Category Archives: Energy generation and distribution

Could you host a solar farm?

Energy from rail

David Tranter suggests that storing energy from a local rail line could help ensure cheap, reliable, renewable power.

David Tranter at the wheel of a Tesla Model 'S'

CANWin Life Member Dr David Tranter looking startled in a Tesla electric car at The Goulburn Group electric vehicle expo, November 2014

Coal-fired power stations are either on or off. When they run, they run at peak capacity to ensure that consumers get all the energy they want all the time, including those few heat wave days each year when the more affluent rely on air conditioning to keep cool. When the grid was privatised in the name of “energy security”, it was “gold-plated” at the expense of the consumer: the needy subsidising the greedy.

Australian coal-fired power stations have access to cheap coal, are heavily subsidised, and do not cover the environmental costs of their production. As a consequence, their production costs are very low by international standards (3-5c/k). They could easily sell electricity on the cheap. In practice, however, they sell their energy at up 10 times its production cost, making a killing at the expense of households and businesses.

To be fair, most energy suppliers offer discount rates of about 15c/kWh for off-peak (night-time) use. But that doesn’t suit most consumers, who continue to pay the peak-hour rate of 20-40c/kWh. Clearly, there is scope in the Australian Energy Market for a more efficient system, one that could guarantee consumers the electricity they need without overheating the atmosphere and de-stabilising the climate.

Renewable energy plays a useful role in stabilising the grid by ironing out its peaks and troughs, since much renewable energy is harvested by day. In practice, however, the grids and conventional energy providers depend more on each other than on potential renewable energy suppliers, which they see as unwanted competition. They deny renewables access to the grid — because they can. It is time, perhaps long past time, for a “smart grid” to provide people and industry with the energy they need, rather than the energy they want.

One way to smooth out peaks and troughs in demand is to store surplus night-time electricity for daytime use. Battery technologies are now evolving fast and costs are tumbling as fast as photovoltaic panels have done over the past 10 years. Lithium ion storage systems are already available on the Australian market for both household and business use, but it will probably be some time before they have the potential, on a grid-wide scale, to meet daytime demand by storing night-time excess.

That being so, NSW could follow the Californian lead and look to gravity storage options, which use off-peak electricity as a resource that can be bought on the cheap and sold at twice the price. Eraring Energy already does this on a small scale. By night they use cheap electricity to pump water from downhill Lake Yarranga into uphill Fitzroy Reservoir. By day they can release the water to generate hydro electricity, which they can sell to the grid for up to twice the price of pumping.

The generation efficiency of this option, however, is limited by the friction between water and pipe. A more efficient alternative to move heavy materials uphill is to use a railroad train, which loses much less energy in friction, an initiative of the Californian company ARES (Advanced Rail Energy Storage).

A variant of that principle is the “regenerative braking” that is being introduced on the new generation of NSW suburban trains which, by their nature, stop and start to pick up passengers. Regenerative braking recovers energy otherwise lost as heat and feeds it back to the source through their overhead power lines. Its limitation as a storage option is that such trains run mainly on gentle gradients by day, rather than by night, a limitation that does not apply to the ARES option.

ARES plans to use a purpose-built railroad up a mountain in Nevada to generate 50mWh of off-peak storage energy to meet peak energy demand. The dimensions of the Nevada railway track (distance 9.2km, grade 7.2%) are remarkably similar to that of the existing Illawarra Mountain Railway that is currently used on a daily basis by coal, limestone and (in season) grain trains that lose their braking energy in heat.

Perhaps there is a case for electrifying the Illawarra Mountain Railway to stabilise the grid by recovering the braking energy that is currently being wasted as heat until such time as NSW can afford to build the proposed electric railway line between Dombarton and Maldon?

David Tranter, D.Sc., OAM

How and why of fossil-fuel freedom

Two great events this weekend: Friday’s CANWin speaker forum shows us how to get to fossil-fuel freedom; on Saturday afternoon Robertson CTC showcases the at-risk wonders of icy Antarctica.

Flier for speaker night 27 Feb.

Antarctica: A photographic journey

Glenn Dawson is a freelance photographer specialising in wildlife and nature. He and his cameras have made four trips to the Arctic, Alaska and Canada. Penguins with chicks He has also travelled twice to Africa to work and photograph wildlife and landscape. Robertson is to be treated to a presentation by Glenn, sharing his love and knowledge of the Antarctic, and other lands he has visited with a focus on nature, wildlife and cultures. Suitable for all ages.

Saturday 28th February, 3pm – 5pm; tickets $10. For bookings, contact the CTC, tel. 02 4885 2665.

Australian business needs the RET

Clean Energy Council infographic: RET saves business $64million a year

More than 15,000 businesses have now installed a commercial-size solar power system. These businesses cover a broad range of sectors, from dairy and chicken farmers through to wineries, offices, supermarkets and retail outlets.

There is an increasing recognition that the current modest support provided by the RET means the business case for solar power makes sense, helping businesses become more competitive in tough economic conditions.

