Thursday 14 March 2013

Alternative energy blowin' in the wind
24 Feb 2013

The federal government's large-scale renewable energy target for 2020 remains unchanged at 41,000 GWs. From a small office in Canberra, billions of dollars worth of wind turbines are being proposed for large slabs of land across the world.

The office is quiet. Several people tap away at their keyboards. A number of the staff are graduates from ACT universities. In a room off to the side are a set of computers 250 times faster than a standard laptop. Two air-conditioners stop the computers overheating. The computers are churning through huge amounts of commercially sensitive data.

Their job is to track the wind. To find out where it blows and where it blows reliably. Sometimes the computers are focused on entire countries at a time. Once the ''hot spots'', as they are called in the wind game, are found, the people move in. Nathan Steggel and Luke Osborne sit just a few metres away from the room. These two men are modern-day prospectors.

They could be the new faces of the energy industry. They have already proven to be novel thinkers in the wind sector. Steggel has a PhD in computational fluid dynamics and is from the United Kingdom. Osborne is an engineer and fifth-generation Bungendore resident. His family owns land not far from Infigen Energy's Capital wind farm.

Once the computers give them the results, they turn up to the place they have mapped from several thousand km away-perhaps to a village in the US or a town in South Africa-to determine whether a wind farm worth hundreds of millions of dollars can be built there. ''Some of these landowners are often blown away by the technology,'' Osborne says.

Then the discussions, and commercial agreements, begin. At the moment their Canberra-based company of 27 staff is too small to finance the building of any wind farm. But the enterprise does everything up until that stage-overseas and in Australia-with other companies taking ownership towards the end.

The company these men are helping to build, Windlab Systems, was started in the territory 10 years ago by former CSIRO scientists who developed its wind-mapping technology. It was launched with about $1 million of seed money from the ACT government and the group now known as the Capital Angels. ''When we started there were four people and we were a consulting services company,'' says Steggel, one of the founders. ''But you can't make a hugely exciting company from consulting.''

Today the enterprise not only chases the wind. It now has 273 MWs (MW) under construction, more than 1500MW permitted and more than 6500MW being proposed globally. Once these projects are complete, they will supply enough power for two million homes.

It puts together development applications and deals with communities surrounding proposed wind farms. This is probably the job few others are eager to do. Australia's history of wind farm development shows it is a polarising topic. It seems communities are mostly angry when they first spot the development applications in the foyers of local council buildings.

Opposition to turbines often turns into outrage. The turbines are labelled eyesores. Nothing but vote-catching contraptions for greenies. Dangerous for birds. They create shadows. They are noisy. There are even claims the turbines adversely affect health (at least one official body, the South Australia's Environmental Protection Agency, which perhaps deals with more of these complaints than counterparts in other states, has rejected the health claim).

In November, it was reported that EnergyAustralia told the Climate Change Authority it was concerned community opposition to wind power could make Australia's renewable energy target difficult to achieve.

The federal government's large-scale renewable energy target for 2020 remains unchanged at 41,000 GWs. The ACT government is aiming for 90% use of renewable energy by 2020. About 80% of this would have to be achieved by wind power, according to an Environment and Sustainable Development report. The same report also outlines the territory government's aims to source this power from the Canberra region.

Osborne, Windlab Systems's chief operating officer, says he would like to see green power traded into the ACT market from other states. In other words, this would mean the territory would buy power from other Windlab Systems-related projects, thereby creating more business for Windlab Systems.

Osborne says this would meet the government's agenda of supporting the ACT green energy sector-because Windlab Systems is the only wind power company in Canberra-and would also help the government meet the ''ambitious'' 90% renewable target within seven years. Steggel, Osborne and their colleagues are pioneering other ways to expand the use of wind turbines to create more clean power. In particular, they are coming up with new ways to quell community discontent: a vital aim if the wind sector is to have a mainstream future.

One way to make communities more welcoming is to offer landowners surrounding the turbines shares in the project: so-called ''direct ownership''. Already it has been done at one Windlab Systems-led project in Victoria. The company has done something similar in Nebraska, where all members of a landowners' association were given the opportunity to buy shares. ''It recognises communities,'' Osborne says. ''The landowners take part in some of the decision making, they get information much quicker.''

Traditionally, financial rewards have stayed on the same side of the fence as the turbines. The property owner received rent, usually a generous amount due to the scale of the developments, for the land. Another way of getting locals onside is to put money into community trusts. In South Africa, where huge expanses of wind farms are being built as part of its government's own push for renewable energy, Windlab Systems is heavily involved in up to $4 billion of projects.

At one project, Windlab Systems created community trusts which would result in local groups receiving an estimated $1 million a year for education and social development. This is a large figure for many of the poor communities surrounding these wind farms in South Africa. The sum of $1 million or so a year makes up 5% of dividends for the wind farm. A squall for anyone who doubts the money to be made in the emerging wind power sector.

