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ReNew Editor, Robyn Deed

ReNew 136 editorial: Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Homegrown design and tech

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Cheering on Australian-made research and production in this issue has proved something of a conversation starter. Everyone has a favourite product or company, or an opinion on what we’re doing well or not so well. But the ‘we’ has stumped me at times: against a backdrop of stalled climate policy and the way the on-again, off-again support for renewables has affected the industry, it can be hard to speak proudly of that ‘we’.


Yet there is a story to be told of innovation (an overused word perhaps!) in Australia that is slightly different from the one we often hear. The stories of lost commercialisation opportunities and industry heading overseas are certainly one strand, but there’s also a (very ReNew) story of DIY activists getting a renewables industry started in Australia, of researchers leading the world in solar cell design—with the Australian-invented PERC cell now featuring on about half of new solar cell production lines—and of a fast-growing community energy sector taking on the unique challenges of the Australian energy market, making projects work, then advocating for change to make them work better. And, of course, of architects slowly, slowly bringing sustainability into the mainstream of building design. Sustainability is another overused word, but it’s been exciting finding these stories of research, investment, production and development.

It’s not all about energy or household systems. One of the best stories comes from Bruce Pascoe, based on the research for his book Dark Emu. The oldest grain grinding stone in the world has been found in Australia, evidence of breadmaking 12,000 years before the Egyptians. As Bruce asks, why don’t “our hearts fill with wonder and pride” in such innovation?

There’s much beyond our Australian-made theme. Building with strawbales is one, with guidance on the workshops that can help, and case studies on people who love their houses ‘built of straw’. We look at the important issue of keeping textiles out of landfill, and we also cover ways to reconnect with nature in the city. A reader tests whether battery-powered leaf blowers can compete with petrol ones (many may think that the job could be done with a broom, but the author suggests otherwise), and we look at what to consider to ensure you buy or build the most efficient computer possible. With gaming PCs using up to 350 watts just for the graphics card(s), it’s particularly important information for parents of young gamers!

Many households are about to lose their higher feed-in tariffs, so we (via the ATA, ReNew’s publisher) look at what solar customers should do. Finally, our buyers guide this issue is on eco-paints. It’s a good news story with many sustainable changes in the industry since our last buyers guide in ReNew 107, including a new scheme for recycling paints. It’s a packed issue, enjoy!

Robyn Deed
ReNew Editor


ATA CEO’s Report

THE Australian-made green innovations in this issue of ReNew are a great testament to home-grown ingenuity. The ATA has been fostering sustainable technology since 1980, when a group of enthusiasts concerned about fossil fuels and pollution came together to form our organisation. Their can-do, practical approach has been at the heart of the ATA ever since.

The ATA has had many Australian firsts including owning a community wind turbine at Breamlea in Victoria, national sustainability education tours with our energy-mobile and Australia’s first trial of greywater systems in response to growing interest in water saving during the millennium drought. We also led the way in making it easier for home solar systems to be connected to the grid by actively lobbying for consistent agreements and financial incentives. The now 1.5 million households in Australia with rooftop solar have benefitted from the ATA’s pioneering work.

And the innovations continue: we played a key role in the installation of a 36 kilowatt solar system at the Kurrawang Aboriginal Christian Community near Kalgoorlie in WA. The project showed how you can be creative with community energy and impact investment for community and environmental benefits. Thanks go to ATA member Robin Gardner, who was instrumental in the success of the project.

ATA members were also instrumental in developing and assembling the new Village Lighting Scheme solar system that will be installed this year on hundreds of homes in East Timor as part of the Google Impact Challenge grant. Special thanks to Alan Hutchinson and Patrick Eijsvogel for their huge effort on the new system design, and the many volunteers involved. In recognition of our work in East Timor, the ATA recently won a United Nations Association of Australia World Environment Day Award!

Donna Luckman

You can purchase ReNew 136 from the ATA webshop.


A house built of straw

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You’re unlikely to go from building newbie to strawbale expert after a four-day workshop, but you should come out with basic skills, a better understanding of the process and the ‘right’ questions to ask. Enga Lokey explains.

