Yes, carbon emissions fell during COVID-19. But it’s the shift away from coal that really matters



Flickr/David Clarke

Frank Jotzo, Australian National University and Mousami Prasad, Australian National University

Much has been made of the COVID-19 lockdown cutting global carbon emissions. Energy use has fallen over recent months as the pandemic keeps millions of people confined to their homes, and businesses closed in many countries. Projections suggest global emissions could be around 5% lower in 2020 than last year.

What about Australia? Here we’ve seen sizeable reductions in electricity sector emissions, but mostly from the sustained expansion in solar and wind power rather than the lockdown.

That is good news. It means our electricity sector emissions will not bounce back once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, as they might in other parts of the world.

But on the other hand, a prolonged recession could cloud the outlook for new investments in the power sector, including renewables.

What’s clear right now is this: COVID-19 restrictions matter far less to Australia’s power sector emissions this year than the shift away from coal and towards renewables.

A recession would dampen investment in new power projects, including renewables.
AAP

Small fall in electricity demand

We examined Australia’s National Electricity Market (NEM) in the seven weeks from March 16 (when national restrictions came into force) to May 4 this year. We compared the results to the same period in 2019.

The NEM covers all states and territories except Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Total electricity demand was 3% lower during the first seven weeks of the lockdown, compared with the same period in 2019. About 2% of this was due to an actual fall in electricity use. The rest was due to extra rooftop solar panels installed since May 2019 which lowered demand on the grid.




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Some of the 2% reduction may be due to cooler weather this autumn, leading to lower air conditioning use.

So while COVID-19 restrictions have hammered the economy in recent weeks, they haven’t had a big effect on electricity use. Most industrial and business power use has continued uninterrupted. Most office buildings have not fully shut down, although many people are working from home and use more electricity there.

A hefty drop in emissions

Despite the modest fall in electricity demand in the first seven weeks of lockdown, emissions fell substantially – by 8.5%. Comparing the first quarter of 2020 and 2019, emissions fell by 7%.

This is primarily because more renewable energy is now supplying the grid. Output from solar farms increased by 55% and from wind parks by 19% compared with the first quarter of 2019, reflecting massive amounts of new installed capacity coming online. Output from hydroelectricity increased by 18%, likely reflecting higher rainfall.

More renewables supply combined with falling demand means less output from fossil fuel power plants. Coal plant output fell 9% compared to the same period in 2019, entirely due to lower output by black coal plants in New South Wales and Queensland. Gas fired power output fell by 8%.

Electricity prices plunge

Meanwhile, wholesale prices in the NEM have fallen dramatically. The average price was 60% lower in the seven weeks since March 16 compared with the same period in 2019. A marked reduction in prices was evident from November 2019.

Why? One reason is that prices for natural gas are much lower and hence gas-fired power stations can make lower bids for electricity. Gas prices fell through much of 2019, and dropped further in the first quarter of 2020, associated with the pandemic-induced economic downturn. Gas plants often set the prices for everyone in the market, so this has a big effect on the market overall.




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Also, coal and hydropower plants lowered their bids in this more competitive environment.

The outlook for wholesale prices remains flat. Gas prices seem unlikely to rebound soon. More wind and solar power will come into the market and there is no underlying growth trend in electricity demand.

Relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions is unlikely to make a big difference. What may drive prices up once again is the next large coal plant closure. The last one to close was Victoria’s Hazelwood plant in 2017.

What does this mean for coal and renewables?

Low wholesale electricity prices are good for consumers – in particular industry, where the wholesale price is a bigger proportion of the total charges for electricity supply. On the flip side, they mean less money for power generators.

Across the National Electricity Market, revenue for generators was about A$160 million per week lower during the first seven weeks of lockdown compared to the same period in 2019.

This revenue fall makes coal plants less profitable, and makes life uncomfortable for plants with relatively high costs for fuel and maintenance. It’s likely to push older plants closer to closure.




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Lower prices also make investment in new renewable power less attractive. In recent years, average wholesale prices were well above the typical lifetime average costs of producing electricity from newly built solar and wind parks. There is also uncertainty around how prices will be set in power markets in the future, and how congestion of power transmission lines will be managed.

Nevertheless, the longer term prospects for renewables in Australia remain very good. Solar and wind power are the cheapest of all new generation technologies producing power, and solar power is expected to become even cheaper. A new coal-fired power plant, if one was ever built, would have far higher costs per megawatt hour. Costs for a nuclear plant would be higher still.

A drop in revenue during COVID-19 is bad news for coal-fired power generators.
Wikimedia

The way forward

The numbers show Australia does not need a painful recession to drive carbon emissions down. It needs sustained investment in new, clean technology.

The better the Australian economy recovers, the more private businesses will invest in new energy supply. But if the world falls into a deep and lasting recession, and the Australian economy with it, then the prospects for private investment in new power plants will suffer.

In that case, governments may be well advised to invest public funds in clean energy, more so than they have in the past.The Conversation

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate and Energy Policy, Australian National University and Mousami Prasad, Research Fellow, Australian National University

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

Want an economic tonic, Mr Morrison? Use that stimulus money to turbocharge renewables



Chris Fithall/Flickr

Elizabeth Thurbon, UNSW; Hao Tan, University of Newcastle; John Mathews, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Macquarie University

The chaos of COVID-19 has now hit global energy markets, creating an outcome unheard of in industrial history: negative oil prices. With the world’s largest economies largely in lockdown, demand for oil has stagnated.

