Clouding a bright solar thermal future

The July 31 Australian Energy Technology Assessment from the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics has been hailed by the government, and renewable energy advocates, as a step forward for Australia’s ‘clean energy future’.

It is true that the estimates in the AETA are an improvement over the recent Energy White Paper. However, its modelling of high future costs for Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) energy are based on assumptions that are not specified, and so cannot be held up to scrutiny. This makes it impossible to judge their accuracy or compare them to alternative scenarios.

The Australian Energy Market Operator is soon to begin modelling a 100 per cent renewable energy grid for Australia. (You can see its scoping document here)

Beyond Zero Emissions is concerned that the confusion on CST costs caused by the AETA could lead to false results in AEMO’s modelling. CST is the key technology for achieving 100 per cent renewable energy in Australia.

Santos’ shale gas adventure to slug SA households over $260 a year.

Santos’ foray into expensive shale gas will increase household bills by a whopping $263 each year.

Santos has admitted that shale gas will double the wholesale price of gas, adding $163 to average gas bills, but neglected to mention the impact on electricity prices, which will add at least $100 to household power bills.

Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) spokesperson Mark Ogge said that “South Australia is dependent on gas for half its electricity. Doubling the wholesale price of gas will cost consumers another $100 or more on their power bill, bringing the total increase to more than $260.”

“Santos will make a killing out of shale, but households and businesses will pay for it, particularly since the company has point blank refused to put any gas aside for South Australians,” says Mr Ogge.

“Shale gas is a step backwards for South Australia,” says Mr Ogge. “These are unnecessary price rises, when there is an obvious alternative.

“South Australia is one of the sunniest places on earth. Investing in solar allows South Australians to avoid becoming dependent on polluting and expensive unconventional gas.”

Santos Moomba gas plant

Using coal exports as a lever for climate action

In the first part of this article, we provided evidence that suggests Australia’s current coal exports, and more so their projected doubling by 2020, is unlikely to be replaced by other international coal exporters, should Australia withdraw from the market.

We argued that restricting Australia’s coal exports could constrict the demand for coal – by pushing up the international market price. Our LNG exports could follow a similar path.

We drew on the report Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, published by climate and renewables think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions. The argument in that report is for a moratorium on increasing coal and LNG exports, and seeking agreements with other countries to begin phasing out those exports in tandem with deploying and developing renewable energy.

We can get a sense of just how much Australia can affect prices for these commodities, simply by looking at what the January 2011 Queensland floods did to coal prices. Around 34 per cent of Australia’s coal exports were affected (and Australia exports around 27 per cent of the world’s traded coal; that means there was a drop of nearly 10 per cent in traded coal).

While metallurgical (coking) coal prices spiked by as much as 150 per cent, “Thermal coal prices were also pushed up, with the benchmark price for thermal coal to Japan, Australia’s largest coal buyer, settled at a record $129.85 per tonne in April 2011.”

So what can restricting Australia’s coal exports leverage, and how is the best way to do it?

Can Australia’s coal customers shop elsewhere?

At the Climate Commission public meeting in Melbourne on July 24, when responding to a question, a Commissioner used what some call the drug dealer’s defence: if Australia stopped exporting coal, others would fill the gap.

Climate Commissioner Gerry Hueston explained that, in relation to Australia’s exports, “The key is to reduce the demand for these greenhouse heavy fuels, and if we stop supplying coal and perhaps even gas to some of these developing economies they’ll get it from somewhere else. So, it doesn’t solve the problem… they’ll get it from somewhere else too, if you put the price up.”

Newcastle coal ships queuing

Picture: Coal ships queuing off Newcastle

The previous night, a somewhat larger crowd gathered for the launch of the new report Laggard to Leader: How Australia can lead the world to zero carbon prosperity, published by climate and renewables think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions.

