The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) is suing four of the wind farms involved in the 2016 South Australian blackout – run by AGL Energy, Neoen Australia, Pacific Hydro, and Tilt Renewables – alleging they breached generator performance standards and the national electricity rules.
These proceedings appear to contradict the conclusions of a 2018 report which said while the AER had found some “administrative non-compliance”, it did not intend to take formal action given the “unprecedented circumstances”.
However the AER has since said this report focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the blackout, not the event itself. The case hinges on whether the wind farms failed to provide crucial information during the blackout which hindered recovery.
In particular, the AER is arguing the software protecting the wind farms should have been able to cope with voltage disturbances and provide continuous energy supply. On the face of it, however, this will be extremely difficult to prove.
Rehashing the 2016 blackout
The 2016 South Australian blackout was triggered by a severe storm that hit the state on September 28. Tornadoes with wind speeds up to 260 km/h raced through SA, and a single-circuit 275-kilovolt transmission line was struck down.
After this, 170km away, a double-circuit 275kV transmission line was lost. This transmission damage caused the lines to trip and a series of subsequent faults resulted in six voltage dips on the South Australian grid at 4.16pm.
As the faults escalated, eight wind farms in SA had their protection settings activated. This allowed them to withstand the voltage dip by automatically reducing power. Over a period of 7 seconds, 456 megawatts of power was removed. This reduction caused an increase in power to flow through the Heywood interconnector. This in turn triggered a protection mechanism for the interconnecter that tripped it offline.
Once this happened, SA became separated from the rest of the National Energy Market (NEM), leaving far too little power to meet demand and blacking out 850,000 homes and businesses. A 2017 report found once SA was separated from the NEM, the blackout was “inevitable”.
What went wrong at the wind farms?
The question then becomes, is there any action the wind farms could reasonably have taken to stay online, thus preventing the overloading of the Heywood interconnector?
The regulator is arguing the operators should have let the market operator know they could not handle the disruption caused by the storms, so the operator could make the best decisions to keep the grid functioning.
Wind farms, like all energy generators in Australia, have a legal requirement to meet specific performance standards. If they fall short in a way that can materially harm energy security, they have a further duty to inform the operator immediately, with a plan to remedy the problem.
To determine whether a generator has complied with these risk management standards, a range of factors are considered. These include:
- the technology of the plant,
- whether its performance is likely to drift or degrade over a particular time frame,
- experience with the particular generation technology,
- the connection point arrangement that is in place. A generator will have an arrangement with a transmission network service provider (TNSP) that operates the networks that carry electricity between generators and distribution networks. TNSP’s advise the NEM of the capacity of their transmission assets so that they can be operated without being overloaded.
- the risk and costs of different testing methods given the relative size of the plant.
Plenty of blame to go around
The series of events leading up to the 2016 blackout was extremely difficult to anticipate. There were many factors, and arguably all participants were involved in different ways.
The Heywood interconnector was running at full capacity at the time, so any overload may have triggered its protective mechanism.
The transmission lines were damaged by an unprecedented 263 lightning strikes in five minutes.
The market operator itself did not adopt precautionary measures such as reducing the load on the interconnector, or providing a clearer warning to electricity generators.
Bearing this in mind, the federal court will be asked to determine whether the wind farms complied with their generator performance standards and if not, whether this breach had a “material adverse effect” on power security.
This will be difficult to prove, because even if the generator standards require the wind farms to evaluate the point at which their protective triggers activated, it is unlikely the number of faults, the severity of the voltage dip, and the impact of the increased power flow on the Heywood interconnector could have been anticipated.
The idea AEMO could have prevented the blackout if the wind farms had alerted it to the disruptive potential of their protective triggers is probably a little remote.
None of the participants could have foreseen the series of interconnected events leading to the blackout. Whilst lessons can be learned, laying blame is more complex. And while compliance with standards and rules is important, in this instance, it is unlikely that it would have changed the outcome.
Hydrogen could become a significant part of Australia’s energy landscape within the coming decade, competing with both natural gas and batteries, according to a new CSIRO roadmap for the industry.
Hydrogen gas is a versatile energy carrier with a wide range of potential uses. However, hydrogen is not freely available in the atmosphere as a gas. It therefore requires an energy input and a series of technologies to produce, store and then use it.
