Computing faces an energy crunch unless new technologies are found


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The tools on our smartphones are enabled by a huge network of mobile phone towers, Wi-Fi networks and server farms.
Shutterstock

Daisy Wang, UNSW and Jared Cole, RMIT University

There’s little doubt the information technology revolution has improved our lives. But unless we find a new form of electronic technology that uses less energy, computing will become limited by an “energy crunch” within decades.

Even the most common events in our daily life – making a phone call, sending a text message or checking an email – use computing power. Some tasks, such as watching videos, require a lot of processing, and so consume a lot of energy.

Because of the energy required to power the massive, factory-sized data centres and networks that connect the internet, computing already consumes 5% of global electricity. And that electricity load is doubling every decade.

Fortunately, there are new areas of physics that offer promise for massively reduced energy use.




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The end of Moore’s Law

Humans have an insatiable demand for computing power.

Smartphones, for example, have become one of the most important devices of our lives. We use them to access weather forecasts, plot the best route through traffic, and watch the latest season of our favourite series.

And we expect our smartphones to become even more powerful in the future. We want them to translate language in real time, transport us to new locations via virtual reality, and connect us to the “Internet of Things”.

The computing required to make these features a reality doesn’t actually happen in our phones. Rather it’s enabled by a huge network of mobile phone towers, Wi-Fi networks and massive, factory-sized data centres known as “server farms”.

For the past five decades, our increasing need for computing was largely satisfied by incremental improvements in conventional, silicon-based computing technology: ever-smaller, ever-faster, ever-more efficient chips. We refer to this constant shrinking of silicon components as “Moore’s Law”.

Moore’s law is named after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who observed that:

the number of transistors on a chip doubles every year while the costs are halved.

But as we hit limits of basic physics and economy, Moore’s law is winding down. We could see the end of efficiency gains using current, silicon-based technology as soon as 2020.

Our growing demand for computing capacity must be met with gains in computing efficiency, otherwise the information revolution will slow down from power hunger.

Achieving this sustainably means finding a new technology that uses less energy in computation. This is referred to as a “beyond CMOS” solution, in that it requires a radical shift from the silicon-based CMOS (complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor) technology that has been the backbone of computing for the last five decades.




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Why does computing consume energy at all?

Processing of information takes energy. When using an electronic device to watch TV, listen to music, model the weather or any other task that requires information to be processed, there are millions and millions of binary calculations going on in the background. There are zeros and ones being flipped, added, multiplied and divided at incredible speeds.

The fact that a microprocessor can perform these calculations billions of times a second is exactly why computers have revolutionised our lives.

But information processing doesn’t come for free. Physics tells us that every time we perform an operation – for example, adding two numbers together – we must pay an energy cost.

And the cost of doing calculations isn’t the only energy cost of running a computer. In fact, anyone who has ever used a laptop balanced on their legs will attest that most of the energy gets converted to heat. This heat comes from the resistance that electricity meets when it flows through a material.

It is this wasted energy due to electrical resistance that researchers are hoping to minimise.

Recent advances point to solutions

Running a computer will always consume some energy, but we are a long way (several orders of magnitude) away from computers that are as efficient as the laws of physics allow. Several recent advances give us hope for entirely new solutions to this problem via new materials and new concepts.

Very thin materials

One recent step forward in physics and materials science is being able to build and control materials that are only one or a few atoms thick. When a material forms such a thin layer, and the movement of electrons is confined to this sheet, it is possible for electricity to flow without resistance.

There are a range of different materials that show this property (or might show it). Our research at the ARC Centre for Future Low-Energy Electronics Technologies (FLEET) is focused on studying these materials.

The study of shapes

There is also an exciting conceptual leap that helps us understand this property of electricity flow without resistance.

This idea comes from a branch of mathematics called “topology”. Topology tells us how to compare shapes: what makes them the same and what makes them different.

Image a coffee cup made from soft clay. You could slowly squish and squeeze this shape until it looks like a donut. The hole in the handle of the cup becomes the hole in the donut, and the rest of the cup gets squished to form part of the donut.