Essentially, the negative prices mean oil producers are willing to pay for the oil to be taken off their hands because soon, they will have nowhere to store it.

Federal energy minister Angus Taylor has proposed a partial solution: Australia will spend A$94 million buying up oil, to bolster domestic supplies and help stabilise global prices.

That strategy is a fool’s path to energy security. Right now, the best way to shore up Australia’s future energy supplies is to invest economic stimulus money in renewables – essentially to manufacture our own energy security.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Angus Taylor, right, who wants Australia to buy surplus oil.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

A flawed plan

Australia’s oil reserves have for years languished well below the International Energy Agency’s recommended 90 days. Taylor says his plan would address this, and help stabilise (read: push up) oil prices and restore faith in the global oil market on which Australia depends.

But the plan is undermined by a simple fact: unstable global oil prices have been a recurring problem for decades, largely for political reasons well beyond Australia’s control. We need look only to the price shocks triggered by the Yom-Kippur war of 1973, the Iraq war of 2003, and the Saudi drone attack of 2019 – to name just a few.




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Price instability is all but guaranteed to increase in future, as climate change concerns drive insurers and investors away from fossil fuels and towards green energy.

The current chaos actually creates a much better opportunity for Australia: use the massive COVID-19 economic stimulus to manufacture real energy security in the form of renewables.

Buying large volumes of surplus oil will not ensure stable prices.
Flickr

Renewables: a win-win

The price and supply of energy from fossil fuels is vulnerable to natural resource depletion, geopolitical tensions and climate change concerns. This is true not just for oil, but coal and gas too.

The only real path to energy security is manufactured energy such as solar panels, wind turbines, electrolysers, batteries and smart grids.

These technologies can turn infinite natural resources into energy, then store and distribute it to ensure stable supply.

Victoria and South Australia now enjoy higher levels of energy security thanks to large-scale stationary batteries that even out electricity peaks and troughs.




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For example, a large-scale battery in Victoria stores energy produced by the Gannawarra solar farm. The battery provides energy during peak times when there is no sun.

Manufacturing energy is also important from an economic security perspective, promoting the creation of high-tech, high-wage industries.

These industries can create thousands of skilled jobs and open up massive new export markets – all while helping to mitigate climate change. This reality has been accepted by major East Asian economies, from China to South Korea, for more than a decade.

The Australian government must use its enormous stimulus to help local companies dramatically expand their wind, solar, hydrogen and energy storage investments.
This would satisfy domestic energy needs and grow the new green export markets ready and waiting in Asia.

Asia presents huge export potential for Australia’s renewable energy.
DAN HIMBRECHTS/AAP

A jobs boon

There is no shortage of projects waiting to be turbocharged. The government could start with Sun Cable, linking Australia’s and Singapore’s clean energy markets via an undersea cable.

It could also kickstart Australia’s clean hydrogen industry. According to the government’s own National Hydrogen Strategy, developing hydrogen would dramatically reduce Australia’s oil import reliance and energy costs and vastly expand its clean energy exports.

By simply following its own strategy, the government could create about 7,600 skilled and semi-skilled jobs and add about A$11 billion each year to Australia’s gross domestic product to 2050.




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The cheaper energy prices that follow could help Australia revive its techno-industrial base by making energy-intensive manufacturing a viable proposition once again.

According to leading economist Ross Garnaut, Australia could then bring home its long-lost materials-processing industries and re-emerge as a world-leading exporter of (clean) steel and aluminium.

Geopolitical benefits would also flow from Australia becoming a green hydrogen superpower, such as reducing our worrying export dependence on China.

An investment injection in renewables would be a huge jobs boost.
Flickr

Seize the moment

The idea of using the COVID-19 stimulus to turbocharge Australia’s clean energy shift is not pie in the sky. Indeed, doing so is the explicit recommendation of the International Energy Agency, which this week noted:

These huge spending programmes are likely to be once-in-a-generation in scale and will shape countries’ infrastructure for decades to come… Governments can … achieve both short-term economic gains and long-term benefits by making clean energy part of their stimulus plans.

COVID-19 has undoubtedly been disastrous for Australia and the world. But it creates new opportunities in energy, economic security and climate action. To seize these opportunities, the Morrison government must chart a new industrial course for the nation by manufacturing Australia’s energy security.The Conversation

Elizabeth Thurbon, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor in International Relations / International Political Economy, UNSW; Hao Tan, Associate professor, University of Newcastle; John Mathews, Professor Emeritus, Macquarie Business School, Macquarie University, and Sung-Young Kim, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Modern History, Politics & International Relations, Macquarie University

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

Snowy 2.0 is a wolf in sheep’s clothing – it will push carbon emissions up, not down



Luka Cochleae/AAP

Bruce Mountain, Victoria University

The massive Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project is soon expected to be granted environmental approval. I and others have criticised the project on several grounds, including its questionable financial viability and overstated benefits to the electricity system. But Snowy 2.0’s greenhouse gas emissions have barely been discussed.

Both Snowy Hydro and its owner, the federal government, say the project will help expand renewable electricity generation (and by extension, contribute to emissions reduction from the energy sector).

