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ReNew 134 out now!

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Issue 134 is hot off the press and full of advice for your sustainable home this summer. As always, ReNew comes overflowing with articles to satisfy both the technically and the not-so-technically minded. Regardless of whether your interest is going off-grid, reducing energy use in the home, adding batteries to solar or simple DIY reuse projects, there is something for everyone in this issue.

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ReNew 134 has ‘energy efficiency’ as its focus. Click here to see the contents pages in PDF format.

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Solar panel buyers guide 2016

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We’ve contacted photovoltaics manufacturers for details on warranties, cell types, size and price to help you decide which solar panels are best for you.

Large-scale manufacturing of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels has led to significant price reductions in recent years, to the point where they have become a common sight in the Australia urban landscape. From powering domestic dwellings to providing power for camping or even hot water, PV panels are everywhere.

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Or almost everywhere. While there are well over a million homes in Australia sporting solar arrays of various sizes, there are still many homes without solar.

This article aims to provide up-to-date guidance for those people looking at purchasing a solar installation, whether that’s a new system or an upgrade. It includes types of solar panels and factors to consider when buying them. The guide focuses on PV panels only. For information on other components that may be used in a solar installation (e.g. inverters), system sizing and economic returns, see ‘More info’ at the end of the article.

Types of solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film
Solar panels are made from many solar cells connected together, with each solar cell producing DC (direct current) electricity when sunlight hits it. There are three common types of solar cells: monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film.

Both monocrystalline and polycrystalline cells are made from slices, or wafers, cut from blocks of silicon. Monocrystalline cells start life as a single large crystal known as a boule, which is ‘grown’ in a slow and energy-intensive process. Polycrystalline cells are cut from blocks of cast silicon rather than single large crystals.

Thin-film technology uses a different technique that involves the deposition of layers of different semiconducting and conducting materials directly onto metal, glass or even plastic. The most common thin-film panels use amorphous (non-crystalline)silicon and are found everywhere from watches and calculators right through to large grid-connected PV arrays.

Other types of thin-film materials include CIGS (copper indium gallium di-selenide) and CdTe (cadmium telluride). These tend to have higher efficiencies than amorphous silicon cells, with CIGS cells rivalling crystalline cells for efficiency. However, the materials used in some of these alternatives are more toxic than silicon—cadmium, particularly, is a quite toxic metal.

Read the full article in ReNew 134

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

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Energy out west: A second life in sustainability

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How do you get into energy auditing as a career? And how do you run an audit? Alan Benn’s experiences provide insights helpful to those looking to get into the field, and those wanting to audit themselves, or friends and family—or even their local school! By Robyn Deed.

As a semi-retired electronics engineer with a keen interest in sustainability (perhaps a common ReNew reader profile!), Alan Benn’s move into energy assessment work allowed him to combine his technical skills with his sustainable self.

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Based in Perth, Alan’s career change began with a six-month energy auditing course in 2010/11, via a federally funded Green Skills course run by the WA Council of Social Services. Starting with the two-week Home Sustainability Assessment course, it moved to auditing of workplaces in the not-for-profit community sector. As well as hands-on training doing assessments, he learnt technical info, across energy, water and buildings—”that’s where I first learnt about window U-values,” he says.

Although the course was excellent, of 75 trainees (most retraining to start a new career), only three or four are now working in the field. He notes: “Running a business like this can be hard, and there’s little work in energy assessments, particularly residential assessments.” Alan has been a volunteer with Perth-based community association Environment House for over 10 years and most of his paid auditing work is on their auditing contracts with local councils. Some programs are targeted at low-income residents, but most are open to any ratepayers. He’s done assessments from “little retirement units to mansions using 80 kWh/ day of electricity”.

An exercise in understanding

A big part of an assessment, he’s found, is explaining energy and water bills: helping the resident to understand their usage, what the units charged for mean, how usage changes over the seasons, and what’s a reasonable level of usage for gas, electricity and water, depending on the appliances installed.

“So few people know about energy costs,” Alan says. He often asks how much petrol costs, which most people know, and then he asks: how much do electricity, gas and water cost? A few know electricity costs, but he’s never had anyone know the cost of gas or water.

Read the full article in ReNew 134.

The system is entirely contained in one cabinet - except for the solar panels, of course!

Solar + battery trial in NZ

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Combining PV and battery storage is often touted as a win-win for householders and energy distributors, eliminating peak demand and providing a way to better use the solar generation on-site. Lindsey Roke shares his household’s experience with a trial initiated by his local lines company in Auckland, New Zealand.

In late 2013, our power lines company initiated a PV and battery pilot scheme for households in the Auckland region. The aim was to test how PV combined with batteries could be made to work to the advantage of both householders (by reducing costs and providing backup energy in the case of grid outages) and the grid (by providing additional energy to the network, reducing peaks and providing a way to optimise PV integration into the network).

