Green Party energy policy in 2017 election

Today the Green Party released their energy policy for the 2017 election.

The reaction from Business New Zealand has been largely positive. Other than the commitment to 100% renewable energy, the lobby group believes that it is constructive and comes about as a result of working with the party.

I support parts of the policy too. One area which is encouraging is the Green Party plan to support inter customer trading of electricity that private users generate and put back into the grid. Likewise encouraging the lines companies to amalgamate in places means that the management of the grid across New Zealand should hopefully become less fractured than 29 separate entities at work.

New Zealand is rich with options for renewable energy. It sits in the “Roaring Forties” belt of latitudinal westerly winds, which upon contact with the Southern Alps give rise to substantial rainfall enabling hydroelectric power generation, as well as significant opportunities for wind power. The reasonably high sunshine hours in towns like Blenheim, Whakatane and Nelson ensure the natural potential for solar power also exists. Around the coastal environment there are also several locations where tidal power can be potentially harnessed.

I am aware of significant investment in geothermal energy in New Zealand that has most likely utilized the available capacity. Geothermal systems are quite delicate in nature and thus a fine balance exists between re-injecting too much water back into the ground and not enough.

Another source of power that is heavily utilized is hydro power. Although it has lost a portion of the market as other sources have come online, hydroelectric power makes up about 60% of New Zealand’s total electricity supply. However it is dependent on reliable northwest rainfall feeding the Upper Waitaki Power Scheme, and the Clutha, Roxburgh and Manapouri power stations in Central Otago and Southland.

But there is undeveloped and under researched potential in New Zealand energy resources as well. One example is that New Zealand has a thriving waste stream of bio-waste ranging from waste cooking fat and oil, that at least on a small scale has been demonstrated to be suitable for refining. New Zealanders discharge a huge volume of green waste at refuse stations each week. On a local scale there are a few operations where the gas is captured and used to power onsite facilities. However these are few and far apart. Due to the uncertainty and a lack of interest by Government in biofuel, I support research into whether or not a nation wide bio-fuel programme can be developed in New Zealand.

There is one concern I do have though and that is that the Green Party might try to mothball with the intention of decommissioning thermal plants that rely on coal and oil, such as Huntly, Stratford and Whirinaki. These power stations would prove useful in maintaining energy supply during dry periods when the hydroelectric storage lakes are running low, or if there has been a problem with other sources.

Feasibility of Waste-to-Energy plants in New Zealand

As the world debates climate change issues, and the market for fossil fuels wanes from a combination of lower prices and a slowing market, questions continue to arise about energy sources in the 21st Century. As one who thinks there is significant potential for a technological based solution, I have been wondering what alternative energy sources might be used in place of non renewables that take thousands of years to form and whose consumption is causing massive environmental degradation.

Waste to energy plants are in effect high powered incinerators, that burn waste at close to 900-950 degrees celsius, and generating electricity in the process. In 2011 there were 86 known waste-to-energy plants in the United States, which generated about 2,700 megawatts of electricity powering about 2 million homes. The total installed U.S. waste-to-energy generation capacity at that time was roughly equivalent to three Huntly sized power stations in a New Zealand context.

In Norway a growing market for waste-to-energy power generation has been established. The country imports waste from towns in the United Kingdom to help feed the incinerator. It is divisive however, with some people and organizations believing the facility, near Bergen, to be a blot on the landscape. Others are concerned that it may undermine recycling efforts by causing confusion and providing an easy throw-away option. Supporters point to the large volume of waste dumped across Europe per annum – in 2013, roughly 150 million tons – saying it only represents a tiny fraction of the total amount dumped.

Could New Zealand apply such technology here? Possibly. Given the concentration of much of New Zealand’s population in urban areas, it is certainly worth investigating. I would envisage plants being built in the industrial parts of Auckland Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton. Rather than taking the waste to landfills for dumping, the waste collected from kerb side collection could instead go to a waste-to-energy facility. This would have an added benefit of possibly lengthening the life time of existing landfills.