However, closer inspection shows it won’t work that way. For at least the next couple of decades, Snowy 2.0 will store coal-fired electricity, not renewable electricity. In fact, I predict Snowy 2.0 will create additional demand for coal-fired generation and lead to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions for the foreseeable future.

Khancoban Dam, part of the soon-to-be expanded Snowy Hydro scheme.
Snowy Hydro Ltd

The problem explained

The expanded Snowy Hydro scheme in southern New South Wales will involve pumping water uphill to a reservoir, storing it, and then releasing it downhill to generate electricity when demand is high.

The emissions reduction potential of the project rests on what type of electricity is used to pump the water uphill. Snowy Hydro says it will pump the water when a lot of wind and solar energy is being produced (and therefore when wholesale electricity prices are low).

But the crucial point here is that wind and solar farms produce electricity whenever the resource is available. This will happen irrespective of whether Snowy 2.0 is producing or consuming energy.




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When Snowy 2.0 pumps water uphill to its upper reservoir, it adds to demand on the electricity system. The generators that will provide this extra electricity are the ones that would not operate unless Snowy 2.0’s pumping demand was calling them into operation.

These will not be renewable generators since they will be operating anyway. Rather, for the next couple of decades at least, coal-fired electricity generators – the next cheapest form of electricity after renewables – will provide Snowy 2.0’s power.

Snowy Hydro claims Snowy 2.0 will add 2000 megawatts of renewable capacity to the national electricity market. However Snowy 2.0 is a storage device, and its claim to be renewable rests on the source of the electricity that it stores and then reproduces. It is not renewable electricity that Snowy 2.0 will store and reproduce for the foreseeable future.

The Snowy 2.0 scheme will lead to more coal use in the foreseeable future.
Julian Smith/AAP

Why this matters

Ageing coal-fired generaters will account for a smaller share of Australia’s electricity production over time as they become uneconomic and close down. But projections from the Australian Energy Market Operator show coal will make up a significant proportion of electricity production for the next two decades.

It is only when all coal-fired generators have closed (and gas-fired generators have not taken their place) that Snowy 2.0 could claim to be using renewable electricity to power its pumps.

Does this matter? Yes, very much. Using Snowy Hydro’s projections of how much
electricity Snowy 2.0 will pump each year from 2025 to 2047 (the period over which they have developed their projections) I estimate that Snowy 2.0 will, on average, account for 5.4 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent each year.




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This is clearly a big number – roughly equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of Australia’s mineral or chemical industry, and equal to the annual emissions of 2.4 million cars.

If we assume, conservatively, that emissions have a cost of A$20 per tonne of carbon, then Snowy 2.0 will impose an additional annual cost of A$108 million on the Australian community that will need to be countered by emissions reduction somewhere else in the economy.

Over 20 years, Snowy 2.0 will lead to more greenhouse gas emissions than three million cars.
Julian Smith/AAP

The NSW government has adopted a target of net-zero emissions by 2050. But using Snowy Hydro’s projections of pumped energy, average greenhouse gas emissions attributable to Snowy 2.0 over its first decade will increase NSW’s emissions by about 10% of their current levels each year.

This proportion will increase if the government successfully reduces emissions elsewhere.

Of course, emission reduction is not just an issue for the states. The federal
government has been at pains to affirm its commitment to the Paris climate accord. Snowy 2.0 will undermine the achievement of this commitment.

If additional energy storage is needed to stabilise our electricity grid, it can be provided by many alternatives with a much smaller greenhouse gas impact such as demand response, gas or diesel generators, batteries or smaller and more efficient pumped-hydro generators.

Meeting the climate challenge

Emissions associated with storage is given little attention in Australia but is well-researched overseas. Since Australia’s state and federal governments profess a commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this is a serious omission.




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Energy storage will increase emissions as long as fossil fuel generators dominate the power system.

In meeting the climate challenge, greenhouse gas emissions must become a more prominent consideration in the planning and approval of all electricity projects, including storage – and especially for Snowy 2.0.


In response the points raised in this article, Snowy Hydro said Snowy 2.0 would add 2,000 megawatts (MW) of renewable capacity to the national electricity market (NEM).

“In the absence of Snowy 2.0, the NEM will have to fill the capacity need with other power stations, which would inevitably be fossil-fuelled,” the company said in a statement.

“Snowy will sell capacity contracts (tantamount to insurance against NEM price volatility and spikes) to a range of NEM counterparties, as it does now and has done for decades.”

Snowy Hydro said Snowy 2.0 would directly draw wind and solar capacity into the NEM, via the contract market.

It said this market, rather than the wholesale market, drives investment and electricity generation.

“Snowy Hydro’s renewable energy procurement program, through which Snowy contracted with 888 MW of wind and solar facilities in 2019, has made the construction of eight new wind and solar projects possible,” Snowy Hydro said.

“In the NEM, what happens subsequently to the spot price is of little interest to the owners of these facilities, because their revenue is guaranteed through their offtake contracts with Snowy.”

The company said the energy produced by wind and solar plants, backed by Snowy’s existing large-scale generation fleet, was “the most cost-effective and reliable way to serve the customers of the NEM in the future.”