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My wife and I decided to get involved in the scheme and in late January 2014, Vector (the lines company) installed a PV system with battery storage at our house. Almost two years on, there have been issues along the way, but overall it’s been a useful field trial, both for Vector’s and our understanding of the complexities of running such a system.

A new lease on energy
Vector offered the system with an installation cost of NZ$2000 and a monthly rental in proportion to the solar PV system size. Three PV system sizes were available—3 kW, 4 kW and 5 kW—each combined with a lithium iron phosphate battery of 11.6 kWh, and a 4.5 kW inverter (de-rated to 4 kW for enhanced reliability). We opted for a 3 kW PV system and a rental period of 12.5 years. For this sized system and rental period, the monthly rental (for 150 months) was NZ$70, covering maintenance and support. At the end of the lease we will own the panels, but Vector will remove the inverter and battery. Given the technology changes likely over that time, we thought this would be a reasonable option.

Of 290 installations in the pilot, ours was the 150th to be completed.

Motivations
For us, the primary motivation was to shift to net zero energy (or better). Having designed and helped build our all-electric house in the 70s, we have since made a variety of efficiency upgrades including electric-boosted solar hot water (described in ReNew 97), energy-efficient lighting, a high efficiency space heating heat pump and upgraded under-floor and ceiling insulation (the walls were insulated from day one). Our average consumption is now about 7.4 kWh per day, for two of us and a some-time boarder (he’s a flight steward and often away).

When it came to sizing the PV installation, we wanted to cover this energy consumption, but weren’t necessarily expecting to save money over what we would otherwise have paid for electricity. Given our location in Auckland (at a similar latitude to Bendigo in Victoria), a correctly oriented unshaded PV array would be expected to generate an average of 4 kWh per day per kilowatt installed. Thus, we predicted that even the smallest system offered, 3 kW, would make us net exporters over a year, generating around 12 kWh per day on average.

Read the full article including issues and results in ReNew 134.

Chris's off-grid wind and solar system powers his home and electric vehicle.

Off-grid wind and solar

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It’s a windy place near Canberra, and Chris Kelman is taking good advantage of that! He describes the evolution of his impressive off-grid wind and solar system — and the avid meter-watching that goes with it.

In a quest to demonstrate the possibility of living a fossil-fuel-free life, I have now made a couple of attempts at setting up my house to run on ‘home-grown’ energy.

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My first project, back in 1987, used home-made solar hot water panels, a ‘massive’ 90 watts of PV plus a 1 kW Dunlite wind generator (pictured on the cover of Soft Technology 32–33, October 1989; Soft Technology was the original name of ReNew). At this stage, renewable energy technology was in its infancy and everything was DIY, including building an 18 m tripod tower for the turbine (overcoming a fear of heights was a personal fringe benefit). On this basic system I did manage to run lights, computer, TV and stereo, but there were thin times, of course.

These days, home energy systems are more like Lego — you just plug and play. So with a move back to the bush near Canberra a few years ago, I decided to do it all again, but this time with sufficient capacity to run a standard 230 V AC all-electric house, workshop, water pumps—and an electric vehicle.
The house I purchased had been set up pretty well as a passive-solar home, though it was connected to the grid at the time. It has a north-facing aspect, good insulation and a lot of (double-glazed) windows allowing winter sun to maintain a cosy slate floor. The result is a very stable environment for most of the year.

Energy production—phase 1
In phase one of my new project,in 2012, I installed 3 kW of PV with a Sunny Island off-grid inverter and 40 kWh of VRLA (valve-regulated lead-acid) batteries. Initially, hedging my bets, I configured it as a grid-connected system, with the grid acting as a backup ‘generator’ when required.

After a few months I realised that I rarely needed to use the grid and, as I owned a small antiquated petrol generator from my previous project, I decided it was time to cut the umbilical cord. This turned out to be a rather amusing process. My local energy provider didn’t seem to have an appropriate form for ‘removal of service’ and was bemused about why I would ask them to take the meters away. It was all a bit much for them. Even after the process was completed, I would still occasionally discover lost-looking meter readers around the back of the house!

The weather in this region is well known for its reliable solar insolation, apart from some lean months in mid-winter. Fortunately we are well supplied with wind power as well, as indicated by the Capital wind farm only a few kilometres away.

To confirm the wind resource, I set up a Davis weather station on a 12 m mast at my proposed turbine site and undertook a six-month wind survey. The results from this were compared with historical records from the area and a good correlation was found. This was enough evidence to convince me that wind power backup, particularly to cover the lean winter months, was the best option for my system.

Read the full article about Chris’s impressive off-grid setup 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.

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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.

 

Solar_Reserve_project

The future of energy: Large-scale solar worldwide

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Not just good for the planet, large-scale solar is now often the cheapest option. Lance Turner looks at some of the impressive projects powering up right now.

