The Finkel Report

The Finkel Report* was released this week. Those watching the energy market in Australia were keen to see how it framed the future energy discussion.

* aka Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market

Alan Finkel
Hail to the Chief (Scientist)

Alan Finkel is Australia’s Chief Scientist, having taken up that post in January 2016. He’s a pretty smart cookie, too, as both a qualified electrical engineer and neuroscientist.

You can see some more information about the report itself on the Department of the Environment and Energy website. The report runs to 212 pages, but there is an Executive Summary available.

Following hot on the heels of its release, the Chief Scientist appeared on ABC TV’s Q&A program. Along with some politicians and consumer advocates, the opportunity to discuss some details about the report and the energy market generally.

Key Themes

Look, I don’t generally watch Q&A; what started out as a great premise – get politicians in front of the public to make them answer questions on live, national TV – soon turned into this:

The best episodes were those featuring scientists with no politicians. No surprises there. Any episode involving politicians soon turned into a battle of wits between unarmed opponents.

While there were politicians on last night’s showing (one from each major party), the key inclusions were from the consumer advocacy sector.

Voice Of The Consumer

 

(c) Climate Council
Amanda McKenzie

Amanda McKenzie is CEO of the Climate Council. Formed via crowd funding, after the Climate Commission was abolished by the current government.

 

Along with other advocates from Public Health through to Biology and Business, the role of the Climate Council is to provide independent, authoritative climate change information to the Australian public.

(c) ECA
Rosemary Sinclar

Rosemary Sinclair is the CEO of Energy Consumers Australia. ECA aims to provide a voice for residential and small business consumers of energy. Of particular concern to their mission is fair pricing, and reliability.

Of particular interest to ECA is ongoing survey of Energy Consumer Sentiment. This is key to understanding the market as it affects users.

While the two politicians sought to score points, both the CEOs on the panel stayed above the petty bickering. The refreshingly factual dialogue on what consumers want should serve as a reminder to our politicians that their role is to represent us.

The discussion moved to CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage), which seems like a good idea until you look at the economics. Like a lot of fossil-fuel related initiatives, it seems great until apples are compared to apples, as McKenzie said: new renewables beat new fossil fuels.

The Finkel Report, and the man himself, argue that any approach should be tech-agnostic. Therefore we must assume any initiatives that come out of this are economically sound. Coal – in any guise – simply isn’t, even before the healthy impacts are measured.

The most important part of the night were Rosemary Sinclair’s closing remarks. It really sums up our frustration, both at a consumer level for certainty on pricing, and for industry in terms of investment.

We will see where this goes. Hopefully governments at State and Federal level, in light of the Finkel Report, drop the partisanship and legislate for the network we deserve.

Renewable Cities

As I mentioned on twitter, I’ll be attending Renewable Cities in Sydney this week.

With the release of the Finkel Report so close, I predict there will be a lot of interesting discussion. The goal of the forum is to merge minds on the way forward for our ever-expanding cities and towns.

There are workshops on EVs, a few people like Reposit Power will be there, and I’m looking forward to having a chat to people as I seek out the next stage in my career.

I’ll also bang out a few Twitter Live experiences so make sure you’re following @AuPowerwall!

 

Reducing Climate Change Risks

This is my entry to the Masdar 2017 Engage Global Social Media Competition. The aim is to describe which technology will help reduce climate change, and why.

As scientific bodies continue to explore and model the effects of climate change, the technologists, disruptors, and entrepreneurs are seeking ways to combat it. The use of renewable power in the form of wind and solar is one of the key areas.

 

However, a valid criticism of renewable energy is stability: if the sun doesn’t shine, and the wind doesn’t blow, solar and wind are in under-supply. If the sun DOES shine brightly and the wind picks up, the renewable energy grid produces oversupply.

This situation is prominent in the California “Duck Curve”. The belly of the duck is over-generation from solar, while the head of the duck is the consumption ramp for night-time domestic use.

California Duck Curve showing oversupply / ramp requirement paradox (c) GTM

As domestic and commercial solar uptake increases across the world, there is a genuine risk to existing grids. Trying to address this issue alongside a mix of traditional power generation is difficult. Large, traditional generators cannot uplift generation, or halt it, at short notice.

I believe the natural solution is widespread adoption of storage technology.

