the silicon. The electrons are then collected as electricity.

However, shining light on a plain piece of silicon doesn’t generate electricity, as the electrons that are released from the light do not all flow in the same direction. To make the electricity flow in one direction, we need to create an electric field.




Read more:
Curious Kids: how do solar panels work?


In silicon solar cells — the kind currently producing power for millions of Australian homes — this is done by adding different impurity atoms to the silicon, to create a region that has more negative charges than normal silicon (n-type silicon) and a region that has fewer negative charges (p-type silicon).

When we put the two parts of silicon together, we form what is called a “p-n junction”. This allows the solar cell to operate. And the adding of impurity atoms into silicon is called “doping”.

An unfortunate side effect of sunlight

The most commonly used atom to form the p-type part of the silicon, with less negative charge than plain silicon, is boron.

Boron is a great atom to use as it has the exact number of electrons needed for the task. It can also be distributed very uniformly through the silicon during the production of the high-purity crystals required for solar cells.

But in a cruel twist, shining light on boron-filled silicon can make the quality of the silicon degrade. This is often referred to as “light-induced degradation” and has been a hot topic in solar research over the past decade.

The reason for this degradation is relatively well understood: when we make the pure silicon material, we have to purposefully add some impurities such as boron to generate the electric field that drives the electricity. However, other unwanted atoms are also incorporated into the silicon as a result.

One of these atoms is oxygen, which is incorporated into the silicon from the crucible — the big hot pot in which the silicon is refined.

When light shines on silicon that contains both boron and oxygen, they bond together, causing a defect that can trap electricity and reduce the amount of power generated by the solar panel.

Unfortunately, this means the sunlight that powers solar panels also damages them over their lifetime. An element called gallium looks like it could be the solution to this problem.

A smarter approach

Boron isn’t the only element we can use to make p-type silicon. A quick perusal of the periodic table shows a whole column of elements that have one less negative charge than silicon.

Adding one of these atoms to silicon upsets the balance between the negative and positive charge, which is needed to make our electric field. Of these atoms, the most suitable is gallium.

Gallium is a very suitable element to make p-type silicon. In fact, multiple studies have shown it doesn’t bond together with oxygen to cause degradation. So, you may be wondering, why we haven’t been using gallium all along?

Well, the reason we have been stuck using boron instead of gallium over the past 20 years is that the process of doping silicon with gallium was locked under a patent. This prevented manufacturers using this approach.

Gallium-doped silicon heterojunction solar cell.
Robert Underwood/UNSW

But these patents finally expired in May 2020. Since then, the industry has rapidly shifted from boron to gallium to make p-type silicon.

In fact, at the start of 2021, leading photovoltaic manufacturer Hanwha Q Cells estimated about 80% of all solar panels manufactured in 2021 used gallium doping rather than boron — a massive transition in such a short time!

Does gallium really boost solar panel stability?

We investigated whether solar cells made with gallium-doped silicon really are more stable than solar cells made with boron-doped silicon.

To find out, we made solar cells using a “silicon heterojunction” design, which is the approach that has led to the highest efficiency silicon solar cells to date. This work was done in collaboration with Hevel Solar in Russia.

We measured the voltage of both boron-doped and gallium-doped solar cells during a light-soaking test for 300,000 seconds. The boron-doped solar cell underwent significant degradation due to the boron bonding with oxygen.

Meanwhile, the gallium-doped solar cell had a much higher voltage. Our result also demonstrated that p-type silicon made using gallium is very stable and could help unlock savings for this type of solar cell.

To think it might be possible for manufacturers to work at scale with gallium, producing solar cells that are both more stable and potentially cheaper, is a hugely exciting prospect.

The best part is our findings could have a direct impact on industry. And cheaper solar electricity for our homes means a brighter future for our planet, too.




Read more:
It might sound ‘batshit insane’ but Australia could soon export sunshine to Asia via a 3,800km cable


The Conversation


Matthew Wright, Postdoctoral Researcher in Photovoltaic Engineering, UNSW; Brett Hallam, Scientia and DECRA Fellow, UNSW, and Bruno Vicari Stefani, PhD Candidate, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wind turbines off the coast could help Australia become an energy superpower, research finds


Shutterstock

Sven Teske, University of Technology Sydney; Chris Briggs, University of Technology Sydney; Mark Hemer, CSIRO; Philip Marsh, University of Tasmania, and Rusty Langdon, University of Technology SydneyOffshore wind farms are an increasingly common sight overseas. But Australia has neglected the technology, despite the ample wind gusts buffeting much of our coastline.

New research released today confirms Australia’s offshore wind resources offer vast potential both for electricity generation and new jobs. In fact, wind conditions off southern Australia rival those in the North Sea, between Britain and Europe, where the offshore wind industry is well established.

More than ten offshore wind farms are currently proposed for Australia. If built, their combined capacity would be greater than all coal-fired power plants in the nation.

Offshore wind projects can provide a win-win-win for Australia: creating jobs for displaced fossil fuel workers, replacing energy supplies lost when coal plants close, and helping Australia become a renewable energy superpower.

offshore wind turbine from above
Australia’s potential for offshore wind rivals the North Sea’s.
Shutterstock

The time is now

Globally, offshore wind is booming. The United Kingdom plans to quadruple offshore wind capacity to 40 gigawatts (GW) by 2030 – enough to power every home in the nation. Other jurisdictions also have ambitious 2030 offshore wind targets including the European Union (60GW), the United States (30GW), South Korea (12GW) and Japan (10GW).

Australia’s coastal waters are relatively deep, which limits the scope to fix offshore wind turbines to the bottom of the ocean. This, combined with Australia’s ample onshore wind and solar energy resources, means offshore wind has been overlooked in Australia’s energy system planning.

But recent changes are producing new opportunities for Australia. The development of larger turbines has created economies of scale which reduce technology costs. And floating turbine foundations, which can operate in very deep waters, open access to more windy offshore locations.

