Renewables 2017: 5 energy trends shaping a sustainable future

In a year in which President Trump seemingly did his best to roll back all the emission-reducing inroads of the Obama administration, the worldwide demand for low-cost, low-carbon energy continued to climb at unprecedented rates.

China, the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and still a major player in coal, is now on target to lead international investment in the sector, according to a recent report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA).

Closer to home, a surge in solar PV installations – Australia set a new record in 2017 for the fastest time to reach a commissioned 1GW of solar in a calendar year – and widespread investment in wind farms has restored sector confidence.

Australia’s Clean Energy Council reveals that 43 renewable energy projects were under construction or due for completion by the end of 2017. The CEC believes these projects will deliver $8.8 billion in investment, more than 4,469 MW of new renewable energy capacity, and create more than 4,930 direct jobs.

In a watershed year for renewable energy around the globe, below are five other highlights to get excited about.

1. Australia now has the largest lithium-ion battery

When Elon Musk makes a promise, he delivers. In response to ongoing power shortages in South Australia, Musk tweeted Atlassian CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes in March saying he could create a 100MWh battery storage farm within 100 days as a solution. If not, he’d foot the bill for his troubles.

The batteries were sent and installed well before the Australian heat waves hit – and well ahead of Musk’s self-imposed deadline.

Tesla’s Powerpacks are connected to a wind farm in Hornsdale, owned by French renewable energy company Neoen.

Thanks to Musk’s pledge, South Australia’s premier Jay Weatherill says it’s the first time the state has been able to reliably dispatch wind energy to the grid 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

2. China opens the world’s biggest floating solar farm

A Chinese city once famous for coal became the home to the world’s largest floating solar farm in 2017.

In a symbolic nod to where its energy commitments now lie, Chinese authorities also built it atop a former Huainan coal mine, which had become a lake after being flooded with groundwater.

The 40-megawatt power plant consists of 120,000 solar panels covering an area of more than 160 American football fields. The US$45-million facility could help power 15,000 homes.

Its tenure as a record-breaker, however, is to be short-lived. China, now the global leader in renewable energy investment, started building a 150-megawatt project in the same province in July. The entire facility is expected to be come online by May 2018.

3. SA green-lights the largest single-tower solar thermal power plant

The state once beset by energy woes, is fast becoming the renewable energy leader in Australia. Hot on the heels of the Tesla-built battery farm launching in South Australia, came news of the final stage of government approval for the building of the world’s largest solar thermal plant.

solar is an exciting new energy trend
Pic credit: Solar Reserve Facebook

It works by using multiple heliostats – which are in essence turning mirrors – to focus solar energy onto a single central tower.

This tower uses molten salt technology to store the heat, which it can later use to create steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity. The Government contract with United States operator Solar Reserve plant will displace the equivalent of 200,000 tonnes of CO2 annually.

The news is accompanied by new figures showing South Australia has successfully shut off its energy reliance on Victoria. Every week since July, South Australia has sold more power to Victoria than it’s brought in.

4. Offshore wind farms

Unencumbered by the usual noise and space limitations of their land-based equivalents, giant turbines rose up from the sea in record numbers in 2017. In May, Dutch officials opened what was billed as one of the world’s largest wind farms – a 150-turbine behemoth in the North Sea. Over the next 15 years, the windpark, which lies some 85 kilometres off the northern coast of The Netherlands, is tipped to meet the energy needs of about 1.5 million people.

With the benefits of more consistent and higher wind speeds at sea it has a peak generating capacity of 600 megawatts, and will help supply 785,000 Dutch households with renewable energy.

TenneT, the Dutch equivalent of the UK’s National Grid, also proposes to construct a man-made island on Dogger Bank in the middle of the North Sea to act as a distribution hub for wind farm electricity (see video above).

Now Australia is looking to jump on the bandwagon with an even bigger project. Melbourne-based Offshore Energy announced in December that it is partnering with Copenhagen Infrastructure Projects to build the country’s first offshore windfarm off the coast of Victoria.