Why would we bother? Because hydrogen has several advantages over other energy carriers, such as batteries. It is a single product that can service multiple markets and, if produced using low- or zero-emissions energy sources, it can help us significantly cut greenhouse emissions.
Compared with batteries, hydrogen can release more energy per unit of mass. This means that in contrast to electric battery-powered cars, it can allow passenger vehicles to cover longer distances without refuelling. Refuelling is quicker too, and is likely to stay that way.
The benefits are potentially even greater for heavy vehicles such as buses and trucks which already carry heavy payloads, and where lengthy battery recharge times can affect business models.
Hydrogen can also play an important role in energy storage, which will be increasingly necessary both in remote operations such as mine sites, and as part of the electricity grid to help smooth out the contribution of renewables such as wind and solar. This could work by using the excess renewable energy (when generation is high and/or demand is low) to drive hydrogen production via electrolysis of water. The hydrogen can then be stored as compressed gas and put into a fuel cell to generate electricity when needed.
Australia is heavily reliant on imported liquid fuels and does not currently have enough liquid fuel held in reserve. Moving towards hydrogen fuel could potentially alleviate this problem. Hydrogen can also be used to produce industrial chemicals such as ammonia and methanol, and is an important ingredient in petroleum refining.
Further, as hydrogen burns without greenhouse emissions, it is one of the few viable green alternatives to natural gas for generating heat.
Our roadmap predicts that the global market for hydrogen will grow in the coming decades. Among the prospective buyers of Australian hydrogen would be Japan, which is comparatively constrained in its ability to generate energy locally. Australia’s extensive natural resources, namely solar, wind, fossil fuels and available land lend favourably to the establishment of hydrogen export supply chains.
Why embrace hydrogen now?
Given its widespread use and benefit, interest in the “hydrogen economy” has peaked and troughed for the past few decades. Why might it be different this time around? While the main motivation is hydrogen’s ability to deliver low-carbon energy, there are a couple of other factors that distinguish today’s situation from previous years.
Our analysis shows that the hydrogen value chain is now underpinned by a series of mature technologies that are technically ready but not yet commercially viable. This means that the narrative around hydrogen has now shifted from one of technology development to “market activation”.
The solar panel industry provides a recent precedent for this kind of burgeoning energy industry. Large-scale solar farms are now generating attractive returns on investment, without any assistance from government. One of the main factors that enabled solar power to reach this tipping point was the increase in production economies of scale, particularly in China. Notably, China has recently emerged as a proponent for hydrogen, earmarking its use in both transport and distributed electricity generation.
But whereas solar power could feed into a market with ready-made infrastructure (the electricity grid), the case is less straightforward for hydrogen. The technologies to help produce and distribute hydrogen will need to develop in concert with the applications themselves.
A roadmap for hydrogen
In light of this, the primary objective of CSIRO’s National Hydrogen Roadmap is to provide a blueprint for the development of a hydrogen industry in Australia. With several activities already underway, it is designed to help industry, government and researchers decide where exactly to focus their attention and investment.
Our first step was to calculate the price points at which hydrogen can compete commercially with other technologies. We then worked backwards along the value chain to understand the key areas of investment needed for hydrogen to achieve competitiveness in each of the identified potential markets. Following this, we modelled the cumulative impact of the investment priorities that would be feasible in or around 2025.
What became evident from the report was that the opportunity for clean hydrogen to compete favourably on a cost basis with existing industrial feedstocks and energy carriers in local applications such as transport and remote area power systems is within reach. On the upstream side, some of the most material drivers of reductions in cost include the availability of cheap low emissions electricity, utilisation and size of the asset.
Why is hydrogen fuel making a comeback?
The development of an export industry, meanwhile, is a potential game-changer for hydrogen and the broader energy sector. While this industry is not expected to scale up until closer to 2030, this will enable the localisation of supply chains, industrialisation and even automation of technology manufacture that will contribute to significant reductions in asset capital costs. It will also enable the development of fossil-fuel-derived hydrogen with carbon capture and storage, and place downward pressure on renewable energy costs dedicated to large scale hydrogen production via electrolysis.
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In light of global trends in industry, energy and transport, development of a hydrogen industry in Australia represents a real opportunity to create new growth areas in our economy. Blessed with unparalleled resources, a skilled workforce and established manufacturing base, Australia is extremely well placed to capitalise on this opportunity. But it won’t eventuate on its own.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
So while solar windows are not yet in full view, we are getting close enough to glimpse them.
