Thursday 28 July 2011

Smoke and mirrors hide carbon truth

The Saturday Age
23 July 2011, Page: 17

IS IT any wonder that so many people are fed up with the climate change debate? Misinformation is rife you could fill a column like this most days wading through false claims and half truths.

Take just one example: this week a new body calling itself the Australian Trade and Industry Alliance launched an advertising campaign against the carbon price. On its web site, it says Australia's carbon scheme would be "by far the world's biggest" evidence, it says, that too high an impost is placed on business. It claims that the Australia scheme would haul in 14 times more revenue in its first few years than was generated under the existing European system $71 billion versus $4.9 billion.

But industry insiders say the only way it could reach these numbers is through a sleight of hand counting the large number of free carbon permits handed out to industry as revenue under the Australia scheme, but not under the European system. As one put it, this is "not exactly comparing apples with apples".

In interviews promoting the ads, Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief Peter Anderson said the government's proposal is the world's only "economy wide" carbon price scheme. Which would be fine, except it's not economy wide it covers only 60% of emissions. Regardless, the greenhouse targets submitted to the UN by more than 100 countries are all economy wide.

Tony Abbott has spent the week being challenged on the contradictions in his stance on climate change. Campaigning in the Latrobe Valley this week, he made a separate claim worth testing: that there was "no reason" why Australia should not build new coalfired power plants.

Putting aside consideration of whether it is justifiable to build new greenhouse intensive power plants when Australia has a target to cut emissions by 5% by 2020, this position ignores the widely held view in the energy industry that noone is going to build new coal in Victoria, under any circumstances.

Coal power plants are decades long investments, and even if the carbon price was to fall over, no companies believe there won't eventually be policies introduced that make emissions intensive plant unviable. In fact, the industry has warned for years that electricity bills will rise faster without a carbon price than with it, due to the uncertainty over where to make future investments.

The suggestion that Australia could build new coal appears to be based on two misconceptions that Australia may stop cutting emissions once it reaches its 5% target in 2020, rather than building to an 80% cut by 2050, and that the world is not moving because China and India continue to build new coal plants.

The faltering push towards global action on climate change has long been underpinned by agreement that wealthy nations have benefited from centuries of greenhouse polluting industry, and should move first. Developing nations, including a rapidly expanding economy such as China, have longer to act. As Malcolm Turnbull pointed out this week, each Chinese is responsible for about one fifth of the emissions of each Australian. Australia continues to have the highest per capita emissions of any major developed nation.

Despite this, China is acting. It this week again signalled it would pilot an emissions trading scheme, expected to expand nationally in 2015. And estimates suggest it is on track to meet its UN target of a 4045% cut in emissions intensity by 2020. At some point soon after that it is going to have to do much more, but government bureaucrats have said its 2020 target equates to Australia cutting emissions by 25% by 2020 far more than either major party supports.

Wanted: Bright Sparks

Canberra Times
23 July 2011, Page: 1

Australia's solar industry is being dulled by a poor commitment towards developing a manufacturing plan.

Is Australia ready for a renewable energy revolution? Flip open (or scroll through) the Gillard Government's guide to its carbon pricing package, "Securing A Clean Energy Future", at chapter six, which begins by emphasising the import of innovation. To tackle climate change, Australia needs to transform its energy sector", the guide says. Our nation is well placed to make this change. We have world class scientists and researchers. We have a dynamic and competitive business and private sector. And we have abundant resources of renewable energy".

What we don't have is a renewable energy manufacturing policy. Like the amiable childrens' cartoon character Bob the Builder, we can dig it, fix it, build it and almost certainly install it, but can we make it? At this stage, probably not. Our wind turbines are likely to be imported from China, where Danish company Vesta has just built a new factory in Mongolia that will churn out 800 turbines a year just for the emerging Mongolian wind farm market.

In Canberra, households that joined the rush to take advantage of the ACT Government's generous feed in tariff for photovoltaics, are likely to have bought cut price solar panels imported from China or India. Do these panels meet Australian standards? That could be considered a trick question. It is important you ask your accredited installer to provide proof that your panels meet Australian standards", says an online consumer guide published by the Clean Energy Council.