When completed the $8 billion, 2GW, 250 turbine wind farm – dubbed Star of the South – would have the capacity to power 1.2 million homes, or 18 per cent of the state’s current electricity usage.

5. Harnessing Blockchain technology for cheaper power

A WA start-up capitalised on the surge in solar panel and battery installation in Australia with a new peer-to-peer way to buy and sell renewable energy. Power Ledger is a blockchain-based trading platform – bitcoin uses the same technology – that allows trading of renewable electricity without the need for a midd

blockchain has joined the energy industry
Power Ledger chair and co-founder Dr Jemma Green.

leman.

In October, the energy tech start-up made Australian history with the nation’s first initial coin offering through the Ethereum cryptocurrency network after raising $18.9 million in capital in the lead up to its launch, reports The Sydney Morning Herald. Since the ICO, the value of Power Ledger’s 351 million POWRs – cryptocurrency tokens – in circulation increased to $US225 million, according to coinmarketcap.com.

The Perth-based company also recently shared a $2.25 million federal grant with CSIRO, Landcorp and Curtin and Murdoch universities to demonstrate a sustainable energy and water housing project in Fremantle, and is using its cash to employ more software developers and build its staff to about 25. Other trial partners include India’s Tech Mahindra, Origin Energy and New Zealand utility Vector.

Business Clean Up Day 2018: ‘Let today be the start of your clean up journey’

Event founder Ian Kiernan has called on all Australians to keep the momentum going after another successful Clean Up Day campaign.

During a week of action, which kicked off with a Carbon Reduction Institute-sponsored Business Clean Up Day on February 27, an impressive 587,962 volunteers joined together across 7,253 locations to remove rubbish and litter.

Speaking from the 2018 Clean Up Day official site in Brisbane, Mr Kiernan said he was proud to see so many environmentally-conscious Australians rally to the cause: this year’s turnout represented a 14% increase in site and a 4% spike in volunteer numbers over 2017.

But he was also adamant that there is no room for complacency when it comes to keeping our parks, waterways, beaches, bushland and roadways clear of mountains of debris.

“We need to do much more than just pick up rubbish one day a year,” said Mr Kiernan, now in his 28th year of campaigning for a rubbish-free Australia.

“Every day is Clean Up Australia Day – so let today simply be the start of your Clean Up journey. “Making a real difference starts with looking more closely at our persIan Kiernan joins CRI on Clean Up Dayonal purchasing behaviour, becoming conscious of the single-use products, packaging and plastics that we buy and then discard.

“We need to continue to challenge our governments to implement effective waste management and recycling programs to reduce the amount of wasted resource that ends up in our precious environment. Our Clean Up activities provide vital community-led data and feedback that influences decision makers.”

Mr Kiernan and CUA’s Business Officer Wendy Chapman, pictured above right, also found time in the busy campaign week to join the CRI team during their Clean Up Day at Taylors Bay Beach near Taronga Zoo in the Sydney Harbour.

The five staff members, which included CRI’s program managers Garth Mulholland and Heidi Fog, picked up between 30-40 kg of rubbish and close to 1,000 items of litter; everything from plastic zip lock bags to straws and bottle caps.

Their contribution will now be added to the estimated 800 tonnes of rubbish collected across Australia, the removal and destruction of which is being off-set by carbon credits bought by CRI.

“If you missed Clean Up Australia, Business Clean Up Day this year; start planning now to get your business involved next year,” added Mr Mulholland.

“It is a great team-building activity, an opportunity to get outdoors during the week and most importantly a chance to help clean up the environment.”

Since the event started in 1998, Australians have donated more than 33 million volunteer hours, removing the equivalent of 350 thousand ute loads of rubbish from over 178 thousand sites across the country.

“The dedication and enthusiasm of our volunteers have made Clean Up Australia Day possible for all these years, and every one of you can be proud of what you have achieved,” said Mr Kiernan.

Results in progress predict volunteers will have removed the equivalent of nearly 16,000 thousand ute loads of rubbish over the last week – just the beginning of what is shaping up to be an outstanding effort in 2018.

