Sydney’s closer to being a zero-carbon city than you think

File 20171130 12069 1wyp7t6.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The potential clean energy sources are all around Sydney, just waiting to be harnessed.
Author provided

Rob Roggema, University of Technology Sydney

You live in one of the sunniest countries in the world. You might want to use that solar advantage and harvest all this free energy. Knowing that solar panels are rapidly becoming cheaper and have become feasible even in less sunny places like the UK, this should be a no-brainer.

Despite this, the Australian government has taken a step backwards at a time when we should be thinking 30 years ahead.

Further reading: Will the national energy guarantee hit pause on renewables?

Can we do it differently? Yes, we can! My ongoing research on sustainable urbanism makes it clear that if we use the available renewable resources in the Sydney region we do not need any fossil resource any more. We can become zero-carbon. (With Louisa King and Andy Van den Dobbelsteen, I have prepared a forthcoming paper, Towards Zero-Carbon Metropolitan Regions: The Example of
Sydney, in the journal SASBE.)

Enough solar power for every household

Abundant solar energy is available in the Sydney metropolitan area. If 25% of the houses each installed 35 square metres of solar panels, this could deliver all the energy for the city’s households.

We conservatively estimate a total yield of 195kWh/m2 of PV panel placed on roofs or other horizontal surfaces. The potential area of all Sydney council precincts suited for PV is estimated at around 385km2 – a quarter of the entire roof surface.

We calculate the potential total solar yield at 75.1TWh, which is more than current domestic household energy use (65.3TWh, according to the Jemena energy company).

Further reading: What’s the net cost of using renewables to hit Australia’s climate target?

Wind turbines to drive a whole city

If we install small wind turbines on land and larger turbines offshore we can harvest enough energy to fuel our electric vehicle fleet. Onshore wind turbines of 1-5MW generating capacity can be positioned to capture the prevailing southwest and northeast winds.

The turbines are placed on top of ridges, making use of the funnel effect to increase their output. We estimate around 840km of ridge lines in the Sydney metropolitan area can be used for wind turbines, enabling a total of 1,400 turbines. The total potential generation from onshore wind turbines is 6.13TWh.

Offshore turbines could in principle be placed everywhere, as the wind strength is enough to create an efficient yield. The turbines are larger than the ones on shore, capturing 5-7.5MW each, and can be placed up to 30km offshore. With these boundary conditions, an offshore wind park 45km long and 6km wide is possible. The total offshore potential then is 5.18TWh.

Altogether, then, we estimate the Sydney wind energy potential at 11.3TWh.

Around 840km of ridge lines (marked in yellow and red) in the Sydney metropolitan area can be used for wind turbines.
Author provided

Further reading: FactCheck Q&A: is coal still cheaper than renewables as an energy source?

Turning waste into biofuels

We can turn our household waste and green waste from forests, parks and public green spaces into biogas. We can then use the existing gas network to provide heating and cooling for the majority of offices.

Biomass from domestic and green waste will be processed through anaerobic fermentation in old power plants to generate biogas. Gas reserves are created, stored and delivered through the existing power plants and gas grid.

Further reading: Biogas: smells like a solution to our energy and waste problems

Algae has enormous potential for generating bio-energy. Algae can purify wastewater and at the same be harvested and processed to generate biofuels (biodiesel and biokerosene).

Specific locations to grow algae are Botany Bay and Badgerys Creek. It’s noteworthy that both are close to airports, as algae could be important in providing a sustainable fuel resource for planes.

Using algae arrays to treat the waste water of new precincts, roughly a million new households as currently planned in Western Sydney, enables the production of great quantities of biofuel. Experimental test fields show yields can be high. A minimum of 20,000 litres of biodiesel per hectare of algae ponds is possible if organic wastewater is added. This quantity is realisable in Botany Bay and in western Sydney.

Biomass fermentation of household and green waste and wastewater treatment using algae arrays can generate biogas, biodiesel and biokerosene.
Author provided

Further reading: Biofuel breakthroughs bring ‘negative emissions’ a step closer

Extracting heat from beneath the city

Shallow geothermal heat can be tapped through heat pumps and establishing closed loops in the soil. This can occur in large expanses of urban developments within the metropolitan area, which rests predominantly on deposits of Wianamatta shale in the west underlying Parramatta, Liverpool and Penrith.

Where large water surfaces are available, such as in Botany Bay or the Prospect Reservoir, heat can also be harvested from the water body.