But what are the Australian standards? According to the Standards Australia website, the status of Australian standards for photovoltaic panels and their installation remains a complex work in progress. The council maintains a database and website listing of photovoltaic modules that comply with recently updated Australian standards, but there are multiple standards not just one because a solar array is the sum of many parts.

The council's consumer guide explains imported solar panels are subjected to an inspection and accreditation process in test laboratories to ensure they meet international standards. And its website lists all test laboratories approved to issue certifications, obviously, none are in Australia, and the convoluted paper trail looks as if it could have the potential to become, to quote a memorable phrase from the Federal Government's botched insulation inquiry, a "tick and flick" exercise.

Clearly, the rules governing renewables are still evolving. In its latest newsletter, the council warns a number of its member companies are using the council logo in marketing and promotional material. "We are concerned that, in some instances, some companies may be using the logo inappropriately. This has the potential to confuse and mislead consumers seeking information and assurance regarding clean energy products and services", the newsletter says.

Another consumer website, Energy Matters, cautions buyers to check package deals on solar panels. "Package deals are a great way to save cash, but not all packages are created equal. For example, a company might use top quality solar panels, but skimp on the inverter, wire and frame quality in the hope that the panel brand name will dazzle you and you'll ignore the other components. When comparing solar panel packages, do so on a component by component basis, not just the modules".

Australia's only solar panel manufacturer, Sydney based company Silex Systems, has increased production of solar cells and modules by 300% in the past year, but estimates it only has about 2% of the local market The company's chief executive Michael Goldsworthy has previously argued that federal and state incentives, chiefly feed in tariffs and Renewable Energy Certificates for household installations, "really helped the Chinese manufacturers sell panels at the expense of local manufacturers". Goldsworthy has suggested Australia might consider a system based on a Canadian model, where a premium feed in tariff applies to locally manufactured solar systems.

"There's a critical mass required to have an industry really take off", Australian National University sustainable energy systems director Professor Andrew Blakers says. "Australia now has a large solar installation industry employing more than 10,000 people, and that market means we've got a lot of people who understand how solar modules work. But it would be really good to have encouragement from government to support solar module and solar cell manufacture. What we need to do is gradually extend the industry right through the value chain, starting from silicon refining, all the way through to installing and maintaining the system on your roof".

But the future of renewable manufacturing in Australia will depend on political stability, he says. "It's been a chaotic business. Going back over the last 10 years, the Australian solar industry has been through a disconcerting series of stops and starts, primarily at the federal level. There'll be some wonderful subsidy scheme, which runs for a couple of years, then suddenly stops, and all of the people who know what's going on disappear. Then it starts up again. Everyone has been burned, that's why there are few stayers in the industry".

Blakers has been one of Australia's tenacious solar stayers, weathering almost 15 years of frustration to bring a breakthrough solar cell technology to commercialisation. The world first technology began to take shape in 1996, when Blakers and ANU research engineer Professor Klaus Weber invented a technique called epilift which enabled them to grow a thin, high quality silicon layer on a silicon wafer, peel off the grown layer and convert it into a solar cell and keep recycling the original layer through a series of growth and peel cycles. Epilift was revolutionary but was still an expensive process.

Travelling on a Glasgow train while attending an international conference, the co-inventors came up with a better idea, a SLIVER-modules" target="_blank">SLIVER cell. The SLIVER technology eliminated the need for machinery to grow and peel the silicon, cutting processing costs and silicon use.

The ANU solar SLIVER cell technology won numerous Australian innovation and clean energy awards. It secured its first sizeable slice of federal funding in 2005, with a $5 million Renewable Energy Development grant to help deliver the technology to local and global markets. The wafer thin SLIVER cells are tipped to lead a global energy revolution by cutting the cost and size of solar panels, and making solar power more affordable and portable.

In 2006, Blakers and Weber were awarded one of Australia's top science prizes, the Sir Alan Walsh Medal, by the Australian Institute of Physics for their revolutionary solar technology. The medal, which honours the Australian inventor of atomic absorption spectrophotometry, a simple, rapid and inexpensive method for analysing minute traces of metals, is awarded to an invention which the institute believes will lead to "significant industrial and commercial outcome". It was the ANU SLIVER cell duo's fifth major award in two years.