Replacing old coal power stations with new “ultra-supercritical” stations could help meet Australia’s greenhouse gas targets, according to research commissioned by Resources Minister Matt Canavan. Other analysts have reacted with scepticism.
Echoing recent prime ministers, Canavan retorted that these criticisms were part of an “ideological” attack on coal:
Coal has an important role to play as Australia and the rest of the world reduce carbon dioxide emissions… Australia has the resources to be a low-cost and efficient energy superpower. Access to affordable and reliable power underpins our economy and is the key to long-term jobs in the manufacturing sector.
This is not the first time Canavan has put his weight behind increasing Australia’s coal production to “help the environment”.
But technological promises and government support for coal’s bright future stretch back almost 40 years, long before the election of Tony “coal is good for humanity” Abbott, and have been entirely bipartisan, as have claims that Australian coal is especially clean.
The NSW was funding “supercoal” research for air-pollution reasons from the early 1980s. Climate change entered the fray in 1988, when delegates at the Australian Coal Association conference were told:
Coal’s contribution to the greenhouse effect is small… Means of controlling C0₂ emissions from coal-fired plant are considered best achieved by improved overall operating efficiency using new technology, rather than by endeavouring to capture C0₂ emissions.
The early Labor advocate of climate action, Graham Richardson, told a reporter in July 1989:
Fortunately we use mostly – but not entirely – the cleanest coal in the world. But that doesn’t mean we can’t improve the technology and so limit how much carbon dioxide is blown up the spout.
(Times change; Richardson recently called on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten to recant on his “silly” green goals.)
The same year the visiting president of the US National Coal Association told a government committee that, while much of the low-emissions technology was still in the laboratory stage, he was confident it could be applied soon to plants using coal to produce energy.
In 1991 Australian government funds supported an international conference on clean coal in Sydney.
After Australia’s first climate policy, the National Greenhouse Response Strategy, was agreed in December 1992, it quickly became clear that the Commonwealth was not going to stand in the way of state-level support for new coal-power stations.
On March 21 1994, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change became international law. Coincidentally, Singleton Council in New South Wales approved a new coal-fired power station. Greenpeace launched a legal challenge, but this failed in November 1994. The State Electricity Commission of Victoria’s greenhouse reduction plans died with privatisation.
Peak (clean) coal
It is debatable, but Labor perhaps had more concern – for both climate change and coalminers’ jobs – than the incoming Howard government. The Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council in 1999 suggested Australia ratify the Kyoto Protocol and see it as an opportunity and spur to new technologies.
This fell on John Howard’s deaf ears, but a December 2002 report, chaired by Rio Tinto’s chief technologist and government chief scientist Robin Batterham, was taken up, and the enthusiasm for carbon capture and storage (CCS) was born. A COAL21 plan followed in 2004, and the Australian Coal Association Low Emissions Technologies group was formed.
Howard’s enthusiasm for coal over renewables was such that he even called a “secret” meeting of fossil fuel producers to advise on lower emissions technologies.
The 2004 Energy White Paper continued the trend in support for CCS over renewables.
Labor’s innovation in 2007 was to say yes to both. As opposition leader, Kevin Rudd announced he would bring in a National Clean Coal Centre.
Had the Coalition won the 2007 election, it would have removed the Renewable Energy Target and replaced it with a scheme that would have allowed coal-with-CCS to be considered “low carbon”.
In 2008 the coal association spruiked “NewGenCoal” in television adverts.
It all started to go wrong in 2009, shortly after the launch of the expensive and controversial Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, Rudd’s brainchild.
Former Liberal minister Ian MacFarlane, who had previously urged the coal industry to sell its message, told ABC’s Four Corners:
The reality is, you are not going to see another coal-fired power station built in Australia. That’s, that’s a simple fact. You can talk about all the stuff you like about carbon capture storage, that concept will not materialise for 20 years, and probably never.
And in 2013 it emerged that the coal association’s funding for low-emissions technologies had been broadened to include “promoting the use of coal”.
Dark days ahead
Three concepts from the study of technological innovation may help us understand what is going on.
The first is the “hype cycle” – the observation that initial unrealistic enthusiasm for a shiny new technology goes up like a rocket and down like a stick, followed by a more gradual, tempered enthusiasm over time (for a recent appraisal see here).
