This is a summary of a talk I gave at Meridian Conversations a couple of weeks ago. But, now I’m sober and have the internet, so this version will be a bit better researched.
More than anything, it’s about how to tell Government what you want and the most effective means of giving them that message, with a focus on electricity generation, which I know a thing or 2 about.
I’m starting from the view point that the IPCC know what they are talking about; that humans are wrecking the climate by burning fossil fuels and changing the composition of the atmosphere. Also, the best way to fix this is to stop this pollution as quickly as possible and with the most lasting changes. If you disagree with any of that, this post won’t make a scrap of sense to you and you’ll probably be happier here.
The lowest hanging fruit for Australia is to change our electricity generation. Page 6 of this pdf shows why pretty dramatically. Check out the growth in emissions from stationary electricity generation.
The other assumption is that we will, eventually, do the energy efficiency projects we should have done 15 years ago. The big ticket items here are domestic solar hot water and more residential insulation. Despite what the media have told you, insulating houses is a bloody good idea.
I’m a huge advocate for energy efficiency (EE), but there’s probably only 5-10% of energy use to be trimmed with EE measures. This means electricity demand will continue to grow, as forecast by just about everyone. Note here that growth in electricity is not necessarily a bad thing; moving to electric vehicles will lead to a reduction in emissions, but an increase in electricity use.
So, to reduce emissions, we need to change the generation mix.
Signals to Government
The next question is then how do we tell Government that we think changing where our electricity comes from is important?
Given that Australia is something of a democracy, the traditional signal to government is your vote. I’m not going to tell you how to spend yours, but if you think that changing the way electricity is generated in Australia is important, the only major party with a policy that will address this before 2013 is the Greens. It’s your call.
Beyond Voting – Greenpower
The other thing that Government really listens to, and the only option available between elections, is money.
Firstly, there’s Greenpower, a voluntary scheme where electricity users pay more for their power to ensure it comes from renewable energy sources. The accounting behind this is a bit complex, so I’ll separate it out into another post on how the electricity grid works, but it’s a very robust scheme and well auditted. I’ve worked as an engineer completing the certification for a newly comissioned renewable generator and it’s an incredibly rigorous process. As with buying free-range eggs, paying for Greenpower shows that you are prepared to pay more for a product with no direct benefits to the consumer and that the ethics of the upstream production of that product is important to you.
If we had all signed onto it 10 years ago we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.
Feed In Tarriffs and Rebates
Now it gets complex. The rules around domestic rebates and feed-in tariffs (FITs) have changed a lot recently and FIT’s vary from state to state.
However, the mechanisms are all roughly the same; governments subsidise some aspect of renewable energy technology through either grants for the initial capital or inflated returns on the commodities associated with renewables (renewable energy certificates, RECs. Again, in another post).
In terms of most efficient means for connecting renewable energy capacity to the grid this is widely regarded as an extremely expensive mechanism.
The numbers above are from Wikipedia, but are roughly in line with figures I’ve seen elsewhere.
The problem with ‘distributed renewables’ (effectively solar panels on houses) is the old ‘economies of scale’ chestnut.
Most energy machinery works better the bigger it is. Big pumps are far more efficient than little ones. Same goes for inverters, turbines, transformers… all the little bits and pieces that make energy generation and transmission infrastructure. Distributed generation means that rather than one enormous central generator and the associated efficiency gains (and some losses from transmission, but they’re small) every house has a small, inefficient electricity generator (solar panels). Worse, because householders aren’t really electricity generators by trade, over time inverters fail and panels get dirty. Their effectiveness overall will be reduced. As a taxpayer, there is some cause for mild outrage at this inefficient spending, but, rejoice in the powerful chance you are provided to put your money and ideals where your mouth is. Something like that anyway.
But, this mechanism, flawed or otherwise, gives concerned punters a way of showing their commitment to the cause. Government feeling squeamish about large scale renewable generation? Fine, I’ll put one on my roof.
There is also the small chance that this increase in what is effectively demand-side generation will do some freaky things to the grid. Imagine an affluent suburb (not effluent) where every roof has solar panels. Let’s imagine it’s the middle of summer and all the rich people are on holidays. It’s a cloudy day, so nothing is generating, but all the houses still have their small domestic loads ticking over; fridges, alarm clocks, standby lights. But, then the sun comes out, and what was previously a small demand at the substation suddenly becomes a much larger supply. What happens then? How does a network operator manage something like that? I’m an energy engineer and I’ve got no idea. I doubt it’s a good thing though.
There are other benefits though, difficult to quantify benefits. Getting panels on roofs (rooves?) puts renewable energy and associated issues in the public sphere and people start talking. Solar panels become a status symbol; green cred becomes a competition. FITs have the potential to make home owners more conscious of their energy use, but this is slightly negated by the preference for gross, rather than net, tarrif calculation.
Summarising? Surely soon.
The unifying theme here is to detail your options and the possible ramifications of exercising them. You’ve probably gathered that I’ve got some pretty strong opinions on this stuff, but as much as possible I don’t want to push them on you; the logic should stand on its own and you’ll reach your own decision in good time.
As always, questions, comments, happily accepted below.