In ‘Environmental policy’ Category


The Pears Report: Basslink blues, abatement buy-in

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Is a second Basslink cable the best solution for Tasmania? And with the UN now trading carbon offsets, how can you become a voluntary abater? Alan Pears reviews the options.

As a commentator who argued against the construction of the Basslink cable, recent proposals for a second cable between Tasmania and the mainland have led me to review my position—but not necessarily change it.


It’s easy to argue that Tasmania needs a backup cable and that this could also provide benefits. But it’s not so simple.

The existing cable has brought both benefits and costs. On the one hand, Tasmania could profit from exporting peak power at high prices and from selling renewable electricity when there was a carbon price. It could also import cheap off-peak power from the mainland— increasing its greenhouse gas emissions.

But it costs 2 to 3 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh), or $20 to $30 per megawatt-hour (MWh), to cover cable costs and energy losses. That’s a lot when, due to excess generation capacity, wholesale prices have been depressed to around $40/MWh in 2015–16 in Victoria, where Basslink feeds into the mainland grid. Peak prices have fallen due to renewable generation, energy efficiency, demand management and industry restructuring.

Basslink provided an excuse for Tasmanian governments to continue to ignore energy efficiency improvement. This would have cut consumer bills, made better use of existing generation capacity and provided benefits such as more comfortable homes and more productive offices. Development of new renewable energy generation in Tasmania has not exactly boomed. Tasmanians are also paying a high price for the failure of Basslink. So it’s not clear that Basslink has delivered a benefit relative to other paths. A retrospective study of what could have been done with the Basslink money could be interesting.

The economics of an additional cable are very sensitive to mainland electricity prices and the possible reintroduction of a carbon price. The ability of a second cable to provide useful backup also depends on what happens to Tasmanian electricity demand, investment in new renewable energy generation and rainfall for hydro generation as climate change plays out.

To compete with mainland renewable generation, Tasmanian generators will have to factor in the extra cost and energy losses of using the cable, so they would have to be significantly more productive than mainland generators.

Using the money saved by not building an extra cable (maybe a billion dollars or so) to instead invest in energy efficiency and new renewables, as well as revised dam management practices, could avoid the need for a backup cable and offer other benefits.

Also, instead of exporting to the mainland, it may be more profitable to divert excess electricity to running electric vehicles (or, given Tasmanian conditions, plug-in hybrids), which would offset the much higher cost per unit of energy of petrol and diesel fuel, and use a local resource to avoid import costs. And plug-in hybrids can easily switch to petrol if there is a power shortage.

I don’t have the data to make a call on whether or not another cable is a good idea. But I am inclined to be sceptical. Its cost must be compared with alternative options. And the risks of even greater exposure to mainland electricity market vagaries must be carefully weighed up.

Reframing thinking about emerging energy solutions
Recently we have seen intense discussion about the economics of storage and large solar thermal generation relative to other options. Many consider their economics are improving but are not quite there yet. My recent observations of events in Australia and other countries lead me to a different perspective.

Tasmania has been thrown into turmoil by the failure of the Basslink cable—with the low dam levels adding to the pressures and public debate about who to blame. A few years ago, Melbourne faced rolling blackouts as a major powerline to New South Wales was shut down due to a bushfire. And some Queensland power stations had their output limited by lack of cooling water during the last drought.

I’ve just come back from Japan, where the new green buildings and urban developments I saw are designed to run independently of the electricity grid for at least three days. A combination of on-site generation, storage, extreme energy efficiency and smart management systems deliver this capacity. They have realised that they need to be able to cope with natural disasters and technical failures without disruption of core services.

So the discussion about energy storage, distributed generation and smart management using a lot of data is completely different in Japan. They are simply getting on with a transformation. And, as in other fields, they are finding that lessons from experience allow them to reduce costs, identify benefits they hadn’t previously recognised and capture opportunities in new markets.

The contrast with Australia is remarkable. Our energy war, piecemeal approach and focus on narrow short-term costs are seriously undermining our future. Basically, we are being distracted by the detail while others are just shifting to a new paradigm. That’s how losers behave.

Climate targets and meeting them
The urgency for action on climate change is building. It now seems to me that responsible businesses, communities and individuals must reframe their targets towards ‘beyond zero emissions ASAP’, not just gradual reduction or even net zero emissions by 2020 or 2030. The good news is that it’s becoming cheaper (or even more profitable) and easier to cut emissions.
This means aggressively cutting our emissions both from our own emission generating activities and from the inputs to our lives and businesses.

Voluntary abaters must also buy and cancel offsets to balance the emissions we can’t avoid and to go beyond zero emissions. An exciting development here is that the United Nations has now set up a carbon offset trading website where individuals can buy and surrender internationally recognised carbon permits ( I found a range of projects with offset costs from US$0.50 to US$5 per tonne of emissions avoided. One project even met the Gold Standard (see, set up by WWF and endorsed by over 80 NGOs) for very high quality credits. You can select the ones you like best, based on the details provided.*

I road-tested the site by buying 100 tonnes of offsets from a small run-of-river hydro plant in India.

So instead of just thinking about donating to worthy international charities, you can now choose to support projects that cut emissions and also deliver worthwhile social, economic and environmental benefits for their host communities—at bargain prices.

Now is a good time to buy quality offsets: they are unlikely to ever be as cheap again. And if we don’t buy and surrender them to cut global emissions, high emitters will buy them up at low prices to offset their emissions. If enough people buy up permits to reduce the present glut, prices will increase to a point where high emitters may actually focus on reducing their emissions instead of just buying compliance with cheap permits.

There is debate about the rationale for buying international offsets. The present low prices for offsets are an outcome of a number of factors, including weak targets, over-generous allocations of free permits, poor trading scheme design, lower than expected economic growth since the GFC, declining emission intensity of economies and corruption. However, once they are
certified by an approved scheme, they are legal ‘currency’, regardless of their quality.

Some argue that governments should act to disallow existing poor quality permits. But in my view this is unlikely, despite being desirable. This is effectively retrospective removal of a right to emit and would create a precedent many fear could then be applied in other policy areas. International negotiations are messy enough and, to me, it seems unlikely that agreement would ever be reached to do this. In any case, if you buy offsets you consider to be credible and which deliver additional benefits to communities, they are unlikely to be made invalid and they deliver tangible other benefits beyond
emission reduction.

The Australian government could work with the international community to improve the integrity of international carbon certification schemes, as well as its own Emission Reduction Fund rules

Alan Pears, AM, is one of Australia’s best-regarded sustainability experts. He is a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University, advises a number of industry and community organisations and works as a consultant.

* Another great option for offsetting emissions is through C3 run by the ATA (ReNew’s publisher). This combines offsetting emissions with renewable energy credits and donations to local community groups.

This article was first published in ReNew 136.


How green is my solar?

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How long does it take to pay back the energy used in the production of solar + battery systems and how much of an effect do they have on the greenness of the grid? The ATA’s Andrew Reddaway investigates.

By generating clean electricity, solar systems reduce the amount of coal and gas that’s burned in power stations. This reduces pollutants and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere, which cause disease and man-made climate change. Fossil fuels also require extractive processes such as fracking and open-cut coal mining, which have led to negative effects on the environment such as land degradation, water contamination and mine fires.


It seems clear that installing a solar system will have a positive effect on the environment. But with several different types of system now available, including systems with batteries, how do they compare in terms of the environment?

Grid-connected without batteries

The vast majority of existing solar systems are connected to the grid and have no batteries. Your solar panels’ electricity is first used by on-site appliances, and any excess is exported to the grid to be consumed by your neighbours. Any shortfalls are supplied from the grid. This setup is relatively cheap and efficient, using a simple inverter that relies on the grid for its stability. However, it’s not very self-sufficient, because if a grid blackout occurs the inverter will switch off. (Although not always; some rare grid-connect inverters can use direct solar generation to supply household appliances in a blackout, even without batteries; for example, the Nedap PowerRouter.)

Since the grid has minimal energy storage, whenever your solar system is operating, a centralised power station will reduce its output to compensate. Each kilowatt-hour of solar generation reduces power station generation accordingly. In fact the benefit is even greater, as the power station must supply not only the end-user demand but also the losses incurred in the power lines, which can be over 20% for remote locations. Some people argue that because coal-fired power stations are inflexible, they’ll keep consuming coal at the same rate regardless of solar generation. Actually they are responsive enough; for example, Loy Yang A in Victoria can halve its output in less than an hour. Spread out over a geographically large area, solar systems’ overall impact is relatively gradual even when a cloud front arrives; this is forecast and managed by the grid operator in five-minute intervals.

With enough panels you can generate more electricity than you consume over a whole year, with your night-time imports more than compensated for by your daytime exports.

Read the full article in ReNew 135.


The Pears Report: Global energy markets

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Following his participation in two international summits recently, Alan Pears reflects on approaches to a transitioning energy market, both internationally and in Australia.

My opportunities to present at an Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) energy ministers’ conference and also an Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) energy summit late in 2015 gave me some fascinating insights into the energy picture beyond Australia. There was no debate about climate change—the science is accepted, the evidence is clear, and the impacts are real and terrifying. The two forums, however, showcased quite different approaches to addressing the issue.


Among APEC ministers, there was intense discussion about how best to help the rural poor gain access to renewable energy off-grid or on microgrids. APEC energy leaders were, on the whole, quite progressive, and my presentation on the future role of clean energy generated a very positive response.

Energy efficiency was seen as a key priority, as was equitable access to energy and, of course, renewable energy. The Philippines has identified renewable energy resources 13 times larger than present capacity. Several speakers outlined goals to reduce energy intensity (energy use per unit of GDP); for example, China aims to achieve a 45% reduction by 2030 relative to 2005.

The need to attract private capital was also a major theme. Most focus was on large projects, although some emphasised the role of micro-enterprises. Of course, investment in energy efficiency and distributed renewables is a very effective way of using private capital!

Coal was mentioned, but without great enthusiasm. Coal is a problem for most APEC countries—coal imports add to their balance of payment problems, as well as pollution. APEC is supporting efforts to develop clean coal technologies as one of a number of themes, but my impression was that this is more because those supporting this approach are prepared to fund the work.

And APEC is not interested in upsetting powerful groups. Its focus is more about fostering dialogue and sharing experiences. Indeed, several people expressed their relief that newly appointed Australian energy minister Josh Frydenberg attended and participated constructively; Australia, one of the key drivers of the creation of APEC, had vanished from the scene since the election of the Abbott government, much to the bemusement of many.