"What we've been able to do is come up with a technology that will cut the cost of photovoltaic panels by three quarters", Blakers said at the time the award was announced. At that stage, Origin Energy had invested more than $30 million in building a pilot manufacturing plant in Adelaide but needed high-tech engineering skills and an investment partner to accelerate largescale commercial production.

The following year, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki visited the ANU laboratory where the SLIVER cells were developed. In an address to the National Press Club the next day, he talked of the global contribution the technology could make to cutting greenhouse emissions. "But I gather it's on the verge of being sold to an international corporation and you're going to end up buying back an Australian technology which I think is scandalous and disgraceful", he said.

Last year, Origin Energy and United States company Micron Technology announced they had formed a joint venture partnership with "a focus on the development of photovoltaic technology". Last month, the mayor of Boise, Idaho, announced plans to build a 10 MW photovoltaic power plant at a cost of $U545 million ($A41.5 million) to help the city retain manufacturing jobs. The Idaho Statesman newspaper reported the state has recently lost a bid to be the site for a new clean energy manufacturing plant because the state chosen, Colorado, "was considered green and Idaho was not". The photovoltaic plant was an attempt to change that reputation.

Weeks later, Boise company Transform Solar (the joint venture between Origin Energy and Micron) announced plans to "bring thin film solar cell production" to the city. An old computer chip plant belonging to Micron will be converted to manufacture the solar cells, which will be assembled into solar panels at a separate plant in Nampa, Idaho", a local news report says.

"SLIVER solar cells are made with monocrystalline silicon, but require much less of the semiconductor than conventional crystalline silicon cells, reducing material costs by 90%. They are 50 microns thick (less than two thousandths of an inch) and able to collect solar power on both sides of the cell. They are the thinnest solar cells currently in production. "Transform Solar has already hired 70 workers to operate the plant and plans to hire up to 50 more". And yes, the SLIVER cells will be part of the new $US45 million photovoltaic power plant in a state that's usually associated with potatoes.

Origin Energy has closed the Adelaide pilot plant that was purpose built to test commercialising the solar SLIVER cells, and some of the 62 staff employed there will be transferring to Boise. Blakers says the move "is understandable". He will still be involved with the SLIVER technology and the ANU has $6 million in research contracts with the new US venture. This is the first largescale commercialisation I've been involved in, and you always underestimate how long it takes and how much effort it takes", he says.

"Origin Energy set up a pilot plant in Adelaide and got a long way down the track towards having a commercial product, but they needed to find a place to manufacture it. While looking around they found Micron, which had a large, mothballed semiconductor manufacturing plant in Boise Idaho, that was well suited to making SLIVER-modules". So it became clear the next step up from the Adelaide pilot plant was to move operations to this mothballed factory and retrofit the required machines".

Australia needs to develop and commit to a renewable energy manufacturing plan, he says. "How about we have a government manufacturing plan? We have a car manufacturing plan, so why not say 'let's be big in solar manufacturing' and sit down and work it out. "We can't expect a globally competitive Australian solar industry to evolve on its own.

We need to build the industry from start to finish, we need the technical education for tradies putting in the systems, we need the undergraduate education to train process engineers, and the PhDs for research. We've got the basics and it could be expanded fast if we decide we want a solar industry". A recent KPMG investment report on global renewable energy deals says a record 141 renewable energy merger and acquisition deals worth $US11.2 billion ($A10.1 billion) were announced in the first quarter of 2011. Last year 446 renewable energy deals were completed, a 70% increase on the previous year.

"Clearly, incentives for renewable energy in Australia are as important as ever. While there have been some incentives available over the past decade, certainty over a carbon price is critical to the industry developing over the coming years", KPMG renewables analyst Matthew Herring said. Blakers says it "would be very nice" if federal policy could encourage local manufacture, and also points to the need for a national feed in tariff. The ACT Government's feed in tariff was "excessively generous" and created a bubble market that "didn't allow the industry to develop in a more sensible and controlled fashion".

Now that the bubble has burst, "the industry will consolidate and in a year or two, there will be maybe a dozen national brands for installers that are trusted", he says. So, can we build it if we have a longterm national commitment to renewable manufacturing? "We can, if we decide that's what we want, and industry has the certainty of a carbon price. And we need a national feed in tariff so everyone knows what the rules are, and everyone can do their sums without excessive risks and hazard from political change".