Domestic storage will mature rapidly over the next 5 years, as household battery options become cheaper, due to vertical integration of the production process. This will be particularly true in established Western housing markets, particularly those dwellings with rooftop solar options.

It also enables the concept of virtual power plants for retailers to access power stored in domestic appliances. In the future, consumers will engage in peer-to-peer trading via blockchain and other smart technologies. The net result is to lower the need for a traditional “grid” and the associated maintenance for poles and wires.

Industrial storage will see positive disruption to hi-tech engineering solutions, using renewable generation. Efficiency has a large role to play here, as innovation across multiple sectors leads to better production engineering.

The volatility of frequency required for running many heavy industries can be offset with larger scale storage. These battery systems act like a buffer, or regulator, in order to provide assurance of stability. Large storage can also be deployed by energy networks in order to back up local power infrastructure.

Transport storage is a key area for addressing carbon emissions. While cars are the major playground for this technology right now, the move to heavy transport, agriculture, and public transport offers a range of other benefits.

I call it “Transport storage” because it offers more than just a way to move people or goods from one place to another. There is the opportunity to place domestic, industrial, and transport storage in synch, to produce a more efficient outcome for renewable energy.

Consider the California Duck Curve I mentioned before. This is the result of “too much of a good thing” when we have an over-abundance of solar PV! What if there was a way to mitigate this?

The average shopping mall in most countries has a roof space in the hundreds of square metres. They also contain hundreds, if not thousands, of car spaces.

If we add solar panels on that roof space, and storage in the basement, we can effectively create a curve smoothing apparatus by plugging in a suitable number of EVs during daylight hours. A similar system could be used by places of work for the benefit of employees.

Such a system would draw not only from the local (mall rooftop) power, but also spill excess renewable energy into recharging the transport network in other places. This might take the form of powering connected public transport – like electric buses or trains – on site, or via the grid.

All the while, this large-scale storage and renewable generation helps flatten the belly of the duck during the day. When people return to their homes at night, they can cut the head off the duck using their domestic storage.

Storage, along with the associated smart management technologies, provides the cornerstone for a renewable energy future. The combination of increased efficiency, and reduction of fossil fuel burning, is undeniable.

South Australian Storms

I’ll keep this pretty short, because the South Australian Storms are consuming a lot of media attention at the moment. This article is a bit of a linkstorm, because people have said most of this more eloquently than I could.

You can pretty much sum up the situation with this tweet:

The state of South Australia here has been hit by what is being described as a 50 year storm. The damage you see in the picture above has contributed to the entire state losing power.

As this article explains, tornadoes brought down critical infrastructure, and the network was brought down as a safety measure. Note that tornadoes aren’t a very common occurrence in Australia.

South Australia is connected to the state of Victoria for power sharing, as part of the South East grid. If the interconnector stayed up, and started demanding power from Victoria, it had knock-on implications for the whole grid.

The Good

Despite the magnitude of the disaster, there are some silver linings to the South Australian storms.

It puts battery storage at the forefront of maintaining a decentralised power supply. One household had their Powerwall running the house until power came back, thanks to Natural Solar.

Reposit Power also had a customer request for power, in preparation for the storm. Why not use the grid import facility of Reposit to grab power before the storm hits? That way, even threats to infrastructure won’t hurt the average household.

While most people can see themselves getting a battery in blackout hotspots, most would never have considered the magnitude of such an event.

Though, in fairness, I suppose most people haven’t seen a storm this big.

The Bad

Of course, it didn’t take some peanuts long to have a crack at the high percentage of renewable energy in South Australia. The state closed its last coal-fired power station a few weeks ago. It has been a nonstop bunfight since.

Renew Economy covered the primary points of attack relating to the South Australian storms. The coal lobby is really bricking it over renewables, and that’s no shock as more coal power stations are going to close.

It is surprising that someone would try to pin this on renewable energy. Particularly as the energy mix played zero part in the problem.

Another good read was from Ketan Joshi, who ran through the speed of truth versus the speed of emotion. Misinformation gets a Tesla Model S, it would appear, while Science gets a bicycle…

The banner image for both articles was this unmitigated rubbish:

The Ugly

It really boils my piss to see this kind of thing go down. You’d think no-one in recorded history had ever had a blackout before. Or that, in some wild universe, humanity has never seen a storm of this scale until solar panels were invented.