The first day of the ASEAN summit in China was a very different matter, and reflected much more the Australian situation. It was dominated by presentations on large-scale generation projects—mainly renewable and nuclear—and grand visions of huge inter-country power grids that would enable the diverse renewable energy resources of the region to be shared, while also building regional cooperation. All this was based on an assumption that regional electricity demand would triple or quadruple—trending towards the US level of per capita consumption.

I was the only one of about 20 (all-male) speakers from the energy sector who questioned the assumption of massive energy growth, the logic behind large projects and the belief that inter-country grids would improve relationships. I was relieved when, at the end of the first day, quite a few people thanked me for my ‘intervention’. Clearly not everyone at the summit was excited by the scenarios presented. For me, this highlighted the enormous and powerful cultural forces within the energy establishment driving large-scale, capital-intensive solutions. I come from a very different perspective!

The second day was an incredible contrast. I presented at the Smart Cities forum—one of four streams; the others being nuclear, power grids and PV. Presentations discussed smart use of ‘big data’ to optimise building performance, applications of smart grids and case studies of low-carbon urban development. By the end of this day, my optimism had returned.

One of the interesting aspects of these experiences was the significance of the informal discussions and networking, which is difficult to achieve via the internet or correspondence. On the second day, I sat next to one of the key speakers from the previous day, and we discussed the concept of energy services and how people didn’t actually want energy. His summation at the end of that day included some of the points I had raised with him! On the following day we had a site visit to Yingli Solar, the fourth-largest PV manufacturer in China. A Chinese energy policy maker sat next to me on the bus, and we discussed the issues I had raised on the previous days. Our bus driver got lost, so our conversation continued for nearly an hour!

Now I’m back in Australia, slogging away writing my submission to the Victorian Essential Services Commission Inquiry into the ‘true value’ of distributed generation and trying to generate some interest in Australia’s National Energy Productivity Plan. Reality bites!

How to drive energy efficiency and productivity

Australia’s National Energy Productivity Plan (NEPP) was launched last December. Its aim is to deliver more economic output per unit of energy consumed. It includes quite a few worthwhile actions, but its weakness is lack of focus on the institutional and funding arrangements needed to drive outcomes.

To date, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) have proven effective at driving renewable energy research, innovation and commercialisation. Energy efficiency investments already represent about 30% of CEFC’s funding. But ARENA’s agenda is focused more narrowly.

One practical step forward would be to rename ARENA as AEPA (Australian Energy Productivity Agency) and broaden its terms of reference to include energy efficiency—and provide it with more funding. This would not solve the broader institutional blockages to energy efficiency, but it would start building Australia’s capacity to drive decarbonisation in an integrated way.

Low fossil fuel prices—what do they mean?

Over the past year we have seen global oil, coal and liquefied natural gas prices crash. Not many predicted this. It seems to be the result of over-production and lower-than-expected demand. For me, this is a very interesting phenomenon.

Usually, low prices would drive up demand until production was matched by demand. But not this time. Many economists argue that the problem is that low economic growth is limiting demand growth. But there seem to be some other factors at work.

First, global economic development, especially in China, is shifting from physical production to services, which are much less energy intensive (that is, they use much less energy per unit of economic activity). Second, services are displacing resource production and manufacturing, reducing average energy intensity of the existing economy. Third, distributed clean energy is swamping traditional energy supply, as it is now cheaper and much less risky. Fourth, modular, mass-produced energy solutions (both supply side and demand side) are accelerating, driven by remarkable innovation and cost reduction.

While traditional economists keep hoping that demand will recover to take advantage of the low prices, we are seeing some very different responses. For example, the Indonesian government has taken the opportunity provided by falling oil prices to remove subsidies on diesel and other petroleum fuels. This positions Indonesia to shift to a low-carbon future and improves government revenue significantly while also reducing oil import costs.

So the global economy seems to be moving on, beyond fossil fuels. As an OPEC sheik said in the 1970s, “the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stone”.

Some organisations, such as banks and big fossil fuel producers, will try to fool investors by continuing to deny the need for change while they quietly shift their own investments, selling to those silly enough to believe that fossil fuel projects are good investments, then admit afterwards that change was necessary, and claim that they have managed the transition competently.  I’m glad my investments are in other sectors!

Alan Pears, AM, is one of Australia’s best-regarded sustainability experts. He is a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University, advises a number of industry and community organisations and works as a consultant.

This article was first published in ReNew 135.

Glenn Evans reading the electricity meter with clients John and Lea Mungbando

A tropical take: smart cooling in the tropics

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A Northern Territory program that works with low-income residents to reduce their energy bills and improve their comfort is starting to see results. Robyn Deed talks to one of the energy assessors about his approach and how the project is progressing.

ReNew first reported on COOLmob’s Smart Cooling in the Tropics project in December 2014, when the project was just starting. Since then, 480 households have had initial home visits and many have had upgrades applied to their homes.


Data is also being collected. This is the first large-scale project to identify and measure the best approaches to cooling, comfort and energy efficiency in tropical Australia. The outcomes will be used to inform national energy policy, and to influence building codes and rating systems to make them appropriate for the tropics.
The research findings will consider a range of factors including which treatments produced the biggest energy cost savings, which households achieved improvements in comfort levels, and which participants gained better awareness of energy consumption issues and opportunities.

While the evaluation phase is only just starting some early anecdotal observations are giving a flavour of the evidence to come, says Project Manager Jessica Steinborner: “The two primary issues identified through the home visits are heat gain and air flow.”

Heat gain

  • Many homes have no or inadequate shading and a number have dark roofs.
  • A high proportion of homes assessed have outside walls of high thermal mass.

By the end of the project, nearly a quarter of participating homes will have had a heat prevention solution such as shading or reflective roof paint.

“Shading has been a really popular treatment. In addition to preventing heat gain, shading creates a protected outdoor living space away from the hot concrete interiors of their homes,” says Jessica.

Air flow

  • Ventilation is often restricted either as a result of the orientation or because of the design, with windows and doors poorly located to capture a prevailing breeze.
  • Many homes have fly screens in disrepair and consequently not in use, leading to houses being shut up with the air conditioner on.

Half of the households will have received a treatment addressing air flow including upgrades to their doors and windows to facilitate passive cooling and upgrades to their fans (ceiling, wall and floor).

Other observations and some surprises

  • The majority of participants are home during the day and, despite reporting the highest discomfort in the afternoon, they were opting to not use the air conditioner until the evening.
  • Average number of air conditioners was three and average temperature setting was 24 °C.
  • On average, participants were using 26 kWh/day, the average usage for Darwin.

Until more data is available, it’s great to hear comments like this: “I have lived in Darwin for 15 years and this is the first time I’ve felt cool and comfortable during the wet season,” says Mieme, one of the participants.

Read the interview with one of the energy assessors in ReNew 134.

ecoMaster measuring up for draughtproofing

A focus on thermal efficiency

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Energy efficiency is perhaps the most critical aspect of sustainable living, yet it’s oft-ignored and subject to changing government policies. Robyn Deed talks to Lyn Beinat from ecoMaster about the changes she’s seen in the energy efficiency industry and her top tips for householders.

Energy assessment business ecoMaster has seen many government policy introductions and exits over the 11 years they’ve been in business. They’ve had to constantly adapt. “Even changes to solar panel rebates and the RET have affected us, although we don’t deal with solar products,” says ecoMaster CEO Lyn Beinat. Government support is crucial to confidence. Lyn comments, “Perhaps people decide it’s all too hard or likely to be too costly when the government support isn’t there.”


The biggest shift in ecoMaster’s approach has been that they now look at the whole house right from the start. Lyn says, “It’s not that we want people to do everything all at once, but we’ve found that people are often focusing on just one aspect, like secondary glazing, when that may not be the most important thing to look at. The biggest problem is often draughts.”

Another change they didn’t expect at all has been a move into product development. Their research and work on their own home, and with clients, has led them in that direction. Maurice Beinat (Lyn’s husband and ecoMaster’s Chief Technical Officer) has done a lot of energy efficiency assessments (“more than anyone on the planet!” claims Lyn) and through that they identified problems that needed better solutions.

For example, for draughtproofing, Lyn says there are many products available, but it’s hard to find ones that are going to last: “many of the stick-on draught excluders will only last a year or so before they start peeling off, or they’ll cause problems for door closing,” notes Lyn.

Read the full article, including approximate costs for thermal efficiency changes, and Lyn’s top tips in ReNew 134.

The rebound effect

On the rebound: countering the sceptics

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Does energy efficiency lead to energy use that offsets some of the savings, via a ‘rebound effect’? It’s not that simple, says Alan Pears, and in fact, the opposite can happen.

MANY ‘energy efficiency sceptics’ argue that saving energy simply leads to increased energy use that offsets the savings. Some go as far as suggesting energy efficiency is a waste of time and a sham.


Indeed, there is a large body of literature that documents the existence of a ‘rebound effect’. But there is wide disagreement about how large it is—estimates range from a 10% to 70% reduction in net savings. Studies find that the extent of this rebound varies across sectors and activities.

On the other hand, other studies have shown that estimates of potential savings from energy efficiency policies have often been conservative, and costs have been over-estimated. For example, recent analysis of the effectiveness of Australia’s appliance efficiency programs, using improved field data and analytical methods, increased the estimated benefits by a factor of two (as measured by cost per tonne of avoided carbon).

The International Energy Agency has shown that, if the multiple benefits of business energy efficiency measures are considered, total savings can be up to 2.5 times the value of the actual energy saved. These benefits can include productivity improvement, health benefits, reductions in costs in infrastructure and more.

Like many issues, the rebound effect has an element of truth underpinning it. But, overall, it is not a game changer. Indeed, with the right policy settings and in many situations, investment in saving energy can amplify overall energy savings. This article aims to unravel the story.

What is rebound?
The term ‘rebound effect’ itself reflects a bias against valuing energy efficiency. It implies that some or all of the claimed savings from energy efficiency are inevitably taken back through increased energy use. This can certainly occur, but the opposite, amplification of savings, can also occur. The outcome depends on the policies, the behaviour of decision-makers, and the technical detail.

Broadly, the critical factors influencing the size and direction of the overall change in energy use due to energy efficiency improvement are how big the financial savings are, how they are spent, the overall impact of that spending as it flows through the economy, and technical system effects.

A more balanced term might be ‘flow-on effect’.

Consider an extreme example. If I use the money I save through energy saving actions to buy a block of energy-intensive aluminium, overall energy use may increase, as more energy will have been used to produce the aluminium than I am likely to have saved. But if I invest my savings in more energy saving actions, or to support the growth of an energy saving industry, I will amplify the energy savings.

