Earth to moon in 8 years, Melbourne to Brisbane in 45

By Gerard Drew

When John F. Kennedy saw a challenge worth taking he decided to get on with it as quickly as humanly possible, and in eight years Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon. On the other hand, our federal transport minister would have us believe building a high-speed railway from Melbourne to Brisbane will take 45 years.

The economic windfall which high speed rail will deliver to Australia has finally been recognised by the federal government, and that's a good thing. But political delay and gold-plating could leave this as just a dream for another two generations of Australians.

Forty-five years is laughable.

Much has been made of the ‘technical and logistical challenge’, but we must get some perspective. Australia is in large part flat and vacant – a luxury that no other country operating HSR (high-speed rail) can boast. While there are some challenging points on the alignment, such as from Sydney to the Central Coast, a high proportion of the route is flat fields.

Spain and China have been rapidly constructing HSR in order to reduce the huge cost to those countries of imported oil and have completed 3,000km and 15,000km of track respectively in the past decade alone.

Indeed, these findings are an insult to the capability of Australia’s construction industry.

High Speed Rail. Image Source: Better Nation

Beyond Zero Emissions has done its own study on the HSR route in partnership with the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). The research, which will be published in full in May, indicates that the chosen HSR route could instead be built for around $70 billion.

On Board With High-Speed Rail: But Will it Really Cost so Much?

By Justin McGar

The release of the final report of Federal Infrastructure and Transport Minister Anthony Albanese’s High Speed Rail (HSR) Study has been strongly supported by many sectors, but some have argued the project can be delivered quicker and cheaper than the Government thinks.

The proposed high-speed rail network would run between Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane, significantly improving the long and medium-distance transport capacity for Australia’s east coast.

Engineers Australia chief executive officer Stephen Durkin said HSR would demonstrate a “clear commitment to Australia’s economic prosperity” and provide the engineering profession with significant opportunities in the planning and delivery of this major infrastructure project.

“As Engineers Australia alerted to in the release of its National Infrastructure Report Card Series in 2010, there has long been a need to expand Australia’s rail networks to enable access by a larger proportion of the population across urban areas. The proposed high-speed rail network would demonstrate a clear commitment to sustainable transport options,” he said.

“An efficient high-speed rail network for Australia’s eastern seaboard will encourage commuters to choose rail as their preferred method of transport, helping to ease road and airport congestion. This is imperative in light of the ongoing political indecision surrounding a second airport for Sydney.”

While the Federal Government has promoted the economic benefits of the planned high speed rail extending from Melbourne to Brisbane, Labor has yet to fully commit to the project, which is expected to cost around $114 billion and take more than four decades to finish.

High Speed Rail. Pic: Reuters/Jason Lee

Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), an independent climate solutions think tank and high-speed rail supporter, has said however that Albanese has got things wrong when it comes to the anticipated high costs and the 45-year timeline.

Electricity prices fall: renewable energy deserves merit

By Dylan McConnell

Dylan McConnell is a Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne

Let’s be honest: the relationship between renewable energy and the electricity market is complex. So what does the latest report from Australian energy research firm RepuTex tell us?

Well, for a start, coal-fired power has reached a ten-year low.

The report, widely covered in the media, shows coal now makes up 74.8% of the National Electricity Market (NEM), down from 85.8% in 2008-2009.

At the same time the contribution of other energy, and renewable energy in particular, has risen. Hydro power makes up 8.7% of the market, with wind making up 3.8%, both record highs for these energy sources. This leads to the conclusion that greenhouse emissions in the NEM have also reached a ten-year low.

The RepuTex report indicates that both increased renewable energy generation and weaker demand is putting a “squeeze” on traditional generation.

This is ultimately reducing the market price of electricity as renewable energy competes with coal and other traditional energy sources. But, as said, the relationship between renewable energy, competition and market prices is complex.

Does renewable energy lower prices?

In 2011 the Victorian Auditor-General reported that the brown coal industry was concerned that the 10% renewable energy target would deliver too much too quickly which would reduce wholesale electricity prices and impact on brown coal generators.

We looked back and modelled the hypothetical impact of distributed solar photovoltaics (PV) on electricity prices in 2009 and 2010. Lowering the wholesale cost of electricity might offset the costs of renewable energy support schemes.

Using the model we estimated introducing 5,000 megawatts (MW) of solar would lower the market price of electricity by more than A$1.8 billion over 2009 and 2010. When we completed this analysis there was a minuscule 385 MW of solar in the electricity market. Now there is already 2,500 MW, making our estimate look conservative.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) forecasts 12,000 MW to be installed by 2030 in their “moderate” scenario. The impact of PV on market demand is already starting to show on the market.