Correlation does not imply causation. Maybe some of these idiots should learn something about that.

We’ve got a state suffering the effects of one of the biggest storms in living memory, and people are playing politics, as South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill states so well.

Stay safe, South Australians. Hope you’re back on your feet soon.

The Australian Greens – Election 2016

The Australian Federal Election has been called for the first weekend in July. Like all these political things, its bloody hard to escape. The big parties are making the usual noises, but could The Australian Greens sneak up on them with a solar-powered stick?

Australian Federal Election

One Bloke’s Perspective

I’ve don’t consider myself politically active. No time for student politics when you’re drinking at University. No set opinions on voting, except maybe putting the hard line religious parties dead last on any ballot paper, if they dare to show up in my electorate. Separation of church and state!

A firm belief that politicians get paid too much. That’s a point on which I’ve had many arguments. Australian politicians are among the best paid in the world, and have some ridiculously good retirement benefits.

Look, I’m quite sure parts of being a Member of Parliament suck, but there are parts of every job that suck. For that kind of money ($195K base + extras) I could put up with some crap – I already do for much less!

So I’ll stick my hand up and say that I’m opinionated, and probably naive in terms of deeper politics. But, as with art, I know what I like.

Australian Political Landscape

It has always seemed, to me at least, that the great irony of the political system in Australia is compulsory voting in a nation where, on average, people could care less about politics.

Yep, that’s right: you need to register to vote once you hit 18, and you can get fined if you don’t vote at either State or Federal level.

How I see two-party politics…

Oh sure, there are some dyed-in-the-wool supporters, who will unleash spittle at a rate of knots in support of their party. I’ve seen people nearly come to blows on election day; old dudes who look ready to go into cardiac arrest at a moment’s notice.

If you want a rundown on the major Australian political parties, go have a read here: the Liberal Party (conservatives) are in a Coalition with National Party (farmers) to form our present Federal Government. While they have their own little internal horse trading, the Coalition, as they are known, are fairly solid when it comes to opposing stuff from the other side, and pushing economic liberalism.

At the moment, the other side are the Australian Labor Party (progressives). In a similar vein to their opponents, they love nothing more than saying “Those guys bad! We good! Vote Us!” but politically are all about social democracy.

The fanatics of either side probably think everything is great when their lot are in power, and rubbish when they’re in opposition.

There other other parties, the most prominent of which is The Australian Greens (progressive environmentalists). However, they only hold a small number of seats, and along with some independents and minor parties, form the “conscience” of the Australian people on certain issues.

The influence of the Australian Greens is obviously limited in the bigger picture, but occasionally they’ll hold the balance of power in either house (upper house = Senate; lower house = House of Representatives) on specific issues, often forming a voting bloc with independents who haven’t already done a deal with a big party.

When you live on a continent with this much good weather, natural beauty, quality beer, and generally high standard of living, it doesn’t really seem to matter. Most people I know are of the belief that, regardless of who wins, there will be pros and cons, and its not worth getting worked up about.

The majority of Australians probably fit in the middle of politics, and will vote based on their conscience, guided in some cases by the media (who have their own agenda).

Combined with compulsory voting, and a hyped up news cycle feeding on social media, it makes Australia an interesting political minefield. This has resulted in some states recently suffering single-term governments for the first time in decades, as one notable fact.

It seems that people are just willing to throw out whoever is in power; parties don’t win elections, they lose them.

In turn, the major party politicians constantly play he-said/she-said in terms of trying to score points. Its quite tiresome when there are more important issues to address – things that affect all of us, and are largely being ignored.

The Biggest Issue

Across the world at the moment, the threats posed by environmental destruction, and ongoing threat of man-made global warming, are going to affect us all.

It is right there. People know it is right there. If you’ve been paying attention in the last 10 years, you know there is a lot of rubbish talked about how its not right there. It is one of those things that some people see as a threat to their way of life, or some kind of charlatan’s trick to cripple the economy, so they work to undermine it.

In Australia, we have such a very large investment in coal, across all of mining, export, and thermal power generation. There is even a campaign called “little black rock”, which I will not dignify with a link, which seeks to tell people how releasing carbon is awesome.

Australia has an abundance of bright sun and strong wind, as well as the emerging wave power we can generate. We have the highest level of rooftop solar PV penetration at around 1.5 million households. We have some of the best researchers in the world on Solar PV, and lots of space to build the necessary infrastructure, both domestic and industrial.