Topology tells us that donuts and coffee cups are equivalent because we can deform one into the other without cutting it, poking holes in it, or joining pieces together.

It turns out that the strange rules that govern how electricity flows in thin layers can be understood in terms of topology. This insight was the focus of the 2016 Nobel Prize, and it’s driving an enormous amount of current research in physics and engineering.




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We want to take advantage of these new materials and insights to develop the next generation of low-energy electronics devices, which will be based on topological science to allow electricity to flow with minimal resistance.

This work creates the possibility of a sustainable continuation of the IT revolution – without the huge energy cost.The Conversation

Daisy Wang, Postdoctoral Fellow, UNSW School of Physics, UNSW and Jared Cole, Professor of Physics, RMIT University

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

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Labor’s policy can smooth the energy transition, but much more will be needed to tackle emissions


Frank Jotzo, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The Labor party’s energy policy platform, released last week, is politically clever and would likely be effective. It includes plans to underwrite renewable energy and storage, and other elements that would help the energy transition along. Its approach to the transition away from coal-fired power is likely to need more work, and it will need to be accompanied by good policy in other sectors of the economy where greenhouse emissions are still climbing.

The politics is quite simple for Labor: support the transition to renewable electricity which is already underway and which a large majority of Australians support, and minimise the risk that its proposed policy instruments will come under effective attack in the lead-up to the 2019 election.




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By aiming for 50% renewables at 2030, the party has claimed the high ground. That goal and perhaps a lot more is achievable, given that the large investment pipeline in electricity consists almost entirely of wind and solar projects, and that new renewables are now typically the cheapest options to produce energy with new plants.

The question then is what policy instruments Labor would use to facilitate the transition from coal to renewables.

NEG games

The government’s abandoned National Energy Guarantee (NEG) policy is now a political asset for Labor. If the Coalition were to support it under a Labor government, the policy would effectively be immune to political attack. If the Coalition were to block it, Labor could blame many future problems in electricity on the Coalition’s refusal to endorse a policy that it originally devised.

The NEG has many warts. Some of the compromises in its design were necessary to get it through the Coalition party room. That no longer matters, and so it should be possible to make improvements. One such improvement would be to allow for an explicit carbon price in electricity under the NEG, by creating an emissions intensity obligation for electricity generators with traded certificates. This is better than the opaque model of contract obligations on electricity retailers under the original version.

Underwriting renewables

But the real action under a Labor government might well come from a more direct policy approach to push the deployment of renewables. In his energy policy speech last week, Shorten foreshadowed that Labor would “invest in projects and underwrite contracts for clean power generation, as well as firming technologies like storage and gas”.

As interventionist as this sounds, it has some clear advantages over more indirect support mechanisms. First, it brings the costs of new projects down further by making cheap finance available – a tried and tested method in state-based renewables schemes. Second, it allows for a more targeted approach, supporting renewable energy generation where it makes most sense given demand and transmission lines, and prioritising storage where and when it is needed. Third, it channels government support only to new installations, rather than giving free money to wind farms and solar plants that are already in operation.

Managing coal exit

Where renewables rise, coal will fall. Labor’s approach to this issue centres on the affected workers and communities. A “just transition authority” would be created as a statutory authority, to administer redundancies, worker training, and economic diversification.

This is a good approach if it can work effectively and efficiently. But it may not be enough to manage the large and potentially rapid shifts in Australia’s power sector.

Contract prices for new wind farms and solar plants now are similar to or lower than the operating costs of many existing coal plants. The economics of existing coal plants are deteriorating, and many of Australia’s ageing coal power plants may shut down sooner than anticipated.

All that Labor’s policy says on the issue is that all large power plants would be required to provide three years’ notice of closure, as the Finkel Review recommended. But in practice this is unlikely to work.