Each year 80,000 tons of electronic waste (e-waste)gets generated in New Zealand and can be as diverse as old  dumb and smart phones, printers, lap/desktops, kindles, digital camera’s, GPS units, microwaves, televisions and so forth. Less than 1% of it gets recycled. E-waste has significant minerals in it, including neodymium, europium and tantalum. The Basel Accord prevents toxics being sent to third world countries, but only a few first world countries have proper facilities and protocol for disposing of e-waste. Although New Zealand has ratified the Basel Convention, it has only made ad hoc efforts to support the recycling of e-waste.

New Zealand also throws out a large amount of plastics, ranging from soft drink and milk bottles, to product wrapping and bags. Despite assertions to the contrary the vast majority of this ends up in landfills. As a nation on the Pacific Rim, some of the plastics from ships that leave/enter New Zealand waters find their way into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a large area of seawater in the northern Pacific where ocean currents are depositing huge amounts of waste – one estimate suggests 5 trillion individual pieces of waste.


Could burning waste be a new energy source?

Over recent months I have been thinking about alternative energy sources that New Zealand could develop to the traditional hydro-electricity, coal, and geothermal power sources that dominate New Zealand energy production. With climate change challenging the suitability of coal and natural gas as sources of fuel, and nuclear power not being suitable due to the consequences of a melt down, it is time to look at other sources.

We are lucky as a nation to have substantial natural sources of energy. Our geothermal power generation is world class and New Zealand was the second country in the world after Italy to seriously investigate it. Now geothermal energy in New Zealand has nearly 1,000 megawatts of installed generating capacity. There are also significant wind power projects being developed, and whilst these have to overcome significant challenges such as noise and bird strike, wind power now supplies 5% of New Zealand electricity usage.

But there is one source that has has hardly been touched, which is not natural. An old adage says that what is waste to one person is a treasure to another. So, whilst the waste stream and the refuse stations around New Zealand are the recipient and processing stations for our garbage, does that mean it really is garbage?

Not necessarily. In the Scandanavian countries where managements of the waste stream does not produce such proactive recycling as New Zealanders like to believe management of ours does, it is perhaps because investment in high powered furnaces where heat from the incineration of waste drives turbines enabling generators to create electricity has caught hold. And a question that intrigues me is the feasibility of reproducing such a generation system here. A Wall Street Journal article with a pro and an anti-Waste To Energy view point based on experiences in Germany and the United States raises questions that would need to be considered in a New Zealand feasibility study before any attempt is made to try something similar here.

One concern I have is how readily a somewhat conservative society that seems reluctant to embrace ground breaking scientific innovation would embrace a Waste to Energy scheme. Even a biofuel scheme creating an alternative fuel source to fossil fuel from the waste stream seems to be hard for politicians to grasp. It would need some significant capital input from the private sector and what form the Government comes to the party – if at all – would depend on who was governing on the day.

New Zealand has an environmental reputation that is still relatively well regarded around the world to lose if such a project were to go wrong. However, if a model where the clean energy output significantly betters the environmental negatives, it is worth exploring. Where the capital to start such a venture would come from remains to be seen, but the potential to create jobs, reduce our ecological footprint and improve living standards in a successful case is too great to ignore.

The case for biofuel in New Zealand

As the value of coal waxes and wanes, and the nuclear power industry struggles to get away from the shadow of Fukushima, there are many arguments raging about where to go in terms of searching for future energy sources. With climate change and growing awareness of environmental impacts caused by fossil fuels, nuclear power and awareness that certain renewable sources have severe limitations, biofuel has become a substantial player in the global and local energy market. Whilst all sources have their advantages and their limitations, there is a case for the development of biofuel that needs to be recognized.

In New Zealand biofuel remains a relatively unknown and untried source of energy. It is also one with perhaps the greatest misconceptions about it.

Because there seems to be little media coverage of biofuel development, those misconceptions are hindering its development as an energy source.  Among them is the idea that it has to come from ethanol using source material such as corn. Although corn is a source material for ethanol, there are a range of sources that can be tapped into in the waste stream, which include – but are not limited to – animal fat and waste cooking oil; tallow and algae in waste water.

As one of the four major players in the petroleum retail sector, Z formed when Royal Dutch Shell withdrew from the New Zealand market and took over their service stations. Unlike the other large petroleum companies Z has followed a philosophy of being run by New Zealanders for New Zealanders. As part of that approach Z announced it would develop a biofuel facility to develop fuel product for New Zealand vehicles. As none of the other large oil companies in New Zealand have announced their own biofuel programmes, this sets Z apart.