This is a very effective policy which is working well and will begin to phase out naturally from 2017. The rest of the world is going full-speed ahead on solar and there is a huge opportunity here for Australian businesses if we leave the RET alone.

[Kane Thornton, Clean Energy Council]

Tell your Federal MP, Australia needs the Renewable Energy Target scheme.

Throsby: Mr Stephen Jones

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Safe climate needs nuclear power

Rob Parker is a foundation member of CANWin whose engineering background underpins his understanding that the climate problem is enormous and urgent. In this article, the first in a series, Rob argues that renewables alone cannot reduce carbon emissions to a safe level; nuclear power must be part of the solution.
This view is likely to become a part of the policy debate in Australia. We hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments section below this article.

This is the first in a series of articles dealing with the use of nuclear power to address climate change. For many people this is a contentious concept and for some their response will be hostile and incredulous. As a “baby boomer” my own journey into advocacy for nuclear power hopefully explains why its immediate adoption is essential to saving our civilisation and environment.

Hand holding a burning Earth

Image sourced from http://iecblogs.org/about-iec-college/iec-fights-against-global-warming

My concern about climate change was ignited in 2005 when climate change awareness was growing and people were angry. We had a general revulsion against consumerism and rampant consumption. Corporate greed and ineffectual politicians were the enemies of the people and the environment and renewable energy solutions were thought to restore some level of control over our lives and return us to living in harmony with nature.

A wave of behavioural doctrines and solutions spread through the climate change movement. I researched alternative energy solutions and found that rarely was any analysis done to justify their adoption and at times perverse outcomes have resulted. A notable example is that of biofuels where markets have determined that more money can be made by displacing food production (for example, see here and here) or by destroying tropical habitats, especially of the Orangutan.

But regardless of the evident failure of “renewables” to make any real dent in our greenhouse gas emissions the “back to nature” movement would brook no opposition. For some, science and technology were seen as a part of this attack on our environment, so conceptually straightforward technologies harvesting nature’s free energy became the vogue. Typically we saw the large scale adoption of decentralised power systems such as roof top solar. The intermittency of these systems, which entrench the use of emissions intensive gas turbines, was and remains an inconvenient truth.

We will only get one chance to refashion our economy around low carbon technologies and people need to be held accountable for their opposition especially when it has no analytical basis. As James Hansen has recently observed:

“People who entreat the government to solve global warming but only offer support for renewable energies will be rewarded with the certainty that the U.S. and most of the world will be fracked-over, coal mining will continue, the Arctic, Amazon and other pristine public lands will be violated, and the deepest oceans will be ploughed for fossil fuels. Politicians are not going to let the lights go out or stop economic growth. Don’t blame Obama or other politicians. If we give them no viable option, we will be fracked and mined to death, and have no one to blame but ourselves.”

I detect similarities in science denial between the anti nuclear power brigade and the climate change sceptics. Again as James Hansen points out “There is no reciprocity from the supporters of renewable energy” with their preferred option being fossil fuel backup of renewable energy. “In other words replace carbon free nuclear power with a dual system, renewables plus gas. With this approach CO2 emissions will increase and it is certain that fracking will continue and expand into larger regions.”
The case I am making is for a clean low carbon industrial future, in harmony with and nurturing nature. For it is nature in the wondrous cosmic events such as the implosion of giant stars that gave our planet with immense improbability those elements essential to life such as iron, chromium, molybdenum or cadmium. These were created when stars in their final death throes fashioned and expelled these elements along with uranium and thorium into the cosmos. By a massive fluke these then aggregate into structures such as the Earth to enable life to flourish.

Mankind’s creativity can harness these elements from the magic furnace of the cosmos and use them to protect rather than assault our environment. My desire is to stop the industrialisation of our landscapes and to never entertain the massive network of towers and transmission lines that typify wind farms and solar plants. In an increasingly stressed landscape I wish to see nuclear powered desalinated seawater pumped inland so that we can remove many of the dams currently choking our increasingly climate stressed rivers.

As an engineer I became concerned that harvesting wind and solar power could not provide the amount of energy required to refashion our industrial economy around low carbon technologies. Nor could they do it in the time frame or within the carbon budgets that are required. We know the targets. We’ve been told often enough that a stabilisation target of 450 ppm carbon dioxide equivalent gives about a 50% chance of limiting global mean temperature increases to 2 degrees Celsius. This means Australia needs to reduce its annual emissions by 90% by 2050, which means that our electricity must be generated with emissions less than 90 grams per kilowatt hour.

A quick review of Australia’s energy consumption shows where our efforts need to be directed if we are to address our emissions by 2050.

Energy in Australia 2013, Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, Figure 10: Australia’s total energy consumption, by sector, 2010–11, Page 24

Energy in Australia 2013, Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics, Figure 10: Australia’s total energy consumption, by sector, 2010–11

a Includes ANZSIC Divisions F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q and the water, sewerage and drainage industries.

b Includes consumption of lubricants and greases, bitumen and solvents, as well as energy consumption in the gas production and distribution industries and statistical discrepancies. Totals may not add due to rounding.

Source: BREE 2012, Australian Energy Statistics.