Without any guiding framework, coal power plants could close very suddenly. If a major piece of equipment fails and repair is uneconomic, then the plant is out, and operators may find it opportune to run the plant right until that point. It’s like driving an old car – it runs sort of OK until the gearbox goes, and it’s off to the wreckers right then. It is unclear how a three-year rule could be enforced.

This is effectively what happened with the Hazelwood plant in Victoria. That closure caused a temporary rise in wholesale power prices, as new supply capacity gradually fills the gap.

One way to deal with this would be to draw up and implement some form of specific exit timetable for coal power plants. This would give notice to local communities, provide time to prepare investment in alternative economic activities, and allow replacement generation capacity to be brought online. Such a timetable would need a mechanism to implement it, probably a system of carrots and sticks.

Batteries, energy efficiency and the CEFC

Most public attention was given to a relatively small part of Labor’s energy policy platform: the promise to subsidise home batteries. Batteries can help reduce peak demand, and cut electricity bills for those who also have solar panels. But it is not clear whether home batteries are good value for money in the system overall. And the program would tend to benefit mostly upper middle-income earners.




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Labor’s platform also foreshadows a renewed emphasis on energy efficiency, which is economically sensible.

Finally, Labor promises to double the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s endowment with another A$10 billion, to be used for revolving loans. The CEFC is already the world’s biggest “green bank”, co-financing projects that cut emissions and deliver financial returns. Another A$5 billion is promised as a fund for upgrading transmission and distribution infrastructure. These are big numbers, and justifiably so – building our future energy system will need massive investments, and some of these will be best made by government.

Big plans for electricity, but what about the rest?

Overall, Labor’s plan is a solid blueprint to support the electricity transition, with strong ambition made possible by the tremendous technological developments of recent years.

But really it is only the start. Electricity accounts for one-third of national greenhouse emissions. Emissions from the power sector will continue to fall, but emissions from other sectors have been rising. That poses a huge challenge for the economy-wide emissions reductions that are needed not only to achieve the 2030 emissions targets, but the much deeper reductions needed in coming decades.

A national low-carbon strategy will need to look at how to get industry to shift to zero-emission electricity, how to convert road transport to electricity or hydrogen, and how to tackle the difficult question of agricultural emissions. More pre-election announcements are to come. It will be interesting to see how far Labor will be willing to go in the direction of putting a price on carbon, which remains the economically sensible but most politically charged policy option.

As difficult as electricity policy may seem based on the tumultuous politics that have surrounded it, more seismic shifts are waiting in the wings.The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

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

Greenwashing the property market: why ‘green star’ ratings don’t guarantee more sustainable buildings


Igor Martek, Deakin University and M. Reza Hosseini, Deakin University

Nothing uses more resources or produces more waste than the buildings we live and work in. Our built environment is responsible for half of all global energy use and half of all greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings consume one-sixth of all freshwater, one-quarter of world wood harvests and four-tenths of all other raw materials. The construction and later demolition of buildings produces 40% of all waste.

The sustainability of our buildings is coming under scrutiny, and “green” rating tools are the key method for measuring this. Deakin University’s School of Architecture and Built Environment recently reviewed these certification schemes. Focus group discussions were held in Sydney and Melbourne with representatives in the field of sustainability – including government, green consultancies and rating tool providers.

Two main concerns emerged from our review:

  1. Sustainability ratings tools are not audited. Most ratings tools are predictive, while those few that take measurements use paid third parties. Government plays no active part.

  2. The sustainability parameters measured only loosely intersect with the building occupants’ sustainability concerns. Considerations such as access to transport and amenities are not included.

Focus group sessions run by Deakin University helped identify problems with current sustainability ratings.
Author provided



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That’s the backdrop to the sustainability targets now being adopted across Australia. Australia has the highest rate of population growth of any developed country. The population now is 24.8 million. It is expected to reach between 30.9 and 42.5 million people by 2056.

More buildings will be needed for these people to live and work in. And we will have to find ways to ensure these buildings are more sustainable if the targets now being adopted are to be achieved.

