Energy efficiency on the agenda

Alan Pears

Improved energy efficiency and better public transport funding are essential to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Is a public transport levy the way to go? And could aircraft fly lower to cut emissions? Alan Pears explores the issues.

Martin Ferguson’s Department of Energy and Resources released its draft Energy White Paper in late 2011. Comments are due by mid March, and I encourage people to make submissions. It’s a disturbing document. For example, energy efficiency, considered by most studies to be a major contributor to climate abatement, is relegated to Chapter 6 section C P.170), which is not a good sign.

The introduction to the quite good but modest section on demand-side issues states: “Historically energy policy and market development in Australia have had a strong supply-side focus, suggesting that there could be further potential to realise cost-effective demand-side efficiencies through an integrated market framework.”

This comes after five chapters of supply-side, growth-focused, self-congratulatory material that shows the government hasn’t learnt this lesson. The paper quotes Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics growth projections that Australian primary energy consumption will rise by 30% and electricity consumption by 42% by 2035. Yet electricity consumption has been declining for the past three years.

The paper proposes three objectives:
• Provide accessible, reliable and competitively priced energy for all Australians;
• Enhance Australia’s domestic and export growth potential;
• Deliver clean and sustainable energy.

The impact on business and household budgets is the total cost of energy, not the price per unit. A recent UK study estimated that 88% of world primary energy consumption was wasted, so energy efficiency improvement has the potential to transform our energy requirements and costs.

But this is not used to frame the approach.

If the second objective relates to energy production and use, it seems potentially incompatible with sustainable development of our overall economy and energy (the third objective), which might involve reducing energy consumption and exports.

The ‘old paradigm’ energy industry is facing increasing costs, low rates of return and long transition times. Energy and climate commentator Giles Parkinson recently said the energy industry is facing its ‘Kodak’ moment, as a new paradigm sweeps through.

The paper’s response to the energy market mess seems to be to create additional, separate markets and regulations to ‘fix’ a problem that need not exist, creating conflict between the various market signals and regulations. This is inefficient policy that is costing Australia dearly in both financial and environmental terms.

Let’s hope the final White Paper is a big improvement on the draft.

Big car and SUV buyers

It seems that most large cars and SUVs are bought by business (Richard Blackburn, The Age online, 4 Feb 2012). Private buyers prefer small cars. Since business vehicles receive tax deductions, this means the community is subsidising purchase and use of fuel guzzlers. But it’s worse than that. Business (and governments) typically own their new cars for only 40,000 to 100,000 kilometres, then sell them. Secondhand car buyers can only choose from what’s available on the secondhand market, so they use these large vehicles for the bulk of their typically 250,000 kilometre lives. So buyers of new high consumption vehicles actually lock-in a legacy of ongoing higher fuel use and running costs for future owners.

Public transport funding

The latest strategy by the road lobby in Melbourne seems to be grade separation of railway crossings, so that traffic is not affected by increasing frequency of trains. This seems to be described as rail funding, yet it does nothing for rail performance. As a rail user, it seems there is potential for boom gate closure times to be reduced by modern sensor technologies instead. It’s not hard to monitor the changing speed of a train approaching a station, and to lower boom gates if there is a risk of the train overshooting, instead of lowering them when the train is a long way from the crossing.

We should also be looking at the broader economics. If railway crossings reduce the number of cars in use by increasing congestion, that potentially brings societal economic benefits that may offset the congestion costs. It shifts more car usage to public transport and other options, and the money not spent on grade separation could be used to expand the public transport system.

Public transport funding should be revisited, possibly with a property levy, offset by free public transport entitlements. The levy size would be linked to the quality of access to public transport. My logic is that if someone lives near good public transport, but doesn’t use it, they are depriving someone else of their right to access this service.

In return, each household and business could be entitled to some free public transport usage. This would link funding to service improvement, creating an incentive for operators and government to support public transport. And it would encourage those close to public transport to use it.

A solution for low emission air travel

When British climate commentator George Monbiot wrote Heat in 2006, he found feasible low emission solutions for most aspects of modern life—except air travel. Indirect emissions from contrails (cloudy trails), cirrus cloud formation and pollutants emitted from jet engines amplify the direct warming due to carbon dioxide from aircraft fuel by three to five times, according to the IPCC.

British research that seems to have been missed by climate researchers (Victoria Williams and Robert Noland Transportation Research Part D, 2002 and 2005) has found that creation of contrails and cirrus cloud is very sensitive to the temperature and humidity of the air flown through. If the air is warm enough (typically below 6000 to 7000 metres) these effects are avoided, and the main impact is due to fuel burning, much of which could be avoided by using sustainably-sourced renewable fuel. Many propellor-driven planes already fly at this altitude. It does mean passengers may experience a bumpier ride and it slightly increases fuel consumption. It does not mean we can keep flying as much as we want, because it limits usable air space and the large direct emissions from air travel or the amount of renewable fuel they would consume would still create major environmental pressures.

State government and climate change

Industry environmental newsletter CE Daily (27 Jan 2012) has analysed the number of times the Victorian Premier and key ministers have used the term ‘climate change’ in press releases and parliament during 2011. The results are disturbing. Premier Baillieu used the term once, in a media statement about location of the Climate Change Authority in Melbourne by the Commonwealth Government. Energy Minister Michael O’Brien used it once in parliament, when quoting a Labor MP. Climate Change Minister Ryan Smith used the term only once in parliamentary debate and in two press releases.

The climate sceptics within the Victorian State Government seem to be winning. It reminds me of the Faulty Towers saying: “Just don’t mention the war!” We live in a bizarre world.

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

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