As the world’s governments slowly wake up to the reality of climate change and the need to shift energy generation away from fossil fuels to renewables, the corporate world is just getting on and doing it.

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Large-scale wind farms have become common, but large-scale solar farms are less so. However, this seems to be changing, with multi-megawatt and even gigawatt-scale solar generation plants being developed at a considerable pace.

Cheaper than the fossils
The main driver behind this seems to be that solar has actually become one of the cheapest forms of energy generation. In many cases, solar plants are proving to be cheaper than gas, nuclear and even coal-fired power plants, especially when the complete life cycle and environmental factors are taken into account. Indeed, recent tenders in both Chile and India for energy generation have been won by solar because it was the cheapest option. The Chilean auction was open to all technologies, yet solar won the majority of the generation contracts, with other renewables taking the rest. Not a single megawatt of generation capacity went to fossil fuel projects. Further, the auction produced the lowest ever price for unsubsidised solar at just US 6.5 c/kWh!

The huge US renewable energy development company SunEdison won the entire 500 MW of solar capacity on auction in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh with a record low unsubsidised tariff for India of 4.63 rupee/kWh (US 7.1 c/kWh)—lower than new coal generation, particularly when using imported coal.

It’s not just in the developing world that solar is beating fossil fuels. In October, an auction in Austin, Texas, resulted in 300 MW of large-scale solar PV being contracted at less than US 4 c/kWh. Even before tax credits, the price is still under US 6 c/kWh—beating gas and new coal plants.

While many of these contracts involved photovoltaics, other forms of solar generation such as concentrated solar thermal systems also fared well, gaining some contracts and producing prices under US 10 c/kWh.

Read the full article in ReNew 134.

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Small things matter too: Simple reuse DIY projects

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In everyday life we are surrounded by materials that are usually thought of as rubbish. But most can be reused for other purposes with a little DIY effort.
By Lance Turner.

We hear a lot about reduce, reuse and recycle and, while most people make an effort with basic recycling, the first two parts—reduce and reuse—are really more important.

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Reducing is simply a matter of choices—if a product comes in too much packaging or non-recyclable or environmentally damaging packaging materials (read plastic), then simply look for an alternative that is better packaged.

While it’s great to be able to reduce your waste load by careful shopping, some products are simply not available in anything other than plastic or plastic composite packaging. You can opt to simply not buy the product at all, but a particular product may be a requirement, for example, for health reasons, or it might be required for your job.

Given that most people will end up with at least some packaging that local recyclers don’t take, the best option is to try and reuse the material. This has two advantages—it reuses rather than recycles, and it offsets the purchase of new materials/products that would otherwise be bought for that purpose. It’s not just packaging that can be reused, there are many other sources of useful materials, from pallets to old electronic devices.

So just how can you reuse items that might otherwise seem like they have no use? In most cases, just a small amount of effort and DIY skill is required. On the following pages we present a few ideas that are simple and effective, and quite obvious once you see them.

Read the full article in ReNew 134.

Alan_Pears

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.

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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.

Summer reading guide: Ecological DIY projects aplenty

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Sarah Coles, Robyn Deed and Lance Turner review books which are sure to result in tomato trellises, spiced apple crumble cakes, a shift away from fossil fuels, a proliferation of rosellas, a trip to the farmers market and a wee dram of self sufficiency this holiday season.

Renewable Energy Superpower
Authors: Beyond Zero Emissions
Published by Beyond Zero Emissions
RRP $30.00 (bze.org.au)

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Australia has been a laggard when it comes to emissions reductions, but with the rest of the world coming to the understanding that the future lies away from fossil fuels, we are set to see some far-reaching changes in not only the energy industry, but the traditional big exports such as coal and natural gas. Over the next few decades most countries will shift their energy generation towards renewables. Renewable Energy Superpower looks at what the post-fossil fuel world will be like, where those opportunities lie and how the changing economics of energy generation will affect us all. The gist of this entire shift is summed up in the Executive Summary: “Every day that passes with uncoordinated developmetn of the energy system adds coast and undermines Australia’s future renewable energy advantage.” We need to move now or risk being left behind the rest of the world and becoming an economic and energy backwater.” Renewable Energy Superpower lays out a plan for making this transition, including National Energy Market reform, cessation of investment in the gas network, promoting the adoption of electric vehicles and increasing the efficiency of the nation’s appliances. If you want to get a grasp on what the world’s energy markets and systems will look like in the next decade or two, this report is a good place to start.

Read the full summer reading guide in ReNew 134.

Renewable Energy Superpower

Book review: Renewable Energy Superpower

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Author: Beyond Zero Emissions
Published by Beyond Zero Emissions
RRP $30.00

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Australia has been a laggard when it comes to emissions reductions, but with the rest of the world coming to the understanding that the future lies away from fossil fuels, we are set to see some far-reaching changes in not only the energy industry, but the traditional big exports such as coal and natural gas.