More than ten offshore wind projects are proposed in Australia. Star of the South, to be built off Gippsland in Victoria, is the most advanced. Others include those off Western Australia, Tasmania and Victoria.

floating wind turbine
Floating wind turbines can operate in deep waters.
SAITEC

Our findings

Our study sought to examine the potential of offshore wind energy for Australia.

First, we examined locations considered feasible for offshore wind projects, namely those that were:

  • less than 100km from shore
  • within 100km of substations and transmission lines (excluding environmentally restricted areas)
  • in water depths less than 1,000 metres.

Wind resources at those locations totalled 2,233GW of capacity and would generate far more than current and projected electricity demand across Australia.

Second, we looked at so-called “capacity factor” – the ratio between the energy an offshore wind turbine would generate with the winds available at a location, relative to the turbine’s potential maximum output.

The best sites were south of Tasmania, with a capacity factor of 80%. The next-best sites were in Bass Strait and off Western Australia and North Queensland (55%), followed by South Australia and New South Wales (45%). By comparison, the capacity factor of onshore wind turbines is generally 35–45%.

Average annual wind speeds in Bass Strait, around Tasmania and along the mainland’s southwest coast equal those in the North Sea, where offshore wind is an established industry. Wind conditions in southern Australia are also more favourable than in the East China and Yellow seas, which are growth regions for commercial wind farms.

Map showing average wind speed
Average wind speed (metres per second) from 2010-2019 in the study area at 100 metres.
Authors provided

Next, we compared offshore wind resources on an hourly basis against the output of onshore solar and wind farms at 12 locations around Australia.

At most sites, offshore wind continued to operate at high capacity during periods when onshore wind and solar generation output was low. For example, meteorological data shows offshore wind at the Star of the South location is particularly strong on hot days when energy demand is high.

Australia’s fleet of coal-fired power plants is ageing, and the exact date each facility will retire is uncertain. This creates risks of disruption to energy supplies, however offshore wind power could help mitigate this. A single offshore wind project can be up to five times the size of an onshore wind project.

Some of the best sites for offshore winds are located near the Latrobe Valley in Victoria and the Hunter Valley in NSW. Those regions boast strong electricity grid infrastructure built around coal plants, and offshore wind projects could plug into this via undersea cables.

And building wind energy offshore can also avoid the planning conflicts and community opposition which sometimes affect onshore renewables developments.

Global average wind speed
Global average wind speed (metres per second at 100m level.
Authors provided



Read more:
Renewables need land – and lots of it. That poses tricky questions for regional Australia


Winds of change

Our research found offshore wind could help Australia become a renewable energy “superpower”. As Australia seeks to reduce its greenhouse has emissions, sectors such as transport will need increased supplies of renewable energy. Clean energy will also be needed to produce hydrogen for export and to manufacture “green” steel and aluminium.

Offshore wind can also support a “just transition” – in other words, ensure fossil fuel workers and their communities are not left behind in the shift to a low-carbon economy.

Our research found offshore wind could produce around 8,000 jobs under the scenario used in our study – almost as many as those employed in Australia’s offshore oil and gas sector.

Many skills used in the oil and gas industry, such as those in construction, safety and mechanics, overlap with those needed in offshore wind energy. Coal workers could also be re-employed in offshore wind manufacturing, port assembly and engineering.

Realising these opportunities from offshore wind will take time and proactive policy and planning. Our report includes ten recommendations, including:

  • establishing a regulatory regime in Commonwealth waters
  • integrating offshore wind into energy planning and innovation funding
  • further research on the cost-benefits of the sector to ensure Australia meets its commitments to a well managed sustainable ocean economy.

If we get this right, offshore wind can play a crucial role in Australia’s energy transition.




Read more:
Super-charged: how Australia’s biggest renewables project will change the energy game


The Conversation


Sven Teske, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Chris Briggs, Research Principal, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Mark Hemer, Principal Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Philip Marsh, Post doctoral researcher, University of Tasmania, and Rusty Langdon, Research Consultant, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

India’s wicked problem: how to loosen its grip on coal while not abandoning the millions who depend on it


Anupam Nath/AP

Vigya Sharma, The University of QueenslandIndia is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and its transition to a low-carbon economy is crucial to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. But unfortunately, the nation is still clinging firmly to coal.

Our new research considered this problem, drawing on a case study in the Angul district, India’s largest coal reserve in the eastern state of Odisha.

We found three main factors slowing the energy transition: strong political and community support for coal, a lack of alternative economic activities, and deep ties between coal and other industries such as rail.

India must step away from coal, while maintaining economic growth and not leaving millions of people in coal-mining regions worse off. Our research probes this wicked problem in detail and suggests ways forward.

people carry baskets filled with coal
India’s energy transition must ensure those living in poverty are not left behind.
Shutterstock

Why India matters

India’s population will soon reach 1.4 billion and this decade it is expected to overtake China as the world’s most populous nation. This, combined with a young population, growing economy and rapid urbanisation, means energy consumption in India has doubled since 2000.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates India will have the largest increase in energy demand of any country between now and 2040.

An affordable, reliable supply of energy is central to raising the nation’s living standards. A recent World Bank analysis found up to 150 million people in India are poor.

Alongside its massive reliance on coal, India has one of the world’s most ambitious renewable energy plans, including an aim to quadruple renewable electricity capacity by 2030.

The IEA says coal accounts for about 70% of India’s electricity generation. And as the nation rebounds from the coronavirus pandemic this year, the rise in coal-fired electricity production is expected to be three times that from cleaner sources.

Coal-powered generation is anticipated to grow annually by 4.6% to 2024, and coal is expected to remain a major emitter of greenhouse gases to 2040.