The layers of the underlying Hawkesbury sandstone, the bedrock for much of the region, can yield deep geothermal heat. This is done by pumping water into these layers and harvesting the steam as heat, hot water or converted electricity.

Sydney’s geology offers sources of both shallow and deep theothermal heat.
Author provided

Further reading: Explainer: what is geothermal energy?

Hydropower from multiple sources

The potential sources of energy from hydro generation are diverse. Tidal energy can be harvested at the entrances of Sydney Harbour Bay and Botany Bay, where tidal differences are expected to be highest.

Port Jackson, the Sydney Harbour bay and all of its estuaries have a total area of 55km2. With a tidal difference of two metres, the total maximum energy potential of a tidal plant would be 446TWh. If Sydney could harvest 20% of this, that would be more than twice the yield of solar panels on residential roofs.

If we use the tide to generate electricity, we can also create a surge barrier connecting Middle and South Head. Given the climatic changes occurring and still ahead of us, we need to plan how to protect the city from the threats of future cyclones, storm surges and flooding.

I have written here about the potential benefits of artificially creating a Sydney Barrier Reef. The reef, 30km at most out at sea, would provide Sydney with protection from storms.

At openings along the reef, wave power generators can be placed. Like tidal power, wave power can be calculated: mass displacement times gravity. If around 10km of the Sydney shoreline had wave power vessels, the maximum energy potential would be 3.2TWh.

In the mouths of the estuaries of Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, freshwater meets saltwater. These places have a large potential to generate “blue energy” through reverse osmosis membrane technology.

To combine protective structures with tidal generating power, an open closure barrier is proposed for the mouth of Sydney Harbour. The large central gates need to be able to accommodate the entrance of large cruise ships and to close in times of a storm surge. At the same time, a tidal plant system operates at the sides of the barrier.

An artist’s impression of the Sydney Harbour surge barrier and tidal plant.
Drawing: Andy van den Dobbelsteen, Author provided

Further reading: Catching the waves: it’s time for Australia to embrace ocean renewable energy

Master plan for a zero-carbon city

All these potential energy sources are integrated into our Master Plan for a Zero-Carbon Sydney. Each has led to design propositions that together can create a zero-carbon city.

The Zero-Carbon Sydney Master Plan maps out how the city can be fossil-free.
Author provided

The ConversationThe research shows there is enough, more than enough, potential reliable renewable energy to supply every household and industry in the region. What is needed is an awareness that Australia could be a global frontrunner in innovative energy policy, instead of a laggard.

Rob Roggema, Professor of Sustainable Urban Environments, University of Technology Sydney

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


Yes, SA’s battery is a massive battery, but it can do much more besides

Dylan McConnell, University of Melbourne

Last Friday, the “world’s largest” lithium-ion battery was officially opened in South Australia. Tesla’s much anticipated “mega-battery” made the “100 days or it’s free” deadline, after a week of testing and commissioning.

Unsurprisingly, the project has attracted a lot of attention, both in Australia and abroad. This is largely courtesy of the high profile Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, not to mention the series of Twitter exchanges that sparked off the project in the first place.

Many are now watching on in anticipation to see what impact the battery has on the SA electricity market, and whether it could be a game-changer nationally.

The Hornsdale Power Reserve

The “mega battery” complex is officially called the Hornsdale Power Reserve. It sits alongside the Hornsdale Wind Farm and has been constructed in partnership with the SA government and Neoen, the French renewable energy company that owns the wind farm.

The battery has a total generation capacity of 100 megawatts, and 129 megawatt-hours of energy storage. This has been decribed as “capable of powering 50,000 homes”, providing 1 hour and 18 minutes of storage or, more controversially, 2.5 minutes of storage.

At first blush, some of these numbers might sound reasonable. But they don’t actually reflect a major role the battery will play, nor the physical capability of the battery itself.

What can the battery do?

The battery complex can be thought of as two systems. First there is a component with 70MW of output capacity that has been contracted to the SA government. This is reported to provide grid stability and system security, and designed only to have about 10 minutes of storage.

The second part could be thought of as having 30MW of output capacity, but 3-4 hours of storage. Even though this component has a smaller capacity (MW), it has much more storage (MWh) and can provide energy for much longer. This component will participate in the competitive part of the market, and should firm up the wind power produced by the wind farm.

Read more: Australia’s electricity market is not agile and innovative enough to keep up

In addition, the incredible flexibility of the battery means that it is well suited to participate in the Frequency Control Ancillary Service market. More on that below.