The second is the sailing ship effect. When challenged by steamships, the incumbent technology added more sails, automated sailors and so on, trying to keep up. But ultimately it was in vain – a new technology won out.
Thirdly, supporters of incumbent technologies highlight teething problems in the challenger technologies, in what academics call “discursive battles”.
It’s fair to guess three things. Promises of clean coal, high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) coal power and bio-energy carbon capture and storage(BECCS) will escalate, but perhaps learning from the public mockery of the last two efforts – Australians for Coal and Little Black Rock.
The Australian government is reviewing our electricity market to make sure it can provide secure and reliable power in a rapidly changing world. Faced with the rise of renewable energy and limits on carbon pollution, The Conversation has asked experts what kind of future awaits the grid.
Australia’s low-cost electricity, thanks to cheap coal, was once a source of substantial competitive advantage. While Australia’s electricity prices are still below the OECD average, the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a major challenge to cheap electricity.
In a report released today by CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia, we show that Australia is so far making rocky progress on reducing emissions, maintaining energy security and keeping prices low. But we also show how Australia can regain world leadership, delivering cheap electricity with zero emissions by 2050.
The challenge facing Australia
Australia is the world leader in adopting rooftop solar. Rising retail electricity prices and subsidies have encouraged households to embrace solar with enthusiasm. As a result 17% of Australian households now have solar panels.
This can be seen as Australians exercising greater choice about how their electricity is supplied. However, it also highlights some of the problems our electricity network is facing.
Retailers sell electricity in Australia by volume (the kilowatt hours and megawatt hours on your electricity bill). This made sense when most households contained a similar set of fairly low-energy appliances.
But the rapid increase in high-energy air conditioners and the adoption of rooftop solar mean fees are less suited to each customer’s demand on the system or any services they provide.
More panels and electric cars
The are two major opportunities to reduce electricity prices for Australia.
First, we need to harness the power of more households producing their own electricity through solar or other distributed sources. In coming decades, households are expected to invest a further A$200 billion in distributed energy sources.
We need to avoid duplicating network expenditure (poles and wires) and support balancing supply and demand as the share of renewable electricity increases. But this can be an opportunity if we introduce the right prices and incentives.
This means using household devices such as batteries to support the electricity network, and paying customers for this service instead of building more poles and wires. This would require many actions (detailed in the report), including pricing reform, some regulation change, improved information sharing and minimum technology standards.
Second, we need to use the existing network more efficiently. Demand has fallen in recent years, chiefly through improvements in energy efficiency and increasing rooftop solar.
Because of the reliance on volume-based retail pricing, when consumption falls, networks are forced to increase prices to recover the fixed cost of delivering their services. Conversely, if it were possible to increase demand for grid-supplied electricity without increasing the fixed costs of the system, then network price could be stabilised or reduced.
Our research found that electric vehicles offered the greatest opportunity to increase demand for grid-supplied electricity. These have the added benefit of supporting greenhouse gas emission reduction goals.
The report recommends that light vehicle emission standards should be pursued as a relatively cheap way of supporting electric vehicles. Appropriate pricing and incentives will also be needed to encourage car owners to charge their vehicles at off-peak times, reducing the need to add more capacity to the network.
Keeping bills low
Residential electricity bills will need to increase gradually over time in all countries due to the cost of decarbonising electricity supply. Australia’s goal should be to be the most efficient at achieving that.
Relative to taking no action on these issues, CSIRO estimates that the measures described above will together reduce the average residential electricity bill by A$414 per year by 2050.
Those savings are funded through reduced network spending and customers needing to spend less on their own distributed energy devices (to avoid higher bills or go off grid). These savings add up to A$101 billion by 2050.
At the same time, customers have more choice to participate in providing services to the grid, are receiving fairer payments for doing so, and the electricity system is using distributed energy resources to balance the system. All of these will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector to zero by 2050.
The Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap Key Concepts Report will be livestreamed here today at 10am AEDT.
This week’s first sitting of the 45th Parliament of Australia is considering a A$6.5 billion “omnibus savings bill”, including a proposed cut of A$1.3 billion to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). If adopted, it would effectively mean the end of ARENA and would devastate clean energy research in Australia.
From driving innovation and economic growth, to creating jobs, to addressing climate change and ensuring a reliable and affordable energy system for the future, ARENA plays a critical role. Most perversely, by reducing Australia’s role in the booming global clean energy industry, closing ARENA would likely reduce Australia’s capacity to balance its budget in years to come.