While India’s energy trajectory remains aligned with its commitments under the Paris Agreement, the speed and readiness of its transition remains a complex, divisive issue. The World Economic Forum’s 2021 Energy Transition Index ranks India 87th out of 115 countries analysed.




Read more:
Even without new fossil fuel projects, global warming will still exceed 1.5℃. But renewables might make it possible


students hold lights
India’s young, growing population is fuelling the nation’s energy demand.
EPA

Bottlenecks in the transition

Our research involved visits to the Angul district in Odisha in 2018 and 2019, where we conducted focus groups and interviews. Angul is home to 11 coal mines.

We found three crucial bottlenecks to the energy transition, which arguably exist in India’s other coal belts and could derail the nation’s decarbonisation efforts.

First, the Odisha government has historically been very pro-business. Politicians across the spectrum support coal mining and seek to position it as the region’s primary economic lifeline.

The official pro-coal position receives little pushback from Angul residents, who are largely unaware of Odisha’s contribution to national greenhouse gas emissions. Any local opposition to coal usually stems from concern about environmental degradation such as air, water and land pollution.

Most of Angul’s residents felt a deep connection to coal because their livelihood depends on it. One participant told us:

even if all the water is polluted and five inches of dust settles on our well, we would prefer mining to continue as my family’s survival depends on (the contract with the mining company).

Most participants considered their farming land as an asset to be sold to the mining companies for a significant sum. The money would, in turn, allow them to start a business, buy a car or arrange a marriage in the family.

people sit in dark room
Coal is important to the livelihoods of millions of Indian people.
AP

Second, the heavy reliance on coal means efforts to diversify the region’s economy have been grossly neglected.

In Angul, mining zones and coal-dedicated railway lines passing through paddy fields mean agricultural productivity has declined over time. Rural development agendas have been short-lived, often set within six months of an election deadline then changed or abandoned.

Skill-development programs in non-coal vocations have also been limited. This lack of viable alternatives implicitly generates local support for coal.

And third, a suite of industries in Odisha – such as steel, cement, fertiliser and bauxite – depend on cheap coal for power. This is reflected across India, where coal has deep ties with other industries in ways not seen elsewhere.

For example, in 2016 Indian Railways earned 44% of its freight revenue from transporting coal. Indian Railways is India’s largest employer and coal revenue helps keep passenger fares low. So in this way, a potential coal phaseout in India would have far-reaching effects.

people look out train window
Coal revenue helps subsidise train fares in India.
EPA

The way forward

We offer these pathways to ensure a steady, just energy transition in India:

  • India must help its coal regions diversify their economic activities
  • bipartisan support for a coal-free India is needed. Transition champions such as Germany can show India’s leaders the way
  • a national taskforce for energy transition should be established. It should include representatives from across industry and academia, as well as climate policymakers and grassroots organisations
  • India’s coal regions are endowed with metals needed in the energy transition, including iron ore, bauxite and manganese. With improved regulatory standards, these offer economic alternatives to coal
  • concerns about the coal phase-out from communities in coal regions should be addressed fairly and in a timely way.

The world’s emerging economies are responsible for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. The energy transition in India, if done well, could show the way for other developing nations.

But as new industrial sectors emerge and clean energy jobs grow, India must ensure those in coal-dependent regions are not left behind.




Read more:
South Korea’s Green New Deal shows the world what a smart economic recovery looks like


The Conversation


Vigya Sharma, Senior Research Fellow, Sustainable Minerals Institute, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A tale of two valleys: Latrobe and Hunter regions both have coal stations, but one has far worse mercury pollution


Shutterstock

Larissa Schneider, Australian National University; Anna Lintern, Monash University; Cameron Holley, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, University of Canberra; Neil Rose, UCL; Ruoyu Sun, and Simon Haberle, Australian National UniversityWe know coal-fired power stations can generate high levels of carbon dioxide, but did you know they can be a major source of mercury emissions as well?

Our new research compared the level of mercury pollution in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales and the Latrobe Valley in Victoria.

And we found power stations in the Latrobe Valley emit around 10 times more mercury than power stations in the Hunter Valley. Indeed, the mercury level in the Latrobe Valley environment is 14 times higher than what’s typically natural for the region.

So why is there such a stark difference between states? Well, it has a lot to do with regulations.

Following a NSW requirement for power stations to install pollution control technology, mercury levels in the environment dropped. In Victoria, on the other hand, coal-fired power stations continue to operate without some of the air pollution controls NSW and other developed countries have mandated.

To minimise the safety risks that come with excessive mercury pollution, coal-fired power stations in all Australian jurisdictions should adopt the best available technologies to reduce mercury emissions.

A dangerous neurotoxin

Mercury is a neurotoxin, which means it can damage the nervous system, brain and other organs when a person or animal is exposed to unsafe levels.

Coal naturally contains mercury. So when power stations burn coal, mercury is released to the atmosphere and is then deposited back onto the Earth’s surface. When a high level of mercury ends up in bodies of water, such as lakes and rivers, it can be transferred to fish and other aquatic organisms, exposing people and larger animals to mercury that feed on these fish.




Read more:
The death of coal-fired power is inevitable — yet the government still has no plan to help its workforce


Mercury does not readily degrade or leave aquatic environments such as lakes and rivers. It’s a persistent toxic element — once present in water, it’s there to stay.

The amount of mercury emitted depends on the type of coal burnt (black or brown) and the type of pollution control devices the power stations use.

The Latrobe Valley stations in Victoria burn brown coal, which has more mercury than the black coal typically found in NSW. Despite this, Victorian regulations have historically not placed specific limits on mercury emissions.

In contrast, NSW power plants are required to use “bag filters”, a technology that’s used to trap mercury (and other) particles before they enter the atmosphere.

While bag filters alone fall short of the world’s best practices, they can still be effective. In fact, after bag filters were retrofitted to Hunter Valley’s Liddell power station in the early 1990s, mercury deposition in the surrounding environment halved.