The Automobile Association has also recognized biofuel as being a potentially useful fuel. It is true that a 10% ethanol-petrol blend permits a car to do about 97% of what an equivalent car with a full tank of standard petrol in kilometres per litre. However, the ethanol-petrol blend enables a cleaner and potentially more efficient performance. A locally produced biofuel may also have economic advantages in that it does not have to be imported from overseas may not need to be refined at Marsden Point, which could lead to lower costs at the pump.

But what about biofuel as a source of electricity generation?

This is where the case for biofuel becomes  somewhat murky, not so much because it is impotent as an energy source, but because no serious investigation into its feasibility appears to have been undertaken. Nor does Government energy policy seem to make much of its potential – indeed none of the major parties on either side of the House of Representatives appear to have a policy specifically aimed at promoting the research and development of biofuel.

However bioenergy made up 17% of New Zealand’s renewable energy production in 2014 and 7% of overall energy production in that year. Overseas research that was being done in the United Kingdom in 2012 suggested that microbial matter may be able to be used as fuel cell material. The United States Department of Energy has handed out $18 million in funding for various strands of biofuel research to be conducted.

Although New Zealand has the commendable target of becoming 100% renewable reliant, there seems to be a reluctance by either of the major political parties to make a seriously heavy investment in research into this potentially most valuable of energy sources. Nor does it seem terribly interested in the potential environmental – and subsequent economic – gains that can be had from developing waste stream sources. This needs to change.

Overhauling New Zealand’s energy supply

New Zealand is a country blessed with superb opportunities for renewable energy. It is also a nation that has substantial fossil fuel deposits of coal and oil as well as natural gas. The last 100 years since Reefton became the first town in New Zealand to have electricity from a local hydro-electric power scheme have seen a vast expansion for a nation of 270,000 square kilometres and 4 million people in its electricity production and usage. But with that vast expansion come serious questions about where to from here, which I believe have not been adequately answered or even considered – answers forthcoming or not.

With growing concerns about the state of the global climate, and also the environment at large, the time has long since arrived for New Zealand to acknowledge that our opportunities for large scale generation in our traditional fields are finished. All the rivers we can reasonably dam have been dammed, diverted or otherwise altered for some time now. The remainder need to be preserved for the enjoyment of New Zealanders and other uses. There is a limit approaching whereupon it will not be sustainable to build new geothermal power stations lest the highly sensitive systems underground become unstable or otherwise not able to meet the expectations placed on them. Although coal has substantial untapped reserves left in New Zealand, its links to climate change, the ecological and environmental damage caused by mining, mean that its days are numbered. This is especially so since the one power station reliant on coal on a large scale is mothballing its two coal fired units by the end of 2018.

This may sound highly negative, but New Zealand is a country whose economy is heavily reliant on it maintaining a clean and healthy environment. New Zealand is a nation committed to environmental sustainability through several legal frameworks, both of an international nature and the Resource Management Act 1991. We have a commitment to have 90% of our electricity coming from renewable sources by 2025.

But there are also huge opportunities, which come with their own challenges, but which the extent of will not be known unless we explore them. One such opportunity is tidal power, which could potentially supply up to 8,000 megawatts (at the moment our generation capacity is about 9,000 megawatts), and could be generated from Kaipara Harbour heads and Cook Strait where there are strong sustained tidal flows. Another is solar energy, something New Zealand has considerable generation potential for in high sunlight areas such as Blenheim, Whakatane and possibly in the Mackenzie Basin of the South Island.

There are also unknown ones with possibly huge potential, such as biofuel and fusion. We don’t know much about either as a nation, but that is not to say we should not investigate.

New Zealand however needs to change the legislative framework for electricty generation as it lacks a long term blue print to abide by. Although a National Energy Policy Statement is not compulsory it would give policy and environmental planners something to work with in planning regional electricity needs by having an umbrella statement to look at. Also the framework in what form it may be for the maintenance of the electricity grid should be revisited. No Government has done this in the last decade and every now and again there are contentious cases where plans to build extensions to the grid have come unstuck because of a lack of a long term blue print.

The opportunities are there, and so are the challenges. Are we going to rise to the occasion as a nation or blow the opportunity to plan for the foreseeable future?