Report authors Fergus Green and Reuben Finighan outlined a very different view on Australia’s coal exports. Not only are they our responsibility, but they could be a point of leverage to kick-start a serious global response to climate change. If Australia stopped the expansion of our coal and gas export industry, and started moving towards phasing them out, it would accelerate the global transition to renewable energy.

Gillard misses the real opportunities to reduce power bills and emissions

August 8, 2012

If Gillard wants to support households against price-gouging by electricity companies, she should look closer at renewable energy and energy efficiency, according to think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE).

Electricity retailers accused of over-investing in grid infrastructure (like poles and wires) would lose their justification if peak energy use spikes were reduced.  

One easy way would be to continue with programs such as the ill-fated roof insulation scheme of the Rudd government. Upgrading inefficient airconditioners would be another low-hanging fruit.

“We have estimated that subsidising half the cost of upgrading old, inefficient home aircon units could save the public about $2900 in avoided network upgrade costs per unit replaced,” says Matthew Wright, executive director of BZE.

“Solar panels and wind farms also keep prices down, because they displace the more expensive peak gas generators,” Mr Wright said. “This is known as the Merit Order Effect.

Germany’s solar panels would provide 25% of Australia’s electricity

If you took all the solar panels in Germany and put them in Australia, they would supply a quarter of our electricity demand.

In the first six months of 2012, 4.5% of total electricity demand in Germany was met by solar power. Put that capacity onto Australian rooftops, and it would supply 25% of our electricity.

Compare this to Australia’s weak efforts to meet the 20% renewable energy target, which has only achieved 4% additional renewables (wind and solar) in the last 5 years.

Germany’s solar capacity has grown 500% since 2007. The German government recently announced a 52-gigawatt target for rooftop solar capacity, to be achieved over the next 3-4 years. This would supply the equivalent of 50% of our electricity if installed in Australia’s sun.

Given the big reductions in solar panel costs in recent years, the cost of this rollout in Australia would be one quarter (25%) of what Germany has paid to date.

“Germany’s shining example is not alone,” says Matthew Wright, Executive Director of Beyond Zero Emissions.

“China has increased its 2015 target five-fold, and that is even expected to be exceeded.

“The rate of installation which we have seen overseas shows Australia is aiming far too low.

“We should set a target of 25% of our power from rooftop solar panels. Surely sunny Australia can match cold, cloudy Germany.

“Our large-scale renewables target should be increased to at least 25% by 2020, to drive the kind of wind power expansion we’ve already seen in South Australia across the nation.”

Germany has used feed-in tariffs for renewable energy generators, small and large, which is how they have driven their expansion.

“Before Campbell Newman slashed Queensland’s solar feed-in tariff, the state was seeing 1000 solar installations per day,” Mr Wright said.

“This solar installed behind the meter actually saves consumers money, as well as directly cutting our carbon emissions.

“It’s obvious we can do much better. If we set these targets we can achieve them with the proven feed-in tariff mechanism.”

Beyond Zero Emissions published the Zero Carbon Australia stationary energy plan in 2010 which showed how to go to 100% renewable energy in ten years.

In September, BZE will launch the Zero Carbon Australia buildings plan, which will recommend a massive increase in rooftop solar installations across the country.

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Solar Thermal Models Built

Another four of our famous solar thermal models have been built in NSW, thanks to the efforts of Beyond Zero Emissions volunteers, the Paramatta Climate Action Network, and the Granville Men’s Shed. The models are of a concentrated solar thermal plant with a molten salt storage (CST+) power station. They are used to engage and educate the public in the renewable energy discussion.

The models were unveiled to the public at Parramatta Mall last week, generating a lot of interest from curious passers-by.

“The model we already have has always generated interest, but when we had four models side by side this time, it took me twice as long to set them up because people kept stopping to ask about them,” said BZE volunteer Terry McBride. “People asked a lot of questions about what the models were and how they worked, so we talked to them about how the solar plants can produce 24-hour power, and gave them information to take away. It’s a great tool because some people go on the website and download the Plan, and even change their lifestyle. The people who don’t still come away with the knowledge that [renewable energy] can generate 24-hour power, and realise that they’re being lied to by the people who say otherwise.”

