Tuesday 29 March 2011

Our new neighbours - twin turbines move in next door

24 March, 2011

Dianne and George Watson have been sitting and watching excitedly as piece by piece two wind turbines are built on their doorstep. The second turbine of Hepburn Wind, Australia's first community wind farm, is near completion at Leonard's Hill near Daylesford.

While wind farms have divided communities with complaints about ill health effects, noise and their appearance Dianne and George are excited at the prospect of turbines generating power from a paddock next to their property. "We've experienced the whole project going up and just seeing the parts coming up the driveway and everything, it was just unbelievable".

George says he's been living there since 1985 and it's the best thing that he's seen happen in Leonard's Hill. He says the Japan crisis has only reinforced his view that he'd rather live next to two wind towers than a nuclear power plant. The two turbines are expected to be generating power within the next four months.

Hepburn Wind chairman Simon Holmes a Court says once the lifting team have finished constructing the turbines, an electrical team will commence connecting them to the grid. "It will take them a good two months to connect up all the electricals and start to test it and in the June time frame, we'll be energising the wind farm and will start generating clean, safe energy into the local distribution network". Several residents in the local community are opposed to the project.

Simon says they've been communicating with residents as much as possible to try and "bust through some of those myths and misinformation about wind farms". "There are still a few people who are suspicious and not quite happy and we continue to work with those people to allay their fears", he says. The wind farm is expected to power more than 2,000 homes when it's operational. Simon says there will be a surplus of power and Hepburn Wind will be a net exporter of renewable energy within a year.

"We monitored the wind at the site, we had a monitoring tower up for three years, and we analysed that data at the end of that period with an independent wind engineering firm and they've predicted that the wind farm will power 2,300 homes. So generate as much power as 2,300 homes use in an average year, and in Daylesford in there are 2,000 homes". It's an interesting time for wind power and the renewable energy sector.

The emissions trading scheme debate is again dominating federal politics, a public hearing is being held in Ballarat next week as part of a Senate inquiry into wind farms and there are fears that the Victorian Government's wind farm proximity restrictions will push wind companies such as Keppel Prince and Pacific Hydro interstate.

Simon says while the project was never meant to be a political statement, he is hoping it provides a good example to the State Government as it rolls out its new wind policy about the positives of wind power. "It's been driven by local concern about climate change.

"We just sat down and thought, we're going to get on with it. So it is nice to be able to show a wide range of stakeholders in the community that a community can benefit from a wind farm and show our leaders that there is a positive role that renewable energy can play in communities".

Vineyard harvests the sun

Adelaide Advertiser
22 March 2011, Page: 35

THE Clare Valley's Mt Surmon Wines has adopted renewable energy to protect itself against rising electricity prices and declining grape sales. Owner Burt Surmon has installed a $73,000 10 kW solar power system on his 35ha property, 20ha of which is under vines. With government rebates, the system cost almost $50,000, but it's the long term value that encouraged the switch.

"As vineyard owners, we have been conscious of our environmental needs and the solar installation was an extension of that thinking", Mr Surmon said. "But the other reality is that the wine industry isn't travelling all that well,.. So we put some money on the roof to help us generate passive income (through the feed in tariff)". The system, which can generate up to 45 kW a day, will be paid back over seven years with a 16% return on investment, he said.

Wind farm wins WA nod

Summaries - Australian Financial Review
22 March 2011, Page: 11

The Mumbida wind farm, a joint business between Verve Energy and Macquarie Group is expected to commence working in 2012, after the Western Australian Economic Regulation Authority approved its licence. Complaints about the new farm were rejected, including that from Griffin Power (formerly Ric Stowe's company) which owns Emu Downs wind farm. The Emu Downs wind farm is presently up for sale by RBC Capital Markets and Royal Bank of Scotland after being muddled up in the Stowe empire.

Monday 28 March 2011

Chilly reception for wind farm changes

Summaries - Australian Financial ReviewI
21 March 2011

The Victorian state government's change to planning regulations for wind farms, whereby it has handed much of the control over to local councils, could spell the end for a number of proposed projects, according to the renewable energy industry. Andrew Richards from Pacific Hydro said his company was not taking on any new projects and the fact that wind farms were now subject to stricter regulations than coal fired or gas fired power stations was 'unbelievable.'

Shaq Mohajerani from Union Femosa Wind Australia said he was in favour of community consultation. But uncertainty over legislation would make it difficult to attract investment, while Origin Energy, which was granted approval by John Brumby's Labor government for the Stockyard Hill wind farm, would not comment. Matthew Guy, Victorian Planning Minister, said the National Party had nothing to do with the decisions, president of the Municipal Association of Victoria, Bill McArthur conceded some projects may be blocked for political reasons, and Chris Schulz from Allens Arthur Robinson said projects would be abandoned or head to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.