Renewable Energy – Why So Negative?

The Coalition government are definitely not keen on it. Under their leadership we’ve had wind farms called “visually awful” and cited other impacts, all of which have been long held in contempt by science.

One of my favourites – click image for story @ Independent Australia

They reduced the RET (Renewable Energy Target) and have had an ongoing campaign against change in the status quo, in order to protect their conservative interests in mining and export markets.

They have run the clippers over our peak scientific body, the CSIRO, valued here and internationally for scientific research and technology development. The move is ostensibly to move from “analysis” to “adaptation” of climate change, but when you look at the CV of their CEO, and hear some of the comments about his time in Silicon Valley, you have to wonder.

It won’t surprise anyone to note that the coal and energy lobbies pour money into the Liberal Party like water.

The opposition Labor Party (yes, that is the correct spelling) have also got a quandary on their hands, particularly as they seek to protect their traditional battleground of workers’ rights and family issues. They can’t simply shut coal off tomorrow, because it would leave a hell of a lot of wreckage on the social landscape of towns supported by coal.

Nevertheless, they have announced some targets, which are nice, but really could be more ambitious. Labor have strong ties to Unions, and the CFMEU (Construction Forestry Mining Energy Union) are a big player.

The gradual decline of mining has seen job cuts aplenty, and IMHO Labor need to work harder to convince people in the Unions that Australia can pivot into renewable energy.

Ironically, both the major political players are running the dusty political principles of “jobs and growth”, but aren’t really putting up alternatives to the status quo, despite Australia’s recent exit from manufacturing and the ongoing slide in the mining sector.

There is also a genuine fear of fundamental change, in part due to the historical allegiances the big parties have, and the unknown quantity of renewable energy in a nation historically riding on coal. The latter is understandable, as mining is what kept Australia bouyant during the GFC.

But, we’re at record low interest rates. Record high housing prices. Coal prices are falling, mining is shrinking. This isn’t 2008 any more and the government can’t just muddle through on the back of the mining giants.

Where is the next big wave coming from? When all signs point to a new revolution, neither of the big parties have used renewable energy as a pillar in this campaign, both as an environmental and economic winner.

The Australian Greens – The Little Engine That Might

At present, The Greens are under the leadership of Richard Di Natale, who has brought a kind of pragmatism from his Senate position in Victoria.

(c) The Australian Greens

It is unlikely they’ll win many seats, but the growing youth vote has seen them take several inner-city enclaves away from the big boys in the recent past at State and Federal level.

Along with disillusionment with the major parties, forthright leadership from Di Natale will assist the Greens wrest more of the vote away from the majors in years to come. Is this a good thing?

Perhaps, if for no other reason than getting the incumbents to change their thinking. More promising is the option to add a third voice to the decidedly binary view of Australian politics.

This change in rhetoric from the Australian Greens also dispels the myth that they are just a bunch of left-wing loonies, ready to bring down society and take us all back to peace-loving hippies with unrealistic expectations of love and peace. And kale … or something.

Renew Australia

Subtitled “Powering The New Economy”, the Australian Greens have released a document (PDF downloadable from that page), where they lay down the high-level principles behind fundamentally changing the energy economy, and several industries along with it.

Australian Greens

Its worth a read, if for no other reason than to show that somebody is thinking about “jobs and growth” in terms that require a bit of a paradigm shift. The summary points are:

  • Ensure increases in energy efficiency
  • Get energy generation to 90% renewable by 2030
  • Establish a new authority to plan and drive the transition
  • Create a transition fund to assist coal workers and communities
  • Implement pollution standards to stage a gradual shut down of coal power stations in a suitable manner (dirtiest first)

All of these seem to be pretty reasonable, though I don’t doubt when some people read that – particularly those in the coal/energy industry – they’ll freak out a bit. And that’s OK, because change blows. We fear change.

The good news is, the Greens have released more detail about the transition process as it affects miners directly, as well as some dialogue on other policies via their website. Recognition of the issues facing people is not unexpected, as The Greens have a heavy emphasis on social equality.

Perhaps people still have this image of “Greenie” protesters who get all angry about people chopping down forests, or chaining themselves to mining equipment. Successive Greens administration have started to develop a more sophisticated approach to politicking, and it appears to be having an effect.