What is ARENA?
ARENA, an independent Commonwealth agency, has driven most of Australia’s innovative renewable energy projects in recent years. This includes Australia’s world-leading solar photovaltaics research centre at UNSW, the Carnegie wave energy pilot in Perth, AGL’s virtual power station trial and UTS’s own research into local electricity trading and network opportunity mapping.
ARENA has funded 60 completed projects and is managing a further 200. Many more are in the pipeline. It has also leveraged A$1.30 in private-sector R&D funding for every dollar of government funding – a fact that is often overlooked amid talk of budget savings.
Without ARENA’s grants and leveraged co-funding, very few of these projects would have happened. While its sister organisation, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, plays an important role in helping to finance established renewable projects and technologies, only ARENA can provide the research grant co-funding to develop these technologies in the first place.
ARENA was formed in 2012 as part of the Gillard government’s Clean Energy Future package. It drew together a range of clean energy programs and funds such as the Solar Flagships, the Australian Solar Institute and some, such as the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund, which the Howard government established. ARENA was given the twin goals of:
Improving the competitiveness of renewable energy technologies
Increasing the supply of renewable energy in Australia.
ARENA was one of five key elements of the Clean Energy Future package slated for abolition by the Abbott government. While the carbon price and Climate Commission were cut, ARENA, the CEFC and the Climate Change Authority were saved by opposition and crossbench support, albeit with a A$435 million cut to ARENA’s original budget.
Now, three years on, the Turnbull government has chosen to keep the CEFC but its plan to slash ARENA’s budget remains. The Labor opposition has yet to announce its position on the proposed cut. Meanwhile, clean energy researchers across Australia have written an open letter calling on all parties to support the agency.
ARENA’s innovation role
The process of energy technology innovation can be thought of as having a series of phases, which have different funding needs (see below).
The first phase is typically fundamental research and development. Two examples are the world-leading research programs at UNSW Australia and ANU, which have developed the world’s most efficient solar photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies. Both are ARENA-funded; neither could have been effectively funded by loans.
Technologies then need to be piloted in the real world – as in the case of the Carnegie Wave Energy project in Perth. This stage is often still too risky for most commercial lenders, so some public grant funding remains critical.
Next comes the large-scale demonstration phase – bringing technologies down the cost curve by developing viable business models and supply chains, with the aim of making them cost-competitive. Here, a mix of loan and grant funding is needed.
Australia’s large-scale solar industry is an example of a sector in this stage of development. In 2015, ARENA realised that despite having 1.5 million solar roofs and plenty of sunshine, Australia had a dearth of large-scale solar projects (only four operating and four in development). As such, it has committed A$100 million to help build more solar farms.
Finally, there are commercial renewable technologies that are already cost-competitive with other energy sources. Wind energy is the prime example of this, which is precisely why ARENA has not funded wind projects.
Our changing energy system
Innovation is not purely about technology development; it is also about addressing complex challenges such as how to manage the changing nature of our energy system. On a cents per kilowatt-hour basis, wind energy is now cheaper than new-build coal and solar power is cheaper than grid electricity. These two trends will continue, but our energy market is struggling to adapt to the new technology mix.
ARENA has a crucial role to play here. For example, it has funded the Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF) at UTS to develop a set of Network Opportunity Maps. These show locations in the grid where demand management and decentralised generation (solar, storage etc) can help avoid costly grid upgrades.
ARENA has also funded ISF’s research into local energy trading (also known as peer-to-peer energy or virtual net metering). This is aimed at avoiding the predicted “energy death spiral”, by encouraging consumers and power companies to compromise in making the most of existing infrastructure, reducing consumers’ bills and supporting local power generation.
Meeting our climate targets
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ARENA is helping to meet Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions target, which calls for a 26-28% cut relative to 2005 levels by 2030.
The electricity sector is Australia’s largest carbon emissions source. ARENA has a vital role in delivering cost-effective emissions reductions. There are two main mechanisms to decarbonise the sector: increasing energy productivity and efficiency, and switching from fossil fuels to renewables. As outlined above, ARENA is a key player in the latter process and is primed to play a leading role in the former.
It would be a tragic error to cut funding to an agency that is making such an important and successful contribution to fulfilling Australia’s obligations under the Paris climate agreement, as well as driving innovation and energy affordability. No other agency combines all of these facets.
