Friday, June 19, 2015

Empowering Parramatta: A Model for Sustainable Energy

“Community notices unmet needs long before governments do. Community knows something isn’t working and great thinkers all over the world are trying to find a work-around. Social entrepreneurs are creating models of community building and influence, business leaders are finding a new language to describe social responsibility and a new breed of investors are finding ways to put their money where it counts.” ~Julie Owens, MP for Parramatta

We were really excited to have facilitated our first forum on community renewable energy to a packed house in Parramatta on behalf of Julie Owens. It was encouraging to see that so many people from advocacy groups, community action groups, residents interested in these ideas and solar installers all gathered together under one roof inspired to create a new model to source our basic needs.
We introduce ourselves as a consultancy that is committed to working toward a goal of helping communities be more resilient and source their needs of energy, water, food and housing locally, thus creating a healthier local economy. 
We commenced the presentation by discussing some of the global trends in solar and noted that the price of solar has come down drastically from US$76/watt to US$0.30/watt.  This reduction in price coupled with favourable policies in the European countries had seen a huge uptake in solar PV in the early years.  While Australia is lagging behind the European players like Germany and Italy, it is not doing too badly when we look at the uptake per capita.  Over 1.3 million households now have solar on their roofs.
We then went on to discuss business models for solar investment.  The model that we advocate is that of community renewable energy.  This is a partnership between a community of investor and a business, which has a roof on which the infrastructure can be installed.  The business repays the investors who often get a better return than if they invested their money in the bank. The business pays of the solar in 10 years, then inherits the infrastructure and gets free energy for the next 15 years or so.  A great model especially if you are a business that is operating during the day.
We also shared a lot of resources and web links to many of the players in this space and discussed some of the changes such as the introduction of affordable storage. 
You can view our presentation at this link
The forum concluded with presentations by Parramatta City Council, Pingalla, Community Power Agency and Sydney Renewable Energy.  It was a great evening and we knew people were inspired when they were still long after the forum had ended.
We were greatly encourage when we heard a few days later that Parramatta residents have formed a group to take the idea of community renewable energy forward and we were asked to be part of this process.  We have started to sew the seeds.  Let’s see what we can grow together with people who wish to take back their lives and create a low carbon future for their children, leaving a legacy of resilient, vibrant communities that are working to create decentralised communities that can live off grid. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Wind Energy: The Answer is Blowing in the Wind...

Today our Prime Minister stated that he hates wind farms.  He laments they are visually awful and wishes he could further restrict the growth of the renewable energy sector.  He further states that he thinks these wind farms could have health impacts.  While speaking with 2GB’s Alan Jones, he said wind farms are visually awful and make a lot of noise.

So what of coal fired power plants? I have not come across anyone who finds the holes in the ground that are dug in the search for coal or the criss-cross of electricity transmission lines visually appealing. I find his statements appalling at a time when most of the rest of the world is turning to renewable energy with a vigour that is inspiring. So, I decided to look up the NSW State Government fact sheet of wind energy and summarise what they say.

At present wind energy is not only the cheapest renewable technology available, it is also the only one ready for large-scale deployment. Despite the political rhetoric in Australia, wind energy is growing at a rapid rate with approximately 1700 megawatts of wind farms in operation.  Of course, wind energy is free and limitless.  There are many American states obtaining more than 10% of their energy from wind, in Denmark it is 20% and in Portugal 50% of their energy is from wind.  Here in NSW, we have higher wind speeds than many European nations so the fact this potential energy is just blowing away is economical and environmentally wasteful.

Of course, renewables are not available 24/7 but with the rapid advancement and decelerating cost of battery technology, it will be possible to store energy for those times when the wind dies down.  The good news is that the efficiency of converting wind to electricity is approximately 45-50% while that of coal is only 29-37%. The scientific consensus is that we must start to reduce our green house gas emissions within the decade to avert a dangerous climate. Electricity accounts for about a third of green house gas emissions and Australia has the second highest greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity produced.

While our Prime Minister also tries to ignite people’s fear by stating that these farms are dangerous, the NSW State Government fact sheet tells me that wind farms are safe.  The fire risk is a minimum and while they can be struck by lightning, they have lightning protecting systems that ensure currents are safely transferred to the ground. The turbines are built to international standards that ensure they are safe in high wind and all high voltage connections are underground. Modern turbines are also designed to minimise noise as noise represents lost energy. An application for a wind farm development is not approved if it is unable to demonstrate that the farm will meet the applicable noise limits.

Even if you are a climatic sceptic, it just makes economic sense, so why do the majority of conservative politicians oppose this?  Perhaps it is because their funding comes from those who may lose out, if the renewable energy industry takes hold. The United Nations Energy Program states that renewable energy produces more jobs per dollar invested than conventional power generation systems such as coal and gas. In the drought stricken regions of Australia, this could be a valuable income stream for many farmers.   

The benefits of wind are obvious.  They have a smaller footprint.  They can co-exist with other occupants of the land.  Coal powered plants use huge amounts of water for cooling towers and boilers.  We know that water is a resource that is often scarce in this wide brown land of ours, and using a source of energy such as wind also reduces our use of water.

The most comprehensives study to date by the NSW Valuer General has found that wind farms have no impact on land values.  This is consistent with similar studies done overseas. In 2010 the NSW Government commissioned a study of 2000 rural residents and 300 businesses, and found strong community support for this form of energy.

Politicians are meant to be representatives of their communities in government.  Then why do they consistently refuse to listen to the Australian public?