Snowy Hydro said Snowy 2.0 would pump water uphill using cheap electricity from wind and solar – often most plentiful when NEM prices are low – rather than expensive electricity from coal.

“The water is released when prices are high – this is one of the four Snowy 2.0 revenue streams,” it said.

“Given that Snowy has the water storage capability to pump when electricity prices are low, and generate when electricity prices are high, why would Snowy choose to buy expensive coal-fired energy to pump water uphill at times of high prices?”The Conversation

Bruce Mountain, Director, Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Victoria University

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

Critical minerals are vital for renewable energy. We must learn to mine them responsibly


Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, University of Sydney

As the world shifts away from fossil fuels, we will need to produce enormous numbers of wind turbines, solar panels, electric vehicles and batteries. Demand for the materials needed to build them will skyrocket.

This includes common industrial metals such as steel and copper, but also less familiar minerals such as the lithium used in rechargeable batteries and the rare earth elements used in the powerful magnets required by wind turbines and electric cars. Production of many of these critical minerals has grown enormously over the past decade with no sign of slowing down.

Australia is well placed to take advantage of this growth – some claim we are on the cusp of a rare earths boom – but unless we learn how to do it in a responsible manner, we will only create a new environmental crisis.

What are critical minerals?

Critical minerals” are metals and non-metals that are essential for our economic future but whose supply may be uncertain. Their supply may be threatened by geopolitics, geological accessibility, legislation, economic rules or other factors.

One consequence of a massive transition to renewables will be a drastic increase not only in the consumption of raw materials (including concrete, steel, aluminium, copper and glass) but also in the diversity of materials used.

Three centuries ago, the technologies used by humanity required half a dozen metals. Today we use more than 50, spanning almost the entire periodic table. However, like fossil fuels, minerals are finite.




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Can we ‘unlearn’ renewables to make them sustainable?

If we take a traditional approach to mining critical minerals, in a few decades they will run out – and we will face a new environmental crisis. At the same time, it is still unclear how we will secure supply of these minerals as demand surges.

This is further complicated by geopolitics. China is a major producer, accounting for more than 60% of rare earth elements, and significant amounts of tungsten, bismuth and germanium.

This makes other countries, including Australia, dependent on China, and also means the environmental pollution due to mining occurs in China.

The opportunity for Australia is to produce its own minerals, and to do so in a way that minimises environmental harm and is sustainable.

Where to mine?

Australia has well established resources in base metals (such as gold, iron, copper, zinc and lead) and presents an outstanding potential in critical minerals. Australia already produces almost half of lithium worldwide, for example.

Existing and potential sites for mining critical minerals.
Geoscience Australia

In recent years, Geoscience Australia and several universities have focused research on determining which critical minerals are associated with specific base ores.

For example, the critical minerals gallium and indium are commonly found as by-products in deposits of lead and zinc.

To work out the best places to look for critical minerals, we will need to understand the geological processes that create concentrations of them in the Earth’s crust.

Critical minerals are mostly located in magmatic rocks, which originate from the Earth’s mantle, and metamorphic rocks, which have been transformed during the formation of mountains. Understanding these rocks is key to finding critical minerals and recovering them from the bulk ores.

Magmatic rocks such as carbonatite may contain rare earth elements.
Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, Author provided

Fuelling the transition

For most western economies, rare earth elements are the most vital. These have electromagnetic properties that make them essential for permanent magnets, rechargeable batteries, catalytic converters, LCD screens and more. Australia shows a great potential in various deposit types across all states.

The Northern Territory is leading with the Nolans Bore mine already in early-stage operations. But many other minerals are vital to economies like ours.

Cobalt and lithium are essential to ion batteries. Gallium is used in photodetectors and photovoltaics systems. Indium is used for its conductive properties in screens.

Critical minerals mining is seen now as an unprecedented economic opportunity for exploration, extraction and exportation.

Recent agreements to secure supply to the US opens new avenues for the Australian mining industry.

How can we make it sustainable?

Beyond the economic opportunity, this is also an environmental one. Australia has the chance to set an example to the world of how to make the supply of critical minerals sustainable. The question is: are we willing to?

Many of the techniques for creating sustainable minerals supply still need to be invented. We must invest in geosciences, create new tools for exploration, extraction, beneficiation and recovery, treat the leftover material from mining as a resource instead of waste, develop urban mining and find substitutes and effective recycling procedures.

In short, we must develop an integrated approach to the circular economy of critical minerals. One potential example to follow here is the European EURARE project initiated a decade ago to secure a future supply of rare earth elements.

More than ever, we need to bridge the gap between disciplines and create new synergies to make a sustainable future. It is essential to act now for a better planet.The Conversation

Bénédicte Cenki-Tok, Associate professor at Montpellier University, EU H2020 MSCA visiting researcher, University of Sydney

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

Climate explained: seven reasons to be wary of waste-to-energy proposals



Many developed countries already have significant waste-to-energy operations and therefore less material going to landfill.

Jeff Seadon, Auckland University of Technology


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I was in Switzerland recently and discovered that they haven’t had any landfill since the early 2000s, because all of their waste is either recycled or incinerated to produce electricity. How “green” is it to incinerate waste in order to produce electricity? Is it something New Zealand should consider, so that 1) we have no more landfill, and 2) we can replace our fossil-fuel power stations with power stations that incinerate waste?