More renewable policy instability?
In a 2010 speech on low-carbon energy, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged the role of government in supporting clean energy innovation, saying:
Government support for innovation and investment in clean stationary energy is important, particularly at the early stages.
The need for this support is not going to go away. If ARENA and its research grant funding is abolished, a similar organisation will doubtless soon need to be re-established. In the meantime, millions of dollars in opportunities would have been wasted and irreplaceable industry and research expertise lost.
After years of policy instability around renewable energy, which has held back the domestic development of one of the world’s fastest-growing industries, do we really want to embrace even more uncertainty?
To paraphrase former Harvard University president Derek Bok, if you think research is expensive, try ignorance.
Nicky Ison, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney and Chris Dunstan, Research Director, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney
The following is an open letter to parliamentarians from 182 members of Australia’s solar research community.
Dear Members of Australia’s 45th Parliament,
The federal government is proposing to strip the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) of most of its funding, and with it its ability to make grants. This is an existential threat to renewable energy research, innovation and education in Australia.
We call upon all political parties to support the retention of ARENA.
The solar photovoltaic (PV) industry now provides one quarter of all new generation capacity installed worldwide each year and is growing at 20-30% per year. Together, PV and wind energy constitute half of all new generation capacity installed worldwide, and all new generation capacity installed in Australia.
A renewable energy revolution is in progress and Australia is currently at the forefront. However, debilitation of ARENA directly threatens our leadership position.
For 30 years there has been an Australian renewable energy funding agency in one form or another. This has led to phenomenal success in generation of technology and provision of education. The worldwide PV industry owes its existence in large measure to Australians who were supported by grants from government renewable energy agencies.
Billions of dollars of benefits have accrued to Australia in the form of dramatically reduced costs of PV systems, rapidly growing renewable energy business activity in Australia, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, royalties, shares and international student fees. For example, the Australian-developed PERC solar cell has annual sales of $10 billion and will soon dominate the worldwide solar industry.
If ARENA is debilitated then hundreds of people would lose their jobs within a year or two. In the longer term, Australia’s leadership in solar energy would vanish. This would be completely at odds with the government’s innovation agenda and its commitment at the Paris climate conference to double clean energy R&D by 2020 under the international Mission Innovation program, and with the ALP’s Climate Change Action Plan launched in 2015 at UNSW Australia, and reinforced by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten at ANU also in 2015.
Support for research and innovation at universities lies at the heart of accelerated growth of the renewable energy industry. It supports later-stage commercialisation directly through technology development. Additionally, university research groups underpin education and training of engineers and scientists.
Echoing the words of another prime minister of a decade ago, Malcolm Turnbull has described budget repair (in which cuts to ARENA are lumped) as a “fundamental moral challenge” because debt should not be passed onto our children and grandchildren.
How ironic if parliament fails to appreciate the many costs to future generations of failing to address climate change now with solutions such as renewable energy.