THERE are many good reasons to choose to build with strawbales—better thermal performance, non-toxic material, agricultural waste product, low embodied energy, very high levels of insulation, beautiful curved walls, etc. But once you have made this decision, it may be difficult to find an architect, engineer and builder to provide the assistance you require in working with this unique medium.


One of the best ways to give yourself the knowledge and skills necessary for a successful build is to do a strawbale workshop. If you have no prior architectural or building experience, a workshop won’t prepare you to undertake your own project from start to finish unassisted; however, you will be able to gain enough understanding to ask the right questions of the professionals you choose to employ and also gain basic strawbale building skills yourself.

What should you look for and what should you expect from a workshop? At the most basic level, participation in a workshop should provide you with enough of an understanding of what you are getting yourself into to confirm your convictions or prompt a reconsideration of your building plans. Additionally, most workshops will give you hands-on experience with some of the unique aspects of building with bales, such as alternative framing techniques, bale tying, stacking walls and corners, prepping for render and rendering.

There is a huge variety in the offerings available. Before signing up for a workshop, ask yourself what you are looking to achieve and what level of participation you plan on having in your own project. The more you expect to do yourself on your own house, the more detailed and precise your level of understanding needs to be. Are you just interested in understanding the process so you can decide if this is the type of house you want to build? Are you interested in the theory and principles of good strawbale design? Do you want to participate in every aspect of the building process or just help with the bale walls and rendering? Asking yourself these questions will make it easier to pick the correct one. Some of the major differences between courses are discussed below, followed by a chart that tries to summarise the various options on offer.

Read the full article in ReNew 136.


Still a clever country

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Energy efficiency consultant Geoff Andrews admires Australian innovation, but, as has often been noted, finds the next step—commercialisation—is lacking. Collaboration, governments and risk-taking could all improve that, he suggests.

I view innovation as change for good, so change which improves sustainability clearly qualifies. Most readers of ReNew would agree that we have to improve the sustainability of our society, so we must innovate. But, how do we do that, and what lessons can we draw from Australia’s sustainability innovation performance to date?


There is no question that Australia has provided the world with more than its share of innovations, including in sustainability. In renewable energy alone, Australia has led the world in PV efficiency for decades, pioneered many improvements in solar water heaters, and is now developing wave energy. We’ve been first or early implementers of two flow battery technologies (vanadium redox by Maria Skyllas-Kazaco at UNSW in 1980 and zinc bromine by RedFlow). Scottish-born James Harrison built one of the first working refrigerators for making ice in Geelong in 1851 (before that, ice was imported from Canada),and we invented wave-piercing catamarans and the Pritchard steam car. We even had manned (unpowered) flight by heavier-thanair craft a decade before the Wright brothers with Lawrence Hargrave’s box-kite biplane.

Of course, Australian innovations are prevalent in many other sustainability areas including medicine, construction, agriculture and fisheries, but space is limited here. What we could have done a lot better is commercialising those innovations in Australia. Imagine if Australia led the world in the manufacture of solar panels, refrigerators, air conditioners, wi-fi devices and evacuated tube heat exchangers, the way we do with wave-piercing catamarans and bionic ears.

Improving commercialisation would provide funds to improve our budget bottomline and allow us to do even more innovation and more commercialisation. To achieve this, I think we need to do several things.

Read the full article in ReNew 136.

White Cliffs 150px

From engineer to activist: a renewables industry is born

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ATA member Trevor Berrill has been involved in the renewables industry in Australia since it began, as an engineer, academic, trainer and ‘alternative technologist’. He gives a personal take on the slow emergence of an industry.

My own interest in alternative technology sprang from disillusionment with the engineering education I’d received at QUT in the early 1970s. It was a time for challenging the establishment, but engineering seemed all about fostering the status quo. I worked as assistant to the maintenance engineer in a coal-fired power station near Ipswich, and also down Mt Isa Mines. I saw and smelled the pollution, and I wasn’t impressed.