Over 80% of local governments have zero-emissions targets. Sydney and Canberra have committed to zero-carbon emissions by 2050. Melbourne has pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2020.

So how do green ratings work?

Each green rating tool works by identifying a range of sustainability parameters – such as water and energy use, waste production, etc. The list of things to be measured runs into the dozens. Tools differ on the parameters measured, method of measurement, weightings given and the thresholds that determine a given sustainability rating.

There are over 600 such rating tools worldwide. Each competes in the marketplace by looking to reconcile the credibility of its ratings with the disinclination of developers to submit to an assessment that will rate them poorly. Rating tools found in Australia include Green Star, NABERS, NatHERS, Circles of Sustainability, EnviroDevelopment, Living Community Challenge and One Planet Communities.

So, it is easy enough to find landmark developments labelled with green accreditations. It is harder to quantify what these actually mean.




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Ratings must be independently audited

Government practice, historically, has been to assure building quality through permits. Planning permits ensure a development conforms with city schemes. Building permits assess structural load-bearing capacity, health and fire safety.

All this is done off the plan. Site inspections take place to verify that the building is built to plan. But once a certificate of occupancy is issued, the government steps aside.

The sustainability agenda promoted by government has been grafted onto this regime. Energy efficiency was introduced into the residential building code in 2005, and then into the commercial building code in 2006. At first, this was limited to new buildings, but then broadened to include refurbishment of existing structures.

Again, sustainability credentials are assessed off the plan and certification issued once the building is up and running. Thereafter, government walks away.

We know of only one longitudinal energy performance study carried out on domestic residences in Australia. It is an as-yet-unpublished project conducted by a retiree from the CSIRO, working with Indigenous communities in Far North Queensland.

The findings corroborate a recent study by Gertrud Hatvani-Kovacs and colleagues from the University of South Australia. This study found that so-called “energy-inefficient” houses, following traditional design, managed under certain conditions to outperform 6- and 8-star buildings.

Sustainability tools must measure what matters

Energy usage is but the tip of the iceberg. Genuine sustainability is about delivering our children into a future in which they have all that we have today.

Home owners, on average, turn their property around every eight years. They are less concerned with energy efficiency than with real estate prices. And these prices depend on the appeal of the property, which involves access to transport, schools, parks and amenities, and freedom from crime.

Commercial property owners, too, are concerned about infrastructure, and they care about creating work environments that retain valued employees.

These are all core sustainability issues, yet do not come up in the rating systems we use.

The ConversationIf government is serious about creating sustainable cities, it needs to let go of its limited, narrow criteria and embrace these larger concerns of “liveability”. It must embody these broader criteria in the rating systems it uses to endorse developments. And it needs an auditing and enforcement regime in place to make it happen.

Igor Martek, Lecturer In Construction, Deakin University and M. Reza Hosseini, Lecturer in Construction, Deakin University

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

The other 99%: retrofitting is the key to putting more Australians into eco-homes


Ralph Horne, RMIT University; Emma Baker, University of Adelaide; Francisco Azpitarte, University of Melbourne; Gordon Walker, Lancaster University; Nicola Willand, RMIT University, and Trivess Moore, RMIT University

Energy efficiency in Australian homes is an increasingly hot topic. Spiralling power bills and the growing problem of energy poverty are set against a backdrop of falling housing affordability, contested carbon commitments and energy security concerns.

Most people agree we need modern, comfortable, eco-efficient homes. This article is not about the relatively few, new, demonstration “eco-homes” dotted around Australia. It is about the rest of our housing.

These mainly ageing homes might have had energy efficiency improvements done over the years, but invariably are in need of upgrading to meet modern standards of efficiency and comfort.




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Since 2006, all new-build housing must meet higher energy efficiency standards. But we add only around 1% to the new housing stock each year.

Policies to improve energy efficiency in the other 99% are more fragmented. The focus is almost entirely on market-based incentives to “retrofit”. By this we mean material upgrades to improve housing energy and carbon performance.