In practice, the overall outcome is difficult to estimate: if the aluminium I buy is used to reduce the weight of a car, the fuel savings may exceed the lifetime energy ‘cost’ of the aluminium—if I believe the aluminium industry’s research! And, if the aluminium is eventually recycled, up to 90% of the energy ‘invested’ in its production will be recovered, reducing future energy consumption.

Read the full article in ReNew 134.

”The future is bright fellow women of renewable energy.” Miwa Tominaga delivering a rousing speech at the
2015 All Energy Conference. Photo courtesy of the Clean Energy Council.

The double-glazed ceiling: Women in renewables

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When asked why it is important to have a gender balanced cabinet, Canada’s Prime Minister replied, “Because it’s 2015.” Sarah Coles looks around in 2015, wonders why Australian women are under-represented in the renewables sector and speaks with leaders in the field about ways to address the imbalance.

LAST month the Clean Energy Council (CEC), the peak body for renewables in Australia, held a Women in Renewables lunch as part of the All-Energy Conference in Melbourne. The lunch was organised by Alicia Webb, Policy Manager at the CEC. Roughly 20,000 people work in the renewables sector in Australia. Men outnumber women in all fields: solar, wind engineering, energy efficiency, hydro, bioenergy, energy storage, geothermal and marine. At the 2015 Australian Clean Energy Summit hosted by the CEC there were 93 speakers, 11 of whom were women.


Women are generally under-represented across science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, of the 2.7 million people with higher level STEM qualifications in 2010–11, men accounted for around 81%.

There are myriad reasons for the low numbers of women in renewables. Gender disparity starts early with cultural stereotypes and lack of encouragement from teachers. Around 25% of girls are not doing any maths subjects in their last years at high school. When I was in year ten and acing science, my biology teacher said to my mother, “Sarah is good now but her grades will suffer when she starts noticing boys.” Returning home my mother (holder of a science degree) delivered a succinct verdict, ”Mr P. can get stuffed.” But discrimination like this is still common.

Some people think a change in governance is needed; that if there are more women in leadership roles this will have a trickle-down effect. As of 2014, women made up 21% of the Rio Tinto board and 22% of Qantas. Stats like these are often bandied about as examples of progress but to my mind if you take a big piece of pie and cut it in half you end up with two equal portions, not one piddley 22% sized piece and one 78% chunk. I decided to speak with some women at the top of their game to find out what should be done to even up the portions.

Miwa Tominaga

Miwa Tominaga knows what it is like to face gender discrimination at work. Miwa’s first full-time job was as the only female electronics technician at a radio transmitter site. She moved to Victoria to pursue a career in the sector, first working as a CAD drafter for electrical building services and then landing a job in renewables doing technical support at a company that manufactures electronic solar charge controllers. While she was working she studied renewable energy through an online course. When she provided phone support, hearing a woman, people would often ask to be put through to someone technical.

Later, installing solar panels at Going Solar, a woman said to Miwa, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but you do know what you are doing, don’t you?” The answer is a resounding yes. Miwa won 2014 CEC’s awards for ‘best install under 15kW’ and ‘best stand-alone system’. She currently works at a solar inverter manufacturer doing sales and tech support: “because it’s a worldwide company there are lots of opportunities.”

When I ask Miwa about discrimination she says, “A lot of women have experienced renewables being a male-dominated industry.” Miwa gave a speech about it at the CEC lunch. “I think it makes a huge difference if you’re working with men that see you as an equal not as an assistant. There have definitely been times when I have been judged for being a woman, especially by customers.” But she says that most of the time people are very supportive or indifferent towards her gender. “They say, ‘Oh wow, you’re gonna get on the roof by yourself!’”

Miwa thinks a top-down approach is a game changer. Danish legislation requires companies to work actively towards gender equality. It is one of the countries that has legislated for quotas around female board representation. Norway passed a law in 2005 requiring companies to appoint boards that include at least 40% women. Malaysia passed a law requiring female board representation of at least 30% by 2016. Miwa thinks Australia needs quotas too. “Start from the top at the board level. I do some volunteering for Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) and I know that they make sure the board is about 50% women, 50% men. It makes a difference when they start at the top. It sets an example and really gives women opportunity.”

Emma Lucia

Emma Lucia felt empowered by encouraging teachers at school, and went on to study Mechanical Engineering and Arts at Monash University. Emma says she became interested in renewables when she was at university and studied abroad. “When I was finishing university everyone went into either automotive, mining, or oil and gas. My first job was actually supposed to be as a mining consulting engineer! I remember sitting in an environmental engineering class, which I did as an elective in my final year of university and thinking, ‘Is this [mining] what I really want to do with my life?’ I wanted to have a positive influence on the environment not a negative one.” The mining consultant role fell through and Emma worked as a building services engineer doing environmentally sustainable designs. “Through that I knew energy is where I wanted to be. I wanted to be in renewable energy. I could see that that would be a game changer.”

Early on in her career she felt constrained by the attitudes in the male-dominated engineering field. “In one company the more interesting work was often offered to my male colleague ahead of me,” says Emma. She found support, though, from other colleagues, who refused to see her sidelined. But it was difficult having to fight such battles, and in the end she decided a sideways transition was needed. “I now work in a more people- oriented role, but still using my skills, and in a renewable energy company. It’s been a good move,” says Emma.

She believes that having support mechanisms within organisations is a crucial step in overcoming discrimination. Emma says that “sometimes women may be a little bit more self doubting” so support from the organisation can help. “Also you need to trust yourself and trust in your abilities and really back yourself.” She adds, “Find a mentor or trusted advisor or someone you can bounce ideas off of who can help you cut through when you have problems in your career.” Emma thinks a key to gender diversity is to network with like-minded women and to get more women on boards, “I’m on the board of the Australian Institute of Energy and I actively look to increase the diversity of our committee members and speakers. I feel very strongly that change doesn’t happen in isolation.”

Katrina Swalwell

Dr Katrina Swalwell is a senior wind engineer and former Secretary of the Australasian Wind Engineering Society. After school, Katrina was all set to go into science at university but happened to do work experience at CSIRO with an engineer who said, “Why don’t you go and become an engineer and get paid more for doing the same job?” She completed a Science and Mechanical Engineering degree followed by six months study in Denmark looking at wind turbines. At university, about 20% of the undergraduates in engineering were women. “The vast majority of my fellow students were really supportive, nice guys. I had one case where a guy complained openly that I got better marks than him because I was a female. My friends and I just laughed because I did preparations for the pracs and he never did, so we thought that might have a bit more to do with it.”

Katrina says that, while she has always been supported in her career, most of her female friends who went through in engineering are no longer working in technical roles: ”The opportunities aren’t necessarily there. There are more opportunities in management or other things. They’ve gone into a whole variety of roles, a lot of them technically related, like one is a patent lawyer and one does electricity market modelling; she would call herself a modeller rather than an engineer now.” It isn’t all doom and gloom: “I think renewables is a great industry in that it is relatively new so there isn’t that entrenched resistance to females in the roles.”

Katrina says flexibility is key to attracting more women to male-dominated roles. For example, in Denmark there is state-supplied childcare. “The company that I work for is German. They’ve got laws now where there is six months paternity leave just for the father, so it has really prompted guys to take some time out.” Taking time off becomes more accepted for everybody as a result.

Katrina says girls need to be informed about their options, “If I hadn’t had that mentor when I was in year 12, I probably wouldn’t have been an engineer.” Like Miwa and Emma, Katrina sees boards as an important catalyst for change. “I’ve been involved in the women on boards group. They encourage women to consider taking board roles. They provide a service for companies that are looking to increase their gender diversity.”

Mentoring, support for diversity, workplace policies that support flexible working hours, baseline measurements and representation targets are some of the ideas for tackling the under-representation of women in renewables. At last year’s All-Energy Conference there were only three women speakers out of a total of 30. We still have a long way to go but change is afoot. The Clean Energy Council has introduced a policy of no all-male panels at the 2016 conference.

The renewables industry in Australia is working hard to accelerate the advancement of women but it needs to get gender equality targets enshrined in law. We need to address gender pay gaps, prioritise the issue and create accountability. We often hear politicians speaking about renewables targets but the time is ripe for them to address the issue of gender targets across this booming sector because, as Emma puts it, “Renewables are going to play a significant role in Australia’s growth so encouraging diversity in renewables will ensure better outcomes for the future of our country.”

Lego v Barbie

Miwa: “I was definitely a Lego kid. I ended up playing with a lot of my brother’s cars and stuff. I think my Mum stopped buying me Barbies because I didn’t play with them!”

Emma: “I did have a Lego kit and another one of my favourite toys was my Barbie Ferrari car.”

Katrina: “I had a Lego technical kit, the one with motors, so I could play with that. I was encouraged to explore whatever I wanted to do but I think my mother was still very surprised when I chose to do engineering

Image: ”The future is bright fellow women of renewable energy.” Miwa Tominaga delivering a rousing speech at the
2015 All Energy Conference. Photo courtesy of the Clean Energy Council.



The Pears Report: Creative policy paths

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Alan Pears considers the newly minted potential for indirect action in Australia—how creative can we get?—along with important considerations for fuel use in vehicles.

Things sometimes move fast in politics. Since October we have had a new national energy minister and, just as important for energy, a new prime minister. PM Turnbull understands innovation and is familiar with the challenges emerging business models face from powerful incumbent industries. He knows he can’t rely on a resources boom to pay Australia’s bills. He also has rooftop solar on his own home and investment properties.


But both our PM and energy minister are pragmatic politicians who have to manage an anti-clean energy (and climate denial) faction and some politically powerful donors. We’ll have to read between the lines to work out their real agenda(s) on energy and climate.

We need to emphasise some key benefits of clean energy solutions. They are good for job creation across a wide range of skills and regions. They mostly grow the light manufacturing and services sectors, which are more employment-intensive and recirculate capital faster than the traditional energy sectors. They are also a great way of privatising and democratising the energy sector while winning votes, not losing them. Guess who owns and benefits directly from all those efficient appliances and buildings, and distributed energy systems? Voters.

They also provide a useful way to wean the energy sector off ongoing subsidies. Upfront subsidies may be needed until economies of scale are captured and institutional barriers broken down. But clean energy is cheap to run or cuts ongoing costs, costs are declining, and many options are already cost-effective and just need finance and promotion. So the need for ongoing support is minimal.

It is becoming cheaper for a government to subsidise energy-efficient equipment and rooftop solar/storage for a low-income household than to keep subsidising their (increasing) energy bills. And the sense of control and links to their energy-using actions may actually empower them—with the right education, feedback and support. The same approach could apply to struggling businesses.

