Archive for April, 2016

A greener shade of black

Finding the time to read all the stuff published that is germane to Australia’s electricity and gas supply plus carbon policies, and this includes international material, is a challenge.

I have just got round, for example, to reading the latest New South Wales “State of the Environment” report (240 pages) that was released on 19 March (and can be found on the NSW Environment Protection Agency website).

The Fairfax Media take on this publication at the time was that, despite the State community’s commitment to recycling, 94 per cent of people got their energy from non-renewable sources. Now there’s a surprise………and, of course, this needed to be prominently linked with environmental groups declaring “it is time for NSW to move away from the 20th Century’s fuel sources and get serious about the transition to sustainable forms of energy.”

That is the war cry of the post-materialists, who I recently saw defined (by a Monash University academic) as “social progressives who have views over a range of issues that have nothing to do with the vagaries of the industrial economy” and by a media political commentator as “well-educated, inner city renters, public transport users and politically promiscuous.”

They can only be expected to increase in NSW as the State population rises from 7.6 million to an anticipated 9.2 million in 2031, according to the government, with the majority of growth focused in Greater Sydney.

As readers well know, NSW is the largest regional economy in the country and it uses a quarter of the total energy consumed nationally, so what happens in the State is of countrywide importance.

The story of what’s not happening with gas within NSW borders is too well known to require repeating today, but the overall picture doesn’t often get attention: for example, 90 per cent of State energy needs are met via fossil fuels (coal, gas and petroleum products) with a quarter of demand being via electricity.

The largest user of overall energy is now transport (42.5 per cent), followed by manufacturing industry (38.6 per cent), then households (11.3 per cent) and commercial (7.6 per cent).

Looking at electricity alone, the break-up of shares is 34.6 per cent industrial, 34.3 per cent residential and 24.7 per cent commercial (including public services) – or to put it another way, almost 60 per cent of consumption is by business and public services . Quality, reliability and affordability of supply flows in to the State economy and eventually to jobs.

When last did anyone in NSW, reading or viewing the media, have this point made to him or her?

One of the things the government wants to sell via the new report is that electricity supplied from renewable sources is “growing strongly” in NSW – but the reality (using the EPA paper data) is that, including supply from Snowy Hydro, the zero-emissions contribution was 10.8 per cent in 2014.

The dominant NSW source of power by a long way, although reduced from 2008 when demand peaked, is coal (82.3 per cent) with gas contributing 6.9 per cent.

If you take the Snowy’s contribution out of the State renewables picture, you find that solar photovoltaics provided 3.3 per cent of supply and wind 2.1 per cent with other hydro and biomass roughly one per cent each.

Talk of 50-fold increase in solar since 2008 (as the report does) and a 25-fold rise in wind generation may impress the energy illiterate, and encourage the post-materialists, but is hardly a harbinger of a green revolution just around the corner.

The report’s bottom line (available with a bit of digging) with respect to power is that the 2014 contribution of coal generation was 54,388 GWh versus 975 GWh for wind, 1,456 GWh for solar and 1,030 GWh for bagasse, landfill and other bio-energy. The contribution from gas was 4,600 GWh – or more than all the non-hydro renewables put together.

The State Environment Minister and his department would do something worthwhile, I suggest, if they pointed out how many wind turbines, for example, would be needed to replace just half of NSW coal generation, what this would cost in capital and how much land would be required for the farms – but this clearly is a bridge too far for them.

Capacity factor comes in to this, so a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests part of the answer to my question would be north of 5,000 turbines of 3 MW capacity.

What would this represent in total system costs (the question raised by royal commissioner Scarce in South Australia) and in impacts on the final power bill for industrial, commercial and residential customers in NSW?

If a government with a strong majority in State parliament, virtually no ownership of generation and no need to face the voters again until March 2019 can’t bring itself to ask such questions and get the answers in to the public debate, then who will?

At least so far as electricity is concerned, I am left with a strong view that the Baird government is more focused on greenwashing itself (via this report and in other ways) than addressing the community energy illiteracy problem, which is really quite a disappointment.

In another life, I once seriously annoyed the CEO of a large government-owned generation business (not in NSW) by suggesting (publicly) that he was bent on painting it a greener shade of black. Would it be unfair, with respect to electricity supply, to suggest that this is to a certain extent what the NSW government is trying to do in this report?