The figure below illustrates just how flexible the battery actually is. In the space of four seconds, the battery is capable of going from zero to 30MW (and vice versa). In fact it is likely much faster than that (at the millisecond scale), but the data available is only at 4-second resolution.

Hornsdale Power Reserve demonstrating its flexibility last week. The output increased from zero to 30MW (full output) in less than 4 seconds.
Author provided (data from AEMO)

Frequency Control and Ancillary Service Market

The Frequency Control and Ancillary Service (FCAS) market is less known and understood than the energy market. In fact it is wrong to talk of a single FCAS market – there are actually eight distinct markets.

The role of these markets is essentially twofold. First, they provide contingency reserves in case of a major disturbance, such as a large coal generation unit tripping off. The services provide a rapid response to a sudden fall (or rise) in grid frequency.

At the moment, these contingency services operate on three different timescales: 6 seconds, 60 seconds, and 5 minutes. Generators that offer these services must be able to raise (or reduce) their output to respond to an incident within these time frames.

The Hornsdale Power Reserve is more than capable of participating in these six markets (raising and lowering services for the three time intervals shown in the illustration above).

The final two markets are known as regulation services (again, as both a raise and lower). For this service, the Australian energy market operator (AEMO) issues dispatch instructions on a fine timescale (4 seconds) to “regulate” the frequency and keep supply and demand in balance.

The future: fast frequency response?

Large synchronous generators (such as coal plants) have traditionally provided frequency control, (through the FCAS markets), and another service, inertia – essentially for free. As these power plants leave the system, there maybe a need for another service to maintain power system security.

One such service is so-called “fast frequency response” (FFR). While not a a direct replacement, it can reduce the need for physical inertia. This is conceptually similar to the contingency services described above, but might occur at the timescale of tens to hundreds of milliseconds, rather than 6 seconds.

Read more: Baffled by baseload? Dumbfounded by dispatchables? Here’s a glossary of the energy debate

The Australian Energy Market Commission is currently going through the process of potentially introducing a fast frequency response market. In the meantime, obligations on transmission companies are expected to ensure a minimum amount of inertia or similar services (such as fast frequency response).

I suspect that the 70MW portion of the new Tesla battery is designed to provide exactly this fast frequency response.

Size matters but role matters more

The South Australian battery is truly a historic moment for both South Australia, and for Australia’s future energy security.

The ConversationWhile the size, of the battery might be decried as being small in the context of the National Energy Market, it is important to remember its capabilities and role. It may well be a game changer, by delivering services not previously provided by wind and solar PV.

Dylan McConnell, Researcher at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

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

What’s the net cost of using renewables to hit Australia’s climate target? Nothing

Andrew Blakers, Australian National University; Bin Lu, Australian National University, and Matthew Stocks, Australian National University

Australia can meet its 2030 greenhouse emissions target at zero net cost, according to our analysis of a range of options for the National Electricity Market.

Our modelling shows that renewable energy can help hit Australia’s emissions reduction target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030 effectively for free. This is because the cost of electricity from new-build wind and solar will be cheaper than replacing old fossil fuel generators with new ones.

Read more: Want energy storage? Here are 22,000 sites for pumped hydro across Australia

Currently, Australia is installing about 3 gigawatts (GW) per year of wind and solar photovoltaics (PV). This is fast enough to exceed 50% renewables in the electricity grid by 2030. It’s also fast enough to meet Australia’s entire carbon reduction target, as agreed at the 2015 Paris climate summit.

Encouragingly, the rapidly declining cost of wind and solar PV electricity means that the net cost of meeting the Paris target is roughly zero. This is because electricity from new-build wind and PV will be cheaper than from new-build coal generators; cheaper than existing gas generators; and indeed cheaper than the average wholesale price in the entire National Electricity Market, which is currently A$70-100 per megawatt-hour.

Cheapest option

Electricity from new-build wind in Australia currently costs around A$60 per MWh, while PV power costs about A$70 per MWh.

During the 2020s these prices are likely to fall still further – to below A$50 per MWh, judging by the lower-priced contracts being signed around the world, such as in Abu Dhabi, Mexico, India and Chile.

In our research, published today, we modelled the all-in cost of electricity under three different scenarios:

  • Renewables: replacement of enough old coal generators by renewables to meet Australia’s Paris climate target

  • Gas: premature retirement of most existing coal plant and replacement by new gas generators to meet the Paris target. Note that gas is uncompetitive at current prices, and this scenario would require a large increase in gas use, pushing up prices still further.