Working with limited resources, Clean Up Australia is a not-for-profit NGO which relies on corporate sponsors and donors to supply funding and resources and will continue to provide free bags, gloves and other equipment for as long as it has the funds to do so.

Donations can be made online by clicking here.

Could the next big volcanic eruption in Indonesia help save the planet?

Australian airlines and Bali-bound tourists aren’t the only foreigners keeping a keen eye on the increased volcanic activity around Indonesia of late.

Since Mount Agung began erupting (see video below) at the end of November – and more recently Mount Sinabung on nearby Sumatra – The New York Times reports that NASA researchers and other scientists are on standby to study how ‘the big one’ could theoretically help curb global warming.

Powerful volcanic eruptions are one of the biggest natural influences on climate – when the Philippines’ Mount Pinatubo blew in 1991, it spewed 20 million tons of sulphur dioxide gas into the atmosphere.

The gas spread around the world and combined with water vapour to make aerosols, tiny droplets that reflected sunlight away from the Earth, lowering average global temperatures by one-degree Fahrenheit for several years.

As the world now scrambles for global warming solutions, scientists are wondering if volcanoes can help them unlock the secrets of solar geoengineering, that is, cooling the planet by making it reflect back more of the sun’s rays.

One approach would be to use high-flying jets to spray similar chemicals in the stratosphere. So, by studying the next big volcanic eruption, scientists would also gain insights into how such a scheme, known as solar radiation management, or S.R.M., might work, adds The New York Times.

“This is important if we’re ever going to do geoengineering,” said Alan Robock, a Rutgers University researcher who models the effects of eruptions and who has been involved in discussions about the rapid-response project.

“But even if there were no such thing as geoengineering, it’s still important to understand how volcanoes affect climate.”

The rapid-response effort would involve high-altitude balloon flights and other methods to gather data about an eruption as soon as possible after it begins and for several years afterward.

It would also be important to monitor the aerosols over time, to see how big they get and how they eventually break down. Bigger aerosols would fall out of the atmosphere sooner, lessening the cooling impact, say scientists.

More research needed

In a recent essay for The Wall Street Journal, Dr Gernot Wagner, co-director of Harvard University’s solar geoengineering research program, and Dr Martin Weitzman, a professor of economics at Harvard, said the effects could be substantial over time.

“Solar geoengineering is so potentially powerful, in fact, that it turns the usual economics of climate change on its head,” they write under the heading A Big-Sky plan to Cool the Planet.

But one of the biggest stumbling blocks for spraying the atmosphere with aerosols from high-flying planes is that we don’t yet know which materials would be safest and most effective, caution the doctors.

“Sulphate aerosols are featured in most plans, largely because they best match the known effects of volcanic eruptions. But they also contribute to depleting stratospheric ozone.

“Some preliminary research points to the possible use of calcium carbonate as an alternative. It has potentially better reflective properties for lowering temperatures, and it could help to restore ozone. Much more research needs to be done and may well identify other possibilities.”

They are also quick to qualify their statements in support of solar geoengineering by concluding that making the planet more reflective cannot be a replacement for cutting carbon pollution.

“At best, it is a supplement to other efforts to combat climate change, and it’s an imperfect one at that—a drug that merely moderates dangerous symptoms. The permanent solution is a regimen of diet and exercise.”

Snowy Hydro 2.0: Government makes $6 billion buy-out commitment to power project

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has underlined his commitment to the Snowy 2.0 Hydro scheme by striking a deal to buy the iconic power plant outright.

Conditional on sign-off in the May 8 federal budget, the government will pay NSW around $4 billion for its 58 per cent share and Victoria $2 billion for its 29 per cent stake, giving the Commonwealth (a 13 per cent shareholder) total ownership and control.

Energy minister Josh Frydenberg said the sale was “fair value” and promised to never sell the asset, which was valued at $7.8 billion in the deal, to a private buyer.