The average wholesale electricity prices for 2011-12 were the lowest (in real terms) since the market commenced in 1998. Even with the carbon tax, prices are not much above the long-term average of about A$50 per megawatt hour (adjusted to 2013 dollar terms). Recently, the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) reported that wind generation is moderating wholesale electricity prices in South Australia, and when there is less wind, prices are higher.

True size of solar subsidies exaggerated, researchers say

By Peter Hannam

The true cost to consumers of subsidies to solar energy has been “somewhat exaggerated” because regulators have excluded the full benefits of solar photovoltaic panels, according to energy researchers.

While feed-in tariffs and upfront rebates have been criticised by officials and fossil-fuel fired generators for increasing consumers' electricity bills, a peer-reviewed research paper by researchers including Mike Sandiford at the Melbourne Energy Institute and Matthew Wright from Beyond Zero Emissions, found those costs are partly offset by lower wholesale power prices.

“By not considering this value, the cost of both feed-in tariffs and (Small-scale Technology Certificates) is somewhat exaggerated,” the paper, to be published this week in the Energy Policy journal, said. The contribution from solar in pushing down wholesale prices is "not recognised by the wider public”, the paper concluded.

The influence on wholesale electricity prices works via the so-called merit order effect. Under the National Electricity Market pricing scheme, the cheapest source of power gets preference. As more wind and solar energy gets added to the network, their negligible cost of production helps drive down prices across the network - a result that should benefit consumers.

"The question is whether we see that (saving) in the retail prices," Professor Sandiford said. "In an efficient market, we'd expect that to flow through."

Gas – is it a natural fit for buildings?

By Richard Keech

(Note: This article has been updated to correct leakage rate that cause the net climate effect of gas to double. The leakage rate is 2.6%, not 1% as originally published)

According to the Department of Climate Change and Energy Efficiency website, old electric-element-style hot water systems (that about half of households still have) “produce up to three times the greenhouse gas emissions of low emission technologies such as gas, solar and heat pump systems.”

The website recommends, that “changing your electric water heater for a low emission gas, heat pump or solar system, you can reduce your energy consumption, cut your greenhouse gas emissions and save money on your power bills.”

As far as heat pumps go, and electric or heat pump boosted solar, it’s hard to argue. But for fossil gas appliances, that “low emissions” tag is plain wrong. Now, we could just criticise it by asking whether “low emissions”  is good enough. Many think there’s enough scary climate science reports to mean that “low emissions” halfway measures are not good enough.

It’s true that at the point of combustion, fossil gas produces about half the emissions of coal for the same amount of energy. We could debate about whether the emissions cup is half full or half empty at this point, but that would be a diversion. In truth, if you look past the point of combustion, the cup is overflowing.

Previously, Beyond Zero Emissions have pointed to the fugitive/migratory emissions from coal-seam gas as a big question for just how low the emissions of future (and some current) gas supply will be. This concern is now gaining mainstream attention, as evidenced by the ABC TV Four Corners program last week. It’s a serious worry, given that CSG is the fossil gas industry’s future.

Beyond Zero Emissions’ Buildings Plan researchers have put together a short briefing paper drawing on the available research into the various problems of using gas, and conclude that gas use should be phased out (in buildings in particular) – based primarily on its climate impact.

The key reason is that all gas networks leak, not just at the well head. The only question is how much. There is some limited data out of South Australia that suggests the gas networks’ leakage there is in the order of 7%, whereas official government figures put it at around 1.5% nationwide. In reality, in most areas, it’s probably somewhere in between.

Another myth busted on the road to 100% renewable electricity

By Mark Diesendorf

Ten years ago it was extraordinary for scientists, engineers, policy-makers and decision-makers to consider the possibility of 100 per cent renewable electricity for a country or group of countries. However, the progress of several key renewable energy technologies has been so rapid that the scene has totally changed since then.

Solar photovoltaic modules have dropped about 75 per cent in price. Current scientific and technological advances in the laboratory suggest that they will soon be so cheap that the principal cost of going solar on residential and commercial buildings will be installation. On-shore wind power is spreading over all continents and is economically competitive with fossil and nuclear power in several regions. Concentrated solar thermal power (CST) with thermal storage has moved from the demonstration stage of maturity to the limited commercial stage and still has the potential for further cost reductions of about 50 per cent.