  • Status quo: replacement of retiring coal generators with supercritical coal. Note that this scenario fails to meet the Paris target by a wide margin, despite having a similar cost to the renewables scenario described above, even though our modelling uses a low coal power station price.

The chart below shows the all-in cost of electricity in the 2020s under each of the three scenarios, and for three different gas prices: lower, higher, or the same as the current A$8 per gigajoule. As you can see, electricity would cost roughly the same under the renewables scenario as it would under the status quo, regardless of what happens to gas prices.

Levelised cost of electricity (A$ per MWh) for three scenarios and a range of gas prices.
Blakers et al.

Balancing a renewable energy grid

The cost of renewables includes both the cost of energy and the cost of balancing the grid to maintain reliability. This balancing act involves using energy storage, stronger interstate high-voltage power lines, and the cost of renewable energy “spillage” on windy, sunny days when the energy stores are full.

The current cost of hourly balancing of the National Electricity Market (NEM) is low because the renewable energy fraction is small. It remains low (less than A$7 per MWh) until the renewable energy fraction rises above three-quarters.

The renewable energy fraction in 2020 will be about one-quarter, which leaves plenty of room for growth before balancing costs become significant.

Cost of hourly balancing of the NEM (A$ per MWh) as a function of renewable energy fraction.

The proposed Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project would have a power generation capacity of 2GW and energy storage of 350GWh. This could provide half of the new storage capacity required to balance the NEM up to a renewable energy fraction of two-thirds.

The new storage needed over and above Snowy 2.0 is 2GW of power with 12GWh of storage (enough to provide six hours of demand). This could come from a mix of pumped hydro, batteries and demand management.

Stability and reliability

Most of Australia’s fossil fuel generators will reach the end of their technical lifetimes within 20 years. In our “renewables” scenario detailed above, five coal-fired power stations would be retired early, by an average of five years. In contrast, meeting the Paris targets by substituting gas for coal requires 10 coal stations to close early, by an average of 11 years.

Under the renewables scenario, the grid will still be highly reliable. That’s because it will have a diverse mix of generators: PV (26GW), wind (24GW), coal (9GW), gas (5GW), pumped hydro storage (5GW) and existing hydro and bioenergy (8GW). Many of these assets can be used in ways that help to deliver other services that are vital for grid stability, such as spinning reserve and voltage management.

Read more: Will the National Energy Guarantee hit pause on renewables?

Because a renewable electricity system comprises thousands of small generators spread over a million square kilometres, sudden shocks to the electricity system from generator failure, such as occur regularly with ageing large coal generators, are unlikely.

Neither does cloudy or calm weather cause shocks, because weather is predictable and a given weather system can take several days to move over the Australian continent. Strengthened interstate interconnections (part of the cost of balancing) reduce the impact of transmission failure, which was the prime cause of the 2016 South Australian blackout.

The ConversationSince 2015, Australia has tripled the annual deployment rate of new wind and PV generation capacity. Continuing at this rate until 2030 will let us meet our entire Paris carbon target in the electricity sector, all while replacing retiring coal generators, maintaining high grid stability, and stabilising electricity prices.

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University; Bin Lu, PhD Candidate, Australian National University, and Matthew Stocks, Research Fellow, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University

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

Time for a global agreement on minerals to fuel the clean energy transition

Damien Giurco, University of Technology Sydney; Nicholas Arndt, Université Grenoble Alpes, and Saleem H. Ali, The University of Queensland

Representatives from around the world are meeting in Bonn this week to discuss progress towards the goals of the Paris climate agreement. A large part of this challenge involves rapidly scaling up the deployment of renewable energy, while curbing fossil fuel use – but little attention has been paid to the minerals that will be needed to build these technologies.

Wind and solar infrastructure, batteries and electric vehicles all require vast amounts of mined (and recycled) resources. These range from copper for wires and electric motors, to lithium and cobalt for batteries, to smaller amounts of rare metals like indium and gallium for solar cells.

Read more: Mining for metals in society’s waste

The problem is that the current system for mining these minerals is not always efficient; it’s polluting and is subject to increased social pressure and public protests. Instead, we need a new international mechanism to coordinate global mineral exploration that looks to our future supply needs.

As technology advances, more and different metals are needed.
Zepf V, Reller A, Rennie C, Ashfield M & Simmons J, BP (2014): Materials critical to the energy industry.