The transition has begun

Nevertheless, a major retrofit transition is under way. In the last decade, around one in five Australian households has installed solar panels. More than three million upgrades have been carried out through the Victorian Energy Efficiency Target (now Victorian Energy Upgrades) initiative.

These impressive numbers describe a nationally important intervention. But does this mean we will soon all get to live in eco-homes, rather than just a lucky few?

Current retrofitting activity has occurred unevenly and may contribute to longer-term inequalities.

For example, rebates for deeper retrofits often are more accessible to the better-off home owners. They have matching cash and also rights to make major upgrades (as opposed to renters). This entrenches the existing reality that low-income renters tend to live in less energy-efficient homes.

Similarly, in the UK, retrofit incentives haven’t always successfully targeted those most in need. The distribution of costs has contributed to pushing up energy prices for those already in energy poverty. In Australia, up to 20% of households were already in energy poverty before recent price rises.

Thus, if poorly targeted and funded, energy efficiency initiatives might make existing dynamics worse and add to the cumulative vulnerabilities of housing affordability stress.




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Keeping track of how homes rate

We cannot effectively monitor this. This is because Australia has no robust, longitudinal national database of property condition. There is no established, widespread practice of property owners obtaining property condition reports that set out the energy-efficiency performance and the most viable improvements that could be made.

This means we do not have a systematic way of knowing what we should do next to our homes, even if we are lucky enough to own them and have some cash available, as well as the time and motivation to retrofit.

To the rescue, at least in Victoria, is the new Victorian Residential Efficiency Scorecard. This is an advance on previous attempts (as in the ACT and Queensland) to develop comparable assessments of the energy efficiency and comfort levels of your home. Although voluntary, the scorecard will provide owners with a report on their home and a list of measures they can consider to transform it “eco-homewards”.

So, is the scorecard the answer to our problems? Will it bring forward the date when we can all live in comfy eco-homes? It will certainly help.

Since 2010, the European Union has mandated ratings of how a building performs for energy efficiency and CO₂ emissions.

The European Union has had a mandatory system since the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive. The evidence suggests this has raised awareness of energy efficiency by literally putting labels of buildings in your face when you are deciding where to buy. It’s much like Australians have become used to energy efficiency labels on fridges and other appliances. However, evidence of this awareness actually leading to upgrade activity is more mixed and, in some cases, disappointing.

In short, we need the scorecard and should welcome it. However, we also need a set of other measures if we are to make the transformations to match our national policy objectives and our desires for a comfy eco-home.

What else needs to be done?

The research agenda is also shifting to explore the social and equity dimensions of the retrofit transition.

In areas where installation work on energy-efficiency/low-carbon retrofits is increasing, how is this working in households? Who makes decisions? How do they decide and with what resources? What or who do they call upon? And, more broadly, what are the positive or problematic consequences for equity and, therefore, for policy?




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Emerging retrofit technologies and behaviours have broader social and economic contexts. This means we need to understand the wider meanings and practices of homemaking, the uneven social and income structures of households, and the home improvement service industry.

While the retrofit transition is arguably under way, its consequences and dynamics are still largely unknown. We need to refocus away from simply counting solar systems towards understanding retrofitting better. This depends on understanding both the households that are retrofitting their homes and the industries and organisations that supply them.

The ConversationTo get energy policies right and overcome energy poverty, we need to bring together studies and initiatives in material consumption, sustainability and social justice.

Ralph Horne, Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor, Research & Innovation; Director of UNGC Cities Programme; Professor, RMIT University; Emma Baker, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Adelaide; Francisco Azpitarte, Ronald Henderson Research Fellow Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research & Brotherhood of St Laurence, University of Melbourne; Gordon Walker, Professor at the DEMAND Centre and Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University; Nicola Willand, Research Consultant, Sustainable Building Innovation Laboratory, RMIT University, and Trivess Moore, Research Fellow, RMIT University

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

Semitransparent solar cells: a window to the future?