I entered an essay competition on energy futures run by Engineers Australia. My essay outlined a decentralised power system run from renewable energy. I came second in the competition. The winning essay promoted the status quo, more fossil fuels.

There had to be a cleaner, greener way. With Friends of the Earth, I was involved in activism, campaigning hard against nuclear power. But I thought we shouldn’t just be against something; we had to present an alternative energy future.

Then I was given a copy of Radical Technology, edited by Godfrey Boyle and Peter Harper. Therein lay the foundation of a future I could believe in—renewable energy, energy-efficient buildings, organic food production and sharing resources in self-sufficient, ecologically sustainable communities.

Defining alt tech
It was one of those editors, UK scientist Peter Harper, who coined the term alternative technology, to refer to “technologies that are more environmentally friendly than the functionally equivalent technologies dominant in current practice.” Peter went on to be a leading researcher and educator at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, a centre that’s been showcasing sustainability since 1973.

Birth of an alternative technologist—and an industry
I went on to become a technical officer at the University of Queensland in the mid-1970s, and there I worked for leading academics in renewables research, Dr Steve Szokolay, a solar architect, and Neville Jones, a wind energy researcher. We tested solar collectors and built low-speed wind tunnels, an artificial solar sky and controlled environment rooms. In my spare time, I became an ‘alternative technologist’ at home, building solar water heaters, pedal-powered contraptions and small wind generators—perhaps in common with many ATA (ReNew’s publisher) members!
Then I got invited by Adrian Hogg, owner of Alternatives to work part-time designing and installing small PV systems throughout south-east Queensland. Adrian was a founding member of ATRAA, (the Appropriate Technnology Retailer’s Association of Australia) along with Stephen Ingrouille and Tony Stevenson (Going Solar in Melbourne), Brian England (Self-sufficiency Supplies, Kempsey) and Sandy Pulsford (Solaris Technology, Adelaide).

Read the full article in ReNew 136.


Investing in community: Where solar makes sense

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A remote Aboriginal community and investors came together to cut bills, reduce emissions—and generate investment returns. ATA’s Andrew Reddaway describes how this innovative project went from proposition to implementation.

The idea for a solar system at Kurrawang Aboriginal Christian Community in Western Australia began with Alternative Technology Association member Robin Gardner (ATA is ReNew’s not-for-profit publisher). Over several years he’s assisted the Kurrawang community with administration through his involvement in Indigenous Community Volunteers and, in the process, he identified the community’s strong potential for solar power.


With the Kurrawang not-for-profit community located between Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie, about 600 km east of Perth, that solar potential is excellent. Until this project, Kurrawang obtained all its electricity from the main Western Australian electricity grid, which is fossil fuelled and charges relatively high electricity tariffs (around 36 c/kWh peak). The community is billed as a single entity and then recovers costs from its 120 residents through meters on each of the 31 houses.

Robin consulted with Kurrawang’s board of directors to gain support for the solar project, particularly Rowena Leslie and Denise Lynch who made the project happen.

Sunny scenarios
The first step was to find out just how much a solar system could benefit the community. Robin sought assistance from the ATA, and we helped model the community’s energy use and potential generation using Sunulator, ATA’s in-house-developed solar calculator.

After exploring several scenarios, the ideal system size was found to be around a 30 kW system. Such a system would displace about 20% of Kurrawang’s grid electricity and is small enough for relatively easy approval by the local electricity distributor. Since all the buildings are billed as a single entity, total demand is quite smooth and it was predicted that exports to the grid would be rare. This helps the economics of the project because the electricity retailer pays little for electricity fed into the grid.

Read the full article in ReNew 136.


Solar sells: Australian PV research and innovation

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From PERCs to heliostats to improving PV quality, Andrew Blakers from the Australian National University describes high-impact innovations that found their way through Australian-led, government-supported research.