“The Commonwealth is absolutely committed to keeping it in public hands. There’s no talk about anything different to that,” Mr Frydenberg told ABC Radio.

Mr Turnbull insists the proposed expansion of the Snowy Hydro system will help make the electricity grid more reliable by increasing the amount of energy to be stored from intermittent generators like wind and solar farms.

Studies give the go-ahead

A new independent economic study recently rubber-stamped the government’s decision to press ahead with the ambitious scheme, despite the project’s budget blow-out.

The report, conducted by Marsden Jacob Associates (MJA), considered the state of the market “with or without” Snowy 2.0, which could cost up to $4.5 billion – a $2.5 billion increase on the original estimate.

Key findings of the MJA findings confirmed that Snowy 2.0 would:

  • Lead to better price outcomes for retailers, customers and large energy users.
  • Help future proof the National Electricity Market at the least possible cost against the intermittency of wind and solar generation as they continue to grow their market share.
  • Build on the Snowy Scheme and see greater utilisation of existing dams and increase operating capability.

The Snowy Mountains hydro scheme, built between 1949 and 1974, is made up of 16 dams, seven power stations and 225km of tunnels.

The expansion proposal – dubbed Snowy Hydro 2.0 – involves boring 27km of tunnels linking the Talbingo dam, at an elevation of 552 metres, to the Tantangara reservoir, at 1,233 metres, so energy can be generated by pumping water uphill to the higher reservoir when energy is cheap (say, in the middle of the night) and releasing it back downhill when energy is in high demand and prices are higher.

The upgrades would add 2,000 MW to the hydro scheme’s 4,100 MW capacity, enough to power 500,000 homes. Engineers also say you’d need to build more than 35 million domestic batteries to match its 350,000MWh storage capacity.

One of the technical features of this project is the reversible turbines which can draw water back through the system so it can be reused, lessening the impact on downstream releases and on the supply during drought.

“Snowy Hydro 2.0 is a nation-building project,” a spokesman for the prime minister said before the release of a $29 million feasibility study at the end of 2017.

“It will not only deliver a more affordable and reliable energy system but will also generate jobs and grow our economy.

“The feasibility study clearly demonstrates that Snowy 2.0 is a viable pumped hydro project that will futureproof the National Electricity Market (NEM), helping stabilise the system and deliver lower prices.”

Future-proofing power supply

If construction gets underway shortly, the Snowy 2.0 scheme could begin operating from 2024.

Mr Frydenberg believes that building Snowy 2.0 is vital for the future of Australia’s energy supply.

In a recent opinion piece for the Australian Financial Review, he warned that without Snowy 2.0 the east coast would have “a weaker and more expensive system and we would have failed to future-proof the grid for the inevitable arrival of more intermittent renewables”.

“Instead of falling electricity prices we will see upward pressure on price as volatility continues, there is less competition and other more costly gas peakers and batteries are pursued to stabilise the system,” he wrote.

Mr Frydenberg said the lack of storage and dispatchable power was “playing out painfully today in Victoria and South Australia”.

He cited the use of “expensive, polluting diesel generators using up to 80,000 litres of fuel an hour [which] have been called in just to keep the lights on this summer”.

As for budget blowout, Snowy Hydro CEO Paul Broad said taxpayers needn’t worry about the revised estimated cost of $3.8 billion – $4.5 billion.

“Snowy 2.0 can be funded off our balance sheet, while delivering a healthy internal rate of return of 8 per cent,” he wrote recently in The Australian.

“While, historically, we have not often used our pumping capability, we’re progressively pumping more and will be at capacity when Snowy 2.0 comes on line.

“In fact, our analysis shows that future storage demand will surpass Snowy 2.0’s capacity from 2031, when we can again deliver by expanding the scheme, using the same reservoirs as Snowy 2.0, to benefit future generations.”

He also told ABC TV that the Snowy 2.0 board is committed to doing another $60 million worth of work in the next few months to refine the expansion costs.

“We expect [the cost] is at the lower end of the spectrum,” he said.

“It’s expensive, but it stacks up economically.”