The Clean Energy Finance Corporation and ARENA are now ‘back in business’ and in the environment portfolio, along with a new minister for cities. And the essential role of public transport in increasingly dense cities is now recognised.

‘Indirect Action’ on climate: a creative policy path
Maybe the present awkward situation on climate policy within the government could be beneficial in the long term. The politicisation and artificial polarisation between carbon pricing and ‘Direct Action’ has been a major block to effective action. Labor shut down useful energy efficiency programs because they were not ‘complementary’ to carbon pricing. There are still quite a few policy makers who think a carbon price will fix everything. At the same time, the government’s ‘Direct Action’ strategy is clearly inadequate and leaves taxpayers funding an increasing burden. As I have said for a long time, we need both a pricing mechanism and real direct action.

Of course, the government must know that they will really need CEFC and ARENA to deliver on their present and future climate targets.

But they have to tread warily to manage the climate deniers and powerful vested interests.

This is where ‘Indirect Action’ enters the picture as a complement to both ‘Direct Action’ and some form of carbon pricing. Indirect Action targets a wide range of policies and measures across the economy that make sense for reasons other than climate response, but also happen to cut emissions, maintain existing carbon sinks or store carbon.

Public transport can easily run on renewable energy and cuts emissions more as occupancy increases. Rail freight could do with some attention, too. And Infrastructure Australia has a long list of cost-effective projects that will create lots of construction jobs. And interest rates are very low, so now is the time to borrow for investment in infrastructure to underpin future social and economic success.

‘Virtualisation’ of goods and services can use the NBN and intelligent technologies to replace physical transport and physical products. This cuts direct emissions and ‘embodied’ emissions associated with mining and production of materials and products. This is a major area for business development and innovation. This also meshes well with the increasing focus on ‘energy productivity’, code for capturing more economic activity from each unit of energy. COAG’s Energy Council has just released a National Energy Productivity Plan that starts to deliver on this.

Housing policy can require buildings to be energy efficient and use first home buyer schemes to incentivise builders to sell low-carbon, smaller dwellings. Urban planning can cut costly and space-consuming dependence on car ownership (fuel is only about a quarter of the cost of car ownership) and time wasted travelling.

Measures that reduce oil use help our balance of payments, as we are increasingly net importers of oil. And they will help us to meet our International Energy Agency obligation to have a strategic store of oil in case of supply disruption.

Gas users on Australia’s east coast face higher gas prices, as prices are driven up towards international prices by the new liquefied natural gas plants in Queensland. Many National Party supporters are concerned about the long-term impacts of coal seam gas development on their land and water. Improving efficiency of gas use and shifting to low-carbon alternatives can help to deal with these issues.

Pressure is increasing on governments to fix our flawed electricity market, so consumers and emerging alternatives have a fair go.
These are just a few examples of Indirect Action that can be pursued without allowing climate deniers to retake control of the climate agenda. And they could win a lot of votes while helping position our economy and society for the future.

Asian traffic!
After a recent visit to Jakarta, where I experienced serious developing city traffic congestion, I thought I would explore the fuel consumption impacts of this congestion using the transport calculator I developed for the EPA Victoria Greenhouse Calculator. I assumed a ‘small’ car (Corolla size), 10 km/h average speed, with stops every 50 metres and a Darwin climate. The results are only approximate, as the model is fairly basic and changes in environmental and traffic conditions and driving techniques can affect the outcomes significantly.

The big message was that air conditioner usage was almost half of total fuel use under these conditions. Fuel consumption for movement was, surprisingly, not very different from typical Australian usage. It seems that the reduction in aerodynamic drag from slower speeds may offset the long periods of idling and inertia effects of frequent stops and starts from low speed.

A well-designed hybrid (e.g. a Prius) used half as much fuel overall and saved two-thirds of fuel used for movement. The large savings reflect the potential to recover and reuse a lot of braking energy from the stop-start driving, and the higher efficiency of the Prius engine.

A focus on optimum car air conditioner efficiency and the thermal performance of the car body could save a lot of fuel! High efficiency air conditioners and refrigerants with evaporative cooling of the condenser—which could be retrofitted—could help a lot. So could a light colour or ‘cool roof’, or insulation of roof, shading (e.g. the old ‘tropical‘ roof used on 4WDs) and effective heat-reflective coatings or shading of windows. Some of these options could increase aerodynamic drag when a car finally escapes the congestion, though, so careful design is needed.

This looks like fertile ground for research into new cars and their air conditioners, and retrofit measures.
Of course, improved urban planning, effective public transport and electric bikes would reduce the time wasted (and productivity lost) trapped in traffic and cut air pollution too.

Alan Pears, AM, is one of Australia’s best-regarded sustainability experts. He is a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University, advises a number of industry and community organisations and works as a consultant.

This article was first published in ReNew 134.

PV panels - pvcycle

A recycling round-up

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Lance Turner considers the evolving recycling options for some of the common technologies in households: solar panels, lights and batteries.

Solar panel recycling
Up until recently there have been no official schemes for recycling solar panels in Australia. However, as the number of broken and otherwise failed panels begins to grow, so has the need for recycling.


But how much solar panel waste is there at present, and what are we looking at down the track when the current explosion of solar panel installations come to the end of their working life?
Although figures are hard to come by, one typical example is that of Japan, which has seen considerable growth in PV installations in recent years. According to the Japanese Ministry of the Environment, by 2040 770,000 tonnes of solar panels will need to be recycled. The ministry has stated that, in conjunction with the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and industry organisations, it will begin to implement measures for “removal, transportation and processing of solar power generation equipment” before the end of this fiscal year, in March 2016 (from

In Europe, requirements have already been added to the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive, bringing in a take-back and recycling scheme to deal with solar panel waste. The program, PV Cycle (, provides fixed collection points, collection services for large quantities, and collection via distributors.

The WEEE directive means that solar panel manufacturers not only have to ensure collection and recycling of their products when they have reached their end of life, they will also be required to ensure the financial future of PV waste management.

Looking at Australia, there is currently (as of March 2015) 4.1 GW of installed capacity of solar PV. Assuming around 250 watts per panel (a common size), that’s around 16 million solar panels. With an approximate weight of 18 kg per panel, you are looking at 288,000 tonnes of solar panels, or around 11,500 tonnes per year (assuming a lifespan of 25 years) needing to be recycled. Of course, many PV panels will have a greater lifespan, while other, lesser quality panels will die sooner, so these figures are really just ballpark.

Regardless, that’s a great deal of materials needing to be recycled, most of which is glass, silicon cells (a glass-like material) and aluminium.
Aluminium framing is easily recycled in existing aluminium smelters. However, without a system of collection, transportation and dismantling of solar panels, these materials are currently going to waste, usually ending up in landfill.

Read the full article in ReNew 133.


The Pears Report: Changing states

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Alan Pears looks at the rapid changes in electricity policy, provides some practical perspectives on carbon pricing and discusses some good news about the national appliance energy efficiency program.

We are seeing some interesting developments in clean energy at the state level as the states (predictably) move to fill the hole left by the national government.


Victoria has announced it is developing an Energy Efficiency and Productivity Strategy to be released this year. It has also announced development of its Renewable Energy Roadmap intended to re-establish Victoria as a “global renewable energy leader”. In Western Australia, former head of the Institute of Public Affairs (a conservative lobby group), now energy minister and treasurer, Mike Nahan has flagged a central role for solar. Meanwhile, the ACT and South Australia continue to lead the pack.

In contrast, the electricity industry continues its struggle to come to terms with the significance of energy efficiency and demand-side management. AEMO has just released its latest Statement of Opportunities (SOO). It predicts higher consumption and peak demand than previously, reflecting stabilising prices, loss of momentum in energy efficiency policy and slower PV growth—with no discussion of the importance of actively driving demand management harder to avoid this. Its low-demand scenario suggests planned generation is adequate to beyond the next decade, while its medium scenario requires investment to provide 5780 megawatt hours of additional supply over the next decade, 3.2% higher than 2014–15 consumption. AEMO does, however, flag that next year’s SOO will include analysis of demand management. That could dramatically change the outlook.

Energy companies continue to lobby for the right to apply anti-clean energy measures such as high fixed charges and low feed-in prices, while moving into the solar PV market!
The Energy Networks Association published a paper in August proposing a range of options, including grid connection fees, network exit fees, payment for grid access and payment for risk of stranded assets. It continues to assume that network operators are entitled to make a profit, and that their shareholders should be protected from losses. The age of entitlement continues.

Carbon pricing
We need some practical perspectives on carbon pricing. Although I wouldn’t call a carbon price the ‘centrepiece’ of climate policy—as Labor has claimed in the past—it is important because it sends a signal to change, particularly to investors. And the revenue a carbon price raises can fund other abatement action. To cut emissions we now face a choice between ‘polluter pays’ (pricing emissions) and ‘taxpayers pay the polluter’ (the Emission Reduction Fund).

By removing Labor’s carbon price but leaving in place assistance measures, this government has not saved Australians any money: in fact it may have increased costs to taxpayers. Under Labor, the assistance was funded by revenue from the carbon price. It must still be funded, but now through consolidated revenue, gained from taxes or borrowings eventually repaid by taxpayers, or offset by reduced services. On top of this cost, we must also pay for ‘Direct Action’. Simple slogans can be very misleading.

The good news is that the cost of managing climate is proving to be far lower than expected: many measures such as energy efficiency and some renewables are even profitable. The polarised politics of ‘carbon taxes’ and ‘Direct Action’ is dumb and distracting. We need both a price on carbon emissions and direct action, along with other measures.

Empowering people to cut emissions
I and others from the Voluntary Carbon Markets Association spent a lot of time trying to get Labor to modify its carbon trading model to empower individuals, business, and local and state governments to cut emissions. Our basic concept was that all voluntary abatement should be matched by the government cancelling Kyoto permits (allocated by the UN based on our national target). This would ensure our efforts were recognised as globally ‘additional’ abatement beyond government-driven measures.

For example, if Australia has a target of 500 million tonnes (Mt) of emissions in a given period and households are expected to emit 60 Mt, this means other emitters are able to emit 440 Mt (440+60=500 Mt). But if households (or some other group) voluntarily cut their emissions by an extra 10 Mt in that year down to 50 Mt, the government should cancel 10 Mt of permits. The target would then effectively be 490 Mt so other emitters still have a target of 440 M t (440+50=490 Mt). If the government doesn’t cancel permits, other emitters would now be able to emit 450 Mt and Australia would still meet its 500 Mt target (450+50=500 Mt). So those other emitters would be ‘free riding’ on the voluntary efforts of households. And from a global perspective, Australia’s emissions would not be reduced below the 500 Mt it was originally allowed to emit; the planet would not see a reduction in emissions as a result of the efforts of households and their efforts would not lead to additional abatement beyond what the Australian government has previously agreed to.