Mercury deposited in sediments of Lake Glenbawn (left) in the Hunter Valley and Traralgon Railway Reservoir (right) in the Latrobe Valley.

The best available technology to control mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants is a combination of “wet flue-gas desulfurization” (which removes mercury in its gaseous form) and bag filters (which removes mercury bound to particles).

This is what’s been adopted across North America and parts of Europe. It not only filters out mercury, but also removes sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and other toxic air compounds.

Using lake sediments to see into the past

Lake sediments can capture mercury deposited from the atmosphere and from surrounding areas. Sediments that contain this mercury accumulate at the bottom of lakes over time — the deeper the sediment, the further back in time we can analyse.

We took sediment samples from lakes in the Latrobe and Hunter valleys, and dated them back to 1940 to get a historical record of mercury deposition.

This information can help us understand how much naturally occurring mercury there was before coal-fired power stations were built, and therefore show us the impact of burning coal.

A power station by a lake
Lake Narracan: one of the lakes we sampled sediments from, near a coal-fired power station in Latrobe Valley.
Larissa Schneider, Author provided

From these records, we found the adoption of bag filters in the Hunter Valley corresponded with mercury depositions declining in NSW from the 1990s.

In contrast, in Victoria, where there’s been no such requirement, mercury emissions and depositions have continued to increase since Hazelwood power station was completed in 1971.

What do we do about it?

In March, the Victorian government announced changes to the regulatory licence conditions for brown coal-fired power stations. Although mercury emissions allowances have been included for the first time, they’re arguably still too high, and there’s no requirement to install specific pollution control technologies.

There’s a risk this approach won’t reduce mercury emissions from existing levels. Victoria should instead consider more ambitious regulations that encourage the adoption of best practice technology to help protect local communities and the environment.

Coal-fired power station at the end of a road, at night
Loy Yang power station, Victoria’s largest, burns brown coal which contains more mercury.
Shutterstock

Another vital step toward protecting human health and the environment from mercury is for the federal government to ratify the Minamata Convention on Mercury, an international treaty to protect human health and the environment from mercury.

Despite signing the convention in 2013, the Australian government is yet to ratify it, which is required to make it legally binding in Australia.

Ratifying the convention will oblige state and federal governments to develop and implement a strategy to reduce mercury emissions, including from coal-fired power stations across Australia. And this strategy should include rolling out effective technologies — our research shows it can make a big difference.


The authors acknowledge Lauri Myllyvirta from the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air for her contributions to this article.




Read more:
Hazelwood power station: from modernist icon to greenhouse pariah


The Conversation


Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Anna Lintern, Lecturer, Monash University; Cameron Holley, Professor, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, Professor, University of Canberra; Neil Rose, Professor of Environmental Pollution and Palaeolimnology, UCL; Ruoyu Sun, Associate Professor, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Three weeks without electricity? That’s the reality facing thousands of Victorians, and it will happen again


James Ross/AAP

Anthony Richardson, RMIT UniversityLast week’s storm system wreaked havoc across Victoria. Some 220,000 households and businesses lost power, and residents in the hills on Melbourne’s fringe were warned yesterday it might not be restored for three weeks.

The extreme weather severely damaged the poles and powerlines that distribute electricity, particularly in the Mount Dandenong area. Senior AusNet official Steven Neave said of the region this week, “we basically have no network left, the overhead infrastructure is pretty much gone. It requires a complete rebuild”.

That leaves about 3,000 customers without electricity for weeks, in the heart of winter. The loss of power also cut mobile phone and internet services and reportedly allowed untreated water to enter drinking supplies.

So, could this disaster have been avoided? And under climate change, how can we prepare for more events like this?

fallen tree on powerlines
Fallen trees brought down power lines across Melbourne.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

An uncertain future

The Mount Dandenong area is heavily forested, and the chance of above-ground power infrastructure being hit by falling trees is obviously high.

Without electricity, people cannot turn on lights, refrigerate food or medications, cook on electric stoves or use electric heaters. Electronic banking, schooling and business activities are also badly disrupted. For vulnerable residents, in particular, the implications are profound.

Such disruptions are hard to avoid, at least while the electricity network is above ground. Good management, however, can prevent some trees coming down in storms.

The more pertinent question is: how can we prepare for such an event in the future?

Scientists warn such extreme weather will increase in both frequency and severity as climate change accelerates. The Australian Energy Market Operator is acutely aware of this, warning climate change poses “material risks to individual assets, the integrated energy system, and society”.

However, it’s challenging to predict exactly how future heatwaves, storms, bushfires and floods will affect the power network. As AEMO notes, many climate models related to storms and cyclones involve an element of unpredictability. So, plans to make the electricity system more resilient must address this uncertainty.

As researchers have noted, there is no “one future” to prepare for – we must be ready for many potential eventualities.




Read more:
Victoria’s wild storms show how easily disasters can threaten our water supply


tree fallen on house
Under climate change, extreme weather is predicted to become more severe.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

Yallourn – the bigger problem?

Meanwhile, in Victoria’s LaTrobe Valley, a situation at the Yallourn coal-fired power station which may have even greater consequences for electricity supplies.

A coal mine wall adjacent to the station is at risk of collapse after flooding in the Morwell River caused it to crack. If the wall is breached and the mine is flooded, as happened in 2012, there will be no coal to power the station and almost a quarter of Victoria’s power supply could be out for months.

Victoria’s energy needs are increasingly supplied by renewables. However, losing Yallourn’s generation capacity would reduce the capacity of the network to adapt to other possible disruptions.

If further disruptions seem unlikely, it’s worth noting the Callide Power Station in Queensland is still operating at reduced capacity after a recent fire.




Read more:
An act of God, or just bad management? Why trees fall and how to prevent it


power plant with chimneys
A wall adjacent to the Yallourn power plant may collapse.
Julian Smith/AAP

Look beyond the immediate crisis

The Victorian government has offered up to A$1,680 per week, for up to three weeks, to help families without power buy supplies and find alternative accommodation.