UNSW Australia: Benjamin Phua, Henner Kampwerth, Mark Keevers, Ziv Hameiri, Catherine Chan, Craig Johnson, Kyung Kim, Li Wang, Mark Silver, Trevor Young, Richard Corkish, Robert Patterson, Binesh Veettil, Christopher Whipp, Dirk Konig, Renate Egan, Bram Hoex, Joyce Ho, Simba Kuestler, Martin Green, David Payne, Robert Taylor, Shira Samocha, Supriya Pillai, Timothy Lee, Udo Romer, Belinda Lam, Natasha Hjerrild, Evatt Hawkes, David Jewkes, Thalia Arnott, Leslie Lay, Muriel Watt, Carlos Vargas, Nathan Thompson, Robert Dumbrell, Daniel Lambert, Nicholas Shaw, Nathan Chang, Anita Ho-Baillie, Ben Wilkensen, Ned Western, Yan Zhu, Lingfeng Wu, Stuart Wenham, Ran Chen, Thilini Ishwara, Steven Limpert, Rolando Vargas, Brett Hallam, Allen Barnett, Santosh Shrestha, Xiaowei Shen, Xiaojing Hao, Saratchandra Tejaswi, Fangzhao Gao, Zhongtian Li, Ivan Perez Wurfl, Qiangshan Ma, Alec Tan, Murad Tayebjee, Ya Zhou, Liam Parnell, Luke Marshall, Jack Colwell, Mable Fong, Alan Yee, Lawrence Soria, Kian Chin, Kamala Vairav, Nancy Sharopeam, Graeme Lennon, Zoe Hungedfold, Bernhard Vogal, Jill Lewis, Ya Zhou, Erny Tsao, Feng Qingge, Yin Li, Thorsten Trupke, Alison Wenham, Ashraf Uddin, Chang Yan, Kaiwen Sun, Yajie Jiang, Yuansim Liao, Marjorie Owens, Shujuan Huang, Sassan Vahdani, Jialiang Huang, Brianna Conrad, Zi Ouyang, Jae sun Yun, Alex Li, Kate Lindsay, Nitin Nampalli
Australian National University: Andrew Blakers, Tom White, Marco Ernst, Fiona Beck, Jie Cui, Andres Cuevas, Erin Crisp, Chris Samondsett, Yimao Wan, Hemant Halmodi, Moshen Goodarzi, Sienpheng Phang, The Duong, Yiliang Wu, Xiao Fu, Kylie Catchpole, Chong Barngkin, Daniel Macdonald, Andrew Thompson, Josephine McKeon, Chang Sun, Kristen Anderson, Anyao Liu, Bin Lu, Matthew Staks, Bruce Condon, Jun Fpeng, Thomas Ratcliff, Hang Sio, Shakir Rahman, Judith Harvey, Klaus Weber, Ingrid Haedrich, Di Yan, Rowena Menkedow, Dale Grant, William Logie, Teck Kong Chong, Hieu Nguyen, Daniel Walte, Sachin Surve, Mark Savvnoeas, Harry Qian, N. Kaines, Nandi Wu
Monash University: Yi-Bing Cheng, Yasmina Dkhissi, Niraj Lal, Jianfeng Lu, Liangcong Jiang, Shannon Bonke, Wei Li, Gaveshana Sepadage, Wemon Mao, Feng Li, Xiangfeng Lin, Udo Bach, Dison Hoogeveen, Iacopo Benesperi, Francsco Paglia, Bin Li, Jiansong Sun, Chanjie Wang, Chunkiu Ng, Maxime Fournier, Boex Tan, Kira Rundel, David Mayeuleg, Jacek Jasieniak, Rebeeca Milhuisen, Masrur Morshed, Kedar Deshmukh, Susaha Frier, Mathias Rothmann
University of Melbourne: Ken Ghiggino, Roger Dargaville, Yann Robiou du Pont, Alex Nauels, Kate Dooley, Malte Meinshausen, Martin Wainstein
Other: Alan Pears (RMIT), Nicola Ison (UTS), Rhett Evans (Solinno), Michelle McCann (PV Lab Australia), Keith McIntosh (PV Lighthouse)
At the centre of claims about wind farms allegedly causing health problems is the infrasound that wind turbines generate as they turn in the wind.
Infrasound is sound below 20Hz, which is generally inaudible. Wind turbines are just one source of artificial man-made infrasound. Others include power stations, industry generally, motor vehicle engines, compressors, aircraft, ventilation and air conditioning units, and loudspeaker systems. Everyone living in an urban environment is bathed in infrasound for most of their lives.
As I sit at my inner Sydney desk writing this I’m copping infrasound from the planes that pass some 200-300 metres over my house sometimes many times an hour, the sound of passing road traffic on a quite busy road 100 metres from our house, and the stereo system I listen to as I write. Don’t tell anyone, but I feel fine and I’ve lived here 25 years.
But infrasound is generated by natural phenomena too. These include rare occurrences such as volcanoes and earthquakes, but also sources like ocean waves and air turbulence (wind) that countless millions, if not billions, are exposed to on most days. Anyone living close to the sea is surrounded by constant infrasound from waves.
The inclusion of wind as a source of infrasound is of particular significance to claims made that wind turbine-generated infrasound is noxious. In a Polish research paper published in 2014, the authors set out to measure infrasound from wind turbines and to compare that with naturally occurring infrasound from wind in trees near houses and from the sound of the sea in and around a house near the seaside.
The researchers used the average G-weighted level (LGeq) over the measurement period. This is the standardised measurement of infrasound which approximately follows the hearing threshold below 20Hz and cuts off sharply above 20Hz.