After a carbon price was introduced, conservative state governments justified cutting abatement action with the excuse that their actions would not be additional to national action—so there was no point in a state having its own climate target or actively pursuing emission reduction. We had warned the national Labor government, but they did not want to hear: the arrogance of policy makers swamped our efforts.

Recently, one of the emissions trading scheme (ETS) architects, Martin Parkinson, gave a speech (reported by Gareth Hutchens, The Age 30/6/15) in which he acknowledged that they had failed to engage and empower the community. Hutchens wrote:
“[He] never gave enough weight to the fact, when designing the trading scheme, that voters wanted to feel they were making a contribution to emissions reductions, and emissions trading systems do not provide them with that feeling because they are too abstract. ‘We got so hung up on the [idea that] we’ve got this really big problem that we have to deal with, and we’ve got to do it at least cost to the economy, so we delivered a least-cost way of doing it,’ he said.”

The situation is even worse now. The present government is using our money to pay polluters to cut emissions (including subsidising things they were already doing). And abatement actions that households, businesses, and local and state governments take which fall outside the Emission Reduction Fund (like installing rooftop solar or saving energy) allow the government to use our investments to make it easier to meet its weak and globally irresponsible abatement targets.

Positive news for energy efficiency
COAG has announced that the national appliance efficiency program (GEMS) has survived a review, and will even be expanded because it is so cost-effective. This is a relief for the many who were concerned that this review was yet another government attempt to undermine progress in clean energy. The Alternative Technology Association (ReNew’s publisher) played a key role by making a comprehensive submission.

The program faces other hurdles, including the requirement that any additional regulations be offset by reductions in related areas. And undoubtedly the Office of Best Practice Regulation will continue to do its best to delay and block new Mandatory Energy Performance Standards, which it opposes on ideological (neo-classical economic) grounds.

State energy policies
I’ve recently been spending some time in South Australia and the ACT. This has led me to ask what makes them so different in their approach to sustainable energy? Could it be that the lack of powerful coal and resources industries makes it easier for them to be more progressive?

It will also be interesting to see how the Victorian government responds to a scathing study by the Brotherhood of St Laurence that shows the state’s retail electricity market model is a disaster. It delivers remarkably high profit margins for retailers while many disadvantaged people pay the highest prices. This is the model lauded by many in the electricity industry as the template other states should use!

Alan Pears, AM, is one of Australia’s best-regarded sustainability experts. He is a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University, advises a number of industry and community organisations and works as a consultant.

This article was first published in ReNew 133.


Food vs fuel: Ethics and sustainability

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Does biofuel production contribute to global food shortage and hunger, or not? Dr Seona Candy steps us through the pros, cons and complexities of using food crops for biofuels.


In a recent edition of ReNew (ReNew 127), an article describing the use of grain as fuel for wood pellet stoves was published. It inspired some opposing comments regarding the use of food for fuel. Although I can’t comment directly on this particular case of burning grain for space heating, I can perhaps provide some insight into the complexity, ethics and sustainability of the wider debate.

The ‘food vs fuel’ debate, as it is commonly known, is mainly concerned with first-generation liquid biofuels. These biofuels are derived from various agricultural crops that can also be used for food and feed, and have been developed primarily for transport uses. This is the case because there are already considered to be sufficient renewable energy options available to provide stationary energy.

The central argument in the ‘food vs fuel’ ethical debate is about whether the development (or not) of biofuels will cause people to go hungry. Critics of biofuels argue that diverting food crops to biofuel production will increase food prices and cause hunger, particularly among the global poor. Advocates of biofuels argue that their development will help mitigate climate change, and its potential future impacts on agriculture and food production, thus avoiding hunger for everyone (the global poor included) in the longer term.

The first of these two arguments seems fairly straightforward. Indeed, biofuel development in the early 2000s did precede significant rises in the prices of staple crops, causing the 2007/08 global food crisis and food riots in many countries. But it is not safe to assume that biofuels alone caused food prices to rise or that the impacts of rising food prices were negative for all groups who make up the global poor.

According to a report from the International Food Policy Research Institute, the 2007/08 food crisis was primarily driven by a combination of rising oil prices, a greater demand for biofuels and trade shocks in the food market.

Rising oil prices led to increased costs of cereal production, as conventional agriculture is an energy-intensive enterprise. Higher energy prices increased the demand for biofuels, which became more competitively priced when compared with oil. At the same time, cereal demand increased from oil-producing countries and weather shocks reduced the supply of some grains, increasing prices further. This led to a ban on exports by producers and panic buying by importers, which only increased prices yet again.

These increased prices led to food riots in developing countries. As Thompson2 argues, though, increased food prices negatively impact mainly the urban poor, who must purchase their food. For the rural poor, however, who produce and sell their food, rising food prices could be an advantage. It would increase their income and ability to buy food that they don’t grow themselves. Since the rural poor make up around 80% of the global poor, fewer people may in fact go hungry due to rising food prices.

Read the full article in ReNew 130.

community energy congress 2014 450 px

People power

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In a year of milestones for community energy in Australia, Craig Memery takes us on a tour of how the ATA is helping projects with the strategies and resources they need.

It won’t come as a surprise to ReNew readers to hear that ReNew’s publisher, the Alternative Technology Association (ATA), is excited about community energy in Australia. Having been the collective owners of the Breamlea wind turbine two decades ago, some ATA members are probably more surprised that community energy is yet to take off here!


There are a handful of groundbreaking community energy projects up and running today, and here are a few of the ways we are doing our bit to help more than 50 communities bring future energy projects into being.


ATA is a founding partner and steering group member of the Coalition for Community Energy (C4CE), alongside some stalwarts of the community energy sector. C4CE exists to empower and grow the community energy sector. The Coalition is moving from its formative stages to incorporate new members, with membership and governance arrangements being formalised as this goes to print. Find out more at

With welcome support from ARENA (Australian Renewable Energy Agency), C4CE is developing a national strategy for community energy. This work is being led by the Institute for Sustainable Futures and Community Power Agency, with ATA providing specialist input in areas such as energy policy, markets and regulations. Look out for the strategy, which will be released later this year.

In July, C4CE held the inaugural Community Energy Congress in Canberra, bringing together over 300 community energy supporters from across Australia, as well as international delegates. The event was a resounding success, and I think we will look back on the congress in coming years as a milestone for the community energy movement.

Getting a better deal for local generation

Our friends at Total Environment Centre (TEC) have been working hard to improve the incentives for generating energy that is sustainable, locally consumed, improves competition and minimises burden on electricity networks.

ATA is helping TEC’s work on virtual net metering as a member of the project steering group. We are also advising TEC, who, on behalf of a consortium of NSW Northern Rivers organisations, is on a quest to form a community energy retailer. With the spotlight shone on the poor environmental performance of most energy retailers (see GP-TGEG), a community retailer will not only provide a more sustainable business model, but raise the bar for the integrity of the existing retail sector.

Directly engaging with communities

The support of the NSW Office for Environment and Heritage has been vital in allowing ATA to reach NSW communities and help them progress their energy projects.

Most recently we spent some time with the Cowra community (read more about their project here) and in October we’ll be presenting at the North Coast Energy Forum. Straight after that we’ll be travelling to central NSW to meet with local community energy proponents and speak at the AGMs of the Bathurst Community Climate Action Network and Central NSW Renewable Energy Cooperative (CENREC). With the support of Infigen, CENREC grew out of action that took shape three years ago when ATA ran a series of regional community energy workshops around NSW, so seeing how far they have developed is particularly rewarding.

Energy market advocacy and research

As ATA’s energy consumer advocate, my main role is to promote affordable, sustainable energy for all Australian energy consumers, through more demand-side participation, fairer pricing, better regulation and improved competition. ATA punches well above our weight in the energy policy ring, but with tens of billions of dollars behind incumbent businesses in the red corner, we have a long fight ahead of us. Of course, there are many more ways ATA is supporting community energy—from our groundbreaking research into community scale microgrids to Sunulator. Dive into the rest of ReNew 129 for a closer look at the many projects and resources in the works!

Craig Memery is an energy consumer advocate at the ATA and a specialist in community energy.

Read the full article in ReNew 129.

corena - Tulgeen 7kW 450

Community solar: energy from the ground up

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With support resources now readily available, Taryn Lane from Embark explains how individuals, groups and businesses can work together and benefit from setting up community solar projects.

Already a mainstream model internationally in countries such as Denmark, USA, Germany and Scotland, community solar is about to hit Australia in a big way. There are around 50 active projects in Australia and it is a tangible pathway for all communities—whether they be urban, regional or remote—to participate in transforming their energy supply.


Community solar can take on a myriad of identities, depending on a community’s exact needs and opportunities. From community bulk-buy rooftop models, through to small crowd-funded systems, up to more sizable solar parks, they provide real opportunities for installation efficiencies and more inclusive ownership.

Several models of community-owned solar projects feasible within Australia’s current legislative and energy market boundaries will be explored in this article. Although we can learn from international models, we also have unique restrictions in the Australian landscape that we all need to navigate. Our aim at Embark is to both create innovative business models and collate from the broader sector what’s been learnt from the first generation of systems—thereby accelerating the uptake of, and social licence for, renewable energy in communities in Australia.

Why community solar?

The move to a low-carbon economy requires a magnitude of capital that charity alone cannot provide: community investment with reasonable returns will provide a necessary part of the solution.

There is still a significant portion of the community who can’t invest in solar technology. This includes renters, apartment owners, those living in homes with shaded roofs or heritage overlays, and those who can’t afford to install a residential system on their own home.

Community solar projects enable neighbourhoods to develop and own their own renewable energy infrastructure. It answers the calls for social equity for solar in Australia, as renters, apartment dwellers and low-income households can have the opportunity to make a direct investment in solar PV.

Shared ownership schemes will soon drive significant growth in the medium-scale solar space. A business installing 100 kW on a factory roof will result in the same abatement as a community that installs 100 kW in the same location, but the latter has the opportunity to engage a hundred (or more) community members on an ongoing basis.

Read the full article in ReNew 129.

Alan Pears

The Pears Report: The war on renewable energy

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With neighbouring Asian countries investing millions or billions of dollars in renewable energy and energy efficiency, Alan Pears reflects on Australian policy in 2014.