Two countries, Denmark and Scotland, have official targets for 100% renewable electricity, Denmark by 2050 and Scotland, which already has a lot of hydro, by 2020. To meet its official greenhouse gas target of at least 80 per cent reduction in emissions by 2050, Germany will have to achieve close to 100 per cent renewable electricity too. The governments of these countries are not just talking – they are implementing policies to achieve their targets.

Hour-by-hour computer simulations of 80-100 per cent renewable electricity are an inexpensive and informative means of investigating different options and for busting some of the old myths about renewable energy. They have been performed for at least eight countries and regions. In Australia a ground-breaking single simulation was performed by the NGO Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) and published in 2010.

Subsequently the University of New South Wales group of Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and Mark Diesendorf performed many simulations of 100 per cent renewable electricity in the National Electricity Market (NEM). In our initial research on the technological feasibility, we found that we could change some of the expensive assumptions made in the BZE study, namely discard the hypothetical transmission link to Western Australia and greatly reduce the large proportion of CST power stations, and still meet the NEM’s reliability criterion. We could further increase the reliability by making small reductions in the winter peak demands through energy efficiency or demand reduction using ‘smart’ devices.

Driving energy demand back 30 years

By Tristan Edis

Last week I attended a presentation looking at just how much we could reduce household energy consumption within 10 years without loss of comfort or amenity just by using technology already readily available. 

The results were striking and worthy of entry to Climate Spectator’s charts of the week. 

In findings that should send chills down the spines of energy suppliers, co-author Lloyd Harrington outlined that it was technically feasible to cut household energy consumption (both gas and electricity) in half compared to a business as usual path within 10 years. This would mean energy consumption would be brought down to levels that prevailed when Back to the Future was at the cinema.

For those who’ve never heard of Lloyd Harrington, he is like a walking, talking encyclopaedia on the energy consumption of electric and gas appliances and equipment.  He can cite passages from arcane technical standards governing everything from televisions to refrigerators to light bulbs. Then he’ll proceed to tell you how some Asian appliance manufacturer managed to game the test procedure for refrigerators through some clever computer software. 

I’ve seen him in Australian Standards meetings even manage to out-argue appliance manufacturers with superior understanding of the technical characteristics of their own products. 

Over the years he has steadily built-up an incredibly detailed computer model of each of the different items that influence energy consumption in Australian households down to the level of individual appliances. He has constructed this using in-house surveys, appliance sales data, and cross checks against energy consumption data from government and utilities.

So, in other words, people should think twice before dismissing this analysis as the product of some starry-eyed greenie.

According to Harrington, the chart below illustrates Australia’s historic and current path for residential energy consumption without further government policy.

Australian household energy consumption by fuel-function type 1986 to 2020

Source: Energy Efficient Strategies and Beyond Zero Emissions

Germany grabs renewable lead as Australia drops back

By Finn Peacock


In 2009, Germany sprinted past the European Union's 12 per cent Renewable Energy Target three years ahead of schedule.


Germany's response? Raise the bar.


Europe's biggest economy is now aiming for 35 per cent of energy to be derived from renewable sources by 2020, 50 per cent by 2030, 65 per cent by 2040 and 80 per cent by 2050.

Everybody in the house say yeah

By Michael Green

To get to zero emissions, residents need to walk the talk.

In 2008, the City of Yarra set a target to be carbon neutral by 2020. Not just council headquarters - the entire inner-city municipality. But how does a whole district go carbon neutral? It can't rely on government subsidies, or an unforeseen technological breakthrough, says Alex Fearnside, chief executive of Yarra Energy Foundation, the organisation established in 2010 to make it happen.

Instead, it needs to start with residents pounding the pavements, knocking on doors and sharing their knowledge. That's the cornerstone of the foundation's campaign, called Yarra Project Zero.

''We have some very active citizens already. We know that about one-in-10 households and one-in-20 businesses are well on the way to zero emissions,'' he says. ''Yarra Project Zero is about recording those stories and making them known to others. It's about amplifying them, and showing that retrofitting is a normal and practical action to take.''

As a baseline, the foundation calculated Yarra's carbon footprint from electricity and gas use in 2008-09. About a quarter of those emissions come from households, and the rest from businesses, large and small.

(The zero emissions target also includes the impact of transport, consumption, food and waste - but the project starts with electricity and gas.)

Moore plan would foster fracking, say advocates

by Ben Cubby

ENVIRONMENT groups have attacked the trigeneration energy plan of the lord mayor, Clover Moore, saying it would entrench coal seam gas and stifle wind and solar power.

The City of Sydney council plans to slash the city's greenhouse gas emissions to 70 per cent below 2006 levels over the next 17 years, mainly by building a network of miniature gas-fired power plants around the inner city.

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