Challenges for minerals supply

While the Paris agreement has created a global framework for managing carbon, nothing similar exists for minerals. This leaves the pursuit of sustainable resource development largely in the hands of mining companies and state-owned enterprises.

Mining these resources generates significant water and air pollution. This problem is increasing: for example, global copper ore quality is declining over time. That means that copper mining now requires excavating twice as much ore as ten years ago to yield the same amount of copper, creating much more mine waste.

Read more: Treasure from trash: how mining waste can be mined a second time

Lower commodity prices have meant that investment in exploring new mine sites has fallen. But it takes a long time to develop new mines – it can often take 20 years to go from finding a metal deposit to beginning mining, and only around 20% of discoveries since 2000 have led to an operating mine.

Lack of investment in exploration is driven by short-term thinking, rather than a long-term plan to supply rising demand.

In parallel, resistance to mining, often at a local level, is increasing worldwide. Environmental catastrophes, of which there have been many examples, erode social trust, often delaying or stopping mine development.

A new global mechanism to more effectively plan resource supply could help rebuild trust in local communities, limit price spikes to ensure equitable access to metal resources, and balance the international tension which arises as industries and governments compete for minerals from a shrinking list of countries able to tolerate and profit from sustaining a mining industry.

A global agreement on mineral resources

Developing a global mechanism will of course be difficult, requiring substantive dialogue and strong leadership. But there are organisations that could step up, such as the United Nations Environment Assembly, or the newly established Intergovernmental Forum on Mining Metals and Sustainable Development.

The global community is well aware of the threat that rising sea levels pose to low-lying countries. We need similar awareness of the crucial role minerals are playing in the energy transition, and the risk that supply problems could derail sustainability goals.

To that end, we need to globally coordinate several crucial aspects of mineral development. To start with, while most detailed information on where minerals are mined and sold is privately held, there is publicly available data that could be used to predict possible imbalances in supply and demand internationally (for example copper, iron, lithium, indium). Publicly-funded institutions have an important role here. They can assess how known supply will meet future demand, and deliver insight into the changing environmental impact.

It should also be entirely possible to develop inventories of recyclable metals, which can be an important supplement to large mining operations.

Compiling inventories of recyclable metals is underway across Europe as part of a move towards a circular economy (where as much waste as possible is repurposed).

Read more: Explainer: what is the circular economy

While recycling for for metals like lithium for less than 1%, around 40% of steel demand is met from scrap recycled during manufacturing and from end-of-life products and infrastructure. Thinking smarter about eventual dismantling of buildings at the time when they are built, can support better use of recycled resources.

Geoscience agencies already offer maps of underground minerals, demonstrating that this kind of co-ordinated perspective is feasible. Extending this approach to recyclables can mitigate environmental impact and ease the social objections to new mines.

A global mechanism for mineral exploration and supply could also be an opportunity to promote best-practice for responsible mining, with a focus on social license and fair and transparent royalty arrangements.

Overcoming resistance

It’s a challenging proposition, especially as many countries display less enthusiasm for international agreements. However, it will be increasingly difficult to meet the Paris targets without tackling this problem.

In the decades ahead, our mineral supply will still need to double or triple to meet the demand for electric vehicles and other technologies required by our growing global population.

In short, resource efficiency and jobs of the future depend on an assured mineral supply. This should be a nonpartisan issue, across the global political spectrum.

The ConversationThe authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution of Edmund Nickless, Chair, New Activities Strategic Implementation Committee, International Union of Geological Sciences to this article.

Damien Giurco, Professor of Resource Futures, University of Technology Sydney; Nicholas Arndt, Professor of Geosciences, Université Grenoble Alpes, and Saleem H. Ali, Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment, University of Delaware (USA); Professorial Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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

Forget turning straw into gold, farmers can turn trash into energy

Bernadette McCabe, University of Southern Queensland and Craig Baillie, University of Southern Queensland

Mention agriculture to many Australians and it conjures up images of mobs of cattle in the dusty outback, or harvesters gobbling up expanses of golden wheat. In reality, much of our high-value agriculture is near the coast, and close to capital cities. Think of the Adelaide Hills, the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane, Victoria’s Gippsland region and Goulburn Valley, and Sydney’s Hawkesbury Valley.

These centres are where a lot of our agricultural processing happens – near big, eco-conscious populations ready to put their hands in their pockets for quality products.

