Get in on the ground floor: how apartments can join the solar boom



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Getting your strata committee to agree to solar panels is tricky, but it can be done.
Stucco, Author provided

Bjorn Sturmberg, Macquarie University

While there are now more solar panels in Australia than people, the many Australians who live in apartments have largely been locked out of this solar revolution by a minefield of red tape and potentially uninformed strata committees.

In the face of these challenges, Stucco, a small co-operative housing block in Sydney, embarked on a mission to take back the power. Hopefully their experiences can serve as a guide to how other apartment-dwellers can more readily go solar.

From an energy perspective, Stucco was a typical apartment block: each of its eight units had its own connection to the grid and was free to choose its own retailer, but was severely impeded from choosing to supply itself with on-site renewable energy.

Things changed in late 2015 when the co-op was awarded an Innovation Grant from the City of Sydney with a view to becoming the first apartment block in Australia to be equipped with solar and batteries.

A central part of Stucco’s plan was to share the locally produced renewable energy by converting the building into an “embedded network”, whereby the building has a single grid connection and manages the metering and billing of units internally.

Such a conversion seemed like an ideal solution for solar on apartments, but turned into an ideological battle with the electricity regulator that took months and hundreds of hours of pro bono legal support to resolve.

Layout of Stucco as solar powered embedded network.
Sonia Millway

In this way the Stucco project grew to embody the struggle at the heart of the Australian electricity market: a battle between choice and control, between current regulations that mandate consumers to choose between incumbent retailers, and the public’s aspirations for green self-sufficiency.

A chicken and egg problem

Embedded networks have been around for decades. Yet if the Australian Energy Regulator had its way, they would be banned as soon as possible.

The reason for this is that they inhibit consumers’ choice of retailer: consumers are forced to buy their electricity from the building’s embedded network management company, which may exploit its monopoly power.

Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. At least one company in Germany allows apartment residents to buy power either from their preferred grid retailer or from the building’s solar-powered embedded network. This business model relies on Germany’s smart meter standards that ensure all market participants can access the data they require.

We currently find ourselves in a standoff. The regulator is waiting on companies to offer solar powered embedded networks that include retail competition, while companies are waiting on the regulator to create an accessible playing field that would make such services viable.

The recently released Finkel Report touches on this by recommending a “review of the regulation of individual power systems and microgrids”.

Stucco members celebrating signing the installation contract with Solaray.
Monique Duggan

Stucco’s bespoke solution

In the absence of such a solution, Stucco made a unique agreement with the regulator: the co-op committed to cover fully the costs of installing a grid meter for any unit whose occupant wishes to exit the embedded network in the future.

Such a commitment was feasible because Stucco’s residents, as co-op members, have direct input into the management of the network including controlling prices (that are mandated to be cheaper than any grid offer). But it is difficult to image regular strata committees accepting such liabilities.

Embedded networks are therefore not the best general solution for retrofitting solar on apartments, at least not under current regulations. This is unfortunate because they represent the best utilisation of an apartment block’s solar resource (Stucco’s system provides more than 75% of the building’s electricity) and are therefore increasingly being adopted by developers.

Advice for apartments

The good news for residents of existing apartments is that there are easier routes to installing solar. The even better news is that the cost of solar systems has plummeted (and continues to do so), while retail rates continue to skyrocket, so much so that body corporates are reporting rates of return of 15-20% on their solar investments.

The recommended options for apartments are epitomised by the old adage “keep it simple”. They fall into two categories: a single solar system to power the common area, or multiple smaller systems powering individual units. Which of these is best suited to a particular apartment depends primarily on the building’s size (as a proxy for its energy demand).

Decision tree for solar power on apartments.
Bjorn Sturmberg

For buildings with 1 square metre of sunny roof space per 2m² of floor space (typically blocks up three stories high), it is worth installing a solar system for each unit, as these will typically be well matched to unit’s consumption.

Taller buildings (with less sunshine per apartment) are better off installing a single system for the common area, particularly if this contains power-hungry elements such as elevators or heating and cooling systems.

But here’s the crux: no apartment can install solar without the political support of its strata committee. While this hurdle has historically tripped up many initiatives, increased public awareness has created a groundswell of support. Plus you may need fewer votes than you think.

Myth of the Special Resolution.
Christine Byrne – Green Strata

To improve the chances of overcoming this barrier I have put together a solar-powered apartment pitch deck, available here.