Glad to see island reap the wind

Sunday Tasmanian
24 July 2011, Page: 3

PRIME Minister Julia Gillard made a whirlwind trip to King Island yesterday to explore renewable energy systems before landing in Hobart for forestry talks with Premier Lara Giddings. The residents of the Bass Strait island were the first in the state to discuss with the Prime Minister her plans to put a tax on carbon. Ms Gillard said the remote island provided successful examples of how renewable energy could be used into the future.

"What we want to see is less carbon pollution", she said. "What we want to see is a clean energy future and putting a price on carbon pollution will drive new investments and new opportunities in that clean energy future. "The island was originally powered by 100% diesel and they've taken steps over time to harness the abundant wind and the solar power that falls on the island, so now 40% of the power used is generated by renewables. "It's this kind of movement to clean energy sources that putting a price on carbon is all about".

There are plans on King Island to take further steps to increase its clean energy mix, moving to 60% or 70% King Island Mayor Charles Arnold said the Prime Minister was impressed with the region's established renewable energy systems. Ms Gillard is only the second prime minister to visit King Island and the first in more than 50 years. Then prime minister Robert Menzies visited the island in 1961. Ms Gillard spent about two hours on the island and shared breakfast with people from the community.

Melanie Graham questioned the Prime Minister about the rising costs of living. Ms Gi Bard said that was why she was out and about talking to Australians about putting a price on carbon pollution, to answer questions and relieve uncertainty. "Economists have told us and told us consistently that putting a price on carbon pollution, to be paid by the biggest polluters, is the most efficient way of cutting carbon pollution and creating a clean energy future", she said.

Sunday 24 July 2011

Hydro waves farewell to ocean electricity

Hobart Mercury
21 July 2011, Page: 19

Hydro Tasmania yesterday reaffirmed its commitment to wind power but not ocean wave energy. The Tasmanian owned electricity generator has chosen not to accept an invitation from Sydney company Oceanlinx to participate in wave energy developments on King Island. Oceanlinx has developed a semisubmerged box structure that uses the up and down motion of waves to suck and blow air through a turbine.

It already has demonstrator units operating off Australia's east coast and it is selling power into a grid. Oceanlinx chief technology officer Tom Denniss said the company's efforts to introduce wave energy to King Island were supported by the local council and community. Mr Denniss said Hydro indicated that it was only prepared to buy wave energy at times when it couldn't get enough power from its wind and solar generators to meet the island's needs. He said on that basis it was impossible for Oceanlinx to finance a wave unit.

Farmers 'at mercy' of CSG companies
July 20, 2011

Farmers are at the mercy of giant mining companies and feel helpless, a Senate inquiry into the coal seam gas industry has been told. Farmers have been forced to become gas and legal experts as they fight to protect their land and water, the Queensland Farmers Federation told the inquiry on Wednesday. QFF chief executive officer Dan Galligan said there'd been no research on the impact the burgeoning CSG industry would have on water bores.

Yet the industry was racing ahead. "The horse has bolted", Mr Galligan told the hearing in Brisbane. "It has bolted out of the paddock and we are all wondering who is going to shut the gate. "Many farmers, like us, feel disempowered". He said there were major concerns about the effects of the industry on groundwater, and no one was sure what would happen with the tonnes of salty water drawn from coal seam gass.

Senator Bill Heffernan said he believed CSG companies had a "cowboy attitude". "We have seen truckloads of stuff dumped on the road with no regard for anyone", he said. "A lot of farmers think money is going to stop the problems but I haven't come upon anyone from CSIRO who understands the water implications. "And no amount of money is going to compensate (for any damage).

The inquiry held hearings in Roma and Dalby earlier this week. Mr Galligan said there must be meaningful consultation between farmers and mining companies. "At the moment there is very little say (given to) the landholder", he told the hearing. He said farmers accepted the CSG industry contributed to local economies. "The issue is not to never have gas, but how can we have it without destroying our farming land", he said. "No environmental impact statement looks at food production". He said the state government was more interested in mining royalties.