Granville Men’s Shed president Bill Tibben also expressed his enthusiasm for the joint venture. “This type of project is a win-win for the Men’s Shed. We get to put our minds to work on how to build it, as well as educate ourselves on renewable energy. It is then used as an educational tool for a very important issue in the community right now.”

According to McBride, one model would stay in Parramatta while the others will be sent interstate. Two will go to South Australia to join the ‘RepowerPort Augusta’ campaign, and another is bound for climate action groups in Victoria.

WME leaders list 2012: GOVERNMENT + NGO LEADER

The idealistic realist

Matthew Wright
Outfit: Beyond Zero Emissions
Position: Executive Director

Completely decarbonising our coal-rich nation by 2020 might be seen as an idealistic notion, but not to Matthew Wright. As co-founder of the NGO Beyond Zero Emissions, he has provided insight into an Australian future powered only by renewable energy. As challenging as this may be for some policymakers and industry players, Wright still considers himself very much a realist.

“We look at how to get to a completely decarbonised economy as cheaply as we can by using international off-the-shelf technology,” he says.

Since BZE doesn’t receive any government or industry funding, relying on donations alone, Wright says the biggest achievement so far has been to provide a research-based transition plan for Australia’s energy future.

This plan, Zero Carbon Australia 2020 was started as an initiative of BZE and the Climate Emergency Network with support from Climate Positive. ZCA is now a research collaboration between BZE and the University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute.

Work on the plan commenced in early 2009 and encompasses stationary energy, transport, housing and construction, land use, industrial processes and replacing coal export revenue. Version one of the stationary energy plan has been published.

Aside from its research contribution, perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of BZE is the organisation itself. Over the last six years it has attracted more than 500 volunteers working on a renewable energy future, simply because “they love it”, Wright says.

Now we’re cooking without gas!

Zero emissions buildings are good for your health

Common wisdom has it that gas is the best for cooking and it’s the most efficient for heating.

This thinking is out of date, as will be demonstrated in a talk at the Healthy Buildings Symposium by Trent Hawkins, Buildings Plan project director for renewable energy think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE).

The health risks from gas are sadly well known. Gas leaks from old hot-water systems have asphyxiated people. Leaky gas pipes have caused explosions. Old gas heaters and stoves may produce toxic carbon monoxide gas, and often start fires.

But is there a responsible, environmentally friendly alternative?

Modern reverse-cycle airconditioners can provide heating at a high level of efficiency. This is because they don’t try to create heat – they just concentrate heat in the air, and move it into (or out of) buildings with a heat pump. It’s the same way a refrigerator works.

The best performing units can now deliver 5 joules of heat for every joule of electricity they consume. Heat pumps can also provide hot water efficiently without using gas. 

The most efficient electric stoves avaliable are induction cooktops, which are the standard in Europe. The induction process means the stovetop doesn’t heat up like a gas or electric element stove – another health bonus when you consider the risk of burns and fire.

Of course, gas is also a fossil fuel, and increasingly dirty as we move into coal-seam gas production.

BZE’s Zero Carbon Australia buildings plan will be released in September this year.

The plan will show how to get a massive reduction in the amount of energy used to heat, light and cool our homes and commercial buildings. This is consistent with the recommendations of the previously published stationary energy plan, which outlined a realistic way to a 100% renewable electricity grid.

The buildings plan doesn’t only advocate replacing gas with modern appliances. It also proposes to insulate buildings and reduce air-infiltration. This means less exposure to extreme temperatures, increasing health and  comfort.

Trent will speak from 11:45AM to 12:45PM on Monday July 9, at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, Plaza Terrace auditorium. This talk is free –for more information or to reserve a place, visit:

For info on the Healthy Buildings Symposium


For more information contact Trent Hawkins on  407 070 841       

or Emma Carton (BZE QLD general manager)416 584 769     

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