Burning rubbish to generate electricity or heat sounds great: you get rid of all your waste and also get seemingly “sustainable” energy. What could be better?

Many developed countries already have significant “waste-to-energy” incineration plants and therefore less material going to landfill (although the ash has to be landfilled). These plants often have recycling industries attached to them, so that only non-recyclables end up in the furnace. If it is this good, why the opposition?

Here are seven reasons why caution is needed when considering waste-to-energy incineration plants.




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Stifling innovation and waste reduction

  1. Waste-to-energy plants require a high-volume, guaranteed waste stream for about 25 years to make them economically viable. If waste-to-energy companies divert large amounts of waste away from landfills, they need to somehow get more waste to maintain their expensive plants. For example, Sweden imports its waste from the UK to feed its “beasts”.

  2. The waste materials that are easiest to source and have buyers for recycling – like paper and plastic – also produce most energy when burned.

  3. Waste-to-energy destroys innovation in the waste sector. As a result of China not accepting our mixed plastics, people are now combining plastics with asphalt to make roads last longer and are making fence posts that could be replacing treated pine posts (which emit copper, chrome and arsenic into the ground). If a convenient waste-to-energy plant had been available, none of this would have happened.

  4. Waste-to-energy reduces jobs. Every job created in the incineration industry removes six jobs in landfill, 36 jobs in recycling and 296 jobs in the reuse industry.

  5. Waste-to-energy works against a circular economy, which tries to keep goods in circulation. Instead, it perpetuates our current make-use-dispose mentality.

  6. Waste-to-energy only makes marginal sense in economies that produce coal-fired electricity – and then only as a stop-gap measure until cleaner energy is available. New Zealand has a green electricity generation system, with about 86% already coming from renewable sources and a target of 100% renewable by 2035, so waste-to-energy would make it a less renewable energy economy.

  7. Lastly, burning waste and contaminated plastics creates a greater environmental impact than burning the equivalent oil they are made from. These impacts include the release of harmful substances like dioxins and vinyl chloride as well as mixtures of many other harmful substances used in making plastics, which are not present in oil.




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Landfills as mines of the future

European countries were driven to waste-to-energy as a result of a 2007 directive that imposed heavy penalties for countries that did not divert waste from landfills. The easiest way for those countries to comply was to install waste-to-energy plants, which meant their landfill waste dropped dramatically.

New Zealand does not have these sorts of directives and is in a better position to work towards reducing, reusing and recycling end-of-life materials, rather than sending them to an incinerator to recover some of the energy used to make them.

Is New Zealand significantly worse than Europe in managing waste? About a decade ago, a delegation from Switzerland visited New Zealand Ministry for the Environment officials to compare progress in each of the waste streams. Both parties were surprised to learn that they had managed to divert roughly the same amount of waste from landfill through different routes.

This shows that it is important New Zealand doesn’t blindly follow the route other countries have used and hope for the same results. Such is the case for waste-to-energy.

There is also an argument to be made for current landfills. Modern, sanitary landfills seal hazardous materials and waste stored over the last 50 years presents future possibilities of landfill mining.

Many landfills have higher concentrations of precious metals, particularly gold, than mines and some are being mined for those metals. As resources become scarcer and prices increase, our landfills may become the mines of the future.The Conversation

Jeff Seadon, Senior Lecturer, Auckland University of Technology

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

Enough ambition (and hydrogen) could get Australia to 200% renewable energy



Hydrogen infrastructure in the right places is key to a cleaner, cheaper energy future.
ARENA

Scott Hamilton, University of Melbourne; Changlong Wang, University of Melbourne; Falko Ueckerdt, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and Roger Dargaville, Monash University

The possibilities presented by hydrogen are the subject of excited discussion across the world – and across Australia’s political divide, notoriously at war over energy policy.




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On Friday Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel will present a national strategy on hydrogen to state, territory and federal energy ministers. Finkel is expected to outline a plan that prioritises hydrogen exports as a profitable way to reduce emissions.

It is to be hoped the strategy is aggressive, rather than timid. Ambition is key in lowering the cost of energy. Australia would do better aiming for 200% renewable energy or more.

It’s likely the national strategy will feature demonstration projects to test the feasibility of new technology, reduce costs, and find ways to share the risk of infrastructure investment between government and industry.

There are still a number of barriers. Existing gas pipelines could be used to transport hydrogen to end-users but current laws are prohibitive, mechanisms like “certificates of origin” are required, and there are still key technology issues, particularly the cost of electrolysis.

These issues raise questions of what a major hydrogen economy really looks like. It may prompt suspicions this is just the a latest energy pipe dream. But our research at the Australian-German Energy Transition Hub argues that an ambitious approach is better than a cautious one.

Aggressively pursing hydrogen exports will reduce costs of domestic energy supply and provide a basis for new export industries, such as greens steel, in a carbon-constrained world.




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Making Australia a renewable energy exporting superpower


Optimal systems cost less

We used optimisation modelling to examine how a major hydrogen industry might roll out in Australia. We wanted to identify where major plants for electrolysis could be built, asked whether the existing national electricity market should supply the power, and looked at the effect on the cost of the system and, ultimately, energy affordability.

Australian Hydrogen export locations.