Welfare groups say the assistance could be improved. They have called for changes to make it quicker and easier for people to access money, cash injections to frontline charities and more temporary accommodation facilities for displaced people and their pets.

While no doubt needed, these are all reactive responses targeted at those without electricity. When any system is disrupted, however, the effects can be widespread and felt long after the initial problem has been addressed.

Take dairy farmers in Gippsland, for example, who could not milk their cows without electricity. Cows must be milked regularly or else they stop producing milk – they cannot be “switched back on” when electricity is restored. Longer-term assistance may well be required for farmers facing such ripple effects.

And as welfare groups have noted, power companies should support affected customers over the long-term, with electricity discounts, deferrals and payment plans.




Read more:
No food, no fuel, no phones: bushfires showed we’re only ever one step from system collapse


Sign reading 'power and shower'
Relief centres offer affected residents a hot shower and electricity access, but longer-term solutions are also needed.
Daniel Pockett/AAP

A call for backup

So, what else can be done to prepare for future power disruptions? Those with backup options, such as portable fuel-powered generators, or off-grid household batteries connected to solar panels, will undoubtedly be more resilient in such events.

These are examples of “system redundancy”, providing alternative electricity until the network is restored.

But it costs money to invest in household batteries or a generator that may never be used. Resilience is often a function of wealth, and the less well-off risk being left behind.

Certainly, governments can act to make society as a whole more resilient to power outages. For example, mobile phone towers have backup battery life of just 24 hours. As Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said this week, extending that is something authorities “need to look at”.

Power and communications infrastructure could be moved underground to protect it from storms. While such a move would be expensive, it has been argued not doing so will lead to greater long-term costs under a changing climate.

The recent challenges at Yallourn and Callide show the risks inherent in a centralised electricity network dominated by coal.

Certainly, integrating renewable energy sources into the power network comes with its own challenges. However, expanding energy storage such as batteries, or shifting to small, community-level microgrids will go a long way to improving the resilience of the system.

This story is part of a series The Conversation is running on the nexus between disaster, disadvantage and resilience. It is supported by a philanthropic grant from the Paul Ramsay Foundation. Find the series here.The Conversation

Anthony Richardson, Researcher and Teacher, Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Check your mirrors: 3 things rooftop solar can teach us about Australia’s electric car rollout


Shutterstock

Bjorn Sturmberg, Australian National University; Kathryn Lucas-Healey, Australian National University; Laura Jones, Australian National University, and Mejbaul Haque, Australian National UniversityGovernments and car manufacturers are investing hundreds of billions of dollars on electric vehicles. But while the electric transport revolution is inevitable, the final destination remains unknown.

The electric vehicle transition is about more than just doing away with vehicles powered by fossil fuels. We must also ensure quality technology and infrastructure, anticipate the future and avoid unwanted outcomes, such as entrenching disadvantage.

In Australia, the electric vehicle rollout has been slow, and federal action limited. But some state governments are working to electrify bus fleets, roll out public charging networks and trial smart vehicle charging in homes.

Australia’s world-leading rollout of rooftop solar power systems offers a guide to help navigate the transition. We’ve identified three key lessons on what’s gone well, and in hindsight, what could have been done differently.

solar panels on roofs
Australia’s rooftop solar boom offers insights into the electric vehicle revolution.
Shutterstock

1. Price isn’t everything

Solar systems and electric vehicles are both substantial financial investments. But research into rooftop solar has shown financial considerations are just one factor that guides purchasing decisions. Novelty, concerns about climate change and a desire for self-sufficiency are also significant – and electric vehicle research is producing similar findings.

When considering the electric vehicle rollout, understanding these deeper motivators may help avoid a race to the bottom on price.

About one in four Australian homes has rooftop solar, with almost three million systems installed. Solar companies have often sought to highlight the low price of rooftop systems over other considerations. This has created consumer demand for low-priced, lower-quality products – and led to potentially hundreds of thousands of substandard installations across Australia.




Read more:
On the road again: here’s how the states can accelerate Australia’s sputtering electric vehicle transition


So what are the lessons here for the electric vehicle rollout? First, when planning public infrastructure where electric vehicles can be charged, construction costs should not be the only consideration. Factors such as night-time safety and disability access should be prioritised. Shortcuts today will reinforce barriers for women and people with disabilities and create complex problems down the track.

Like rooftop solar, the point of sale of electric vehicles offers a unique opportunity to teach customers about the technology. Companies, however, can only afford to invest in customer education if they aren’t too stressed about margins.

“Smart” charging is one measure being explored to ensure the electricity network can handle future growth in electric vehicle uptake. Smart chargers can be remotely monitored and controlled to minimise their impact on the grid.

The point of sale is a pivotal moment to tell new owners of electric vehicles that their charging may at times be managed in this way.

EVs on charge
Electric vehicle charging infrastructure should be safe and accessible.
Shutterstock

2. Plan ahead

The uptake of rooftop solar in Australia has been a raging success. In fact, rooftop solar is now the largest generator in the national power system.

This raises issues, such as how rooftop solar systems will respond to a major disturbance, such as the failure of a transmission line. A large amount of solar power feeding into the grid can also challenge electricity network infrastructure.

In response, electricity networks have implemented changes such as limiting solar exports and therefore, returns to solar system owners, and charging fees for exporting solar.

Such retrospective changes have been unpopular with solar owners. So to maintain reliable electricity supplies, and avoid angering consumers, it’s vital to plan where and when electric vehicles are charged.

If every vehicle in Australia was electric, this would add about a quarter to national power demand. The rise in demand would be greatest near bus and logistics depots and ultra-fast highway chargers.