The diagram shows that to make any meaningful reductions we need to be synthesising transport fuels and changing the ways we process metals or manufacture cement. Importantly we need to drive carbon out of our electricity generation. It’s no good claiming that we need to de-industrialise or have large cut backs on consumption. The scale of the industrial transition required to achieve a low carbon economy will dwarf our current production. Meaningful reductions will for example result in the hydrogen replacing coal in the smelting of steel with the result that steam rather than carbon dioxide is expelled. Likewise aluminium, known as “canned electricity” has to be smelted using massive amounts of reliable clean low carbon electricity. Our heavy road transport needs to move to electrified rail and our light car fleet converted to electricity. It’s obvious that we have not even started the process of real carbon reductions and all this needs to be done with speed and with massive energy density.

We will only get one go at transforming our energy base and any system that is unproven or has massive redundancy and does not stand up to analytical rigor must be excluded. No nation has yet made any significant greenhouse gas reductions using wind or solar power and certainly not with expensive storage systems.
France and Sweden are two standout examples whose nuclear powered electricity generation meets the levels required by 2050. This has resulted in electricity being generated with carbon emissions of 77 and 22 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour versus our 847(1). France achieved their transition in 22 years with almost double Australia’s generating capacity.

We have on this planet enough uranium to power the globe for tens of thousands of years. Nuclear power stations utilise materials some 20 times more efficiently than wind or solar power and in nations that embrace the technology, 1200 megawatt reactors are now built in around four years.

In five future papers I will explore the issues of radiation, reactor safety, used fuel deployment, proliferation resistance and the massive environmental and industrial benefits of nuclear energy. Much of this will come from my studies into nuclear physics at ANU. I hope you’ll stay around for all of them.

Robert Parker 14th April, 2014

Offline References

(1) International Energy Agency, CO2 EMISSIONS FROM FUEL COMBUSTION Highlights (2012 Edition), p111

Electric Communities

A version of this article appeared in the Southern Highland News, 9 October 2013. More articles from the CANWin column.

Petition to fund community energy

Click the image for information about more Australian community energy projects

We’re used to thinking of electricity as big and centralised. It’s generated by a few big corporations that trade with each other through the big power network. We buy it from businesses that are so big they use computerised people to answer their phones.

But does electricity have to be big business? Not any more. Renewables can put power into the hands of communities.

Community power, or community energy, are general names for various ways that groups of people are pooling their resources (such as space, money, and skills) into shared renewable energy projects.

Hepburn Wind, near Daylesford in Victoria, is a high-profile Australian example, but community power doesn’t have to mean wind power. The new Sydney International Convention, Exhibition and Entertainment Precinct at Darling Harbour will include a rooftop community solar park. It will enable inner-city residents who are renters or who do not have the roof space to invest in the technology.

Community energy projects are under way in many Australian regions too. Close to home, Wagga Wagga City Council has agreed to provide their energy usage data and site access to establish whether there is a sound economic and environmental case for the Council to host a community-owned solar farm. Riverina Community Solar Farm aims to find up to five hosts for solar systems, and a group on the Central Coast is investigating solar and biogas options.

A clever way to help cash-strapped community groups go renewable is through CORENA, the Citizens Owned Renewable Energy Network. CORENA is a not-for-profit that uses donations from the public to fund practical renewable energy projects. Electricity sales and loan repayments from completed projects finance future projects, thus continuously recycling donated money. In their own words, CORENA “… is people power reaching far into the future”.

You can donate to small or large projects through the CORENA website at corenafund.org.au

Working out the financial and governance arrangements for community power takes significant effort. Most groups set themselves up as co-operatives, drawing on the century of experience developed by co-operatives in other fields. Information and help is also available from Embark Australia, a privately-funded not-for-profit that is “…working to shift the community energy sector into the mainstream, as a proven and financially viable model capable of attracting large-scale investment and growing to meet its full potential.”

For more information about community energy, see the websites of:
Embark
Climate Rescue of Wagga
Renew Economy

At last, a fossil carbon price

Today Australia starts to charge some 300 businesses and organisations for the fossil carbon they release to the air. The carbon price they pay will go towards helping us all adjust to the new, clean energy century.

Clean energy is especially important for regional Australia because it makes sense at all scales, from solar panels on traffic warning signs to multi MegaWatt solar thermal power stations. Small scale projects don’t hit the headlines, but hundreds of renewable energy systems are already making their mark on national demand.

Continue reading

Clean Energy Roadshow

Stories from the Clean Energy Frontline

The vast majority of Australians support a move to 100% clean energy.But some think we’re not ready yet.

The Nature Conservation Council of NSW (NCC) is hitting the road, sharing real stories from the clean energy frontline which prove that we’re 100% ready to start making the switch.

Hear real people tell their stories from the clean energy frontline: workers, farmers, small businesses, big businesses, inventors, investors and community leaders are seeing big benefits for themselves, their communities and Australia from the work that’s going on around the country.

Registrations are now open for clean energy forums in Wollongong, Queanbeyan and Wagga Wagga.  

For details of times and places, see the Nature Conservation Council website.