By changing the way we live and the energy we use in our homes, we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and have a positive impact on global warming.
According to research conducted by GreenPower, 82 per cent of Australians agree that “climate change will affect me or my business in my lifetime” — and more than half of those surveyed believe it already has affected them.
Though scientists agree we are on the precipice, it’s not too late. Over the last few decades, small groups of like-minded people have started changing the way they live and many have been campaigning for others to do the same. As with other attitude-altering movements, these ‘radicals’ spearheaded what is now an urgent call to action for the entire planet’s population.
The predicted impacts of climate change will affect every aspect of the way we live. Around the world we are now starting to experience and witness increasingly extreme weather conditions including firestorms, droughts, floods, hailstorms, cyclones and tornadoes. Melting polar icecaps will increase sea levels, which could displace millions of people from their homes and areas prone to disease-carrying insects could also increase. We are also reassessing the way we practise agriculture to grow our food and increasingly restricting the use of our precious water.
Most electricity in Australia is generated by burning coal, which emits greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, trapping further heat and increasing global temperatures. Burning coal is the most greenhouse-intensive form of energy production. In New South Wales and Victoria, for example, more than 90 per cent of electricity comes from burning coal. Tasmania, on the other hand, has no coal-fired power stations; their energy is produced by renewable hydro-electric power and also by wind generators. Currently there is one power station in Tasmania fired by natural gas, which burns cleaner than coal, with a second natural gas plant to be built.
Since 2001, the Australian federal government has required energy companies to purchase a small percentage (between two to three percent) of electricity from renewable energy sources. The current percentage is about eight per cent and the mandatory target in 2010 will see this target reach about 10 per cent. At the time of writing, “an economy fuelled by renewable energy” is a hot promise from both sides, with the Labor Party pre-elections declaring a 20 per cent target of renewable energy by 2020.
GreenPower is the generic name given to electricity generated from clean, renewable energy sources. GreenPower sources can include solar (photovoltaic and thermal), wind power, hydro-power, biomass, and wave energy and landfill gas. GreenPower is also the name used for the Australian national scheme that sets stringent environmental and reporting standards for renewable energy products offered by electricity suppliers. Consumers can request electricity suppliers to source the energy they use from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydro power.
Before the introduction of GreenPower, a very small percentage of renewable energy was fed into the national power grid. As a result of the growing demand for renewable energy, there are now more than 182 new GreenPower-accredited generators that have been installed in Australia since 1997 with over half a million residential and business customers across Australia having chosen GreenPower products.
These projects include the southern hemisphere’s largest solar farm at Singleton, NSW, and numerous wind farms including Crookwell and Blayney in NSW, Codrington in Victoria, Esperance in Western Australia, Lake Bonney in South Australia and Townsville in Queensland. In a trend that looks to continue, in 2007 the demand for renewable energy grew to a level where 1000 new clients a day signed up for GreenPower.
Choosing your energy source in the home from a GreenPower supplier is simple and a relatively cheap way of starting to address the life-threatening effects of climate change. This means buying power from clean renewable sources such as the sun, wind, water and waste (biomass), rather than coal. The average Australian household emits around seven tonnes of greenhouse gases from its domestic electricity consumption alone every year (that’s not including greenhouse gas emissions from other sources such as our cars). Choosing a 100 per cent accredited GreenPower product would reduce those emissions to nil. That would have the same effect as taking the average car off the road for over a year. But even if you opt only for a small proportion of your electricity to be sourced from renewable energy sources, that is better than none.
According to a recent comprehensive survey conducted by Choice, their findings can be summarised by the following:
- There are massive price differences for accredited GreenPower products between both retailers and products.
- Switching to an accredited GreenPower supply would significantly reduce the Greenhouse Gas emissions you’re responsible for.
- GreenPower is now available to all Australian households.
- GreenPower generally costs more than standard electricity, but what you’ll pay depends on the percentage of accredited GreenPower and the retailer you choose. The Choice report can tell you how to choose a good deal to suit your needs.
- The average household could pay over $400 a year extra for 100 per cent GreenPower — roughly an additional 20 per cent to 40 per cent above government-regulated standard electricity rates — the Choice report can help you to choose a cheaper retailer that would cut that bill by half or even more (depending on your electricity consumption, where you live and which retailers are available).
- Buying less than 100 per cent GreenPower does less to help the environment but is obviously cheaper — under $100 a year for most people. Several companies offer 10 per cent accredited GreenPower at no extra cost above regulated electricity rates.
Choice research has found there are big price differences between accredited GreenPower products. GreenPower generally costs more than standard electricity, but what you’ll pay depends on the percentage of accredited GreenPower and the retailer you choose.