Read more: Why consumers need help to shift to sustainable diets

But besides feeding us, farming can also potentially help us with the move towards cleaner energy. While it’s unclear how agriculture will factor into the federal government’s proposed National Energy Guarantee, it’s obvious that the farming sector can do plenty to reduce Australia’s emissions. An Industry Roadmap released this week by the Carbon Market Institute forecasts that by 2030 carbon farming will save the equivalent of 360-480 tonnes of carbon emissions, generate between A$10.8 billion and A$24 billion in revenue, and create 10,500-21,000 jobs.

One extremely promising area is turning agricultural waste and by-products into energy. This reduces emissions, makes farmers less vulnerable to variable energy prices, and adds value for consumers.

Using waste for energy

In Queensland and northern New South Wales, some sugar mills are making electricity by burning bagasse (sugarcane waste) as a biomass energy source. Other plants in Victoria, like Warrnambool Butter & Cheese, are using whey to produce biogas, thus reducing their spending on natural gas.

Other kinds of waste from viticulture and horticulture are also potentially useful. Even the trash produced when cotton lint fibres are removed from the seed is a largely untapped source of environmentally friendly energy.

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

The agricultural sector should be aiming to close the loop: to reclassify waste as a resource. Turning trash into treasure is a step towards energy independence, an idea that is gaining momentum overseas. An energy-independent farm seeks to cater for its own energy needs, creating a self-sustaining environment that buffers against fluctuating energy prices.

Australian farms should largely be able to achieve this. The trend towards renewable energy sources, and equipment that can run on biofuels, demonstrates an appetite for sensible, sustainable technology.

Biodiesel, wind and solar energy, and electricity and gas generated from biogas are being implemented globally. From an international perspective, farmers’ consideration for using or increasing renewable energy seems to be independent of the size of their operations but rather stem from their desire for farms to be energy-independent.

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

La Bellotta farm in Italy, a mixed-energy farm, is a prime example. It’s using a concept tractor powered by methane generated from on-farm waste.

Closer to home, Westpork, WA’s largest pork producer, is about to add wind power and battery storage to its existing solar arrays, and possibly biogas too, as part of a plan to go 100% renewable energy and slash production costs.

The right policy settings

Agriculture was responsible for about 16% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, trending down to 13% in 2015.

The National Farmers Federation is looking to the Government’s 2017 Review of Climate Policy to deliver policy settings that will enable the sector to remain competitive and grow production at the same time as meeting international obligations.

We particularly need policy to encourage investment in agriculture research. Climate-smart practices and technologies can simultaneously reduce emissions and improve productivity and profitability.

Meanwhile, improving the design of carbon-offset markets (like the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund) to make them more accessible to farmers could unlock the full carbon potential of Australian farms.

Read more: Farming in 2050: storing carbon could help meet Australia’s climate goals

A recent report from Powering Agriculture, produced with international backing, showed that while food production across the world is increasing, the energy required for each unit of food is falling.

With Australia’s relatively small population, huge area and extreme temperatures, it’s hard to compare apples with apples, but the adoption of renewable energy in Australian agriculture is helping to make us look like more efficient food producers too.

Mixing renewable energy sources gives farmers a plausible path to becoming energy independent. Bioenergy, such as biogas, gives flexibility to intermittent power like solar and wind, while reducing waste and creating a home source of biofertiliser.

When you boil it down to basic science, food and fibre are just stored energy. Beyond the animals and crops farmers bring to market, the Australian agricultural sector produces massive amounts of energy – they just need the tools to monetise it.

The ConversationThe topic of Farm Energy Independence will be discussed at the upcoming TropAg Symposium.

Bernadette McCabe, Associate Professor and Principal Scientist, University of Southern Queensland and Craig Baillie, Director (National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture), University of Southern Queensland

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

Will the National Energy Guarantee hit pause on renewables?

Frank Jotzo, Australian National University and Salim Mazouz, Australian National University

The federal government’s new National Energy Guarantee (NEG) proposal looks likely to put the brakes on renewable energy investment in Australia. And based on the sparse detail so far available, there are serious questions about whether the plan really can deliver on its aims of reliability, emissions reductions and lower prices.

The broad mechanism design could be made to work, but to be effective in driving the transition of the energy sector it would need adequate ambition on carbon emissions and very careful thought about the reliability requirements of the future electricity grid.

Read more: Infographic: the National Energy Guarantee at a glance

The policy may well be used to force investment into the fossil fuel power fleet through regulatory intervention, and perhaps for the power sector to buy emissions offsets. This would risk locking in a carbon-intensive power system.