Through consistent government grants for innovation over the past 40 years, Australia has punched far above its weight in renewable energy innovation, particularly when it comes to photovoltaics (PV). The potential benefits for the Australian economy are substantial. PV now constitutes about a quarter of new electrical generation capacity installed worldwide each year; wind comprises another quarter; and coal, oil, gas, nuclear, hydro and all other renewables combined constitute the other half. In Australia, PV and wind comprise practically all new generation capacity.


Support for research and innovation lies at the heart of accelerated growth of the renewable energy industry. It supports later-stage commercialisation directly through technology development. Additionally, university research groups underpin undergraduate and postgraduate education and training of engineers and scientists.

High-impact Australian innovations
What are some of the ways Australia has contributed to solar research, and what are some of the commercial successes? Here are eight examples of high-impact innovations that emerged from Australian-led R&D.

The PERC silicon solar cell is an Australian invention which is now used in about half of new solar cell production lines worldwide. It’s set to soon dominate the worldwide solar industry, according to the International Technology Roadmap for Photovoltaics. So far this is the most successful renewable energy technology to emerge from Australia.

BT Imaging’s advanced photo-luminescence characterisation systems for research and industry emerged from the University of NSW. They enable researchers and industrial engineers to visually assess silicon quality in great detail and to modify processes to maximise quality.

Read the full article in ReNew 136.


Making batteries viable

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Julian de Hoog and Khalid Abdulla explain how energy consumption and weather forecasting can improve the financial equations for domestic energy storage.

Many residential householders are now exploring the possibility of installing energy storage in their homes to reduce their electricity bills and better manage their energy needs (see ‘Energy Storage Market Heats Up’ in ReNew 135). This is true in particular for solar PV owners currently benefitting from feed-in tariffs that are due to expire: from January 2017, hundreds of thousands of customers (in particular in Victoria and New South Wales) will receive considerably less for any energy exported to the grid, making the idea of storing excess energy for later use more attractive.


The excitement and interest isn’t just limited to residential solar PV owners though—across the energy industry there is an expectation that large batteries and other forms of energy storage will be installed at increasing rates. Many industry analysts predict that the rate at which energy storage is taken up will be greater than the rate at which solar PV was taken up at the same stage of technology maturity, suggesting that an energy storage boom may be imminent.

However, energy storage still remains a fairly expensive proposition and householders looking to install a battery can expect to spend $10,000 or more, even for relatively small systems. As with solar PV, these costs will come down with increasing uptake and technology developments, but for at least a couple of years the cost of a battery will be hard to justify in most cases. The same is true for many utility-level and large-scale energy storage projects.

Read the full article in ReNew 136.


The world’s first baker

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Why don’t we know about the oldest grinding stones in the world, found in Australia, or the crops cultivated by Aboriginal Australians? Bruce Pascoe is helping change that.

If you were asked who the world’s first bakers were, what would your answer be? Most would think first of ancient Egypt where it is believed bread was first baked around 17,000 BCE. And yet there is evidence to show that grindstones in Australia were used to turn seeds to flour 30,000 years ago. Archaeologists found the evidence for this at Cuddie Springs in New South Wales in the shape of an ancient grinding stone which had been used to reduce grass seeds to flour. These were the bakers of antiquity. It took Egypt 12,000 years to repeat this baking experiment. Why don’t our hearts fill with wonder and pride?


Australian sovereign nations cultivated domesticated plants, sewed clothes, engineered streams for aquacultural and agricultural purposes, and forged spiritual codes for the use of seed in trade, agricultural enterprises, marriage and ceremony.

This was and is an incredible human response to the difficulties of fostering economic, cultural and social policies. It may be unique in its longevity but also in its ability to flourish without resort to war. Australia’s reluctance to acknowledge what was lost can be witnessed in our ignorance of the birth of baking, the gold standard of economic achievement.

Why is this? Is it a malicious refusal to recognise the economic triumphs of the people from whom the land was taken or a simple culture of forgetting fostered by the bedazzlement of Australian resources and opportunities?