While this article focuses on solar, it is important to remember that the first priority for any building should be to improve energy efficiency, by installing items such as LED lights, modern appliances, and insulation and draft proofing. For advice on these opportunities see the City of Sydney’s Smart Green Apartments website and the Smart Blocks website.

The ConversationLastly, adding batteries to an apartment solar system creates extra challenges, for instance fire-prevention planning. But it allows for far greater energy independence and resilience, and a chance to join the future of distributed energy currently being enjoyed by so many of Australia’s non-strata householders.

Stucco Co-operative’s 43.2 kWh battery system.
Bjorn Sturmberg

Bjorn Sturmberg, Associate Lecturer in Physics, Macquarie University

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

Wind farms are hardly the bird slayers they’re made out to be. Here’s why


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The potential to harm local birdlife is often used to oppose wind farm development. But research into how birds die shows wind farms should be the least of our concerns.
from www.shutterstock.com

Simon Chapman, University of Sydney

People who oppose wind farms often claim wind turbine blades kill large numbers of birds, often referring to them as “bird choppers”. And claims of dangers to iconic or rare birds, especially raptors, have attracted a lot of attention.

Wind turbine blades do indeed kill birds and bats, but their contribution to total bird deaths is extremely low, as these three studies show.

A 2009 study using US and European data on bird deaths estimated the number of birds killed per unit of power generated by wind, fossil fuel and nuclear power systems.

It concluded:

wind farms and nuclear power stations are responsible each for between 0.3 and 0.4 fatalities per gigawatt-hour (GWh) of electricity while fossil-fuelled power stations are responsible for about 5.2 fatalities per GWh.

That’s nearly 15 times more. From this, the author estimated:

wind farms killed approximately seven thousand birds in the United States in 2006 but nuclear plants killed about 327,000 and fossil-fuelled power plants 14.5 million.

In other words, for every one bird killed by a wind turbine, nuclear and fossil fuel powered plants killed 2,118 birds.

A Spanish study involved daily inspections of the ground around 20 wind farms with 252 turbines from 2005 to 2008. It found 596 dead birds.

The turbines in the sample had been working for different times during the study period (between 11 and 34 months), with the average annual number of fatalities per turbine being just 1.33. The authors noted this was one of the highest collision rates reported in the world research literature.

Raptor collisions accounted for 36% of total bird deaths (214 deaths), most of which were griffon vultures (138 birds, 23% of total mortality). The study area was in the southernmost area of Spain near Gibraltar, which is a migratory zone for birds from Morocco into Spain.

Perhaps the most comprehensive report was published in the journal Avian Conservation and Ecology in 2013 by scientists from Canada’s Environment Canada, Wildlife Research Division.

Their report looked at causes of human-related bird deaths for all of Canada, drawing together data from many diverse sources.

The table below shows selected causes of bird death out of an annual total of 186,429,553 estimated deaths caused by human activity.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Zg2hk/1/

Mark Duchamp, the president of Save the Eagles International is probably the most prominent person to speak out about bird deaths at wind farms. He says:

The average per turbine comes down to 333 to 1,000 deaths annually which is a far cry from the 2-4 birds claimed by the American wind industry or the 400,000 birds a year estimated by the American Bird Conservancy for the whole of the United States, which has about twice as many turbines as Spain.

Such claims from wind farm critics generally allude to massive national conspiracies to cover up the true size of the deaths.

And in Australia?

In Australia in 2006 a proposal for a 52-turbine wind farm plan on Victoria’s south-east coast at Bald Hills (now completed) was overruled by the then federal environment minister Ian Campbell.

He cited concerns about the future of the endangered orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), a migratory bird said to be at risk of extinction within 50 years. The Tarwin Valley Coastal Guardians, an anti wind farm group that had been opposing the proposed development.

Interest groups have regularly cited this endangered bird when trying to halt a range of developments.

These include a chemical storage facility and a boating marina. The proposed Westernport marina in Victoria happened to also be near an important wetland. But a professor in biodiversity and sustainability wrote:

the parrot copped the blame, even though it had not been seen there for 25 years.

Victoria’s planning minister at the time, Rob Hulls, described the Bald Hills decision as blatantly political, arguing the federal conservative government had been lobbied by fossil fuel interests to curtail renewable energy developments. Hulls said there had been:

some historical sightings, and also some potential foraging sites between 10 and 35 kilometres from the Bald Hills wind farm site that may or may not have been used by the orange-bellied parrot.

Perhaps the final word on this topic should go to the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It built a wind turbine at its Bedfordshire headquarters to reduce its carbon emissions (and in doing so, aims to minimise species loss due to climate change). It recognised that wind power is far more beneficial to birds than it is harmful.