Read more:
Owners of electric vehicles to be paid to plug into the grid to help avoid blackouts


Timing is key to maximising the use of a network connection without overloading it. For example, if everyone charged their vehicle in the evening after they get home from work, as this would put further pressure on electricity supplies at this peak time.

Governments and electricity providers should encourage electric vehicle charging during the day, when demand is lower. This might mean, for example, providing vehicle charging facilities at workplaces and in public areas.

Until Australia’s power grid transitions to 100% renewables, the use of solar energy should be strongly encouraged. This would ensure the vehicles were charged from a clean, cheap energy source and would help manage the challenges of abundant solar.

The question of road user charges for electric vehicles drivers is another example where it’s best to avoid retrospective changes. Such charges are necessary in the long run and best introduced from the outset.

woman's arm holds EV charger on car
Vehicle charging during the day, when power demand is lowest, should be encouraged.
Shutterstock

3. Coordination is key

Electric vehicle policy spans many government portfolios: transport, infrastructure, energy, planning, environment and climate change. Nationally, and from state to state, different ministers are in charge.

This makes coordination difficult, and creates the risk of policies undermining each other. For example, one policy might encourage the charging of electric vehicles from rooftop solar, to reduce carbon emissions. But because solar energy is so cheap, this might encourage more private vehicle use, which worsens road congestion.

So policies to encourage electric vehicle uptake should not come at the cost of creating more attractive and efficient public transport networks.

And new technologies can entrench societal disadvantage. For example, the rooftop solar rollout often excluded people who could not afford to buy the systems. Without policies to address this, the electric vehicle transition could lead to similar outcomes.

traffic queues in Sydney
Encouraging electric vehicle use could worsen road congestion, if not well managed.
Shutterstock

Lessons in the rear-view mirror

As Australia’s experience with rooftop solar has shown, successful technology transitions must be carefully planned and attentively steered.

In the case of electric vehicles, this will ensure the benefits to owners, society and the environment are fully realised. It will also ensure a smooth-as-possible transition, the gains from which all Australians can share.




Read more:
The US jumps on board the electric vehicle revolution, leaving Australia in the dust


The Conversation


Bjorn Sturmberg, Research Leader, Battery Storage & Grid Integration Program, Australian National University; Kathryn Lucas-Healey, Research Fellow, Australian National University; Laura Jones, Senior Analyst – Economics and Business models, Australian National University, and Mejbaul Haque, Research Fellow, Battery Energy Storage and Grid Integration Program, Research School of Engineering, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The idea of ‘green growth’ is flawed. We must find ways of using and wasting less energy


Shutterstock/Cherdchai charasri

Michael (Mike) Joy, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of WellingtonAs countries explore ways of decarbonising their economies, the mantra of “green growth” risks trapping us in a spiral of failures. Green growth is an oxymoron.

Growth requires more material extraction, which in turn requires more energy. The fundamental problem we face in trying to replace fossil energy with renewable energy is that all our renewable technologies are significantly less energy dense than fossil fuels.

This means much larger areas are required to produce the same amount of energy.

Earlier this year, data from the European Union showed renewable electricity generation has overtaken coal and gas in 2020. But previous research argued that to replace the total energy (not just electricity) use of the UK with the best available mix of wind, solar and hydroelectricity would require the entire landmass of the country. To do it for Singapore would require the area of 60 Singapores.

I am not in any way denying or diminishing the need to stop emitting fossil carbon. But if we don’t focus on reducing consumption and energy waste, and instead fixate on replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, we are simply swapping one race to destruction with another.




Read more:
Climate policy that relies on a shift to electric cars risks entrenching existing inequities


The carbon causing our climate problem today came from fossilised biology formed through ancient carbon cycles, mostly over the 200 million years of the Mesozoic era (ending 66 million years ago).

We must stop burning fossil fuels, but we must also understand that every technology to replace them, while attempting to maintain our current consumption, let alone allowing for consumption growth, requires huge amounts of fossil energy.

Environmental impact of renewables

Carbon reduction without consumption reduction is only possible through methods that have their own massive environmental impacts and resource limitations.

To make renewable energy, fossil energy is needed to mine the raw materials, to transport, to manufacture, to connect the energy capture systems and finally to produce the machines to use the energy.

The new renewable infrastructure requires rare earth minerals, which is a problem in itself. But most of the raw materials required to produce and apply new energy technology are also getting harder to find. The returns on mining them are reducing, and the dilemma of declining returns applies to the very fossil fuels needed to mine the declining metal ore.




Read more:
Techno-fix futures will only accelerate climate chaos – don’t believe the hype


Globally, despite building lots of renewable electricity infrastructure, we have not yet increased the proportion of renewable energy in our total energy consumption.

Electricity is only 20% of our total energy use. Renewable electricity has not displaced fossil energy in most countries because our consumption increases faster than we can add renewable generation.

The problems with wanting to maintain industrial civilisation are many, but the starkest is that it is the actual cause of our climate crisis and other environmental crises.

If we carry on with life as usual — the underlying dream of the “green growth” concept — we will end up destroying the life-supporting capacity of our planet.

What happened to environmentalism?

The green growth concept is part of a broader and long-running trend to co-opt the words green and environmentalist.

Environmentalism emerged from the 1960s as a movement to save the natural world. Now it seems to have been appropriated to describe the fight to save industrial civilisation — life as we know it.

This shift has serious implications because the two concepts — green growth and environmentalism — are inherently incompatible.

Traditionally, environmentalists included people like Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring alerted Americans to the industrial poisons killing birds and insects and fouling drinking water, or environmental organisations like Greenpeace saving whales and baby seals.

In New Zealand, being green had its roots in movements like the Save Manapouri campaign, which fought to save ancient native forests from inundation when a hydropower dam was built. Environmentalism had a clear focus on saving the living world.

Now environmentalism has been realigned to reducing carbon emissions, as if climate change was our only impending crisis. Parliamentary Greens seem set to want to reach net zero carbon by 2050 at any cost.