Our results show the locations for future hydrogen infrastructure investment will be mainly determined by their capital costs, the share of wind and solar generation and the capacity of electrolysers to responsively provide energy to the system, and the magnitude of hydrogen production.




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We also identified potential demonstration projects across Australia, such as:

  • large-scale production of liquid hydrogen and export from the Pilbara in Western Australia
  • hydrogen to support steel manufacturing in South Australia
  • injecting hydrogen into the gas networks in Victoria and support industry and electricity generation
  • hydrogen to supply transport fuel for major users such as trucks, buses and ferries in New South Wales, and
  • hydrogen to produce ammonia at an existing plant in Queensland.

An export-oriented economy

If we assume electrolysers remain expensive, around A$1,800 per kilowatt, and need to run at close to full-load capacity all the time, the result is large hydrogen exporting hubs across the country, built near high quality solar and wind power resources. Ideal locations tend to be remote from the national energy grid, such as in Western Australia and Northern Territory, or at relatively small-scale in South Australia or Tasmania.

There is much debate around the current cost of electrolysis, but consensus holds that economies of scale will substantially reduce these costs – by as much as an order of magnitude. This is akin to the cost reductions we have seen in solar power and batteries.

200 per cent renewables scenario

This infrastructure requires some major investment. However, our modelling shows that if Australia produces 200% of our energy needs by 2050, exporting the surplus, we see major drops in system costs and lower costs of energy for all Australia. If Australia can produce 400 Terrawatt-hours of hydrogen energy for export, modelling results show the average energy cost could be reduced by more than 30%.

Hydrogen ambition reduces costs of electricity supply.

The driving factor is our level of ambition. The more we lean into decarbonising our economy with green energy, the further the costs fall. The savings from the integrated and optimised use of electrolysers in a renewable-heavy national electricity market outweigh the cost of building large renewable resources in remote locations.

A large hydrogen export industry could generate both substantial export revenue and substantial benefits to the domestic economy.

Hydrogen export economy versus true RE economy

To sum up, the picture above shows two possible hydrogen futures for Australia.

In the first, Australia lacks climate actions and electrolyser costs remain high with limited economies of scale, and we export from key remote hubs such as the Pilbara.




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We need a national renewables approach, or some states – like NSW – will miss out


In the other, ambition increases and costs drop, and the hydrogen export industry connects to the national grid, providing both renewable exports and benefits to the grid. This also promotes the use of hydrogen in the domestic market. Australia embraces a true renewable economy and a new chapter of major energy exports begins.

Either way, Australia is primed to become a hydrogen exporting superpower.The Conversation

Scott Hamilton, Strategic Advisory Panel Member, Australian-German Energy Transition Hub, University of Melbourne; Changlong Wang, Researcher, The Energy Transition Hub, University of Melbourne; Falko Ueckerdt, , Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and Roger Dargaville, Senior lecturer, Monash University

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

Curious Kids: how do solar panels work?



Installing solar panels on a roof.
Shutterstock/lalanta71

Andrew Blakers, Australian National University


How do solar panels work? – Nathan, age 5, Melbourne, Australia.



The Sun produces a lot of energy called solar energy. Australia gets 20,000 times more energy from the Sun each day than we do from oil, gas and coal. This solar energy will continue for as long as the Sun lives, which is another 5 billion years.

Solar panels are made of solar cells, which is the part that turns the solar energy in sunlight into electricity.

Solar cells make electricity directly from sunlight. It is the most trusted energy technology ever made, which is why it is used on satellites in space and in remote places on Earth where it is hard to fix problems.




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Curious Kids: how does electricity work?


How do solar cells work?

Solar cells are made using silicon atoms. An atom is basically a building block – just like a Lego brick but so tiny you’d need a special machine to see them.

Because the silicon atoms are so small you need trillions and trillions of them for a solar cell.

To make the solar cell you need a wafer layer of silicon, about the same size as a dinner plate but much much thinner – only about three times the thickness of a strand of your hair.

This silicon layer is changed in a special way using hot temperatures of up to 1,000℃. Then, a sheet of metal is put onto the back of the layer and a metal mesh with holes in it, like a net, is put on the front. It is this mesh side of the layer that will face the Sun.

When 60 solar cells are made they are fixed together behind a layer of glass to make a solar panel.

On this roof you can see one solar hot water collector (top left) and 42 solar electricity panels, each of which is made of 60 solar cells combined behind a protective glass.
Shutterstock

If your house has a solar power system, it will probably have 10 to 50 solar panels attached to your roof. Millions of solar panels are used to make a large solar farm out in the countryside.

Each silicon atom contains extremely tiny and lightweight things called electrons. These electrons each carry a small electric charge.

Each tiny silicon atom has a nucleus at the centre made up of 14 teeny-tiny protons and 14 teeny-tiny neutrons. And 14 teeny-tiny electrons go around the nucleus. It doesn’t really look exactly like this diagram but you get the idea.
Shutterstock

When sunlight falls on a solar panel it can hit one of the electrons in a silicon atom and knock it free.

These electrons can move around but because of the special way the cell is made they can only go one way, up towards the side that faces the Sun. They can’t go the other way.

So whenever the Sun is shining on the solar cell it causes many electrons to flow upwards but not downwards, and this creates the electric current needed to power things in our homes such as lights, the television and other electrical items.