If we could rid ourselves of the myth of low Aboriginal achievement and nomadic habits, we might move toward a greater appreciation of our land. We might begin to wonder about the grains that explorer Thomas Mitchell saw being harvested in the 1830s, and the yam daisy monoculture he saw stretching to the horizon of his ‘Australia Felix’, the early name given to western Victoria. These crops must have been grown without pesticides and chemical fertilisers and in harmony with the climate; surely they are worthy of our investigation.

Read the full article in ReNew 136.

Image: The Natural Paint Company

The greening of paint – an eco-paint buyers guide

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Paints have become more eco-friendly in recent years, but there are still traps to look out for. Daniel Wurm explains the advantages of using environmentally friendly paints.

The painting industry has undergone a tremendous transformation over the last 10 years. Back in 2006, I was the only painter in Melbourne to have phased out toxic solvent-based paints. The rest of the industry looked at me as some kind of tree-hugging hippie when I spoke about the dangers of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) to human health and the environment. The last time I wrote for ReNew it was still difficult to find low- and zero-VOC paints, and recycling of waste was a massive issue.


Fast forward to 2016, and I am pleased to say that my industry has taken huge strides down the path of sustainability. It’s a good news story that I am happy to tell. Green is not just a fashion statement: it’s becoming standard practice. Let’s look at some of the developments and see how far we’ve come.

First of all, low-VOC paints now make up the majority of paint sold. Almost all painters have at least tried them and all manufacturers have introduced low-VOC versions of their paints. In many cases, even their cheaper trade lines are now low-VOC. This means that low-VOC paints are available from all paint stores.

In addition, over 500 painters across Australia have been trained to identify and use low-VOC paints, and even apprentices are being taught about them as standard practice. No one argues about the health risks of solvent paints anymore; we all know there are issues and we all want to protect our health.

If any painter tries to tell you that low-VOC or zero-VOC paints will cost more or won’t last, simply walk away and find another painter. If they haven’t got the message yet, they probably never will! Almost all major projects including schools and hospitals now have low-VOC paints specified.

Low-VOC paints are categorised according to their use. For example, the Australian Paint Approval Scheme classes low-VOC low-sheen paints as having less than 5 g per litre of VOCs. We could argue about which standard to use when measuring VOCs, but that is about as interesting as watching paint dry, and VOCs are only part of the issue.

More than VOCs
I prefer to look at the whole-of-life cycle perspective. For example, some manufacturers now offer zero-VOC paints across their range and are independently certified by a recognised eco-label. Why not support these manufacturers, who have shown transparency in their manufacturing process? GECA certification ( looks at where the raw materials were sourced and what effect the manufacturing process has on the environment. To me, there is little point in choosing a low-VOC paint if the manufacturer is still producing toxic paint; true sustainability can only be achieved when manufacturers look at it holistically.

Natural paints
Natural paints are paints that are manufactured using the least amount of processing. All paints are made from chemicals, but we now know that the more humans alter raw materials, the higher risk there is of those chemicals affecting our health and the environment. I like to think of natural paints as the ‘bio-dynamic’ products of the painting industry; not everyone wants to use them, they cost more, but they minimise exposure to toxic chemicals. Natural paints are made from ingredients such as linseed oil, minerals, earth pigments, lime and beeswax. They may be a good choice for people with allergies. See the table at the end of this article for a condensed list of suppliers of natural and low-toxicity paints.

Read the full article in ReNew 136

Click here to download the full buyers guide tables in PDF format.


Community energy steps up: Decarbonising locally

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Community energy is growing fast! Jarra Hicks and Franziska Mey of Community Power Agency report on the many projects taking off and some of the remaining barriers under investigation.

Since Australia’s first community-owned renewable energy project, Hepburn Wind, started generating in mid-2011, many projects have followed to create a small, but rapidly growing movement.


Integral to that growth has been the Coalition for Community Energy (C4CE), a loose coalition of organisations working to promote and foster community energy projects. C4CE reports that there are now 73 groups developing community energy of all different kinds across all states and territories in Australia—from solar and battery storage projects to replace diesel in remote communities in WA, to bioenergy projects using town and agricultural waste, to partnerships with larger wind and solar developers.