Over the next few decades, most countries will shift their energy generation towards renewables. Renewable Energy Superpower looks at what the post-fossil fuel world will be like, where those opportunities lie and how the changing economics of energy generation will affect us all.

The gist of this entire shift is summed up in the Executive Summary: “Every day that passes with uncoordinated development of the energy system adds cost and undermines Australia’s future renewable energy advantage.” We need to move now or risk being left behind the rest of the world and becoming an economic and energy backwater.

Renewable Energy Superpower lays out a plan for making this transition, including National Energy Market reform, cessation of investment in the gas network, promoting adoption of electric vehicles and increasing the efficiency of the nation’s appliances. If you want to get a grasp on what the world’s energy markets and systems will look like in the next decade or two, this report is a good place to start.

Review by Lance Turner
This book is available for order at
bze.org.au

For more book reviews, buy ReNew 134.

134_enphase_ac_battery

Product profile: AC batteries finally available

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We looked at the AC battery system from Enphase some time back; it has been a while actually coming to market, but should be available in Australia and New Zealand by the middle of 2016.

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What’s an AC battery? Basically it’s a regular DC battery in a case with a battery charger and a small grid-interactive inverter that allows you to simply plug it into your mains wirings to add battery storage to existing solar energy systems for load shifting and the like.

The Enphase AC Battery is a modular 1.2 kWh lithium iron phosphate battery based unit with a rated round trip efficiency of 96% and a maximum depth of discharge of over 95%. Peak output power is 270 VA per unit, so for larger loads you would need a number of batteries, but being a modular system, you just install as many units as are required for the energy storage and/or power output required.

The AC Battery is combined with the Enphase Envoy data gateway and apps for your favourite mobile device to allow control and monitoring of the batteries. If you have an existing Enphase microinverter solar system then the Envoy may already be installed.

RRP: TBA. For more information, contact Enphase Energy, ph: (03) 8669 1679 or go to www.enphase.com/en-au/products-and-services/ac-battery

For more product profiles, buy ReNew 134.

Q&A: Understanding solar

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Q

I love the magazine and have been subscribing for a number of years. I would like to get some very basic information on solar from you. Although your articles about going off-grid are really interesting, I can’t follow the detail, and I suspect a lot of readers of my generation (70s) are in the same boat. I would eventually like to go off the grid and therefore would like you to answer a few very basic questions.

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I live in the Canberra region which is really sunny, with an average yearly total of 246 sunny days. My average electric use is 19 kWh/day and I currently have a 2.025 kW PV system.

If we receive eight hours of sunshine in a day does this mean I would get 16.2 kWh? Regarding storage, what would be the optimum amount of battery storage required to go off the grid without having a diesel or petrol generator, in my area? Is there any course that would cover the sort of basic knowledge I require?
—Peter Fenton

A

Yes, solar can be confusing, and there is a lot of jargon around! Your solar panels are rated at a total of 2 kW which is the power they will generate at standard test conditions which include:

  • strong sunlight directly shining at the panel

  • panel temperature of 25 degrees.

These conditions don’t often occur in the real world. The sun moves around, and as panels heat up their output reduces. Then there are additional losses in cables, inverter and other components.

To estimate how many kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy the system will generate in a day, we can’t rely on whether a day is described as sunny, or the number of hours of sunshine. A better measure is the average number of kWh a 1 kW solar system will generate over a whole year.

Check out the table at www.bit.ly/1NpXb5h.

Over a whole year, a 2 kW solar system in Canberra should average about 8.6 kWh of generation per day. Of course, generation will be higher in summer and lower in winter.

So if you wanted to offset your yearly electricity consumption, you would need to add many more panels.

As for going off-grid, what is your motivation to do this? Off-grid systems are expensive. We’ve analysed the economics previously and even with high grid tariffs, going off-grid isn’t attractive on a purely economic basis. As a rough rule of thumb, to supply an electricity usage of 19 kWh per day, a reliable off-grid system might cost between $57,000 and $95,000. We expect this to come down over time as batteries get cheaper, but on the other hand, the Aussie dollar is low!

There are many ATA members off-grid, but they generally are very frugal users of electricity, typically around 5 kWh per day. It’s difficult to go off-grid without a generator. The big issue is getting through a cloudy winter week. Space heating and water heating are big factors too.

Here’s a great course to learn about this: www.bit.ly/1RQBeeE. I wrote a review of this course in ReNew 132. Another information resource is Sunulator, including the user guide: www.ata.org.au/ata-research/sunulator.

And here’s a useful article to explain some important terms: www.bit.ly/1l6RQ83.
—Andrew Reddaway, ATA