The ConversationSimon Chapman and Fiona Crichton’s book, Wind Turbine Syndrome: a communicated disease, will be published by Sydney University Press later this year.

Simon Chapman, Emeritus Professor in Public Health, University of Sydney

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

Critical backbenchers push back on Finkel clean energy target plan



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Josh Frydenberg’s task of garnering broad support for the Finkel scheme is proving to be more difficult than expected.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

A sizeable slice of his backbench has sent Malcolm Turnbull a forceful message that his road to implementing the clean energy target (CET) proposed by the Finkel inquiry will be rocky even within his own ranks.

After Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg gave an extensive briefing on the Finkel plan to the Coalition partyroom on Tuesday morning, MPs later reconvened for nearly three hours of questions and debate.

About one-third of the 30-32 who spoke expressed misgivings, according to Coalition sources. There was broad support from another third. The rest didn’t express a firm view, asking questions and seeking more information.

The report from the panel led by Chief Scientist Alan Finkel says a CET “will encourage new low emissions generation [below a threshold level of carbon dioxide per megawatt hour] into the market in a technology neutral fashion”.

A key issue will be where the government, which is disposed to adopt the Finkel plan, sets the threshold. It is clear that to accommodate the Nationals and a section of the Liberal Party it will have to be at a level that allows for the inclusion of “clean” coal.

The meeting was to gauge backbench views ahead of cabinet considering the report. Ministers, apart from the minister with carriage of the issue, don’t speak on these occasions.

Tony Abbott, who had publicly flagged his belief that the Finkel scheme represents a tax on coal, spoke strongly at the meeting.

The degree of pushback against a CET was stronger than had been anticipated, given the intense lobbying of the backbench that Frydenberg had done ahead of the meeting.

Frydenberg said afterwards: “I want to emphasise that this meeting was not making any decisions about Dr Finkel’s proposal. Rather, it was an information-gathering session.”

A common theme from backbenchers was that it was vital to be able to be confident the Finkel plan would make energy more affordable. A number of MPs, especially from outer suburban and regional areas, said affordability was what mattered most to their electorates.

Some questioned the Finkel modelling showing that prices would fall. The chairman of the backbench environment committee, Craig Kelly, said: “If you believe that you can lower prices by replacing existing coal-fired generation with higher-cost renewables, then I have a harbour bridge to sell you.”

Concern was expressed about the place of coal, and there was criticism of Finkel’s projection of an effective renewable energy target of 42% by 2030. Some backbenchers believed it would take the Coalition too close to Labor, which has a 50% target. There were also queries about the status of the Paris targets.

But Frydenberg told the ABC: “There was an overwhelming feeling among those in the party room tonight that business-as-usual is not an option.”

Asked on 7.30 “are you going to be able to get your colleagues to agree to support a clean energy target?,” Frydenberg replied: “It is too early to say.”

Finkel met with the government’s backbench environment committee on Tuesday to explain his plan and answer questions.

Frydenberg conceded that backbenchers “are concerned about the future of coal”. But he flatly rejected the Abbott suggestion that the Finkel plan amounted to a tax on coal, saying it was “absolutely not”.

“Dr Finkel has made it very clear he is not putting in place any prohibitions on coal or any form of generation capacity. He is putting in place incentives for lower emission generation. It is not a price on carbon or a tax on coal.”

The CET had “similarities to what John Howard put forward back in 2007”, Frydenberg said – a point he made in his briefing to the party meeting.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce also slapped down Abbott’s proposition that the CET amounted to a tax on coal, telling Sky that “Mr Abbott’s entitled to his opinion” but “there is no penalty placed on coal.

The Conversation“There is an advantage that is placed on those that are below the line. An advantage, because they get a section of a permit, which is like a payment. Those above the lines don’t … I suppose ipso facto it could be seen as not having the same advantage.”

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/icjdu-6b9a25?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

The Finkel Review at a glance


Madeleine De Gabriele, The Conversation; Michael Hopkin, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, The Conversation

The long-awaited report from Chief Scientist Alan Finkel into Australia’s National Electricity Market was released today.

The key recommendation is the adoption of a Clean Energy Target. This mandates that energy retailers provide a certain amount of their electricity from “low-emissions” generators – sources that produce emissions below a threshold level of carbon dioxide per megawatt.