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Looking through semitransparent cells – one day these could be big enough to make windows.
UNSW, Author provided

Matthew Wright, UNSW and Mushfika Baishakhi Upama, UNSW

Can you see a window as you are reading this article?

Windows have been ubiquitous in society for centuries, filling our homes and workplaces with natural light. But what if they could also generate electricity? What if your humble window could help charge your phone, or boil your kettle?

With between 5 billion and 7 billion square metres of glass surface in the United States alone, solar windows would offer a great way to harness the Sun’s energy. Our research represents a step toward this goal, by showing how to make solar panels that still let through enough light to function as a window.




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The economics of renewable energy are becoming increasingly favourable. In Australia, and many other parts of the world, silicon solar cells already dominate the rooftop market.
Rooftop solar power offers an increasingly cheap and efficient way to generate electricity.

But while great for roofs, these silicon modules are opaque and bulky. To design a solar cell suitable for windows, we have to think outside the box.

When we put a solar panel on a roof, we want it to absorb as much sunlight as possible, so that it can generate the maximum amount of power. For a window, there is inevitably a trade-off between absorbing light to turn into electricity, and transmitting light so we can still see through the window.

When thinking about a cell that could be fitted to a window, one of the key parameters is known as the average visible transmittance (AVT). This is the percentage of visible light (as opposed to other wavelengths, like infrared or ultraviolet) hitting the window that travels through it and emerges on the other side.

Semitransparent solar cells convert some sunlight into electricity, while also allowing some light to pass through.
Author provided

Of course we don’t want the solar window to absorb so much light that we can longer see out of it. Nor do we want it to let so much light through that it hardly generates any solar power. So scientists have been trying to find a happy medium between high electrical efficiency and a high AVT.

A matter of voltage

An AVT of 25% is generally considered a benchmark for solar windows. But letting a quarter of the light travel through the solar cell makes it hard to generate a lot of current, which is why the efficiency of semitransparent cells has so far been low.

But note that electrical power depends on two factors: current and voltage. In our recent research, we decided to focus on upping the voltage. We carefully selected new organic absorber materials that have been shown to produce high voltage in non-transparent cells.

When placed in a semitransparent solar cell, the voltage was also high, as it was not significantly lowered by the large amount of transmitted light. And so, although the current was lowered, compared to opaque cells, the higher voltage allowed us to achieve a higher efficiency than previous semitransparent cells.

Having got this far, the key question is: what would windows look like if they were made of our new semitransparent cells?

Do you see what I see?

If your friend is wearing a red shirt, when you view them through a window, their shirt should appear red. That seems obvious, as it will definitely be the case for a glass window.

But because semitransparent solar cells absorb some of the light we see in the visible spectrum, we need to think more carefully about this colour-rendering property. We can measure how well the cell can accurately present an image by calculating what’s called the colour rendering index, or CRI. Our investigation showed that changing the thickness of the absorbing layer can not only affect the electrical power the cell can produce, but also changes its ability to depict colours accurately.

A different prospective approach, which can lead to excellent CRIs, is to replace the organic absorber material with one that absorbs energy from the sun outside the visible range. This means the cell will appear as normal glass to the human eye, as the solar conversion is happening in the infrared range.

However, this places limitations on the efficiency the cells can achieve as it severely limits the amount of power from the sun that can be converted to electricity.

What next?

So far we have created our cells only at a small, prototype scale. There are still several hurdles in the way before we can make large, efficient solar windows. In particular, the transparent electrodes used to collect charge from these cells can be brittle and contain rare elements, such as indium.




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Solar power alone won’t solve energy or climate needs


If science can solve these issues, the large-scale deployment of solar-powered windows could help to bolster the amount of electricity being produced by renewable technologies.

The ConversationSo while solar windows are not yet in full view, we are getting close enough to glimpse them.

Matthew Wright, Postdoctoral Researcher in Photovoltaic Engineering, UNSW and Mushfika Baishakhi Upama, PhD student [Photovoltaics & Renewable Energy Engineering], UNSW

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.

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.