Life is certainly interesting in Australia in 2014. What is most tragic is that our leaders seem to be uninterested in having transparent, balanced processes to work things through to a consensus position that is in the interests of society.


Every inquiry or audit seems to be stacked with partisan people, and has inadequate process to allow consensus to be built. Every announcement is full of PR spin and provides little information, much of which is selected to support a particular view. This is a serious challenge for democracy. Of course, in the energy sector, we’re used to this kind of behaviour.

Science also seems to be in disrepute. We are paying a high price for the lack of scientific training of our leaders and their advisers.

I visited China recently for an APEC sustainability workshop. I was the only westerner present at the invitation-only session, which made me feel very honoured. I was given the task of explaining Australia’s renewable energy policy to the attendees: they were all completely bemused. I then had to sit and listen as they took turns telling the group about the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars they were all investing in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Appliance efficiency

A recent report on Australia’s appliance energy efficiency program (at www. provided some great news, however. From a base year of 2000, the program is cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 13.5 million tonnes annually at a cost of minus $119 per tonne avoided (based on purchase and operating costs over appliance lifetime per tonne of emissions avoided). By my estimate, it is saving $3.2 billion on energy bills each year, $2.7 billion of which is saved by households. That’s around $300 per household on average. Just think, the average annual energy bill of $2000 could have been $300 higher! If we look at carbon pricing as part of a broader package, it is quite clear we can deliver a lot of abatement at zero or low cost by using a combination of policy tools.

Electricity developments

Things are moving fast. On the one hand we have even more aggressive attempts to kill renewable energy and energy efficiency. But on the other hand, the incumbent industry is beginning to fragment and shift, as players come to accept the futility of trying to hold back the tide.

Apparently the Western Australian and Queensland governments, and the networks they own, are now subsidising fringe-of-grid consumers by more than a billion dollars a year. Two of their network operators have announced that they will help people in these areas go off-grid. It will save their governments a lot of money.

There may be a role for local governments to take over existing grids and manage a transition to microgrids. Network operators can offer services such as maintenance, monitoring and sale of equipment to make a profit—as I suggested in my column in ReNew 123. I hope there’s a nice big cheque in the mail in recognition of my advice!

This is not news. In its 1991–92 annual report, the State Electricity Commission of Victoria pointed out that residents in rural towns cost 50% more to supply than they paid, while rural outlying homes cost double what they paid. Most state governments have maintained these subsidies for political reasons.

The retailer sector is also undergoing rapid change. A number of community groups are serious about setting up not-for-profit energy retailing businesses. And some new business models are appearing, such as the (presently) Victoria-only PowerShop. Check out the blog on PowerShop’s website for some interesting views on the direction of energy markets.

The Productivity Commission and the federal government are keen to see more privatisation of the electricity industry. PV, shifting off-grid, investment in large renewable energy projects, energy efficiency and demand management all do that: so why is the government opposed to them? The government’s Green Paper is due out in May, so it will be interesting to see what position it takes.

RET review

This review’s design is a clear declaration of war on renewable energy by government on behalf of the incumbent electricity industry. It will be very interesting to watch the attempts to manipulate economic analysis and policy objectives to fit the outcome.

I have made a submission to the Inquiry pointing out that renewable energy policy operates within a broader context, and that, when this is considered, a stable RET is a sensible and financially responsible policy— as concluded by the 2012 Climate Change Authority Review.

From the limited information available, the Emission Reduction Fund will cost around $12 per tonne of avoided emissions. This alone justifies a RET if its net cost is under 1.2 cents per kilowatt-hour—which most agree it is. While the incumbent industry wants to shift to a (lower) target based on the actual percentage of 2020 electricity sales, keeping the existing fixed target is very important for investor certainty. The industry itself has argued strongly for a fixed target in the past, when that option suited them. They can’t have it both ways.

Indeed, the uncertainty created by this review has unnecessarily increased the cost and difficulty of meeting the 2020 target by undermining investment. That extra cost should not be counted against the RET: it is an outcome of poor policy.

A 2009 report by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences estimated that air pollution from coal-fired power stations cost Australians 1.3 cents per kilowatt-hour. The RET reduces this cost.

The decline in electricity demand is largely due to a range of separate factors and policies implemented by government such as successful energy efficiency programs (which are saving consumers much more than any RET cost); the high exchange rate driven by the mining boom that has made Australian industry uncompetitive; and big increases in electricity prices caused by unnecessary investment in electricity network infrastructure. So why is the RET blamed for these impacts on the incumbent electricity industry?

The electricity industry is supposed to be a competitive market. The incumbent industry can choose to invest in renewable energy and other emerging technologies to make profits from the RET—as they have done in the past, and WA and Qld network operators seem poised to do. They can even write off losses from existing infrastructure against profits from new activities.

The present high electricity costs are outcomes of their decisions. Independent consultant Bruce Mountain estimates that networks need not have spent about $20 billion of the $40 billion invested over the past few years. If they had saved this money, electricity prices would be at least a cent per kilowatt-hour cheaper: this would have offset much of the claimed RET cost for consumers.

So when we look at claimed costs for the RET, we see they are small compared with the outcomes of many other decisions, some taken by governments, and others by existing industries. On this basis, the RET looks like good value for money. It is also positioning Australia for a better, more competitive future.

In any case, how many Australians outside the energy sector would see the RET over-achieving as a bad thing? For decades, surveys have shown that most Australians want an efficient, renewable energy future. Governments and the industry has chosen not to deliver what we want. This is their chance to catch up.

We must remember that change usually brings challenges, creates winners and losers, and can even create some short-term costs. But just think where we would be if the government had helped Telstra’s landline business to block the rollout of mobile phones and the internet.

Alan Pears has worked on sustainable energy issues since the late 1970s. He is one of Australia’s best recognised and most highly awarded commentators on sustainable energy and climate issues. He teaches part time at RMIT University and is co-director of Sustainable Solutions, a small consultancy.

Read more articles on energy efficiency in ReNew 128.

Induction cooktop

The Pears Report: Peak demand and ‘enoughness’

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Why should we expect unlimited access to energy when we can take responsibility for how much energy we use, asks Alan Pears.

THE JANUARY 2014 extreme weather in southern Australia reignited debate over the role of air conditioners in driving peak demand. A few issues have emerged.


A thoughtful study by Ric Brazzale of the REC Traders Association reframed debate about how useful PV is in managing peaks. Since electricity data from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) does not include PV output, because it happens on the consumer side of the meter, Ric recreated the real demand profile by adding estimated half hourly PV output to the AEMO demand profile. This showed actual peak demand occurred earlier in the day, when PV was producing much more electricity.

This challenges the simplistic approach usually taken, of just looking at PV output at the time of the AEMO peak. Ric also pointed out that PV helped to significantly reduce average prices on peak days below those before the Black Saturday fires. Of course, reducing peaks and peak prices undermines generator and network profits, which is seen as a bad thing by the incumbents and some policy makers.

As demand-response bidding, energy efficiency and energy storage progress, summer peaks will become less of a problem—and less profitable for the electricity industry. I can only wonder how much cheaper electricity costs would have been if the networks had invested in these solutions instead of more powerlines.

As the owner of a small high-efficiency air conditioner operating in a well-insulated and shaded room, my peak cooling load in the heatwave was around 300 watts during ‘cool down’ on arriving home, and around 125 watts at times of extreme heat. That’s much less than a plasma TV or six halogen lamps.


All this brings me to an issue raised in the 2013 book Smart Utopia? by Yolande Strengers. She asks why the electricity industry is expected to provide unlimited power supply at all times.

This piqued my interest. In industry, I have found that the engineers who provide services such as steam and refrigeration often run grossly excess plant (and waste a lot of energy) in their quest to provide as much energy as users ask for, even if the request is unreasonably high. In the 1980s, I found the electricity industry shared this culture.

There is certainly a historical reason for this: without our modern energy options (which allow us to reduce and shift demand), many activities were critically dependent on reliable electricity supply. Indeed, many activities still are, but need not be.

The political price of supply shortages has traditionally been high, as daily life, health and business activity have been affected: heads of electricity agencies can lose their jobs, politicians can lose power. Engineers have a professional pride in providing what their clients ask for, and don’t like being blamed for shortfalls.

But modern energy solutions allow us to limit expectations of the traditional electricity supply system and, instead, place some responsibility on consumers. Such expectations would need to be phased in, with issues faced by tenants and financially stressed people recognised and transitional costs addressed. Incentives and support mechanisms, not just pricing, must be used. The alternative may be a mess, as those who are active, informed and have access to capital will look after themselves while others suffer.

This should be a core focus of energy reform policy.

Energy Issues Paper

In mid-December 2013, the government released an Energy Issues Paper and called for submissions by 7 February 2014. This process is a lead-in to release of a Green Paper in May and an Energy White Paper in September.

The Issues Paper seems to be focused on a list of short- to medium-term problems that the government thinks it needs to address. As far as it goes, this is useful, although the way issues are presented seems to disproportionately reflect the views of incumbent energy organisations and some policy makers.

Hopefully the Green Paper will take a broader view. Let’s face it, when the phrase ‘climate change’ does not appear in an energy policy document, our policy makers are struggling to be credible.

And I wish energy policy people would learn to differentiate between the price of energy and the cost of delivering energy-related services. Price matters much less if you are efficient and can avoid periods of high prices. The policy focus on price distorts energy policy towards measures that increase long-term total costs and social and environmental impacts.

Standing Council on Energy and Resources delays demand management bidding, yet again

A major criticism by the 2012 Senate Inquiry into the electricity industry, and by the Productivity Commission’s 2013 report into electricity networks, was the glacially slow progress on implementation of demand-side action. The Parer Review of 2002 and other studies have repeatedly highlighted the need to get the demand side of the market working. So it was very disappointing to see the ministers from states and commonwealth on the Standing Council on Energy and Resources decide at their December 2013 meeting to delay, yet again, rule changes to support implementation of a demand-response bidding scheme.

The only winners from this delay seem to be incumbent electricity generators and network owners. And some more demand management in the January heatwave would have been handy.

Sydney car trips

The bizarre outcomes of a car-based society were reinforced for me recently by some NSW transport statistics. Apparently 22% of all Sydney weekday car trips are to ‘serve passenger’. That is, they are unpaid chauffeuring trips, where the driver doesn’t actually want to go to the destination.