Graph of the Day – How fossil fuels lose out to wind and solar
20 Feb 2013

The story that has really captured the imagination of our readers this year has been on the Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis that demonstrated that wind power was already cheaper than new coal and gas plants in Australia, and solar PV was not all that behind.

Because of that interest, we've decided that today's Graph of the Day should be another set from the BNEF report, because they demonstrate so vividly how the technology costs of wind, solar PV, solar thermal, biomass and even geothermal fall below rising coal and gas plant costs over the coming decades.

Remember when looking at this graph of the day that Australia needs no new baseload power plants for another 10 years-that's according to the Australian Energy Market Operator and the utilities themselves. So this shows that the new plants we are getting built now-wind farms, thanks to the renewable energy target-are the cheapest option.

By the time 2020 comes around, solar PV will have well and truly joined wind on the southern side of the cost curve (and will no doubt be competing for space in the RET), and solar thermal-with its ability for storage and dispatchable energy, will be competing vigorously with gas.

Looking at these, it really is hard to disagree with BNEF's CEO Michael Liebrich, who said that "clean energy is a game changer which promises to turn the economics of power systems on its head". And it's also hard to stomach the constant carping from "the other side" about the expense of renewables.

We've published one graph that includes 2012, 2020 and 2030 forecasts, because the contrast is so visible. But due to the formatting, it may be easier to view the graphs individually, so we have also reproduced them below if the numbers and the letters are too small to see in the first.

Read More…

Japanese oil refiner seeks switch to solar cells
19 Feb 2013

Showa Shell Sekiyu, a Japanese oil refiner, plans to become a global leader in solar cell output as it diversifies to benefit from clean-energy subsidies. Showa Shell Sekiyu will increase production efficiency and cost competitiveness to "top levels in the world", it said today in its five-year management plan. The company also intends to lead the development of solar modules, which use photovoltaic cells.

Japan began an incentive program in July to promote alternative power generation following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. That prompted companies such as mobile carrier Softbank Corp, and Tokyo-based Showa Shell Sekiyu to expand in solar power as demand climbed.

"Once we gain a foothold in Japan, we want to gain ground in the international market", Showa Shell Sekiyu President Jun Arai said today at a press briefing. The company is seeking to reduce the cost of CIGS solar panels-thin-film units using copper, indium, gallium and selenium-by about half in 2017, he said.

Showa Shell Sekiyu's Energy Solution business posted a 19% jump in 2012 sales to 78.2 billion yen ($815 million), while its operating loss narrowed to 15.4 billion yen from 28.8 billion yen, a February 14 filing showed. The division comprises solar cell production and sales, as well as wholesale power supply.

Japan is poised to become the world's third-largest market for solar power this year, according to forecasts from researcher Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Wind turbine a feature of Centennial Building's stage two at Grammar
18 Feb 2013

DESIGNED to be quiet but highly efficient, Ballarat Grammar's new wind turbine has a peaceful, pinwheel-like appearance when it picks up the breeze. The white futuristic blades literally cap off Grammar's new sustainability friendly Centennial Building. It arrived just in time, installed on Friday via a 25 metre tall boom crane, before yesterday's official stage two opening.

The one kW vertical axis UGE wind turbine was a partial gift from the environmental group in the graduating class of 2011, with a goal to off-set their carbon footprint at school. When in full force, the turbine will generate 1000kW of power. This has set a trend, with the 2012 graduates raising money for a Green Wall-a living, growing wall-set within the Centennial Building.

Grammar's sustainability co-ordinator, Clarice Lisle, said the Centennial Building's design as a whole re-inforced the school's five-star sustainability rating in the ResourceSmart AuSSI Vic framework. "The building's windows are all about bringing the outdoors in, so there's a lot of natural light right through the building and you can see nature", Ms Lisle said.

The exposed, thick concrete structure helps moderate temperature inside the building so walls and floors will absorb heat in summer days and hold natural heat inside in winter. Energy-efficient evaporative cooling will switch on only at a pre-set temperature.

Ms Lisle said the building complemented existing sustainability projects about the school, including a horizontal axis wind turbine on the Heinz Centre, installed in 2001 to draw power from high winds, and solar panelling. The Centennial Building stage two was opened yesterday by City of Ballarat mayor John Burt and was blessed by Anglican Bishop of Ballarat Garry Weatherill. Stage one was opened last June by Govenor-General Quentin Bryce and it is named in honour of 100 years of Anglican education in Ballarat.

Centennial Building houses VCE students and includes open study spaces, common areas, classrooms, science laboratory, a gallery, the John HD Roberts Museum and the Butler Archives Centre, which is responsible for gathering Ballarat Grammar history and memorabilia. Sculptures outside were designed by past student Anderson Hunt, who also sculpted for the Wendouree Centre for Performing Arts.