In C4CE’s first assessment of community energy in Australia in 2015, groups reported on 23 operating projects, accounting for more than 9 MW of installed wind or solar capacity. Together they involve over 21,000 people and produce 50,000 MWh of electricity per year, avoiding 43,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. Since then, at least eight more projects have begun operating.

What’s driving community renewables?
The number one driver is that people care about climate change. A 2014 survey found that reducing carbon emissions to address climate change was the leading motivation for most groups (89%). In fact, almost half of all projects have grown out of climate action groups in communities. In a context where the effects of climate change are being felt more and more each year and our government continues to take a weak and changeable stance on climate policy, this is likely to keep driving communities to pursue their own local source of clean energy.

Also, we are starting to see links with the anti-coal and gas movements, as communities threatened with new fossil fuel developments want to pursue safer and less disruptive means of generating energy. This is especially the case in the Northern Rivers in NSW, where there has been an explosion of activity in the past four years, alongside a successful campaign to boot out coal seam gas.

Read the full article in ReNew 136.


Less noise, no fumes – testing cordless leaf blowers

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ReNew reader Colin Dedman puts the latest generation of lithium-ion cordless leaf blowers to the test and is blown away by how far they’ve come, though price and run time can be an issue.

Why would you buy a cordless leaf blower? Why would you buy a leaf blower at all? For the most sustainable living, shouldn’t we rake up all our leaves and debris by hand, and clean out our gutters by crawling around on the roof?


For those of us with rainwater tanks, cleaning the gutters frequently is a necessity rather than a luxury, to ensure that precious rainwater ends up in the tanks rather than spilling out of a blocked gutter. For many years I cleaned up the leaves by hand, while cursing the weekly scream of my neighbour’s two-stroke leaf blower. Then my aging back convinced me that if you can’t beat them, join them, so I purchased my own screaming $88 petrol blower, that does clean the gutters and patio well. But I hate using it on account of the noise, fumes, hard starting and mixing/storing of two-stroke fuel. There must be a better way.

Corded electric leaf blowers are quieter, always start first time and can potentially use renewable electricity, but the inconvenience of a long extension cord rules them out for me. What about the electric cordless blowers then—are they just ‘toys’ as many people think?

Here I blow away the myths, by subjecting a variety of cordless blowers to a series of standard tests so you can judge which blower, if any, is suitable for your needs. I’ve included two mid-range petrol blowers and a corded blower in the tests for comparison.

Measuring blower performance
Some manufacturers would have us believe that the all-important parameter is the air flow rate in cubic metres per hour, while others boast of their impressive discharge velocity in kilometres per hour or metres per second. In reality, both are important.

The most useful single parameter to measure a blower’s effectiveness is the blowing power in watts (W), being the power of the moving airstream, as this relates directly to the ability to shift stubborn debris and move a lot of leaves and debris in a short time. The blowing power is less than the input power, due to inefficiencies in the motor and fan.

Manufacturer published values of air flow and velocity have not been included, because they are sometimes incomplete or inconsistent. In one case the specifications printed on the box were different to in the user manual—both can’t be right! Other issues include quoting the peak rather than average velocity at the discharge nozzle, and quoting the higher flow rate without the nozzle attached. Therefore, to enable meaningful comparison of competing blowers, I’ve measured the air flow rate, velocity and blowing power according to ANSI Standard B175.2, using calibrated equipment, and tabulated this for all the blowers tested, providing a resource for comparison of blower performance.

To read the extended version of this article in its entirety, click here to download it in PDF format.


Mottainai vs methane: The case for textile recycling

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Sarah Coles explores the environmental and social benefits of diverting textiles from the waste stream, looks at industrial fabric recycling and takes inspiration from the Japanese practice of maintaining clothing for a lifetime.