The infrasound levels recorded near 25 100-metre high wind turbines ranged from 66.9 to 88.8 LGeq across different recordings. Those recording infrasound in noise from wind in a forest near houses ranged from 59.1- 87.8 LGeq. The recordings of sea noise near seaside houses ranged from 64.3 to 89.1 LGeq. These infrasound levels were thus very similar cross the three locations.
The peak 88.8 LGeq was recorded very close to the turbines – virtually directly under the blades. The lower 66.9LGeq was 500m away, which is more like a common scenario for the nearest residences to turbines. Similarly, for the other sources, highest levels were nearest the source.
Wind is, of course, a prerequisite for wind turbines to turn and generate their mechanical infrasound. Here, the Polish authors noted that:
natural noise sources … always accompany the work of wind turbines and in such cases they constitute an acoustic background, impossible to eliminate during noise measurement of wind turbines.
This is a fundamentally important insight: wherever there are wind turbines generating infrasound, there is also wind itself generating infrasound. And it is impossible to disentangle the two. Indeed, every time I’ve been near wind turbines, easily the most dominant sound has been that of the wind buffeting my ears.
In 2013, the South Australian Environmental Protection Authority measured infrasound in a variety of urban and rural settings. With the latter, this included locations near and well away from wind farms.
They reported that in urban settings, measured infrasound ranged between 60-70 decibels. In fact, at two locations – the EPA’s own offices and an office with a low frequency noise complaint – building air conditioning systems were identified as significant sources of infrasound. These locations exhibited some of the highest levels of infrasound measured during the study.
This study concludes that the level of infrasound at houses near the wind turbines assessed is no greater than that experienced in other urban and rural environments, and that the contribution of wind turbines to the measured infrasound levels is insignificant in comparison with the background level of infrasound in the environment.
Wind farm opponents claim infrasound is the cause of this Old Testament-like plague of plagues (now numbering 244 different problems). If that were true, how is it that hundreds of thousands of Australians who are daily exposed to infrasound in cities, in their houses surrounded by dastardly infrasound-generating fans, air conditioners and stereo systems, and those who live near trees or the sound of the ocean aren’t breaking down the door of those sworn enemies of infrasound Senators John Madigan, Nick Xenophon, Chris Back, David Leyonhjelm and Bob Day who brought us their scathing report on wind farms in June?
The explanation lies in factors we recognise frequently in risk-perception studies, popularised by Peter Sandman. Sandman has produced matrices of factors which have been often found to be associated with increased levels of community “outrage” about putative environmental threats to health.
Sandman distinguishes primary from additional factors, with primary factors being those which have been shown to be more strongly associated with increased levels of community concern.
I applied these to a case study of mobile phone tower complaints in the 1990s. I’ve now constructed the table below indicating the likely applicability of these factors to the case of predicting community worry about wind farms.
People don’t worry about infrasound in wind, trees and ocean waves because these sources are natural, while the same levels of infrasound from wind turbines are considered quite differently as they are sourced from what anti-wind farm activists like to call evil “industrial” wind farms.
The rare examples of people complaining who host wind turbines on their land for rental payment, compared with the far more common situation of non-hosting neighbours complaining, illustrates the voluntary vs coerced exposure factor, as well as the fair vs unfair factor. Those not benefiting from lucrative rental payments because of unsuitable local topography, while near neighbours can, understandably feel this as unfair.
Wind turbines are very memorable and exotic (a new experience to many), while wind in trees or the pounding of the ocean is very familiar and unremarkable, both factors likely to greatly diminish concerns.
Table: Primary and additional components predicting community outrage about putative environmental risks to health: the case of wind turbines. (two ticks = applies strongly to wind turbines; one tick = likely to apply less strongly)
The 2015 Senate (majority) report into wind farms roundly rejected the idea that psychosocial factors such as nocebo effects were largely responsible for the challenging historical and geographical variance in wind farm complaints. A nocebo effect is the opposite to a placebo effect: instead of exposure to an inactive agent making people feel better because of belief that it will, nocebo effects are when a benign agent makes people feel worse because they have been told it will.
The Committee, chaired by avowed wind farm opponent John Madigan, was emphatic that infrasound was the culprit but did not produce convincing evidence for this.
If the committee is sincere in its concerns about the health effects of infrasound, will we soon learn of a new inquiry about the pernicious and unappreciated dangers of living near the sea or trees, having air conditioners, stereos, ceiling fans, or travelling in motor vehicles?