The word “net” allows champions of industry-friendly environmentalism to avoid considering the critical need to reduce our energy consumption.




Read more:
Climate scientists: concept of net zero is a dangerous trap


We must somehow drag ourselves away from our growth paradigm to tackle the multiple crises coming at us. Our only future is one where we consume less, do less, waste less and stop our obsession with accumulating.

If we keep trying to maintain our current growth trajectory, built on a one-off fossil bonanza, we will destroy the already stressed life-supporting systems that sustain us. Protecting these and their essential biotic components is true environmentalism — not attempting to maintain our industrial way of life, just without carbon.The Conversation

Michael (Mike) Joy, Senior Researcher; Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A ‘100% renewables’ target might not mean what you think it means. An energy expert explains


Shutterstock

James Ha, Grattan InstituteIn the global effort to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, achieving a “100% renewables” electricity system is considered ideal.

Some Australian states have committed to 100% renewable energy targets, or even 200% renewable energy targets. But this doesn’t mean their electricity is, or will be, emissions free.

Electricity is responsible for a third of Australia’s emissions, and making it cleaner is a key way to reduce emissions in other sectors that rely on it, such as transport.

So it’s important we have clarity about where our electricity comes from, and how emissions-intensive it is. Let’s look at what 100% renewables actually implies in detail.

Is 100% renewables realistic?

Achieving 100% renewables is one way of eliminating emissions from the electricity sector.

It’s commonly interpreted to mean all electricity must be generated from renewable sources. These sources usually include solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, and exclude nuclear energy and fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage.

But this is a very difficult feat for individual states and territories to try to achieve.

The term “net 100% renewables” more accurately describes what some jurisdictions — such as South Australia and the ACT — are targeting, whether or not they’ve explicitly said so.

These targets don’t require that all electricity people use within the jurisdiction come from renewable sources. Some might come from coal or gas-fired generation, but the government offsets this amount by making or buying an equivalent amount of renewable electricity.

A net 100% renewables target allows a state to spruik its green credentials without needing to worry about the reliability implications of being totally self-reliant on renewable power.

Solar panels on roofs
East coast states are connected to the National Electricity Market.
Shutterstock

So how does ‘net’ 100% renewables work?

All east coast states are connected to the National Electricity Market (NEM) — a system that allows electricity to be generated, used and shared across borders. This means individual states can achieve “net 100% renewables” without the renewable generation needing to occur when or where the electricity is required.

Take the ACT, for example, which has used net 100% renewable electricity since October 2019.

The ACT government buys renewable energy from generators outside the territory, which is then mostly used in other states, such as Victoria and South Australia. Meanwhile, people living in ACT rely on power from NSW that’s not emissions-free, because it largely comes from coal-fired power stations.

This way, the ACT government can claim net 100% renewables because it’s offsetting the non-renewable energy its residents use with the clean energy it’s paid for elsewhere.

SA’s target is to reach net 100% renewables by the 2030s. Unlike the ACT, it plans to generate renewable electricity locally, equal to 100% of its annual demand.

At times, such as especially sunny days, some of that electricity will be exported to other states. At other times, such as when the wind drops off, SA may need to rely on electricity imports from other states, which probably won’t come from all-renewable sources.




Read more:
More coal-fired power or 100% renewables? For the next few decades, both paths are wrong


So what happens if all states commit to net 100% renewable energy targets? Then, the National Electricity Market will have a de-facto 100% renewable energy target — no “net”.

That’s because the market is one entire system, so its only options are “100% renewables” (implying zero emissions), or “less than 100% renewables”. The “net” factor doesn’t come into it, because there’s no other part of the grid for it to buy from or sell to.

How do you get to “200% renewables”, or more?

It’s mathematically impossible for more than 100% of the electricity used in the NEM to come from renewable sources: 100% is the limit.

Any target of more than 100% renewables is a different calculation. The target is no longer a measure of renewable generation versus all generation, but renewable generation versus today’s demand.

Gas plant
Australia could generate several times more renewable energy than there is demand today, but still use a small and declining amount of fossil fuels during rare weather events.
Shutterstock

Tasmania, for example, has legislated a target of 200% renewable energy by 2040. This means it wants to produce twice as much renewable electricity as it consumes today.

But this doesn’t necessarily imply all electricity consumed in Tasmania will be renewable. For example, it may continue to import some non-renewable power from Victoria at times, such as during droughts when Tasmania’s hydro dams are constrained. It may even need to burn a small amount of gas as a backup.

This means the 200% renewable energy target is really a “net 200% renewables” target.

Meanwhile, the Greens are campaigning for 700% renewables. This, too, is based on today’s electricity demand.

In the future, demand could be much higher due to electrifying our transport, switching appliances from gas to electricity, and potentially exporting energy-intensive, renewable commodities such as green hydrogen or ammonia.

Targeting net-zero emissions

These “more than 100% renewables” targets set by individual jurisdictions don’t necessarily imply all electricity Australians use will be emissions free.

It’s possible — and potentially more economical — that we would meet almost all of this additional future demand with renewable energy, but keep some gas or diesel capacity as a low-cost backstop.

This would ensure continued electricity supply during rare, sustained periods of low wind, low sun, and high demand, such as during a cloudy, windless week in winter.




Read more:
Carry-over credits and carbon offsets are hot topics this election – but what do they actually mean?


The energy transition is harder near the end — each percentage point between 90% and 100% renewables is more expensive to achieve than the previous.

That’s why, in a recent report from the Grattan Institute, we recommended governments pursue net-zero emissions in the electricity sector first, rather than setting 100% renewables targets today.

For example, buying carbon credits to offset the small amount of emissions produced in a 90% renewable NEM is likely to be cheaper in the medium term than building enough energy storage — such as batteries or pumped hydro dams — to backup wind and solar at all times.