In the 1965 film The Sound of Music, while the Captain is away in Vienna, Maria makes playclothes for the children out of old curtains. Perhaps taking this iconic filmic moment of upcycling as inspiration, my mother made a kaftan out of bright orange curtains in the 70s. “I was up there with the fashion,” she says. The orange kaftan was both fashionable and ethical, it seems.


According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians throw out approximately 570,000 tonnes of leather and textiles per year, only 12% of which is recycled. This means each year roughly 500,000 tonnes of leather and textiles end up in landfill in Australia. Once textiles are in landfill they decompose and release methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Dyes and other chemicals may leach into the soil, potentially contaminating groundwater.

The ecological and social burden of new clothes is well documented. The introduction to the 2013 book Sustainability in Fashion and Textiles reads: “Considering the whole textile chain, from spinning to finishing… large amounts of water and energy are used and, in general, non-biodegradable wastes are produced.” According to the report ‘The State of the Apparel Sector 2015’, it requires 2720 litres of water to produce one new white cotton T-shirt. In the textile manufacturing sector, sweatshops and child labour are prolific, and working conditions abysmal. The fashion industry promotes continual consumption; according to a Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report, worldwide demand for textile fibres was 69.7 million tonnes in 2010. In short, the textile industry is brutally unsustainable.

Read the full article in ReNew 136.


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.


ATA member profile: Making sinewaves in Australia

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Long-time ATA member and software engineer Rod Scott continues to expand the work of Selectronic, his family business which 35 years ago created Australia’s first inverter. He talks to Kulja Coulston.

The success of the renewable energy industry has often tracked along a “sinewave sales curve”, according to Rod Scott, the products and business manager of inverter manufacturer Selectronic. “It’s standing on its own feet more now, but there were times when government program early announcements could dry up business for five months at a time,” he says of the ‘boom and bust’ cycle that has typified the renewable sector in Australia.


Together with his brother Ken, Rod Scott is continuing the work of his pioneering family business which has been part of the local industry from the beginning. Selectronic produced their first inverter in 1981: “It was a 360 watt DC to AC square wave inverter,” explains Rod. “We started small and it grew from there.” In 1990 Selectronic developed one of the earliest model sinewave inverters.

“It was then that our bigger models started to come out with energy-management functionality. It was all off-grid back then,with Australia being such a sparse country—storage for on-grid systems would have been a very strange concept!” It was in the early 2000s when they developed their first grid-interactive inverter, as that side of the market started to take off.

Rod’s parents established Selectronic in 1964 as a contract manufacturing business and ran it out of the Scotts’ backyard bungalow in Boronia, Victoria, before moving into a factory. The company cut its teeth custom-making transformers and inductors for the local electronics industry before launching its own electronics products division. Decades later, Selectronic continues to manufacture products locally, when most manufacturing has moved offshore.

“We were one of the first to make inverters in Australia, and we might also be one of the last.” Employing around 35 to 40 staff at its Chirnside Park factory in Victoria, Selectronic indirectly employs another 100 people in Australia through its supply chain, and will soon open an international office in Johannesburg. “We can’t get everything made here, particularly the specialist electronics, but we support local if we can, as it gives us flexibility and control over the quality of the product.”

Research and development has underpinned the company’s success for half a century, explains Rod: “Our future products look like what our customers demand, and it’s always been that way. When we developed the SP PRO in 2008, we already had 28 years of off-grid experience.” Selectronic’s continued commitment to the traditional offgrid market is also paying off, as the flexibility and reliability of those systems is relevant to the growing solar hybrid market. A few years ago a German company, KACO New Energy, rebadged Selectronic’s 5 kW SP PRO under their own label.

Rod has been an active ATA member and committed advertiser in ReNew. He is also personally committed to renewable technology at home, and is running off a 5 kW SP PRO with about 2.5 kW of solar photovoltaic panels. At a recent party none of his guests noticed the suburb-wide power outage: “I had to take everyone out onto the street before they believed me that we were the only ones still with power.”

This member profile is published in ReNew 136. Buy your copy here.