Community readies to flick the switch

Sydney Morning Herald
19 March 2011, Page: 14

WE'D better be getting serious about massive wind and solar, because the alternatives are narrowing. Forget nuclear here, anywhere near anybody. Carbon capture and storage? Yeah, sure. Coal seam gas? Highly problematic. Geothermal? Hmm.

On Thursday, the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she was looking at whether the "renewables age" could be brought on sooner and in Australia, the Greens leader, Bob Brown, pounced. "We need to, sensibly, go straight to renewables", he said. "They're safe, they're great job creators, and the power source is free".

Everyone seems down on wind farms at the moment, they're not powerful enough, they're unsightly, they're even unhealthy! (Caution: excessive anxiety about the value of your property is bad for you.) The failing renewable energy target regime and a Victorian government elected on an anti wind platform are not helping, but weather permitting, today the first of a pair of two MW turbines in the community funded Hepburn Wind project is being raised at Leonard's Hill, near Daylesford and Hepburn Springs, in central Victoria.

The 1600 members of Hepburn Wind are expecting commercial returns on their collective $8.7 million investment, but a director, Simon Holmes a Court, says the primary drivers are reducing the town's carbon footprint and "making the statement that we're impatient and are just getting on with it".

"We're not cutting cable to the network", he says. "But when it's up and going we'll be a net exporter to the grid. On a windy day we'll be putting out far more power than our community uses". A non profit group, Embark, is extending the Hepburn model, working with more than 40 communities for small wind, solar or micro hydropower projects. Armidale, in the NSW northern tablelands, is next. "There's no reason why we couldn't have them in cities", Holmes a Court says.


Sunday 27 March 2011

The reactor that saves itself: China leads the way with thorium

23 March 2011

A few weeks before the tsunami struck Fukushima's uranium reactors and shattered public faith in nuclear power, China revealed that it was launching a rival technology to build a safer, cleaner, and ultimately cheaper network of reactors based on thorium. This passed unnoticed – except by a small of band of thorium enthusiasts – but it may mark the passage of strategic leadership in energy policy from an inert and status-quo West to a rising technological power willing to break the mould. If China's dash for thorium power succeeds, it will vastly alter the global energy landscape and may avert a calamitous conflict over resources as Asia's industrial revolutions clash head-on with the West's entrenched consumption.

China's Academy of Sciences said it had chosen a "thorium-based molten salt reactor system". The liquid fuel idea was pioneered by US physicists at Oak Ridge National Lab in the 1960s, but the US has long since dropped the ball. Further evidence of Barack Obama's "Sputnik moment", you could say. Chinese scientists claim that hazardous waste will be a thousand times less than with uranium. The system is inherently less prone to disaster.

"The reactor has an amazing safety feature," said Kirk Sorensen, a former NASA engineer at Teledyne Brown and a thorium expert. "If it begins to overheat, a little plug melts and the salts drain into a pan. There is no need for computers, or the sort of electrical pumps that were crippled by the tsunami. The reactor saves itself," he said. "They operate at atmospheric pressure so you don't have the sort of hydrogen explosions we've seen in Japan. One of these reactors would have come through the tsunami just fine. There would have been no radiation release."

Thorium is a silvery metal named after the Norse god of thunder. The metal has its own "issues" but no thorium reactor could easily spin out of control in the manner of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or now Fukushima. Professor Robert Cywinksi from Huddersfield University said thorium must be bombarded with neutrons to drive the fission process. "There is no chain reaction. Fission dies the moment you switch off the photon beam. There are not enough neutrons for it continue of its own accord," he said. Dr Cywinski, who anchors a UK-wide thorium team, said the residual heat left behind in a crisis would be "orders of magnitude less" than in a uranium reactor.

The earth's crust holds 80 years of uranium at expected usage rates, he said. Thorium is as common as lead. America has buried tons as a by-product of rare earth metals mining. Norway has so much that Oslo is planning a post-oil era where thorium might drive the country's next great phase of wealth. Even Britain has seams in Wales and in the granite cliffs of Cornwall. Almost all the mineral is usable as fuel, compared to 0.7% of uranium. There is enough to power civilization for thousands of years.