The bottom line is governments and companies must say what they mean and mean what they say when announcing targets. It’s the responsibility of media and pundits to take care when interpreting them.The Conversation

James Ha, Associate, Grattan Institute

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Wondering if your energy company takes climate change seriously? A new report reveals the answer


Shutterstock

Anna Malos, ClimateWorks Australia and Coral Bravo, ClimateWorks AustraliaA landmark report released last week put coal and gas on notice. For the first time, the International Energy Agency (IEA) declared reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 means no new investments in fossil fuel supply projects.

For Australia – a continent blessed with a bounty of wind and sun – the phasing out of coal and gas investment should be considered a boon. Australia is already deploying wind and solar energy ten times faster than the global average, and still has plenty of unmet renewables potential.

But of course, Australia’s path to a clean energy economy has not been perfectly smooth. A lack of federal leadership on climate policy and a historical dependence on fossil fuels means the IEA’s roadmap presents a big challenge for Australia.

Our latest report released today underscores how big a challenge this is. We assessed Australia’s highest-emitting energy firms and found none were fully or even closely aligned with global climate goals. Just one went even partway, and five appeared to be taking no action at all.

smoke billows from stacks at coal plant
The International Energy Agency says it’s the end of the road for new coal investments.
Shutterstock

A poor showing

Our energy sector report forms part of the Net Zero Momentum Tracker, a project by research organisation ClimateWorks, which works within the Monash Sustainable Development Institute.

We assessed the commitments of Australia’s 20 highest-emitting energy companies against the Paris Agreement goals, which include limiting global temperature rise to well below 2℃, aiming for 1.5℃. The IEA’s latest work shows to reach those goals, the global energy sector must reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

The companies we analysed comprise electricity generators and electricity and gas retailers. Together, they account for almost one-third of Australia’s total annual emissions.

Each company’s commitments were assessed against scenarios we modelled, which map the least-cost trajectories for reducing Australia’s emissions in line with the Paris goals.

We found no large energy company was fully aligned with these trajectories, and most fell well short. Six had set emissions reduction targets and nine others had taken some action to cut emissions.

However, not a single company had commitments that are in line with Australia achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.




Read more:
We could be a superpower: 3 ways Australia can take advantage of the changing geopolitics of energy


boy turns off lamp
No electricity company was taking action fully aligned with the Paris goals.
Shutterstock

How your energy company fares

The 20 companies we assessed account for almost 90% of Australia’s electricity emissions. Together, they generate more than 70% of Australia’s electricity supplies.

French-owned energy generator and retailer ENGIE was the only company with activities on a trajectory supporting Australia’s Paris-aligned transition, because of a target that aims to reduce some of its emissions by 2030. But the target does not cover the majority of ENGIE’s emissions, so the company has much more work to do.

Fourteen companies had a mix of targets or actions we assessed as not aligned with the Paris goals. They are:

  • AGL
  • APT Pipelines
  • ATCO
  • CS Energy
  • CK William
  • Delta
  • EnergyAustralia
  • Origin
  • Pioneer Sail
  • Snowy Hydro
  • Stanwell
  • Synergy
  • Territory Generation
  • TransAlta.

And these five companies had no disclosed emissions reduction activities:

  • Arrow Energy
  • Bluewaters Power 1&2
  • NewGen Kwinana
  • NRG Gladstone Operating Services
  • OzGen.



Read more:
Government-owned firms like Snowy Hydro can do better than building $600 million gas plants


Engie logo on building
French multinational Engie was the only firm assessed to have emissions reduction goals even partially aligned to the Paris Agreement.
Shutterstock

The big four emitters

AGL, EnergyAustralia, Stanwell and Origin are the biggest emitters in Australia’s electricity sector. Collectively, they’re responsible for more than half the sector’s emissions, and so have a particular responsibility to act.

When energy companies talk about reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, they do so in terms of scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

Scope 1 covers emissions released to the atmosphere as a direct result of company activity, such as burning coal or gas to produce electricity. Scope 2 covers the emissions created to produce the electricity a company purchases.

Scope 3 emissions are those outside the companies’ direct control. They include upstream processes such as the extraction, production and transport of fuel used to power their operations, and downstream activities such as the distribution and use of gas sold to consumers.

Origin aspires to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 and has set interim targets to reduce its scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions.

AGL and EnergyAustralia have committed to achieve net-zero operational (scope 1 and 2) emissions by 2050, but have no interim emissions reduction targets.

Stanwell, which operates two of Queensland’s largest coal-fired generators, has no emissions reduction targets.

magnifying glass on Origin website
Origin aspires to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
Shutterstock

A rapid renewables shift

Our earlier research shows that under scenarios compatible with the Paris Agreement, renewables make up 70% of electricity generation by 2030. Coal and gas is phased out of Australia’s electricity mix as soon as 2035.

The energy sector is crucial if Australia is to meet the Paris climate goals. Thanks to renewable energy, the sector enjoys some of the easiest and cheapest emissions reduction opportunities. And a zero-emissions energy sector would also help other sectors such as transport, buildings and industry to decarbonise.

Australia’s energy sector has made progress on emissions in recent years. Three-quarters of the energy companies we assessed have implemented wind and solar energy projects. And overall, renewable energy was responsible for almost 28% of Australia’s total electricity generation in 2020.

However our report shows change is not happening fast enough to put Australia on a timely path to net-zero emissions.

At a federal level, the Renewable Energy Target, which ended last year, drove the clean energy shift. New federal policies are now needed to bolster ambitious state and territory policies. This would enable energy market operators and investors to plan a transition aligned with the Paris goals.




Read more:
International Energy Agency warns against new fossil fuel projects. Guess what Australia did next?


The Conversation


Anna Malos, Australia – Country Lead, ClimateWorks Australia and Coral Bravo, Senior Analyst, ClimateWorks Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.