Crucially, Dr Finkel has not made a recommendation as to the precise threshold or the number of certificates to be issued, saying:

The Panel acknowledges that the specific emissions reduction trajectory that should be set for the electricity sector is a question for governments.

The ConversationAt a minimum, the electricity sector should have a trajectory consistent with a direct application of the national target of 26-28% reduction on 2005 levels by 2030, as per Australia’s international obligations under the Paris Agreement.



Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Madeleine De Gabriele, Deputy Editor: Energy + Environment, The Conversation; Michael Hopkin, Environment + Energy Editor, The Conversation, and Wes Mountain, Deputy Multimedia Editor, The Conversation

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

Energy solutions but weak on climate – experts react to the Finkel Review



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The Finkel Review is scientifically modest but politically deft.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Hugh Saddler, Australian National University; Alan Pears, RMIT University, and David Karoly, University of Melbourne

The keenly anticipated Finkel Review, commissioned in the wake of last year’s South Australian blackout, has made a range of recommendations aimed at delivering a reliable, secure and sustainable National Electricity Market.

Among the proposals is a new Clean Energy Target to boost investment in low-carbon electricity generation, as well as moves to require high-emitting power stations to give three years’ notice before shutting down.

Below, our experts react to the measures.


“Security and reliability are first”

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Australian National University

With so much focus on the design of a mechanism to support a shift towards lower-emissions generation, it is easy to forget that the primary purpose of the Review, commissioned following the “system black” event in South Australia on September 28, 2016, was “to develop a national reform blueprint to maintain energy security and reliability”. It is thus appropriate that security and reliability are the first topics to be addressed in the main body of the report.

System security is defined as the ability of the system to tolerate disturbances. Maintaining security requires the system to be able to prevent very high rates of change of frequency. At present the system has no explicit mechanism for doing this, but relies implicitly on the inertia provided, effectively as a free service, by existing large thermal generators.

The report recommends a series of regulatory energy security obligations to provide this service by various additional means, falling on the transmission network service providers in each of the five NEM regions (states), and also on all new generators connecting to the system.

System reliability is defined as the ability of the system to meet consumer demand at all times. In the old system, this is achieved by “dispatchable” generators, meaning coal and gas generators that can vary their output as required to meet demand.

In the new system, with large amounts of variable wind and solar generation, other supply sources are needed to meet demand at times of low wind speed and/or lack of sun – that is, to act as complements to wind and solar. Existing hydro and open-cycle gas turbine generators are ideally suited to this task, but with the growth in wind and solar generation, this capacity will very soon be insufficient for the task across the NEM (and is already insufficient in SA).

The Report recommends what it calls a Generator Reliability Obligation, which would be triggered whenever the proportion of dispatchable generation (which could include batteries and other forms of storage) in a region is falling towards a predetermined minimum acceptable level. The obligation would fall on all new renewable generators wishing to connect thereafter and, in the words of the Report “would not need to be located on site, and could utilise economies of scale” through multiple renewable generation projects “pairing” with “one new large-scale battery of gas fired generation project for example”.

If implemented, this recommendation would seem certain to greatly complicate, slow down and add to the administrative overhead cost of building new renewable generation. It would involve putting together a consortium of multiple parties with potentially differing objectives and who would otherwise be competing with one another in the wholesale electricity market.

A far better approach would be to recognise that dispatchable generation provides a distinct and more valuable product than non-dispatchable generation. There should be a separate market mechanism, possibly based on a contracting approach, to provide this service. If well designed, this would automatically ensure that economies of scale, as may be realised by pumped hydro storage, for example, would be captured. This approach would be far more economically efficient, and thus less costly to electricity consumers, than the messy processes required under the Report’s obligation approach.


“Energy efficiency is effectively handballed to governments”

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

The Review’s approach to the demand side is very focused. Demand response, the capacity to reduce demand at times of extreme pressure on the supply system, is addressed thoroughly. The past under-utilisation of this approach is acknowledged, and the actions of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) intended to capture some of its potential in time for next summer are outlined.

However, the deep cultural problems within the Australian Energy Markets Commission regarding demand response are not tackled. Instead, the AEMC is asked (yet again) to develop facilitation mechanisms in the wholesale market by mid-2018.

Energy efficiency is effectively handballed to governments. After making some positive comments about its valuable roles, recommendation 6.10 states that governments “should accelerate the roll out of broader energy efficiency measures to complement the reforms recommended in this Review”.

This is a disappointing outcome, given the enormous untapped potential of energy markets to drive effective energy efficiency improvement. But it clearly shows governments that they have to drive energy-efficiency initiatives unless they instruct energy market participants to act.


