The big, ugly mess that is national energy policy

The story of rising power prices is very different from what our political leaders tell us.

Gold-plating transmission networks seemed like a good idea when energy demand was high. PHOTO Pixabay

Gold-plating transmission networks seemed like a good idea when energy demand was high. PHOTO Pixabay

There’s an idea doing the rounds that rising power bills are a direct result of rich people putting solar panels on roofs. It’s vaguely plausible, often repeated – and wrong.

It’s true that Australian electricity, once comparatively cheap, is now among the most expensive in the world. But the causes have almost nothing to do with the cost of renewable energy.

Solar energy is no longer the preserve of the rich. In the 1970s the total retail cost of a home system in Australia was as high as $200 per watt of electricity produced; now it’s around $1.60 a watt. An average-sized system, fully installed, now costs between $4000 and $4500.

So it remains feasible to install rooftop solar systems in Tasmania even though the return on electricity is now less than a quarter what it was four years ago. Here and elsewhere, the low feed-in tariff is a net gain for retailers. So there’s no price pressure from that quarter.

After a state-wide blackout in South Australia last September, triggered when a windstorm flattened power pylons, senior politicians including Malcolm Turnbull have argued that accelerated rollout of intermittent solar and wind energy has disrupted the smooth functioning of the grid.

Over summer, other blackouts occurred elsewhere in the national electricity market (NEM), which covers all of eastern Australia, including Tasmania, and South Australia. But it was the latter state, with its high proportion of wind and solar power, that copped most of the flack.

Tasked with investigating the NEM, chief scientist Alan Finkel won’t finish his final report until mid-2017, but his preliminary report gave a strong hint that he would not be advocating any cutback in the rollout of renewable energy.

Parameters have changed in the 18 years since the NEM was established, said Finkel. He saw the rapid emergence of new power sources and technologies combined with declining demand for grid electricity as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity” for NEM reform.

Wind turbine controllers, batteries, synchronous condensers and other new technologies could improve system security, he said, but “the NEM does not currently encourage their adoption.”

More open-cycle gas generators would be a good complement for variable wind and solar, but export contracts had led to a tight domestic supply of gas, the report said. “The need for greater gas supplies for electricity generation is increasingly urgent.”

But there’s a much bigger factor. A decade ago, projections of rising electricity demand persuaded power utilities, notably state-owned ones in NSW and Queensland, to spend billions of dollars over multiple years to upgrade transmission towers, poles and cables.

Instead, demand went down, leaving a huge debt burden to pay off. Householders wanting to understand why power bills keep rising need look no further than that.

Tasmania was more prudent in managing its transmission infrastructure, as TasNetworks CEO Lance Balcombe pointed out at last week’s excellent Social Change Institute (UTAS) future energy panel discussion. But like all participants in NEM it has to wear some of the consequences.

We can expect all this to be thoroughly explored in an investigation of retail electricity prices by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, ordered a fortnight ago by treasurer Scott Morrison and due to report back in late September.

Hopefully this and the Finkel inquiry will provide ideas for fixing our failing electricity market. One certainty is that neither investigation will be putting any blame for those rising retail prices on the much-maligned carbon tax, killed off in 2014.

In fact, an ultimate solution has to include some sort of price on carbon, the Grattan Institute’s energy specialist Tony Wood told the UTAS event last week. His view is that it’s a key element in bringing stability to energy markets.

A growing chorus of economists and business interests – including some coal-power generators – supports that view, but it’s going nowhere for now. The Turnbull government faces a roadblock of anti-carbon price diehards in its own ranks.

So national energy policy has come down to partisan pride. The result is a big, ugly mess.

Posted in Australian politics, business interests, carbon, carbon pricing scheme, carbon tax, climate politics, economic activity, electricity networks, energy, leadership, renewable energy, solar, wind | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sea level: doing nothing is no option

The inevitability of future sea level rise requires action now.

Storm surge at Howrah Beach during a wild weather event in December 2016. PHOTO Sam Rosewarne, The Mercury

Storm surge at Howrah Beach during a wild weather event in December 2016. PHOTO Sam Rosewarne, The Mercury

I take my hat off to Hobart City for its persistent efforts to get its people engaged with that bothersome matter of climate change, specifically what it will do to low-lying coastal land.

Last time they tried a coastal community forum, for residents of highly-priced, highly-susceptible Nutgrove in lower Sandy Bay, they didn’t get the level of engagement they hoped for.

This week they’re trying again, this time with people living between Wrest Point and Battery Point, including another bit of low-lying real estate, Marieville Esplanade.

To get the ball rolling they’ve released an assessment of the precinct’s “coastal adaptation pathways” for coming decades. Residents wanting to learn more are invited to a “drop-in” at the Derwent Sailing Squadron on Marieville Esplanade from 2 pm this Thursday and Friday.

The Marieville Esplanade Coastal Adaptation Pathways (MECAP) analysis uses the government’s sea level rise planning allowances of 0.2 m higher by 2050 and 0.8 m higher by 2100. The additional impact of river flooding, storm surge and king tides isn’t included in those figures.

What do our rising seas have in store for these much-desired parts of our coastal cities? MECAP cites projections by the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO and international agencies, but any property owners who want certainty will be disappointed, because there isn’t any.

Evidence from ages past, however, does indicate where we’ll finish up. In the Pliocene epoch, from three to five million years ago, temperatures were about the same as today and carbon dioxide in the air peaked about where it is now – and the global ocean was at least five metres higher.

Past warm periods show that for every 1C of temperature rise, sea level is between 2.5 and 5 m higher. Warming is now on a trajectory that would take us well above 2C, so we should expect sea levels eventually to be at least 5 m higher than today and probably much more.