When I started this article, I’d planned a breakdown of the policy and the pros and cons of each bit. That would take a lot of words, and probably be a waste of time when you’re smart enough to figure out what the policy is about, by reading it yourself. So I’ll just look at one of the points above from a perspective close to my heart.

Energy Efficiency

When looking at how efficient the average Australian house is, people in Europe would be mildly shocked. The reasons why are probably more eye-opening, in terms of our building industry hitting the trough, and hard.

Overseas building industries started their push for better quality and efficiency decades ago. In Australia, labour costs are high and house prices surging, so adding extra cost is tough to accept. Consumer apathy is also a big factor, when you’ve got relatively cheap, abundant coal energy.

“Just turn on the Air Con!” is a pretty common statement. I’ve previously discussed the issues in my own house with ducted A/C (and associated muttering).

As a result, a lot of new housing in the last two decades is single-brick house with minimum ceiling insulation in the form of glasswool batts. If you wanted wall insulation, you’d pay extra in your new build in a lot of cases. Some didn’t even offer it, and I understand its extremely difficult to retrofit (i.e. ripping out internal walls)

We generally don’t do double/triple glazing, and just stick big reverse cycle air conditioners into new builds to cater for hot/cold days. No wonder we’re big electricity consumers!

People living in older weatherboard houses might as well be in a wooden tent. The farmhouse I grew up in had louvered windows and a big pitched roof, and yet somehow we got away without air conditioning in summer, and just a potbellied stove or combustion fire for winter.

Cold in Sydney right now – could really use one of these. AND, of course, the wine…

The great thing about seeking better efficiency, besides the obvious saving on heating/cooling requirements for the household, is the boost to the building industry in terms of jobs and growth (are you listening, major parties?). It also adds a layer of new requirements for retrofit options.

As new procedures and technologies are brought to bear, new opportunities crop up to establish service industries. This is especially important for people who might have skilled up in the practical arts of mining, and find themselves at a loose end.

A lot of people who went into mining got the training they needed, and can re-train to do something different in the building industry. Same for people no longer in car manufacturing after 2017. They’re smart people, and know the value of hard work. They need employment.

Better building practices can limit the upward growth of energy usage, as well as using the energy more intelligently. Along with home battery storage installed by companies like Natural Solar, smart control from Reposit Power, and better knowledge about how we use power, we can help limit the impact of change and minimise long-term costs.

The End Game for Coal

The Greens have put a shorter time limit on coal than the other political parties in Australia, recognising that this country has abundant natural resources for renewable energy generation.

They also acknowledge the practicalities of shutting down coal, and the social and financial cost in doing so.

However, their target of 90% renewables by 2030 leaves less than 15 years. In a political arena where The Greens won’t have the traction in Parliament to implement this kind of policy for at least the this Federal election, and probably the one after, you have to wonder where the impetus will come from.

With the falling price of solar PV, as well as the emergence of battery storage and the expected price drops there, I suspect we’ll see consumers have a big say in where the energy industry goes. The acceleration of uptake into battery storage, in particular, will force a rethink on network deployment and maintenance.

As I discussed in my last post, the Networks are interested in deeper consumer understanding.  They realise that working with the consumer on grid-connected battery storage is preferable to alienating them into off-grid battery storage.

The increase in domestic renewable generation will have a
knock-on effect to the domestic coal market for power generation.

External forces like the falling world coal price will apply pressure from the other end. Mining for coal will come under serious pressure, particularly if it requires more generous subsidies from the taxpayer.

We have existing oversupply on our current networks, which presents the opportunity to shut down the dirtiest power stations (looking at you, Hazelwood) in the shorter term.

Pictured: the ancient past… brown coal from the 1960s! (c) Greenpeace

The white knight for mining companies could be other resources, such as Lithium. The demand for lithium will only increase over the shorter term, as battery factories (like $11B facility planned by Volkswagen) ramp up production.

It almost seems like closing the circle: moving energy away from coal requires more lithium, which allows mining to move away from coal into lithium.

Or is that too good to be true?

I think  even with these factors considered, we’re still going to need one of the major parties to help the Greens get this type of initiative across the line before 2030. I wouldn’t be putting money on the incumbent Government to help if they get back in.

After all, you can’t spell Coalition without “Coal”.