“It follows the wrong path on greenhouse emissions”

David Karoly, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Melbourne and Member, Climate Change Authority

The Finkel Review says many sensible things about ways to improve the security and reliability of Australia’s electricity sector. However, it follows completely the wrong path in what it says about lower greenhouse emissions from the electricity sector and Australia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. This is disappointing, as Alan Finkel is Australia’s Chief Scientist and a member of the Climate Change Authority.

All economy-wide modelling shows that the electricity sector must do a larger share of future emissions reductions than other sectors, because there are easier and cheaper solutions for reducing emissions in that sector. However, this review’s vision is for “emissions reduced by 28% below 2005 levels by 2030” – exactly the same as Australia’s target under the Paris Agreement. It should be much more.

The ConversationAustralia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement are “to undertake ambitious efforts” to limit global warming “to well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels”. The Targets Report from the Climate Change Authority in 2015 showed that this means Australia and the electricity sector must aim for zero emissions before 2050, not in the second half of the century, as suggested in the Finkel Review.

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University; Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University, and David Karoly, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Melbourne

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

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


David Blowers, Grattan Institute

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s long-awaited review of the National Electricity Market, released today, will make a significant difference to Australia’s electricity system in three key areas: reliability (making sure the system generates enough power to meet demand), security (making sure the system doesn’t break), and governance (making sure the electricity market can run effectively).

Reliability

The review recommends a Clean Energy Target (CET), which will provide subsidies to new low-emissions generation. The actual choice of scheme is less important than its durability. If broad political agreement can be reached on this target, it can provide the policy certainty that industry crucially needs to build new generation capacity and meet electricity demand.

Finkel also proposes a Generator Reliability Obligation, which places a limit on further wind and solar power in regions that already have a high proportion of intermittent generation. New intermittent generators will have to provide backup for some of their supply, in the form of new storage or contracts with new dispatchable generators such as gas. The aim is to ensure that federal and state subsidies for renewables do not push too much intermittent generation into the market without adequate backup.

Large generators will also need to provide a reasonable notice of closure – the review suggests a period of three years – before leaving the market. The aim here is to ensure the market has enough time to respond by installing new generation.

Finally, the review floats the possibility of further changes to ensure reliability, potentially a day-ahead market to lock in supply ahead of time, or a strategic reserve – a mechanism by which the market operator can sign contracts requiring generators to sit idle unless needed in an emergency.

The market operator (AEMO) can already do this, and the report is silent on how a strategic reserve would be different or whether it is definitely needed.

Security

To secure the electricity system, Finkel calls for existing standards to be tightened and new mechanisms to be introduced.

Transmission companies will be required to provide and maintain a prescribed level of inertia in the system – high levels of inertia can prevent rapid changes in frequency that harm the system. Fossil fuel generators may be required to change their settings to control the frequency in the system, whereas new generators, including renewables, will be required to provide fast frequency-response services to help avoid frequency fluctuations that can damage the grid.

While technical in their nature, these measures will reduce the likelihood of instability in the system and provide extra tools to fix the it if instability arises.

Finkel also makes recommendations to bolster the emergency management plan for the 2017-18 summer and to encourage consumers – both residential and business – to reduce their demand at peak times. The review strongly encourages the development of “demand response” schemes to give consumers incentives to switch off and help smooth the load at peak times.

Governance

The biggest change to how the market will be run is the proposed creation of an Energy Security Board (ESB). The ESB will comprise an independent chair and vice-chair, as well as the heads of the three governing bodies: the AEMC, AEMO and the market regulator (the AER). At a minimum, the ESB will be responsible for implementing many of the Finkel Review recommendations, although the panel leaves scope for it to do much more.

Finkel recommends a comprehensive review of the rules governing the electricity market. It also argues for increased accountability for market bodies and the COAG Energy Council, through enhanced performance indicators and a beefed-up process for determining and monitoring priorities for the energy sector.

What happens next?

The report makes a range of other recommendations designed to ensure better service for energy consumers, more transparency in gas markets, and improved planning and coordination of electricity networks.

The Finkel Review successfully addresses the main issues confronting the electricity sector today. At the very least, it is a step towards a more reliable and secure system.

The ConversationThe devil, as always, will be in the detail. Much will depend on how the recommendations are implemented. Australian households and business can only hope that the new Energy Security Board and the nation’s political leaders will see this through.

David Blowers, Energy Fellow, Grattan Institute

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