If the sunlight is bright, then lots of electrons get hit and so lots of electric current can flow. If it is cloudy, then fewer electrons get hit and the current will be cut by three quarters or more.

At night, the solar panel produces no electric power and we need to rely on batteries or other sources of electricity to keep the lights on.

How are solar cells being used?

Solar cells are the cheapest way to make electricity – cheaper than new coal or nuclear power stations. This is why solar cells are being installed around the world about five times faster than coal power stations and 20 times faster than nuclear power stations.

In Australia, nearly all new power stations are either solar power stations or wind farms. Solar and wind electricity can be used to run electric cars in place of polluting petrol cars. Solar and wind electricity can also heat and cool your house and can be used in industry in place of coal and natural gas.

Windmills and solar panels can produce electricity.
Shutterstock

Solar and wind are helping lessen the amount of greenhouse gases which damage our Earth. They are cheap, and they continue to get even cheaper and the more we use it the quicker we can stop using energy that can hurt the Earth (like coal, oil and gas).

What’s more, silicon is the second most common atom in the world (after oxygen). In fact, sand and rocks are made of mostly silicon and oxygen. So, we could never run out of silicon to make more solar cells.




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Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.auThe Conversation

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University

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

Some good news for a change: Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions are set to fall



Renewable energy being installed at a community in the Northern Territory. Researchers have predicted Australia’s emissions are set to fall, but warn the renewables deployment rate must continue.
Lucy Hughes-Jones/AAP

Andrew Blakers, Australian National University and Matthew Stocks, Australian National University

For the past few years, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have headed in the wrong direction. The upward trajectory has come amid overwhelming evidence that the world must bring carbon dioxide emissions down. But the trend is set to change.

In a policy brief released today, we predict that Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions will peak during 2019-20 at the equivalent of about 540 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

After a brief plateau, we expect they will decline by 3-4% over 2020-22, and perhaps much more in the following years – if backed by government policy.

The peak will occur because Australia’s world-leading deployment of solar and wind energy is displacing fossil fuel combustion. Emissions from the electricity sector are about to fall much faster than increases in emissions from all other sectors combined.

This is a message of hope for rapid reduction of emissions at low cost. But we cannot rest on our laurels. If renewable energy deployment stops or slows, emissions may rise again.

Figure 1: Historical and projected total Australian emissions in megatonnes of CO2 (equivalent) per year. Black line: Government emissions projections which assume solar and wind deplpoyment almost stops. Green line: Deployment continues at the current rate.
ANU

Australia: a renewables superstar

Deployment of solar and wind energy is the cheapest and quickest way to make deep emissions cuts because of its low and falling cost. Higher deployment rates would yield deeper emissions cuts, but this requires supportive government policy.

Wind and solar constitute about two-thirds of global net new electricity capacity. Gas, hydro and coal comprise most of the balance. Solar and wind comprise virtually all new generation capacity in Australia because they are cheaper than alternatives.




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Australia is the runaway global leader in building new renewable energy


Australia is a global renewable energy superstar because it is installing new solar and wind capacity four to fives times faster per capita than China, the European Union, Japan or the United States. This allows Australia to stabilise and then reduce its greenhouse emissions and sends a globally important message.

Figure 2 shows the rapid increase in the proportion of solar and wind energy from 2018 in the National Electricity Market, which covers the eastern states and comprises about 85% of national electricity generation. The proportion of renewable energy generation has reached 25%, including hydro.

Figure 2: Monthly solar and wind fraction of electricity generation in the NEM over 2014-19 showing sharp increase in 2018.
ANU

We are confident Australia’s emissions will fall in 2020, 2021 and probably 2022 because 16-17 gigawatts of wind and solar is locked in for deployment in 2018-20. This reduces emissions in the electricity sector by about 10 million tonnes a year.

The federal government projects that emissions outside the electricity system will increase by about 3 million tonnes per year on average over the 2020s. The difference leaves an overall decline of 7 million tonnes of emissions per year.

100% clean electricity is within our grasp

Beyond our projections for the next few years, continued falls in emissions are not assured. The emissions trajectory for 2022 and beyond depends largely on the level of renewables deployed.

Federal government projections assume solar and wind deployment almost stops in the 2020s. This would mean annual emissions increase from current levels to 563 million tonnes in 2030.

Wind turbines adjacent to the Tesla batteries at Jamestown, north of Adelaide, in 2017.
DAVID MARIUZ/AAP

But it doesn’t need to be this way. If the current renewables deployment rate continued, Australia would reach 50% renewable electricity in 2024, and potentially 80% renewables in 2030. This transformation would be technically straightforward and affordable. It requires governments, mostly the federal government, to encourage more transmission power lines to deliver renewable electricity to where it’s needed. Other off-the-shelf methods to support renewables include energy storage such as pumped hydro and batteries, and managing electricity demand.

The benefits of a consistent renewables rollout would be large. Australia’s electricity emissions in 2030 would be 100 million tonnes lower than government projections and the nation would meet its Paris target of a 26-28% emissions reduction between 2005 and 2030. This could be achieved without the controversial proposal to carry over carbon credits earned in the Kyoto Protocol period.

It should be noted that changes in land clearing rates or coal and gas mining or economic activity would also affect future national emissions.