Accredited GreenPower electricity retailers in the Choice survey include:
- AGL Energy
- Australian Power & Gas
- Climate Friendly
- Country Energy
- Ergon Energy
- Integral Energy
- Neighbourhood Energy (an agent for GreenSwitch)
- Origin Energy
- Victoria Electricity
For a the full report and a comparison of accredited GreenPower products and prices from the majority of electricity suppliers in Australia, visit www.choice.com.au
Renewable energy sources — the green alternatives:
What are now thought of as renewable energy sources have actually been in use since pre-history. Renewable energy utilises natural resources such as the sun, wind, water and geothermal heat. These are energies that are naturally replenished. About 13 per cent of primary energy comes from renewable energy sources, with most of this coming from traditional biomass like wood burning. Hydropower is the next largest source, providing two to three per cent, and modern technologies like geothermal, wind, solar, and marine energy together produce less than one per cent of total world energy demand.
Water wheels have been used to convert the kinetic energy of moving water into mechanical energy for centuries. This potential energy changes to kinetic energy when the stored water is channelled to turn the blades of a turbine to generate electricity. Electric power generated in this way is called hydropower. The water is usually taken from a fast-flowing river. Sometimes dams are constructed to store water, or control the flow rate to the mill. The two basic kinds of water wheel are the undershot wheel and the overshot wheel. The overshot wheel produces much more power.
The first hydroelectric power stations were small and were placed at waterfalls near towns because transmitting electrical energy over long distances was not economical. The best places to generate hydroelectricity are in mountainous regions where few people live. Today, electric power can be transmitted inexpensively over long distances to make hydro-power inexpensive. Transmission over long distances is carried out by means of transmission lines that can transmit large quantities of electricity cheaply and efficiently.
Unlike coal-fired power stations, hydroelectric power stations can begin generating electricity very quickly. They can respond to sudden increases in demand for electricity. The time of high demand for electricity is called ‘peak demand’, for example when people wake up and cook breakfast; when businesses and factories start work; and when people cook their evening meal. Hydro stations need only small staffs to operate and maintain them, and no fuel is needed.
A hydroelectric power plant uses a renewable source of energy that does not pollute the environment. The amount of electrical energy that can be generated depends on the height that the water falls and the quantity of water flowing. Hydroelectric power stations are therefore placed where they can use the greatest fall of a large quantity of water, or near the base of a dam. Water can be stored in the dam above the power station for use when it is required. Some dams create large reservoirs to store water, but others divert water down to the power station through pipelines.
Wind is Australia’s most readily harnessed renewable energy. The CSIRO estimates enough wind could be exploited to account for 85 per cent of the country’s energy needs, but wind currently accounts for just one per cent of its total capacity. Some European countries are generating a third of their electricity requirements using wind. Australia is considered to have even better wind conditions. Australia has 800MW of installed capacity from wind farms, up from just 2MW 10 years ago. The industry suggests another 10,000MW could be installed, providing up to 10 per cent of the country’s needs, but many projects have been put on hold because of the expiry of federal government incentives.
Wind provides up to half of the energy needs of remote, off-grid towns such as Denham and Hopetoun in Western Australia and accounts for about nine per cent of grid power in South Australia. Costs and efficiencies are improving as the size of the turbine increases, as economies of scale are developed and as technological improvements are made.
Despite being the richest country in terms of sunlight, Australia has only 25,000 homes with solar panels. Solar PV is already being used in remote off-grid locations such as farms and Aboriginal communities, and is cheaper than using diesel. Environmental groups would like to see more solar panels on homes.
Australia’s research and implementation of solar power as a real contributor to power on a large scale is to date, not encouraging. Two stories, both run by ABC’s 7.30 Report, describe the apathy displayed by the government and big business alike to the latest solar research and development in Australia. In the first of these ABC’s reports, broadcast on the 31st January, 2007, reporter Matt Peacock outlines how one of Australia’s leading solar power innovators, Professor David Mills, had departed the country citing the nation’s preoccupation with its rich coal and uranium reserves, and lack of recognition that the sun is potentially Australia’s richest energy resource.
In the second ABC report, broadcast the first of October, 2007, it was reported that Professor Mills had been backed by two of America’s biggest power companies and with their backing, they have now unveiled plans for a multi-billion-dollar expansion of solar power supply. They are confidently predicting that their solar power will soon be providing base-load electricity — that is, day and night — at prices competitive with coal.
Rather than generating electricity directly from sunlight, Mills has developed a solar thermal technology that uses the sun’s heat to generate steam, which can then be stored for up to 20 hours and can run turbines. “If you can produce steam, then you can run a turbine,” Mills says. “Storing electricity in a battery is up to 1000 times more expensive.” Mills has no doubt that his technology could carry the entire power grid needs of California. And it shouldn’t be too expensive for consumers. “We’re aiming to get down to the price of fossil fuel. We’re already competitive with gas.” Sadly, Mills’s departure from Australia is an extreme example of Australia’s brain drain and a hugely missed opportunity.