What is the cost of this planning failure in terms of time, inconvenience, congestion, parking issues, pollution, health and lack of independence? Surely it is time that local and state governments ensured our cities supported low car-dependency living? This would be much better for the young, old, parents, disabled, carers, poor and obese.

Emerging opportunities for energy storage

I wonder who will be first to actively promote an easy-to-add-on storage and smarts package for existing rooftop PV owners? This makes good business sense because hundreds of thousands of PV owning households are getting only 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for their exports, while paying 30 to 50 cents for energy in peak periods. These people are already committed to PV and frustrated with the efforts of the electricity industry and its policy makers to undermine their financial returns.

A second area for storage that I haven’t seen discussed is at the micro-level, building storage into appliances, or integrating (or plugging in) storage into local wiring within a building. This limits peak demand charges, offers potential savings on upgrading wiring and reduces wiring resistance losses in existing buildings.

Advances in supercapacitors may play a key role here. New Mazda cars use them instead of batteries for energy recovery and storage, and the CSIRO-developed UltraBattery uses supercapacitors to mediate between the battery and the load, to extend battery life and reduce losses. Research on graphene also seems likely to improve supercapacitor performance.

One example of this potential is in the installation of induction cooktops in existing homes. Most induction cooktops have ‘boost’ modes that can use over 3 kilowatts per pot, so manufacturers can claim they heat up quicker than gas. This potentially high peak demand can require upgrading of wiring back to the circuit breakers or even back to the street. But the amounts of energy required are not particularly large, so quite small amounts of storage would make a difference. For example, to boil two litres of water on an induction cooktop consumes less than a quarter of a kilowatt-hour.

A proviso is that the benefits must be balanced against the losses in the storage system.

When you look at the fine detail, the economics of appropriately designed distributed storage solutions could be much better than many expect.

Alan Pears has worked on sustainable energy issues since the late 1970s. He is one of Australia’s best recognised and most highly awarded commentators on sustainable energy and climate issues. He teaches part time at RMIT University and is co-director of Sustainable Solutions, a small consultancy.

Read more articles on energy efficiency in ReNew 127.

Alan Pears

The Pears Report: Desperately seeking policy

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Along with climate policy and energy market messes, a fridge purchase makes Alan Pears ask: are we condemned to waste energy because we live in Australia?

We seem to be on track to shift from the well-proven ‘polluter pays’ approach to carbon emissions (and other forms of pollution) to a ‘pay the polluter’ approach, using public funds. The government will limit how much will be spent, so we may not even meet our international emission reduction obligations, let alone our equitable share of abatement as estimated based on science.


Luckily the combination of grassroots action, technology change and the structural changes being driven by our over-valued Australian dollar is damping emission growth to some extent. And, under international and local pressure, the government may become desperate enough to reform energy markets to promote energy efficiency and even stop its attacks on renewable energy.

There are some potential positives from the shift away from using the carbon price as the ‘silver bullet’ to fix everything. As I explained in my last column, this led to serious cuts in energy efficiency programs, failed to confront our deeply flawed electricity market and disempowered voluntary local action by households, businesses and local and state governments.

However, a carbon price is a basic element of any effective climate response. It provides a (fairly imperfect) signal to emitters and investors, while also generating revenue to support adaptation, innovation and stronger abatement—forms of ‘direct action’.

Developing countries and energy
I recently came across a very interesting paper published by the World Academy of Sciences for the Advancement of Science in Developing Countries (Sustainable Energy for Developing Countries 2008, Two points really stood out.

First, the $137 billion increase in developing country oil import costs in 2005 exceeded the value of all official aid ($84 billion) to those countries. So if we can help them to reduce oil dependence through sustainable energy strategies, we can improve their wellbeing while also reducing pressure on oil prices and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

Second, to provide access to the 1.5 billion people currently without basic electricity services would increase global electricity consumption by only around half a percent.

Since most of these people are in rural areas, small-scale renewable energy systems and energy efficiency are the most sensible solutions. A major sustainable energy transition could transform their lives and help to reduce sustainable energy costs for the rest of humanity.

Australia could also do with a strategy to reduce oil dependence. The Bureau of Resources and Energy Economic’s latest estimate is that by 2035 our net oil import bill would be over $40 billion and, by 2050, over $50 billion each year (assuming $100/barrel).

Some personal experiences and their implications for policy
I finally decided to replace my early 1990s fridge and old (but still comparatively efficient) TV in recent months.

The TV replacement was easy. I used the website, then tweaked the brightness of the display to cut energy use to 25 watts for an 80 cm TV. My old 51 cm TV (by far the most efficient available when I bought it) used 55 watts.

The fridge was a different matter. I have been waiting since 2004 to buy the European A++ fridge I’d discovered being made in Turkey. I finally gave up and chose the most efficient 320 litre fridge available in Australia, rated at 300 kWh per year after finding I could not buy a similarly sized A+++ fridge made by the same manufacturer that’s available in Europe (see It is rated at 172 kWh per annum (around 210 kWh for Australian test conditions). The manufacturer’s Australian representative told me they had no plans to sell that more efficient unit (with a bigger freezer) here.

My new fridge is still quite impressive. It has a variable-speed compressor, hydrocarbon refrigerant and eutectic panels in the freezer that stabilise its temperature. But why am I condemned to waste energy because I live in Australia?

In comparing my new fridge’s performance with the old one, I have found that its efficiency and variable-speed compressor cut my peak demand by around 100 watts. Using the Productivity Commission’s recent estimates, this saves my electricity suppliers around $30 each year in infrastructure investment. It’s saving me around $75. Since I had to buy a new fridge anyway, and I paid no more than I would have for a less efficient one, I’m avoiding CO2 emissions at a cost of minus $300/tonne!

My old fridge went off to the Phoenix Fridge recycling program, where its refrigerant CFCs can be recovered and its components recycled.

But I have reduced my utilisation of the existing electricity supply assets, depriving their owners of revenue. Should I be charged more for this? See below.

AEMC contempt for 2 million voters
The Australian Energy Markets Commission has released a new report. In the introduction, the report states: “Effective consumer participation can contribute to more efficient markets…” AEMC should check its economics text books. Informed, empowered consumers are fundamental to the efficient operation of markets. Yet after 15 years, it’s still not happening.

The report argues that owners of rooftop PV should be charged more for reducing utilisation of energy supply assets. Can it point to any other market where this happens? Do gas suppliers compensate the electricity industry when people install a gas heater to replace an electric one?

Those who install and use large air conditioners and halogen lights have benefited from large subsidies for many years, yet no action has been taken to make them pay.

The AEMC is taking on over two million PV-owning voters on behalf of the incumbent businesses. When will our political leaders in COAG and the Standing Committee on Energy and Resources step in to sort them out?

Will a ‘thin pipe’ approach help electricity networks to survive?
The latest idea to help electricity network owners adjust to our rapidly changing technologies is to use low-capacity wires combined with distributed energy storage, generation and smart controls—instead of building capacity to supply peak demand.

This is similar to the ‘green grid’ approach that was proposed by solar identity Dale Butler at the 1993 Australian Solar Conference for fringe-of-grid electricity.

It sounded really sensible to me when I originally heard it. It still does, especially given cost reductions and technology improvements.

A typical all-electric home might use 10,000 kWh a year—if it could smooth its demand perfectly over time, it would only need supply capacity of 1.2 kilowatts: most homes have supply cables with capacity of 10 to 20 kilowatts. My latest calculations suggest a three-person best-practice all-electric home with all ‘mod cons’ could now use around 2000–2500 kWh per year. That’s a ‘smoothed’ demand of under 300 watts.

But is this the salvation of network owners? The answer depends on many variables. If a cluster of consumers can share back-up generation and storage, they may not need the grid at all. This back-up generation could be a small cogeneration unit, a fuel cell or output from hybrid cars.

So the challenge for network owners is to diversify their activities. Their market position will be sensitive to policy on whether non-networks can transfer power across property boundaries, or the capacity of smart businesses to find ways of getting around such limits by, for example, moving fully charged batteries to where electricity is needed.

In low-density areas on the fringe of networks, the ‘thin pipe’ will compete with stand-alone energy solutions. In existing areas, it may not be a lot cheaper to maintain a thin-pipe solution instead of a higher capacity one. But changes such as increasing development density and depreciation of network asset values may allow network owners to develop viable business models.

Apartment buildings, offices, retail and small-to-medium industry may provide ongoing markets for network owners. But they are also potential competitors if they gain the right to sell power to neighbours.
Nothing is clear cut in today’s rapidly changing situation.

Alan Pears has worked on sustainable energy issues since the late 1970s. He is one of Australia’s best recognised and most highly awarded commentators on sustainable energy and climate issues. He teaches part time at RMIT University and is co-director of Sustainable Solutions, a small consultancy.

This article appears in ReNew 126. You can buy it here.


Australia-wide trials – Demand for a better deal

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After a spate of trials, is there a better deal in store for householders using smart meters, asks Jack Nicholls?

In the 21st century, traditional electricity meters have become something of a quaint anachronism. The meter sits outside your house, wheels clicking, and if the electricity company wants to know how much energy you are using they have to send someone around to check. Imagine if your phone company had to send someone out to physically poke around your mobile before they could bill you. Imagine the cost of it, which would be passed on in your phone bills. The mind boggles. And yet this is exactly how our electricity network is structured in the 21st century.


But that is changing. For some, it has already changed. Smart meters are being installed in household trials around Australia. These devices record electricity use in real time, sending an automatic report through to your electricity provider every 30 minutes. More usefully, via connected display units or web portals, smart meters can tell you how much energy you’re using, when you’re using it and what it’s costing you.

A ‘smart’ system?

As anybody who has been snared by the honeyed words of door-to-door energy providers knows, Australia’s electricity market operates in a world of imperfect information. Smart meters are a way to give consumers and providers real-time, accurate information. In turn, consumers can make an informed choice about their electricity plan and save money through increased awareness of the cost of their idling plasma televisions.

Energy monitoring can take different forms. Web pages can be set up cheaply to display household energy use and offer comparisons with regional averages. At the high end, so-called in-home displays provide real-time feedback on consumption and costs. With in-home displays, the cost of a house full of idling PCs and plasma televisions becomes perceptible. Every time you glance at the screen, you are reminded you could be saving money and pollution.

That’s the theory, anyway.

In practice, people are wary. The authors of Perth’s Solar City 2012 report wryly noted that “the majority of the community could be described as being in a state of ‘positive apathy’ in relation to the rollout of smart meter technology”. Meanwhile A Current Affair has raised “questions about cost effectiveness and health concerns”, while a report by Smart Grid Australia showed that the people of Victoria, who had by far the highest awareness of smart meters, also had the least favourable opinions of them. People are suspicious of being ripped off by energy providers or fried by electromagnetic radiation.