Q&A: DIY double glazing effectiveness

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It was an interesting article about double glazing by Alan Cotterill in ReNew 135. However, I am led to believe that double glazing relies on a vacuum between both sheets to be effective. How did Alan achieve this? Was his objective to cut down sound only? Double glazing is certainly a good idea, particularly where I live in the Blue Mountains, but I don’t have it because of cost.This is why the article interested me, but I doubt its effectiveness for retaining warmth.
—Rod Marshall



Double glazing doesn’t rely on a vacuum, it uses an air gap of a particular width that is wide enough to provide a level of insulation and narrow enough to prevent convective currents in the air between the two panes which would transfer heat from one pane to the other. Many double-glazing units use inert gases such as argon between the panes, as it is a better insulator, but there’s not that much difference between argon and air, so DIY double glazing can work quite well compared to single-pane windows.

There are vacuum window units, although I don’t know of anyone making them here in Australia; possibly Pilkington has their Spacia units available. You can’t produce a vacuum between two unsupported flat panes of glass as external air pressure would press the panes together and possibly shatter them. In vacuum-insulated windows they use many tiny posts between the panes to provide the support for the glass, but obviously this sort of window will not be perfectly clear although it comes close. The space between the panes is much smaller for vacuum glazing than with gas-filled double glazing. For example, Pilkington’s Spacia units have a 0.2 mm gap compared to at least a 6 mm for gas-filled units.
—Lance Turner


Product profile: Reducing concrete use

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Wafflepod slab construction reduces concrete use and helps insulate the slab from the ground, but wafflepods are made from one of the most environmentally damaging plastics known—polystyrene foam. The foam is not easily recycled, especially when contaminated with concrete, so it usually just goes to landfill at the end of the building’s life.


The Cupolex Building System from Australian Urethane and Styrene consists of polypropylene domes that link together to form the base for concrete slabs. They displace a great deal of concrete that would otherwise be needed, as well as base fill—one pallet of Cupolex units eliminates the need for three to four truckloads of fill.

The system also isolates the slab from the ground, eliminating moisture ingress into the slab from the ground, as well as providing a level of thermal insulation. Less reinforcing material (rebar) is needed for a slab as well.

Being polypropylene, the Cupolex units are fully recyclable at the end of the building’s life, further reducing the environmental footprint. The Cupolex domes are available in a range of heights, although only the Australian-manufactured 260 and 350 mm domes are kept in stock by the supplier—other sizes can be imported on a project-by-project basis.

For more information, contact Australian Urethane and Styrene, ph: (02) 9676 8444,,

Read more product profiles in ReNew 136.

Independent battery testing project

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In a world-first trial (supported by $450,000 of ARENA funding) at a purpose-built facility in Canberra, IT Power is about to commence a three-year project that will give consumers and industry stakeholders information on lithium-ion battery performance, independent of manufacturer claims. The project will analyse the performance, simulating real-world applications under Australian conditions, of six major lithiumion battery brands, comparing them to existing and advanced lead-acid batteries, to demonstrate how they could operate in large and small electricity grids. Given recent reductions in the cost of lithium-ion batteries and their potential performance advantages over conventional storage options, this timely trial will help people make informed investment decisions. The trial is due to commence in July 2016 and real-time outputs of the eight batteries in the trial will be able to be viewed at


ReNew photo challenge open now (deadline extended to 20 Aug 2016)

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What is the most sustainable aspect of your life? We want to hear from you!


To go in the draw to win a FLIR TG165 Spot Thermal Camera from Reduction Revolution, and be published in ReNew magazine, all you need to do is send us a snapshot of yourself with the most sustainable aspect of your life.

It could be your choice of transport, or the energy or water storage systems you have introduced at home, or perhaps a community or workplace project you are involved with.

Attach a photograph and include a caption and contact details in an email, and send to: with the subject ‘ReNew readers prize’.

Entries close on 20 August 2016 (deadline extended).

Please note that by entering you grant permission for the photograph to be used in print and online publications by the ATA (ReNew’s not-for-profit publisher). The prize can also be used as credit towards another thermal camera in the FLIR range (see for further details).