by Lynne Blundell
Renewable energy is for many the great hope for fixing climate change. They imagine a day when the hills are dotted with wind towers, solar panels adorn every building and are spread across vast tracts of desert. The energy of ocean waves will be converted into electricity and we’ll heat and power our homes using geothermal technology. Heavy polluting coal fired power stations will be a thing of the distant past (or any that are still there will be burying their carbon) along with petrol fuelled cars.
This may come to pass. But, based on the evidence, it’s not going to be any time soon.
As ABC TV Four Corner’s reporter Liz Jackson discovered when she began to explore the story of clean coal technology (The Coal Nightmare 7 September), there is a lot of murky business that goes on behind the scenes and carbon capture and storage has so far been a bit of a furphy.
Nobody knows how to do it and even the scientists who are at the forefront of developing CCS technology don’t really believe it’s going to happen for decades.
The recent passage of the federal government’s 20 per cent renewable energy target legislation has raised questions about how we will reach such a target by 2020.
The renewable energy sector in Australia has a patchy history at best; just this week the company that was to set up Australia’s first large scale solar power station in Mildura, Solar Systems, went into receivership. It is unclear whether the Mildura solar plant will go ahead despite receiving federal government funding.
The domestic market for solar hot water systems and roof-top photovoltaic (PV) panels has not fared much better with constant government changes to rebates throwing both suppliers and consumers into a spin.
In the property industry there is much discussion about the best and fastest way to reduce emissions. Gas fired co-generation plants, which use excess heat from electricity generation to both heat and cool buildings, have been embraced by developers and building owners but have faced numerous bureaucratic obstacles (see our story on this). They are also regarded by some as outdated because they don’t focus on renewable energy.
Others in the industry believe the answer is to turn all commercial buildings into mini power stations, supplying all their own power needs and channelling the excess power from their co-generation plants back into the main power grid.
This would be a big mistake, says Che Wall, managing director of the Lincolne Scott group of companies.
“There were a lot of people at the [Federal Government’s] 2020 Summit spruiking zero carbon buildings. This is a dangerous path and would set the industry back. It would also cost a fortune.”
Much better, says Wall, is the precinct approach where a number of buildings or locations have power generation plants that supply power to defined precincts.
Going down the path of the UK where every new building in London must get 10 per cent of its power from renewable energy, is also not desirable.
“Trying to make buildings zero carbon is an unreasonable proposition. It confuses the purpose of buildings. They are for people to work and live in and turning them into power generators is not the most efficient way of reducing carbon emissions.
“We have to cut our emission by an enormous amount so we need to look at the most efficient way of doing this,” says Wall.
“Trying to draw 10 per cent of a building’s power from renewable energy is not feasible at present.
“There is simply not enough physical space to get that amount of power from solar energy. Even if you covered the whole roof you would only get one or two per cent of what you needed. Buildings will have to use geothermal or cogeneration to get up to 10 per cent,” says Wall.
The precinct approach, using cogeneration plants, is far more efficient but before it can work in Australia legislative obstacles must be removed. Companies are investing substantial amounts to install cogeneration technology only to come up against bureaucratic and legislative barriers.
“There are currently three separate sets of approvals,” says Wall. “First the retailer of the power, then the monopoly supplier and then the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal. Once you get through all that then you can set about working out if it is financially viable.”
While there was a long way to go before the obstacles are removed, Wall is optimistic that government is starting to listen. The NSW Government was beginning to engage in discussion over the problems.
Arguing that cogeneration is based on old and dirty technology, is also unhelpful says Wall.
“We have an obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions now. The renewable power technology is not in place yet. Cogeneration has half the carbon footprint of coal fired electricity. And if you then put energy efficiency measures in place you can cut a building’s emissions by 75 per cent.”
Insisting that all the focus should be on renewables will simply discourage people from investing in cogeneration infrastructure that will allow a transition to new technology in 10 years, says Wall.
Bruce Taper, director of Kinesis, the consultancy that advised the City of Sydney on the power plan for its 2030 City Plan, agrees with Che Wall.
“The question we should be asking is what is the best way to reduce emissions. And we have to have a transition strategy because we currently don’t have the ability to achieve it all through renewable energy,” says Taper.
“Covering buildings with wind turbines and cladding them with PV panels is not the answer. Even if we cover the roof of a commercial office tower with solar PV panels it will generate less than one per cent of its power needs.”
Cogeneration is a no brainer for the property industry, says Taper.It allows buildings to turn waste heat into greenhouse free comfort control, and is 85 per cent more efficient than coal fired electricity. It is a transition technology that fills a gap until renewable technology has more to offer. The answer to speeding renewable energy along, says Taper, is stricter regulations and the will to spend the money.
“Some things just have to be done because they should be, not because they are more cost effective.
“If, for example, there were stricter BASIX requirements for the amount of power to come from renewables you’d start to see every house with PV panels or we’d start building much smaller homes.
“If you make things mandatory it changes behaviour very quickly,” says Taper.
Right now though Australia has nowhere near the wind, solar or geothermal power capacity to supply 20 per cent of our power.
Someone, says Taper, is going to have get very busy if we’re going to make it by 2020.
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