Science tells us nothing like that will happen within the lifetime of anyone alive today, but it will happen. While the annual rise in sea level today is measured in millimetres (currently about 3.2 mm), one day it will be in centimetres, and eventually we may be describing it in tens of centimetres.

After 2000 years of very stable sea levels, now they’re on the move. Scientists are bothered, but people and governments, on the whole, aren’t. Another journey back to the distant past may throw some light on this.

Daniel Gilbert, a psychology professor at Harvard University, says that over many millennia humans have evolved a powerful ability to respond and adapt to many threats, but those threats are mostly about other people and animals and current events. They don’t include a changing climate.

Our brain, says Gilbert, has evolved to deal with things that are intentional, immoral, imminent and instantaneous. We’ve learned to be sensitive to other people’s intentions, to right and wrong behaviour, and to things that are happening now and happening quickly.

Rising sea level is none of these things, but as Gilbert points out, a newly-evolved part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, gives us the ability to conceive of past and future, enabling us to learn from past experiences and imagine how we can influence the future – as MECAP seeks to do.

To clarify the path ahead MECAP offers three options: plan and execute an early retreat, or protect what we have and disallow new development, or do the same while allowing development. The first option will cost much less than the last, but none will be cheap and all will involve some pain.

Hobart City could have taken a fourth option: do nothing at all and let people fend for themselves. But like all Tasmanian local authorities responsible for coastal lands, it knows that would be a fool’s choice.

FUTURE ENERGY pathways for Tasmania is the subject of a public discussion at IMAS (Castray Esplanade, Hobart, 5.30 pm Thursday) organised by the University of Tasmania’s Institute for the Study of Social Change and led by an expert panel including Tony Wood, energy director for Melbourne’s Grattan Institute.

Posted in Adaptation, built environment, business interests, changes to climate, climate sensitivity, climate system, economic threat from climate, land use, local economy, marine sciences, modelling, oceanography, planning, science, sea level, temperature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A greenhouse bomb primed to explode

If the predicted methane “pulse” comes to pass we will have a whole new climate ball-game.

A crater left by an exploding methane bubble in northwest Siberia. Photo Siberian Times

A crater left by an exploding methane bubble in northwest Siberia. Photo Siberian Times

The name Siberia is said to derive from a Tartar phrase meaning “sleeping land”. That sleeping land is now waking up.

The mean temperature across the vast Siberian plains is around freezing point, and for much of the year rivers, lakes and the ground around them are frozen. But for the past 50 years the tundra’s surface temperature has steadily risen, with some startling results.

One highly-visible change in eastern Siberia is the Batagaika crater, a land slump about 85 metres deep and 1 km long. It is now expanding outward by 30 metres a year, releasing large volumes of methane, which as a greenhouse gas is many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In northwest Siberia another warming phenomenon is exercising the minds of local and Moscow-based scientists: circular bulges in the tundra surface which move when people step on them. The experience has been called “trembling tundra”.

Scientists calculate there are 7000 such bulges across north-coastal Siberia, the Russian news agency Tass reported this month. When gas pressure below reaches a certain point the bulges can explode. Some of the more spectacular bangs have left a circular crater hundreds of metres across.

Methane explosions are a threat to communities and infrastructure. The Siberian Times newspaper reported last week that local authorities and scientists are trying to map developing bubbles to minimise potential damage. But the bigger danger is the methane released to the air above.

The bubbles are a result of recent record-breaking Arctic warmth, softening the ground over a huge expanse of northern Siberia and progressively releasing methane gas that has been held in the ground by permafrost for tens of thousands of years.

Recent analysis of the gas in bubbles on Bely Island, in the Arctic Ocean off the Yamal Peninsula, found methane concentrations to be 1000 times higher than in the surface air.

In the North American Arctic, methane is escaping from wide expanses of land once considered permanently frozen, now turned into impassable bogs.

Latest global emissions data reported in the annual World Meteorological Organization climate report released last week show atmospheric methane increasing 44 per cent faster than carbon dioxide. It is now more than 2.5 times its pre-industrial level.

From the Batagaika crater, Bely Island bubbles, North American bogs, and countless other locations around the Arctic rim, land-based methane is being released at a rate unknown in all of human existence. But a bigger methane shock is in store, from ocean waters just to the north.

The Arctic is warming at twice the global average, America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports. This northern winter has seen record low ice cover.

Science has long warned that global climate would be massively threatened if a warming Arctic Ocean released solid methane trapped in huge quantities in frozen sediment. The Arctic Ocean is warmer now than it’s been for tens of thousands of years.

Just this month, NOAA satellite data showed a strong rise in methane levels over a broad area above the shallow waters of the East Siberian continental shelf, indicating that melting of this solid methane (methane clathrate) is already under way.

A 2010 Russian research paper warned of a significant risk that within years as much as 50 billion tonnes of methane could be released in a single large pulse from East Siberian waters. That much methane would cause an immediate global temperature rise of 0.6C, pushing post-industrial warming past the “safe” limit of 1.5C acknowledged in the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Science remains divided on the plausibility of this scenario, but it has attracted support from established Arctic specialists outside Russia, including Cambridge (UK) ocean physicist Peter Wadhams.

Our failure to curb carbon dioxide emissions has already left us in deep trouble. It’s hard to imagine where we’ll be if the projected methane spike comes to pass.

A decade ago cutting emissions was the only realistic policy option, and the desperate, vastly more expensive last resort of removing carbon dioxide from the air never got a look in. Now it’s back on the table.

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