Australia has been using biomass electricity for decades — mostly from the small plants that are fed by the fibrous residue of crushed sugar cane, fruit and vegetable market waste, and more recently by green waste collected by councils. It contributes just one per cent of the country’s electricity generation, but studies show it could provide between 10 per cent and 17 per cent by 2020.
The Business Council for Sustainable Energy says organic matter makes up 50 per cent of municipal waste and could generate about 2500GWh based on current landfill tonnages, compared with just 150MWh now. This would require improved waste management and incentives to cut the cost from about $80 to $50 per MWh.
The Business Council for Sustainable Energy estimates that using leftover waste materials from forestry, grain, horticulture and animal husbandry could support 50,000GWh. The company Global Renewables recently signed a $5bn contract with Lancashire County in England to process green waste. It has a similar plant at Eastern Creek in Sydney.
The CSIRO argues that geothermal could meet Australia’s entire energy needs for 800 years. Geothermal electricity, produced from the hot rocks that lie several kilometres under Central Australia, could be the answer to the country’s energy needs and climate challenges. The rocks, at temperatures of up to 300º Celsius, lie some 3km to 4km below the surface. It can use available technology, it can provide base-load power on a massive scale, it’s totally renewable and generates zero emissions. Water is pumped down through the rock, where it becomes superheated and generates steam, or storable energy. Geodynamics hopes to be able to put its first geothermal power into the grid by 2010 and “substantial amounts” by 2015. The biggest challenge may be the cost of transmission between the source and the power demand.
The cutting edge — solid oxide fuel cell (sofc) technology:
A fuel cell is a device that very efficiently generates Direct Current electricity from hydrogen-rich fuels through an electrochemical reaction. A fuel cell is similar to a battery in that it provides continuous Direct Current electricity from a chemical reaction. Again, similar to a battery, a fuel cell has an anode, a cathode and an electrolyte. However, unlike batteries, fuel cells cannot store electrical energy, do not ‘run flat’ or require electricity to charge them again. Fuel cells can continuously generate electricity as long as they have a supply of fuel and air. The correct terminology for describing an operational fuel cell is actually a fuel cell system, as a fuel cell requires a range of other systems to function properly.
Unlike other electricity generators such as internal combustion engines or coal/gas-powered turbines, fuel cells do not burn fuel. This means there are no noisy high-pressure rotors or loud exhaust noises and no vibration. Fuel cells produce electricity though a silent electrochemical reaction. Another feature of fuel cells is that they convert the chemical energy in the fuel directly into electricity, heat and water.
Ceramic Fuel Cells (CFCL) is a leader in developing solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) technology, which can provide reliable, highly efficient and low-emission electricity from widely available natural gas and renewable fuels. The company’s initial product will be a 1kW m-CHP unit connected to the existing natural gas network, which provides power and heat for the home and exports excess power to the electricity network. Each 1kW m-CHP unit can save up to two tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year compared to coal-fired power.
The introduction of nuclear energy in Australia is still being debated. Regardless of the political and social reactions, in order to become GreenPower accredited, energy generators must demonstrate that they do not produce any hazardous waste, and that they generate energy without producing greenhouse gas emissions. Nuclear energy generators produce radioactive waste that remains toxic for millions of years, so would therefore not meet GreenPower’s stringent environmental criteria. A Newspoll survey in May, 2006, found 38 per cent were in favour of nuclear power stations being built in Australia while 51 per cent opposed it (11 per cent undecided).
Red-hot green property:
In a trend that looks likely to increase exponentially, ‘green’ homes are desirable and recompensed accordingly in the marketplace. Recent research undertaken by the Australian property website www.realestate.com.au has revealed that vendors are increasingly seeing green credentials as selling points, and home buyers are responding with one in 10 people prepared to pay up to 20 per cent more for a ‘green’ home.
An overwhelming 73 per cent of respondents believed that having one or more environmentally friendly features around the home would make it more saleable. Nearly half the respondents who answered the survey believed that solar heating and solar hot water systems are one of the most likely products to enhance the value of a property. It’s not just that’s it’s cool to be seen to be green, there’s the financial bonus that a house with solar heating and hot water will incur less energy costs.
Suggested green reading:
Global Warming: The Complete Briefing
By JT Houghton
A comprehensive account of global warming and the inevitable implications backed by research by the respected Sir John Houghton.
Solar Power: The Evolution of Sustainable Architecture
By Sophia Behling
This book examines the way in which natural systems have arisen through the sun’s influence, how humans have adapted to them and what today’s urban planners can do to respond to the challenge of a sustainable world.
Resetting the Compass: Australia’s Journey towards Sustainability.
By David Yenchen
This title sets out Australia’s environmental problems in their global context and explains what is now needed to fix them.
The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature
By David T. Suzuki
From one of the most popular voices of recent years, The Sacred Balance covers a large area of pressing environmental issues including climate change as well exploring more human aspects in relation to our world today.
By Tracey Hordern