I write before knowing the outcome of the Fukushima drama, but as yet none of 15,000 deaths are linked to nuclear failure. Indeed, there has never been a verified death from nuclear power in the West in half a century. Perspective is in order. We cannot avoid the fact that two to three billion extra people now expect – and will obtain – a western lifestyle. China alone plans to produce 100m cars and buses every year by 2020.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said the world currently has 442 nuclear reactors. They generate 372 GWs of power, providing 14% of global electricity. Nuclear output must double over twenty years just to keep pace with the rise of the China and India. If a string of countries cancel or cut back future reactors, let alone follow Germany's Angela Merkel in shutting some down, they shift the strain onto gas, oil, and coal. Since the West is also cuttingsolar subsidies, they can hardly expect the solar industry to plug the gap.

BP's disaster at Macondo should teach us not to expect too much from oil reserves deep below the oceans, beneath layers of blinding salt. Meanwhile, we rely uneasily on Wahabi repression to crush dissent in the Gulf and keep Arabian crude flowing our way. So where can we turn, unless we revert to coal and give up on the ice caps altogether? That would be courting fate.

US physicists in the late 1940s explored thorium fuel for power. It has a higher neutron yield than uranium, a better fission rating, longer fuel cycles, and does not require the extra cost of isotope separation. The plans were shelved because thorium does not produce plutonium for bombs. As a happy bonus, it can burn up plutonium and toxic waste from old reactors, reducing radio-toxicity and acting as an eco-cleaner. Dr Cywinski is developing an accelerator driven sub-critical reactor for thorium, a cutting-edge project worldwide. It needs to £300m of public money for the next phase, and £1.5bn of commercial investment to produce the first working plant. Thereafter, economies of scale kick in fast. The idea is to make pint-size 600MW reactors.

Yet any hope of state support seems to have died with the Coalition budget cuts, and with it hopes that Britain could take a lead in the energy revolution. It is understandable, of course. Funds are scarce. The UK has already put its efforts into the next generation of uranium reactors. Yet critics say vested interests with sunk costs in uranium technology succeeded in chilling enthusiasm. The same happened a decade ago to a parallel project by Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). France's nuclear industry killed proposals for funding from Brussels, though a French group is now working on thorium in Grenoble.

Norway's Aker Solution has bought Professor Rubbia's patent. It had hoped to build the first sub-critical reactor in the UK, but seems to be giving up on Britain and locking up a deal to build it in China instead, where minds and wallets are more open. So the Chinese will soon lead on this thorium technology as well as molten-salts. Good luck to them. They are doing Mankind a favour. We may get through the century without tearing each other apart over scarce energy and wrecking the planet.

Novatec deal boosts solar power

Summaries - Australian Financial Review
17 March 2011, Page: 17

Renewable energy developer Novatec Solar yesterday agreed to sell a 35% stake in the business to power and automation technology firm ABB. The deal will give Novatec, a subsidiary of infrastructure investment firm Transfield Holdings, access to power plant projects in Europe and beyond. Chairman of Novatec Guido Belgiorno Nettis said, "ABB is at the forefront of renewable energy integration". ABB recently completed a communications system contract for the Water Corporation in Perth. Transfield Holdings, in a consortium with Transfield Services, is competing in the Federal Government'ssolar flagships project using Novatec's technology against companies including Parsons Brinckerhoff and Wind Prospect CWP.

Lack of green energy to 'hit' power bills

West Australian
16 March 2011, Page: 28

WA will face a costly "green skills shortage" when the Federal Government's proposed carbon tax is introduced, unless the State Government starts investing in green technology and offering more specialised university places now, a union of scientists and engineers has warned.

Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists and Managers Australia State president Zaneta Mascarenhas said many engineering graduates had specialist skills in green technology but there were not enough local jobs for them to enter when they finished their studies, meaning they could not "get their hands dirty" and further develop their skills.

Ms Mascarenhas said WA was better positioned to take advantage of natural resources like solar power than European countries that were investing in green technology. She said the State Government needed to start investing in renewable energy projects now to keep household energy bills low when the carbon tax was imposed. "Germany is at the forefront of solar technology and they don't get nearly as much sun as WA", she said. "Initially it will be expensive but it will be more expensive to make the transition later. At this stage WA is not ready".

Unions WA secretary Simone McGurk said WA's lack of investment in renewable energy infrastructure meant the State was already losing some of its brightest green industry engineers. A joint report Creating Jobs, Cutting Pollution developed between the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Australian Council of Trade Unions found taking "strong" action on climate change now would create 770,000 more Australian jobs by 2030 than "weak action" would.

ACF spokesman Simon O'Connor said while a Federal policy would be the most cost effective option, the States could still take independent action on climate change. Verve Energy announced last year it was planning a large scale solar farm near Greenough in the State's Mid West. Manager of corporate relations Peter Winner said the Greenough River solar farm "would happen" and the company was also working on its Mumbida wind farm near Geraldton and Albany wind farm extension.