Electricity infrastructure at the Snowy Hydro scheme. Such hydro projects are key to firming up intermittent renewable energy.
Lukas Coch/AAP

The emissions road ahead

Continued rapid deployment of solar and wind requires that governments enable construction of adequate electricity transmission and storage.

State governments should also continue efforts to establish renewable energy zones, with or without cooperation from the federal government. These zones would be located where there is good wind, sun and pumped hydro energy storage, bringing sustainable investment and jobs to regional areas.




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In the longer term, solar and wind can cut national emissions by two-thirds. Beyond the electricity sector, this involves electrifying motor vehicles, residential heating and cooling and industrial heating. National emissions could be cut by another 10% by stopping exports of fossil fuels, which creates fugitive emissions.

It is clear that solar and wind are the most practical route, globally and in Australia, to cheap, rapid and deep emissions cuts – and government policy will be key.The Conversation

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University and Matthew Stocks, Research Fellow, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University

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

Australia is the runaway global leader in building new renewable energy


Matthew Stocks, Australian National University; Andrew Blakers, Australian National University, and Ken Baldwin, Australian National University

In Australia, renewable energy is growing at a per capita rate ten times faster than the world average. Between 2018 and 2020, Australia will install more than 16 gigawatts of wind and solar, an average rate of 220 watts per person per year.

This is nearly three times faster than the next fastest country, Germany. Australia is demonstrating to the world how rapidly an industrialised country with a fossil-fuel-dominated electricity system can transition towards low-carbon, renewable power generation.

Renewable energy capacity installations per capita.
International capacity data for 2018 from the International Renewable Energy Agency. Australian data from the Clean Energy Regulator., Author provided

When the Clean Energy Regulator accredited Tasmania’s 148.5 megawatt (MW) Cattle Hill Wind Farm in August, Australia met its Renewable Energy Target well ahead of schedule.




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We have analysed data from the regulator which tracks large- and small-scale renewable energy generation (including credible future projects), and found the record-high installation rates of 2018 will continue through 2019 and 2020.

Record renewable energy installation rates

While other analyses have pointed out that investment dollars in renewable energy fell in 2019, actual generation capacity has risen. Reductions in building costs may be contributing, as less investment will buy you more capacity.

Last year was a record year for renewable energy installations, with 5.1 gigawatts (GW) accredited in 2018, far exceeding the previous record of 2.2GW in 2017.

The increase was driven by the dramatic rise of large-scale solar farms, which comprised half of the new-build capacity accredited in 2018. There was a tenfold increase in solar farm construction from 2017.

We have projected the remaining builds for 2019 and those for 2020, based on data from the Clean Energy Regulator for public firm announcements for projects.

A project is considered firm if it has a power purchase agreement (PPA, a contract to sell the energy generated), has reached financial close, or is under construction. We assume six months for financial close and start of construction after a long-term supply contract is signed, and 12 or 18 months for solar farm or wind farm construction, respectively.

This year is on track to be another record year, with 6.5GW projected to be complete by the end of 2019.

The increase is largely attributable to a significant increase in the number of wind farms approaching completion. Rooftop solar has also increased, with current installation rates putting Australia on track for 1.9GW in 2019, also a new record.

This is attributed to the continued cost reductions in rooftop solar, with less than A$1,000 per kilowatt now considered routine and payback periods of the order of two to seven years.

Current (solid) and forecast (hashed) installations of renewable electricity capacity in Australia.
Author provided

Looking ahead to 2020, almost 6GW of large-scale projects are expected to be completed, comprising 2.5GW of solar farms and 3.5GW of wind. Around the end of 2020, this additional generation would deliver the old Renewable Energy Target of 41,000 gigawatt hours (GWh) per annum. That target was legislated in 2009 by the Rudd Labor government but reduced to 33,000GWh by the Abbott Coalition government in 2015.

Maintaining the pipeline

There are strong prospects for continued high installation rates of renewables. Currently available renewable energy contracts are routinely offering less than A$50 per MWh. Long-term contracts for future energy supply have an average price of more than A$58 per MWh. This is a very reasonable profit margin, suggesting a strong economic case for continued installations. Wind and solar prices are likely to decline further throughout the 2020s.

State governments programs are also supporting renewable electricity growth. The ACT has completed contracts for 100% renewable electricity. Victoria and Queensland both have renewable energy targets of 50% renewable electricity by 2030. South Australia is expecting to reach 100% by 2025.

The main impediment to continued renewables growth is transmission. Transmission constraints have resulted in bottlenecks in moving electricity from some wind and solar farms to cities.

Tasmania’s strong wind resource requires a new connection to the mainland to unlock more projects. The limitations of current planning frameworks for this transition were recognised in Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s review of the National Electricity Market, with strong recommendations to overcome these problems and, in particular, to strengthen the role of the Australian Energy Market Operator.




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Now we need state and federal governments to unlock or directly support transmission expansion. For example, the Queensland government has committed to supporting new transmission to unlock solar and wind projects in the far north, including the Genex/Kidston 250MW pumped hydro storage system. The New South Wales government will expedite planning approval for an interconnector between that state and South Australia, defining it as “critical infrastructure”.

These investments are key to Australia maintaining its renewable energy leadership into the next decade.The Conversation

Matthew Stocks, Research Fellow, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University; Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University, and Ken Baldwin, Director, Energy Change Institute, Australian National University

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