The NEG: top or flop?

Having rejected several options – including an emissions intensity scheme, the Clean Energy Target put forward by the Finkel Review, and any continuation of the Renewable Energy Target – the government has finally managed to get a policy proposal through the party room, formulated in advice by its newly established Energy Security Board.

Analysts’ initial reactions have ranged from unbridled enthusiasm to derisive rejection. It depends on political judgments, expectations about how the scheme might operate in practice, and how high one’s expectations are for efficiency and environmental effectiveness.

The politics of this are complicated, but there are hopes that the Labor opposition will agree to the scheme in principle. But the decision is ultimately with the Australian states, which would need to pass legislation to implement it.

Reliability guarantee: supporting fossil fuels?

The first element of the NEG is the “reliability guarantee”. This would require electricity retailers to buy some share of their electricity from “dispatchable” sources that can be readily switched on. The NEG list includes coal and gas, as well as hydro and energy storage – essentially, anything except wind and solar.

The NEG proposal might be informed by a political imperative to support coal. As John Quiggin has pointed out, defining coal-fired plants as dispatchable is questionable at best: they have long ramp-up times and are sometimes unavailable.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) would prescribe the share of the “dispatchable” power sources and perhaps also the mix of technologies in retailers’ portfolios, separately in each state. This would be a remarkably interventionist approach.

Demand from retailers for the power sources they are told to use could trigger investment in new gas generators, refurbishment of existing coal plants, and some investment in energy storage. It is difficult to see how it would force the building of new coal plants, given their very large upfront cost and long-term emissions liabilities.

Would electricity prices be lower, as the Energy Security Board’s advice claims? Investment in new power generation will tend to reduce prices, cutting into profit margins. But the resulting investments will come at higher economic cost than market solutions, because they are determined by regulators’ orders made with a view to the short-term energy mix, not long-term cost-effectiveness. And there would be risk premiums on project finance, reflecting uncertainty about future policy settings.

Emissions guarantee: flexible but weak?

The NEG’s second pillar is the “emissions guarantee”. This would require retailers to keep their portfolio below some level of emissions intensity (carbon dioxide per unit of electricity).

This increases the demand for electricity from lower-emissions technologies, allowing them to command higher market prices and therefore encouraging investment in them. This price signal would benefit renewables and also favour gas over coal, as well as discriminating against the most polluting coal plants.

The Energy Security Board’s advice suggests that retailers would have flexibility in complying with that obligation, by buying and selling emissions components of their contracts, and potentially also using emissions offsets from outside the scheme to make up for any exceeding of emissions limits.

The reliability and emissions elements of the NEG interact with each other, and the net effect depends on the detailed implementation as well as the relative importance of the two components.

Given the politics within government, the weight could be on support for coal and gas generation. The reliability guarantee could therefore end up putting a tight lid on the amount of new wind and solar that can enter the system.

Renewables, gas or credits?

The Energy Security Board makes explicit reference to Australia’s Paris target of a 26-28% reduction in emissions, relative to 2005 levels, by 2030. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said the NEG will be expected to cut electricity emissions by a similar percentage, as a “pro rata” contribution to this goal.

But to meet the economy-wide target, the electricity sector would need to make deeper cuts, because emissions reductions are cheaper and easier here than elsewhere.

The Energy Security Board says it expects renewables to reach 28-36% by 2030. This is rather low, considering that the Finkel Review projected 42% under its proposed clean energy target, and 35% under business as usual. Other analyses have shown that much higher levels of renewables are achievable.

So if the NEG is not geared to support renewables, how could significant emissions reductions be achieved?

One way would be to replace coal with gas-fired power, and brown coal with black coal. But the government has flagged that it is opposed to closing old coal plants. And a large-scale shift to gas would raise electricity prices further, unless gas prices were to tumble.

Read more: The government’s energy policy hinges on some tricky wordplay about coal’s role

That leaves another option, mentioned in the Energy Security Board’s report: power retailers could buy emissions offset credits from elsewhere to make up for not meeting the emissions standard, specifically from projects under the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF).

This might be attractive for the government, as electricity retailers would then pay for ERF credits, rather than government as has been the case until now. It may also be attractive to the power industry, as it would reduce the cost of complying with the new obligations. Retailers would pass on the costs to their customers, so electricity consumers would end up paying for ERF projects.

Even assuming that all of the ERF’s emissions reductions are real (and some of them may not be), all this does is shift the adjustment burden from electricity to other sectors such as agriculture.