Japan nuclear crisis no boost for local coal, gas

Courier Mail
16 March 2011, Page: 30

JAPAN'S crisis won't hurt the global economy's recovery this year and any step back from its nuclear program would mainly benefit oil producers rather than Australia's gas and coal sectors, a leading economic forecaster said. BIS Shrapnel chief economist Frank Gelber said even if the world's third largest economy fell back into recession, it would not upset global growth this year of about 4% as Japan was not a growth driver. He also questioned if Japan's nuclear plant crisis would result in increased sales of Australian coal and gas, given Australia's existing capacity constraints.

"We can't produce to meet demand anyway. Longer term, you might see a slight shift away from uranium in Japan but short term they're more likely to replace that with oil, which doesn't mean anything for us, and medium term it might be coal and gas but it's not going to make a huge difference to us", he said. 30% of Japan's electricity production comes from nuclear power. It has plans to expand this to 50% by 2030, reduce fossil fuel use and increase renewable energy as part of its efforts to slash greenhouse gases.

Gas producer Origin Energy's managing director Grant King yesterday said Japan's commitment to a nuclear fleet expansion might change given the partial meltdown at several plants after cooling systems were taken out by the tsunami. "There are (nuclear fleet) concerns being talked about,.. that may well lead to changes in targets that exist in the longterm fuel mix and that would clearly be advantageous to LNG", Mr King said.

Dr Gelber also said the Australian economy looked set for five strong years of growth, powered by the minerals and energy investment boom. But he said Australia will experience a "very distinct" two speed economy in that time. He warned that Australia's major medium term economic challenge was to ensure it could withstand the shock of a bust in minerals prices.

"The Australian economy is now all about satisfying minerals demand. We're not doing anything else. All other industry is running down. "Take Queensland agriculture's a mixed bag, tourism is stuffed, education services and non commodities related manufacturing are doing it very tough as we undergo a structural shift to make way for the minerals boom", Dr Gelber said. "Once we've changed our structure, we could be left high and dry if and when the minerals boom busts. I don't know when that is, but the shock to the economy will come not when minerals prices fall but when investment falls and (the lag effect) could be years.

"We should be thinking now about what to do, for example using (a minerals resource rent tax) to help set ourselves up to be as resilient as possible". BIS Shrapnel forecasts Australia's growth for the year to this June to be 2.6%, rising to 4.0% in 2012. It forecasts Queensland's economy to have strong growth this year and next, due largely to a construction sector boom that will be led by engineering construction related to the boom in investment in minerals and energy projects.

Energy giants punt on the future

16 March 2011, Page: 30

Origin Energy's $2.3 billion equity raising shows that big companies are still laying energy bets amid uncertain carbon policies, but their benefits are easily found. Grant King's empire is built on the foundation of a fully integrated business model that means he can manage wholesale energy market risk and indeed government policy risk with stable retail customers. The same applies to AGL Energy and TRUEnergy, with the latter showcasing the diversification benefits by diluting the Yallourn coal fired generator's share of its portfolio from 77% to 45%.

At the same time, the Victorian share of its retail network fell from 79% to 37% through the NSW purchase. Maybe that explains why incumbents were the only parties to bid in last year's privatisation. Others would argue that uncertainty over government policy was a more obvious reason, scaring off offshore investment, with the resources tax debacle and carbon price uncertainty the major factors.

Still, Hong Kong based CLP Group was prepared to back local boss Richard McIndoe on last year's $2bn NSW investment to establish TRUEnergy as a stand alone player. Origin Energy's King is pleased the government is open to discussion on the carbon tax, but like other producers he would prefer a well designed trading scheme that would provide incentives for new abatement investment while also creating a more stable investment environment to ensure supply continuation.

The idea being the trading system would work towards the right price and, in the process, obviate the need for artificial support for renewable energy. The problem with the present model is that the emphasis on the 20% mandated renewable target skews investment towards more expensive alternatives, away from cheaper base load supply. King has his bases well covered.

But he has long warned that the better Australia is at exporting coal seam gas and other gas, the higher the local gas prices will be. The pressure to increase renewable targets also raises domestic prices and negates some cost advantages enjoyed by base load power sources such as gas over high carbon sources like coal. In short, the more the government distorts the market, the more it will defeat its aim of reducing carbon emissions.

The concept of carbon taxes as setting a price to provide stability is laughed at by the energy industry, given the long lead times for investment. But at least it's a start. The government can now till in the details to fast track the move towards a market based system. That will necessarily involve politically difficult decisions but is preferable to leaving the market half pregnant.