The effects of energy monitoring

The good news is hidden behind a forest of acronyms in the technical reports lying on government desks. But the news is good. Given the opportunity to actively monitor their own energy use, trial households are reducing their energy consumption by an average of 7–8%. That’s a significant cut in electricity bills and if repeated Australia-wide would mark a meaningful reduction in our national carbon bill as well.

These Australian results have been corroborated the world over. An Accenture Consulting report looked at 76 energy monitoring trials from across the world: 90% of trials have recorded marked energy savings, with a mean reduction in use of 7.9%. The results have been clear. The more immediate and detailed the feedback to customers is, the higher the energy saving. In some studies the energy savings have reduced over time, perhaps after the initial flush of enthusiasm dies down, but importantly there are still long-term savings. Energy monitoring isn’t just a gimmick, it marks a permanent change in the way we use our energy.

Read the full article in ReNew 124

Burning wire

Keeping electronics out of landfill

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Jeff Angel, executive director of the Total Environment Centre, describes the complicated process of getting e-waste recycling happening in Australia.


We can see the discarded TVs and PCs on the verge and we know there are lots of old computers and monitors at the back of the office along with retired mobile phones in the drawer. And there are millions of batteries in consumer products. We know they contain important resources such as rare earth minerals and that the plastic, lead and glass can be recycled. Yet there are over 230 million electronic items in or on their way to Australian landfills. So how do we stop this mountain of waste?

Until recently Australia did little to recycle e-waste—the bigger items and their peripherals. There were voluntary schemes where you had to pay when you got to the collection centre. Some councils began drop-off days—and the flood of materials was astounding. Developing producer responsibility in Australia has been slow, with tepid approaches endorsed by bureaucrats and industry, and feel-good media releases from ministers wanting to appear to be doing something.

A complication has been the desire to have a national regime rather than starting off independently at the state level. The force of federalism is strong despite several states such as NSW having strong product stewardship laws and promising action. Consequently, environment ministers met interminably—discussing proposals for studies, receiving reports on trials, issuing communiques.

This was the policy landscape for e-waste during the early 2000s. However, a campaign by the Total Environment Centre and Environment Victoria over seven years finally brought the issue to a crunch point.

Initially, industry was resistant—some didn’t like green regulation and some wanted to protect the market differentiation they gained from brand-based recycling schemes. An understandable requirement of industry associations is that there should be no free-riders; otherwise, those that are participating, with a cost burden, believe they are at a competitive disadvantage to non-participants. There is also the usual opposition to adding a (small) additional cost into the price of products to cover the recycling program.

A combination of media and public information programs by environment groups, actions outside recalcitrant departmental offices, the use of social media to lobby ministers, as well as the release of recycling plans based on successful overseas models, eventually brought the problem to a decision point.

Read the full article in ReNew 123

hydro warburton_small

The future generation? Community-based energy comes of age

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With more than 60 projects in the pipeline, momentum may finally be building for community energy in Australia. By Robyn Deed.

Community-owned projects have been a part of the renewable energy landscape in Europe for decades. In Germany, thanks to favourable policy, 51% of the renewables are community-owned; in Denmark, 2100 community-owned wind farms have come online since the mid 1970s.
In Australia, the genesis has been slower: the Renewable Energy Target turns 11 this year and the renewables revolution is really just starting. As such, community energy is in its infancy, with projects facing significant planning, financial and regulatory hurdles.
But there have been successes. The turbines at the community wind farm in Hepburn in Victoria have been turning for a year now, and in the town of Denmark in WA, they’re about to start (see p. 44 for the full story of Denmark community wind farm).
These projects have taken a while: six years for Hepburn and ten for Denmark, from idea to generation. But the lessons they’ve learnt are making it easier for the projects that follow.
To assist other projects to get off the ground, in 2010 Hepburn Wind’s founding chair (and ATA member) Simon Holmes à Court set up not-for-profit group Embark. Its website provides free how-to info for those wanting to establish community renewable energy projects, based on the experiences of Hepburn Wind and other projects.  He says, “During the development of Hepburn Wind, we were contacted by many people wanting to set up a project in their own communities.”


Image:  Team members in Warburton removing the 1930s-era turbine runner for refurbishing.

Read the full article in ReNew 121

Alan Pears

Energy efficiency ignored again

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Energy efficiency measures have huge potential for delivering climate change abatement, and yet they are often overlooked in the debate on climate policy. Alan Pears explains.

Many people watched the recent ABC documentary and panel show on the climate change debate. It was interesting to hear that both Clive Palmer and Nick Minchin were prepared to support renewable energy—if it were cost-effective. However, apart from a couple of passing mentions in the panel session, a sustainable energy option that already meets their criteria for cost-effectiveness and climate change abatement was ignored.


Most international experts, including the International Energy Agency, expect energy efficiency to deliver a third to half of all energy-related abatement over the next 20 years. Yet, if it’s mentioned in Australian climate policy discussion, it’s almost always an afterthought.

It’s not that policy people and commentators don’t think energy efficiency is a good thing, but it’s not ‘top of mind’—mostly they have to be prompted. And they tend to see it as a fairly small contributor to solutions. One British study recently estimated that 88% of all energy used globally is wasted before it delivers a useful service: so the potential for efficiency improvement is enormous.

There seems to be some kind of deep cultural driver for Australians to focus on supply-based solutions. I really don’t know how we can overcome this, because it is so pervasive.

At least there is some money (thanks to the cross benches, especially the Greens) in the Clean Energy Futures package for energy efficiency—although much less than for low-emission energy sources. But we will have to withstand yet another attempt by econocrats to cut energy efficiency programs because they fail the ‘complementary to carbon pricing’ test. That won’t be easy, and it will divert our efforts from delivering results to defending the validity of energy efficiency—yet again.

My recent submissions
I’ve been busy recently producing a few submissions to government inquiries (see links at the end of this article).

My submission to the Draft Energy White Paper is in two parts: part 1 is my annotations on the whole document, while part 2 is a 20-page submission summarising my key points. My main recommendation is that they start again with a new and more inclusive process that reflects a ‘whole of government’ perspective and engages households and services sectors as well as big industry.

In my submission to the Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission inquiry into feed-in tariffs (FiTs), I pointed out that the whole debate is focused on the wrong issue: it’s not about how much PV saves the energy industry. If we step back, distributed generators should have the right to sell power to neighbours at whatever price they can negotiate: that’s how markets are meant to work. So the retail price is the right benchmark for pricing FiTs. Further, there is a legitimate argument for additional subsidies of distributed generation as an emerging technology that competes with powerful entrenched interests. I proposed that a FiT that provides the same price for exports as for consumption has many advantages.

I also made a submission on the proposed National Energy Saving Initiative. I argued that we need two kinds of certificates, as we have for renewable energy. This will allow flexibility to ensure the scheme really works to deliver outcomes and reward reductions in peak demand and other benefits beyond energy savings.

Passing the buck
The Australian Government’s failure to set up a proper accounting system so that businesses, local and state governments and households can qualify their energy efficiency and renewable energy action as ‘additional’ to the carbon target is now visibly backfiring.
The new Victorian and Queensland Governments have slashed programs on energy efficiency and renewable energy because, under the carbon pricing scheme, reducing emissions would simply leave more room under the carbon cap for other states to increase their emissions.

Under the carbon target, reducing emissions is now the federal government’s responsibility. See for detail on the problem and the solutions. How can such a perverse situation be allowed to occur?

Feedback from a reader
In my column in ReNew 110, I included some thoughts about public transport funding. One reader has responded to my comments. I’m pleased, as I was hoping to provoke some discussion. [Ed note: the reader’s letter appears on p17 of ReNew 120.]

The fact that I proposed two diametrically opposite ideas on rail crossings (one to reduce road delays and the other to allow more delays due to rail crossings) shows that I was floating ideas rather than taking a position.

But to clarify my suggestion that congestion due to rail crossings could be allowed to increase as a way of limiting traffic growth, there are some fundamentals here.

Overwhelming evidence shows that if you increase road capacity, it simply fills up to a new, higher level of traffic without solving the congestion problem. Further, if your policy objective is to reduce car usage, you need to increase capacity of alternatives while also reducing road capacity. Otherwise cars come from elsewhere to fill up the freed-up (effectively lower cost in terms of travel time) space. Economists propose road pricing as a way of limiting road use, but this has equity issues.

I was trying to point out that rail crossings can act as a policy tool to limit car usage and increase pressure on road users to shift to other options. It is imperfect, but all the options have their problems. And the money saved from avoiding construction of grade separation could be spent on extending public transport (PT) and buying more rolling stock.

With regard to the reader’s comment on my proposed PT property levy, his comment is focused on a group of workers who happen to live near good PT but work in PT-poor locations. This is a legitimate concern, but the situation is complicated. First, as congestion (or road pricing) increases, those with the cheapest or most practical options tend to change behaviour first, so this should leave more room for those who really need to use cars. Indeed, giving people who live near PT free or discounted PT travel to offset the levy cost provides an incentive to change behaviour and free up road space. The levy also creates a new incentive for PT agencies to improve and extend PT because they are rewarded with more funds. As our reader points out, we need to find more money to improve and extend PT, and this is one possibility.

The situation for tradies is challenging, but there are some options. First, as a rider on early trains into Melbourne, I’m seeing increasing numbers of tradies on PT, complete with wheelie bags of tools. Obviously this only works where there is PT, or where the tradie can travel part of the way by PT and leave their vehicle somewhere secure where PT finishes, so the trip can be completed by ute.
Second, for tradies working on new housing, there is potential to shift a lot of building construction from on-site work to housing manufactured off site. This would significantly increase productivity by reducing travel time and avoiding rain delays and damage. Countries such as Germany are able to produce high-quality, diverse housing using this approach.

For tradies involved in appliance maintenance, smart appliances and mobile phone cameras increasingly allow remote diagnosis and accurate identification of models, so they can spend less time travelling, and may even be able to carry a lot fewer spare parts.

My key point was that we need some creative ideas because present approaches to transport are not working very well. I hope the debate continues and more ideas flow!

Alan Pears has worked in the energy efficiency field for over 20 years as an engineer and educator. He is Adjunct Professor at RMIT University and is co-director of environmental consultancy Sustainable Solutions.

Alan’s recent submissions
Draft Energy White Paper:
Victorian Competition and Efficiency Commission Inquiry into Feed-in Tariffs:
National Energy Saving Initiative: