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The Opposite of Cold Showers | Sep 15, 2005 09:10

GUEST David Haywood on Energy policies


Being an energy engineer has given me some insight into the complaints of my ex-girlfriend. "I just don't understand you," I find myself saying. "You never listen." Such is the unhappy relationship between the energy engineer and the energy-consuming public. The energy engineer provides the lifeblood that keeps civilization alive - but does civilization listen to a word we say? Does civilization return our phone calls? Does civilization even care? Well, not until civilization gets into a shower and finds there's no hot water. Or until it suddenly costs $150 to fill up the petrol tank in civilization's SUV.

It's hard to over-exaggerate the importance of energy to New Zealand and to the world in general. Consider your options without an energy supply. No heating, no lighting, no transport, no communications, no medicine, and no Edmund Cake albums. In a word: Palaeolithic. You couldn't even cook the rat you killed with a rock, since the use of fire is - by definition - just a very basic form of energy engineering. And, of course it doesn't take a total absence of energy to cause havoc in our society. Even a comparatively minor energy shortage could plunge the New Zealand (and world's) economy into freefall, as we discovered during the 1970s' oil shocks. In fact, if you think about it, a cheap and plentiful supply of energy is perhaps the key ingredient to civilization as we know it [1].

So why, given the importance of energy to our society, is energy not more prominent on the political stage during an election? And anyway, what is a sensible energy strategy for a country like New Zealand? The political parties have all released energy policies, but do they propose practical solutions for our current and future energy needs, or are they just talking pseudo-science? Or even, in that most hackneyed of phrases, political correctness?

Russell Brown thought that a change from the head-banging tax cut debate would be a fine thing. So here I am - an energy engineer on Public Address. And as an energy engineer I'd naturally like to see some political debate on energy policy. A good place to start might be to ask the question: "how would an energy engineer assess the energy policies on offer?" So I've undertaken a detailed examination of the energy policies of the main political parties, and have awarded them all an 'energy star' rating.

At this point I should perhaps mention that I have no political agenda here. I have never been power-crazed enough to join a political party, and do not have any business interest in New Zealand's energy sector (or, indeed, any business interest at all). The only thing you might like to take into consideration when reading this is that I probably have the typical personality traits of an energy engineer: pragmatic, risk adverse, sceptical, and somewhat conservative.

So what does an energy engineer look for in an energy policy? Well, a detailed answer would take a very big book. But I have tried to summarize the important issues in just two paragraphs. Only a brief justification of my reasoning is given here, but things should become clearer as you read on. A comprehensive explanation might be a good topic for a future guest blog.

Let's start with transportation, which (at around 40% [2]) is New Zealand's largest area of energy consumption. Transport fuels are imported and so have a detrimental effect on our balance of trade, as well as a significant influence on the price that we pay for most consumer products. The main potential for improving transport energy usage lies in increasing the efficiency with which we use fuels. Around half of the energy used for transport is consumed by households [2], and therefore a sensible energy policy should encourage smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles (e.g. small diesel cars), as well as greater use of public transport. In terms of the heavy transport sector, the higher fuel-efficiency of rail means that it should be the preferred transport option where possible. Replacing some portion of fossil transport fuels with biofuels made from waste products (such as tallow) would be a sensible economic move at current oil prices. And continued exploration for new oil and gas reserves in New Zealand might be a worthwhile gamble in terms of reducing our dependence on importation.

New Zealand's second largest area of energy usage is electricity [2], with significant increases in demand predicted in the next few years. To avoid shortages a sensible energy policy would increase generation capacity. But it is also practical to introduce policies which limit increases in demand. A major opportunity for cost-effectively increasing the supply of electricity lies in exploiting New Zealand's considerable wind resource, with the latest studies showing that wind should be able to contribute up to 35 per cent of our total electricity mix. Major opportunities also exist for reducing New Zealand's electricity demand. Household usage accounts for more than a third of the electricity generated [2], mostly in water and space heating. A sensible energy policy would reduce electricity consumption by encouraging widespread use of solar water heaters, and biofuels (such as wood pellets) for space heating. Energy efficiency and peak load reduction in the areas of Industry and Commerce - which account for around 58 per cent of New Zealand's electricity consumption - could be improved by encouraging further demand-side participation. It goes without saying that New Zealand's building insulation levels need to be dramatically increased; and, of course, that no-one should be using incandescent light bulbs any more.

So that is a brief summary of common sense energy policy according to an energy engineer. How do the politicians do on the same topic? The hyperlinks (below) lead to the energy policies of the eight main political parties. Under each link I have provided a short evaluation of the policy, along with an overall 'energy star' rating (1 star = lowest; 5 stars = highest):

ACT New Zealand

ACT's energy policy made me feel depressed about the intelligence of our politicians. Their electricity generation ideas seem to be straight from the 1950s. ACT only considers fuels (i.e. they completely ignore hydro, geothermal, and wind) and they specifically mention only coal and nuclear. Coal will certainly play a role in our electricity mix for the foreseeable future - but nuclear? As the Chair of the Electricity Commission has pointed out, nuclear energy is completely unsuitable for integration into New Zealand's electricity generation system [3]. Moreover, it would cost at least twice as much as electricity generated from our abundant renewable resources like wind. I guess this must be political incorrectness gone mad. ACT would have us pay twice as much for electricity - simply in order to avoid being green.

The other half of ACT's policy is pure late-eighties. Summarized in thirteen words: 'the answer is the free market - it doesn't matter what the question is'. It's the kind of energy policy that should be written on an extra-big Tui billboard: "Privately-owned electricity companies (some of them with foreign ownership) will altruistically forgo their short-term profits in favour of long-term planning (on the order of decades) so as to act in the best interests of the New Zealand public." Yeah, right.

Virtually the only sensible thing that ACT says about energy is actually in their environment policy. They are strongly in favour of "polluter pays". So that must mean that they're in favour of the carbon tax, right? Ah, no, their energy policy says that they're going to remove the carbon tax. Perhaps ACT's energy 'expert' and their environment spokesperson should get together and work out which one of them is living in a fantasy world [4].

Energy Star Rating = Zero

Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand

Ironically, alphabetical order has placed ACT right next to their mortal enemy - the Green Party. Practically all I know about the Greens is that they are anti-GE and seriously bad dancers. I entirely expected that their energy policy would consist of building wigwams, or perhaps making us wear braces instead of belts. Imagine my astonishment when I discovered that their energy policy actually makes sense. In fact, it's so sensible from an energy engineering perspective that I have hardly anything to say about it.

I would only seriously debate them on two points. Firstly, the Green Party supports the use of biomass for transport fuels. Apart from waste biomass, this is difficult to justify at the moment, and may only become economic when plants/organisms are bred that produce much higher energy densities at much lower extraction costs. In practical terms this probably means genetic engineering - to which, of course, the Greens are implacably opposed. Secondly, the Green Party make mention of "wind and solar freighters in the shipping industry". While this is technically feasible, it is not readily available technology, and frankly it sounds bloody daft. This is the energy policy equivalent of letting a camera crew film you dancing, guys.

But these are only minor points. The Green's energy policy is by far the most detailed, comprehensive, and well-considered of any political party. Congratulations to whoever wrote it.

Energy Star Rating = * * * * 1/2

The Labour Party of New Zealand

I feel lukewarm about the Labour Party's energy achievements to date. They have certainly done much better than their National Party predecessors, who left the energy sector in a shambles. But, on the other hand, they have been astoundingly slow to address the many obvious and urgent problems. Labour has done well at encouraging new renewable electricity generation, and has made progress in improving public transport. But they have done badly at getting New Zealanders into more efficient homes and motor vehicles. And, of course, the jury is still out on their Electricity Commission.

However, much as I'd like to chide them for their glacial slowness, I have to admit that Labour manages to hit nearly all the key points for a common sense energy policy bang on the head. Although ñ as in the case of their 'National Energy Strategy' and 'Plan for Peak Oil' ñ you are very tempted to ask why they haven't addressed these issues years ago. It is interesting to note that Labour prefers to coerce rather than decree when it comes to energy policy. Their proposed energy efficiency labelling scheme for cars and houses is designed to make New Zealanders realize the error of their ways, and mend their evil lifestyles accordingly. Well, I suppose it might work. I think, however, that they are misguided when it comes to employing this approach to solar water heating. It seems self-evident that this should be mandatory for all new buildings and houses (as per the Green and Maori Party policies).

It is unfortunate that Labour's otherwise workmanlike energy policy is spoiled by this faux pas: "[Labour will] work towards raising the proportion of electricity generated from new renewable sources such as wind, solar and fuel cells." Fuel cells? Surely energy minister Trevor Mallard doesn't think that fuel cells produce energy from thin air? Surely he realizes that fuel cells are only as renewable as the fuel you put into them? And surely he knows that many fuel cells run on hydrogen made ultimately from coal, and some - via a reformer - even on petrol. I hope this is a typing error, Mr Mallard.

Labour's energy policy is not as visionary as the Greens, but it is still (mostly) sensible with much to recommend it.

Energy Star Rating = * * * 1/2

The Maori Party

The Maori Party's website is, at least, refreshingly different; their policy is presented in a manner that relates to the structure of a Wharenui. Unfortunately, this makes it rather difficult for my linear engineer's brain to extract information. As far as I can tell, their official energy policy consists of only 23 words: "To ensure the... conservation of energy [5] To support alternative energy research funding to target energy and resource waste to support the Kyoto Protocol". Nothing wrong with this, of course, just a little short on detail.

Their energy spokesperson has, however, responded to this survey on the New Zealand Futures Trust website. This suggests that the Maori Party, have - broadly speaking - some quite sensible energy policy ideas. These include: an energy labelling system for cars, distributed electricity generation, increased use of biofuels, and implementation of a national energy strategy.

Their good sense is, however, somewhat spoiled by this statement: "The [Maori] Party advocates for compulsory solar water heating... This would take pressure off the national grid, and would also give back-up supply by feeding surplus power from home units back into it [my italics]." Now, of course, solar water heaters convert sunlight directly into thermal energy without an intervening electrical stage, so it is quite impossible for them to feed electricity into the grid. Note to Maori Party energy spokesperson: try this experiment. Leave your garden hose in the sun all day until the water inside gets really hot. Then try connecting it to the power lines outside your house - and see where it gets you.

Energy Star Rating = * * *

The National Party of New Zealand

I'm sorry to say that the National Party's energy policy is kind of lame. In their own words: "The discovery [my italics] and harnessing of indigenous oil and gas reserves is an important part of National's energy plan." That's a little like saying: "winning Lotto is an important part of my career plan". It'd be nice if I won Lotto - and sure, it'd be nice if we discovered a squillion cubic metres of oil off the coast of New Zealand - but let's not depend on it, guys.

Other than this, the National Party promises to remove carbon tax and amend the Resource Management Act. Since their climate change policy acknowledges that: "the balance of scientific opinion supports the thesis that human activity is contributing to global warming", then the question arises as to how they are going to encourage the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions arising from energy consumption. A clue might be that they "support the goals of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority". Except for the fact that one of the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority's strategies is "ensuring that prices reflect the full costs of supply including environmental costs"[6]. In other words... a carbon tax. Sigh.

National makes a couple of good point about the structure of the Electricity Commission, and the need to develop a generation and transmission plan - in fact, the Greens have similar policies on these topics. But apart from this there's hardly any other content in National's policy. The whole thing reads like a statement of disinterest in energy. Nowhere is wind energy mentioned, nowhere is solar energy mentioned, and efficiency increases are only mentioned in the context of saying that they're not feasible (I agree that efficiency increases are not feasible as a total solution to New Zealand's energy requirements, but they are a vital part of the solution)[7].

I really expected something better from a party that may well form the next government. Perhaps the only explanation is that this energy policy was written when National thought it couldn't possibility win the election. I suspect Don Brash's conversation with energy spokesperson Phil Heatley might have gone a little like this:

Heatley: Any ideas for the energy policy, boss?

Brash: Well, it doesn't look like we'll be winning the next election, so don't spend too much time on it. Just write down the first thing that comes into your head.

Heatley: You know I love you - don't you, Don?

Brash: I love you too, Phil. If it weren't for my wife [8] we could spend much more quality time together.

Okay, perhaps not the last two lines. But it seems that little else could explain such a lacklustre effort.

Energy Star Rating = *

New Zealand First

The trouble with New Zealand First's energy policy is not so much what it says, but rather, what it doesn't say. Certainly there is nothing objectionable or stupid in it. But, on the other hand, there is insufficient detail to make a serious evaluation. Much of their policy is prefaced by phrases like: "explore the feasibility", "seek to", and "consider". And the rest is vague at best. For example, they are going to provide incentives to encourage investment in electricity generation. Well, that may or may not be a good thing. What form do the incentives take? What sort of generation capacity are you going to incentivize? The only categorical statement they really make is that they won't privatize Meridian, Genesis, Mighty River Power, Transpower, or Solid Energy. Fair enough.

New Zealand First may have quite a good energy policy, but there is too little detail for me to make a judgement. The rating I have given them is solely based on a lack of outright stupidity.

Energy Star Rating = * *

New Zealand Progressive Party

I thought these guys were now calling themselves 'Jim Anderton's Progressive Party', but - according to their web site - apparently not yet. They are a small party with a big energy policy, I was actually quite impressed. They have clearly done a great deal of research, and demonstrate a good grasp of the issues when it comes to energy. I particularly liked their attitude to future coal-fired power stations; they have correctly identified some of the problems which tend to make these an option of last resort (but still an option, nonetheless).

Not visionary, but pragmatic - and with plenty of detail. A good solid piece of policy.

Energy Star Rating = * * * *

United Future New Zealand

I must admit that I opened United Future's policy without much hope. Their scientific credentials are impeccably bad. United Future MP Larry Baldock has even quoted the famously bogus "Oregon petition" [9] in parliament, which must put him on the short list of New Zealand's stupidest politicians (although I note that ACT's Ken Shirley and Deborah Coddington, and National's Brian Connell have also cited this petition following Baldock's speech [10]).

The first part of United Future's energy policy deals with electricity, oil, and gas. They favour electricity generation capacity which can be "consistently delivered at the lowest cost". As the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority has pointed out, wind-generated electricity is lower in cost than coal-generated electricity in New Zealand. So that must mean that United Future are in favour of wind energy, right? Of course not. Larry Baldock [12] has called wind turbines "yet to be proven", which must be a big surprise to Meridian
Energy
, and the dozens of other hard-nosed electricity companies who are installing them worldwide.

United Future is also opposed to a carbon tax on the grounds that global warming is "based on debatable science". I suspect that United Future's thoughts on global warming are based on debatable journalism. Namely, an article in the Australian Sunday Mail which quoted television presenter and botanist David Bellamy. Larry Baldock was so impressed with this article that he tried to have it tabled in parliament. Curiously, he didn't try to table any of the many criticisms of David Bellamy's statements from climatologists and atmospheric physicists. Nor the later admission from Bellamy himself that he was wrong. On a more positive note, however, United Future's policy on energy efficiency is actually pretty good. Hopefully this has come about because someone in United Future has an ounce of common sense, rather than on the principle that a broken clock is right twice a day.

United Future's energy policy finishes off by promising to "fully investigate the future viability of hydrogen as a major energy source". Actually, I can investigate this for them right now. It isn't. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy source. On earth you have to manufacture hydrogen (usually from water). And it takes more energy to make than you get back as fuel. Pure hydrogen only exists in space [13]. This has given me visions of the energy spokespeople from Labour, the Maori party, and United Future getting together. One could be conjuring renewable energy from fuel cells, another could be piping hot water into power lines, while the third could be channelling hydrogen from the centre of the sun - the nearest place where it exists naturally in quantity. You know, I rather think that the energy spokesperson for a political party should be at least slightly scientifically literate.

Energy Star Rating = * *

So this brings me to the end of my analysis. And it leaves me with one final observation: why are the parties of the right so adverse to common sense energy policy? In a recent television debate Peter 'Common Sense' Dunne asserted that the problem with the Green Party was that they'd have us all taking cold showers. Actually, I remember the electricity shortages of the early 90s, a winter of cold (or at least lukewarm) showers for most of us. A winter where, of course, the only people who had hot showers were those with solar water heaters. So ironically - from an energy engineer's perspective - the Greens' policy is just the opposite of cold showers. And the policies of United Future (and some of the other parties of the right) are just the opposite of common sense.

NOTES

[1] Apart from energy, the other vital ingredient to civilization is the unwritten Kantian social contract which prevents us from murdering our neighbours and nicking their plasma TV sets. Although - as those of us who grew up in West Auckland will know - humanity can sometimes struggle along even without a detailed knowledge of Kant's philosophy.

[2] It is a little difficult to extract information for this reference: (i) Go to this URL (ii) Select "What fuel was used to generate the energy?" from the 'Questions' drop-down menu (iii) Select "PJ" from the 'Unit' drop-down menu (iv) Select "Delivered energy" from the 'Energy types' drop-down menu (v) Select all the energy sector boxes ('Agriculture', 'Household', 'Commerce', 'Industry', and 'Transport and Storage'). Click the 'submit' button.

[3] Nuclear energy may, however, be a sensible option of last resort for other countries which have large electricity demands and comparatively few renewable resources, e.g. some parts of the USA.

[4] Both.

[5] Actually, this is the First Law of Thermodynamics - it will happen anyway.

[6] National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy, p. 28.

[7] Incidentally the National Party's energy policy implies that the Greens and Labour are opposed to increasing generation capacity. This is not true. In both cases their policies are actually strongly supportive of increased capacity.

[8] From Singapore.

The Oregon petition was organized by Arthur Robinson, a lone nutter operating out of a tin shed in the backwoods. The petition claimed to have gathered the signatures of 18,000 (or variously: 2,000, 15,000, 17,000, or 19,000) scientists who said there was no evidence for global warming. The list included such scientific luminaries as Dr. Frank Burns, Dr. B. J. Honeycutt, and Dr. Benjamin Pierce (characters from the television series M*A*S*H).

Ken Shirley and Brian Connell here, and Deborah Coddington here.

National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy, p. 2.

[12] Larry enjoys "a good night out at the rugby, or at home relaxing with his wife and children with a video". He clearly does not enjoy keeping up with scientific or engineering literature.

[13] And in very trace quantities on earth.

PLEASE NOTE: THE VIEWS EXPRESSED HEREIN ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR, AND DO NOT PURPORT TO REPRESENT THE OPINIONS OF HIS EMPLOYER IN ANY WAY.

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