The ConversationThe NEG has the potential to reduce emissions effectively if the parameters are adjusted accordingly. But what seems more likely is that it will put the brakes on investment in renewables, solidify the status quo and delay the energy transition.

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University and Salim Mazouz, Research Associate, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

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

After the storm: how political attacks on renewables elevates attention paid to climate change

File 20171008 25764 1l2bb7h

AAP/David Mariuz

David Holmes, Monash University

This time last year, Australia was getting over a media storm about renewables, energy policy and climate change. The media storm was caused by a physical storm: a mid-latitude cyclone that hit South Australia on September 29 and set in train a series of events that is still playing itself out.

The events include:

In one sense, the Finkel Review was a response to the government’s concerns about “energy security”. But it also managed to successfully respond to the way energy policy had become a political plaything, as exemplified by the attacks on South Australia.

New research on the media coverage that framed the energy debate that has ensued over the past year reveals some interesting turning points in how Australia’s media report on climate change.

While extreme weather events are the best time to communicate climate change – the additional energy humans are adding to the climate is on full display – the South Australian event was used to attack renewables rather than the carbonisation of the atmosphere. Federal MPs hijacked people’s need to understand the reason for the blackout “by simply swapping climate change with renewables”.

However, the research shows that, ironically, MPs who invited us to “look over here” at the recalcitrant renewables – and not at climate-change-fuelled super-storms – managed to make climate change reappear.

The study searched for all Australian newspaper articles that mentioned either a storm or a cyclone in relation to South Australia that had been published in the ten days either side of the event. This returned 591 articles. Most of the relevant articles were published after the storm, with warnings of the cyclone beforehand.

Some of the standout findings include:

  • 51% of articles were about the power outage and 38% were about renewables, but 12% of all articles connected these two.

  • 20% of articles focused on the event being politicised by politicians.

  • 9% of articles raised climate change as a force in the event and the blackouts.

  • 10% of articles blamed the blackouts on renewables.

  • Of all of the articles linking power outages to renewables 46% were published in News Corp and 14% were published in Fairfax.

  • Narratives that typically substituted any possibility of a link to climate change, included the “unstoppable power of nature” (18%), failure of planning (5.25%), and triumph of humanity (5.6%).

Only 9% of articles discussed climate change. Of these, 73% presented climate change positively, 21% were neutral, and 6% negative. But, for the most part, climate change was linked to the conversation around renewables: there was a 74% overlap. 36% of articles discussing climate change linked it to the intensification of extreme weather events.

There was also a strong correlation between the positive and negative discussion of climate change and the ownership of newspapers.

The starkest contrast was between the two largest Australian newspaper groups. Of all the sampled articles that mentioned climate change, News Corp was the only group to has a negative stance on climate change (at 50% of articles), but still with 38% positive. Fairfax was 90% positive and 10% neutral about climate change.

Positive/negative stance of articles covering climate change by percentage.

Given that more than half of all articles discussed power outages, the cyclone in a sense competed with renewables as a news item. Both have a bearing on power supply and distribution. But, ironically, it was renewables that put climate change on the news agenda – not the cyclone.

Of the articles discussing renewables, 67% were positive about renewables with only 33% “negative” and blaming them for the power outages.

In this way, the negative frame that politicians put on renewable energy may have sparked debate that was used to highlight the positives of renewable energy and what’s driving it: reduced emissions.

But perhaps the most interesting finding is the backlash by news media against MPs’ attempts to politicise renewables.

19.63% of all articles in the sample had called out (mainly federal) MPs for politicising the issue and using South Australians’ misfortune as a political opportunity. This in turn was related to the fact that, of all the articles discussing renewables, 67% were positive about renewables with only 33% supporting MPs’ attempts to blame them for the power outages.

In this way, while many MPs had put renewables on the agenda by denigrating them, most journalists were eager to cover the positive side of renewables.

Nevertheless, the way MPs sought to dominate the news agenda over the storm did take away from discussion of climate science and the causes of the cyclone. Less than 4% of articles referred to extreme weather intensifying as a trend.

This is problematic. It means that, with a few exceptions, Australia’s climate scientists are not able to engage with the public in key periods after extreme weather events.

When MPs, with co-ordinated media campaigns, enjoy monopoly holdings in the attention economy of news cycles, science communication and the stories of climate that could be told are often relegated to other media.

The ConversationWith thanks to Tahnee Burgess for research assistance on this article.

David Holmes, Director, Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University

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