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Putting the sun’s power within reach

Putting the sun’s power within reach

Gareth Williams catches up with Rose Davis from Forest and Bird to talk about the importance of solarZero in the fight against climate change.   Climate change is a crisis Gareth Williams wants to shine some light on – sunlight to be exact. He took up a role as technology chief at solarcity three years ago, because he believes solar power has a key part to play in reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. About 20 percent of New Zealand’s main electricity supply comes from carbon dioxide-producing thermal sources, gas and coal, while geothermal power plants also release carbon dioxide, says Gareth. More than four billion kilograms of carbon dioxide are emitted from electricity in New Zealand each year. “Our current means of providing electricity for New Zealand is not sustainable in the long term,” he says. “I’m concerned about climate change because I’ve got children and grandchildren, so I feel a responsibility to make decisions today that create a sustainable planet for future generations. “We have to find smarter ways to create electricity – and a rooftop solar power system is an obvious answer.” solarcity makes it easy for people to access solar power. The Auckland-based company has set up a solarZero service that allows people to install solar panels and batteries with no installation cost. solarcity maintains the solar power systems for a monthly fee of between $85 and $145, depending on the size of the household. Most households get two thirds of their electricity from the solar system and batteries. People can ensure their electricity use produces zero carbon dioxide emissions by getting power top ups from the grid through Ecotricity, a carboNZero certified electricity supplier. On average, households using the service reduce their carbon dioxide emission by 15 tonnes, while saving about $18,000 on electricity over 20 years, says Gareth, whose own home has been on solar power for 13 years. He hopes having more homes using solar people will help save New Zealand’s natural environment from the destruction caused by building new power plants. “When more people use solar power, it means we can avoid having to build more power lines, having more power pylons scarring the countryside… it means no more valleys being flooded to build hydroelectric plants,” says Gareth. The company offers the solarZero service to homes and businesses in major centres across most of the country. Solar panels can be installed on any roof that gets a reasonable amount of sunshine. solarcity, which launched in 1999, is carbon neutral and has been carboNZero certified since 2010. The Auckland office is solarZero powered and the company chooses environmentally friendly suppliers, tries to reduce the number of flights staff take by using online communication platforms, uses vegetable inks for printing, and provides trees for planting days. It has donated $12,000 a year to Forest & Bird for the past three years and encourages its customers to donate to the society too, says solarcity marketing manager Liesel Rowe. “We want to look after New Zealand for future generations and the work Forest & Bird is doing is really in line with that,” she says.
Climate Change: What New Zealanders have to change and when

Climate Change: What New Zealanders have to change and when

This article first appeared on Newshub Nation, 1 June 2019. Watch the video here. Adapting to climate change is going to affect the way every New Zealander lives their lives, but it's often difficult to imagine exactly what these changes will look like. However, the UN has warned that we only have 12 years to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels before it starts having devastating effects. Newshub Nation explores what will be different about how we get our energy, how we get around, how we shop, how we travel and what we eat. Energy: The Government has set a target of being 100 percent renewable by 2035. Currently, 82 percent of our energy comes from renewable sources - mainly hydropower. The problem with renewables is their reliability. If the sun isn't shining, or if our lakes are low, or if the wind isn't blowing, our backup is burning fossil fuels like coal in power plants. However, these power plants could be converted to burn other less-carbon heavy products like waste-wood from forestry. "We've obviously got lots of wood lying around and the problems we had in Tolaga Bay - you can imagine that would have been much better used as a source of energy if we'd had the supply chain set up," says James Shaw, Minister for Climate Change. Another potential solution to the storage problem is using renewable sources to produce hydrogen gas, which acts a bit like a battery. "Hydrogen plants can make a lot of energy at short notice, and that's a really key capability that we need to push the last bit of coal and gas off the grid and get to 100 percent renewable," says Katherine Errington, Helen Clark Foundation executive director. Ms Errington says New Zealand could produce and sell green hydrogen to other countries like Japan if we maxed out our renewable energy generation. "That's our edge, that's what we can offer. New Zealand has heaps of renewable generation that's already been consented and just isn't being built because no one wants to develop it." However, organisations like Solarcity want New Zealand to rely less on the grid all together. "Batteries solve the [renewable] problem, and the accelerated rate that companies like ourselves and Tesla, and Panasonic are bringing forward battery solutions mean that you can now use that renewable energy at night when you need it the most," says Andrew Booth, Solarcity NZ CEO. Alongside generating more renewable energy, New Zealanders are also going to need to become more efficient. "Insulation material placed in the ceiling and under the floor is a basic component that every house should have and also using cold water when doing the washing, turning off the lights when needed, using LED bulbs - all sorts of things that are well understood and recorded," says Professor Ralph Sims, Massey University climate scientist. Many homes in the North Island will also need to transition away from using natural gas for cooking and heating water. Natural gas has about half the emissions of coal and is often talked about as a transition fuel. However, it's estimated we only have about 10 years worth of gas reserves left. "We need to phase this out and what that means is actually, as a transition fuel, now is the transition and what we need to be doing is investing heavily in the alternatives," says Shaw. Transport: Transport accounts for 19 percent of the country's emissions, mainly because New Zealanders love their cars. We imported 319,662 light vehicles in 2018. Of that total, just 5,542 or 1.7 percent were electric or hybrid cars according to the Ministry of Transport. This needs to change and fast. By 2030, the Productivity Commission says 80 percent of NZ vehicle imports need to be electric and by 2050, nearly every vehicle will need to be electric. As at March 2019, electric vehicles (EVs) made up just 0.3 percent of our fleet. "We swap out our cars on average about every 15 years so if you were to go out and buy a car today, then the next car you buy 15 years from now will have to be an electric," says James Shaw. The Climate Change Minister says the Government's long-promised electric cars policy is still being developed, with concern for low-income families behind the hold-up. Drive Electric's Mark Gilbert says the quickest way to get more EVs into the market would be through adjusting the fringe benefit tax, to incentivise businesses to transition their company fleets. "Companies roll their fleets every two to three years so these vehicles will quickly end up in the second-hand market, which will make them more accessible," he says. Gilbert also suggests temporarily reducing GST on electric cars and a feebate scheme, where electric vehicle registrations are subsidised by higher fees for petrol and diesel vehicles An electric fleet will require a big change in infrastructure, with more charging ports around the country. It'll also mean greater reliance on walking, cycling and public transport. "Most journeys in New Zealand are just two to three kilometres so you don't really need a car for that," says Ralph Sims. For trucks, trains, ships and planes, green hydrogen offers a potential climate-friendly solution. "[Hydrogen] can offer a clean fuel option that's a lot more convenient than electrification," says Katherine Errington. "For example with electric trucks, the time taken to charge those means the vehicle has to be out of service for that time and most truck companies have their fleets in near constant operation, but with a hydrogen truck you can refuel the same way you do a petrol or diesel truck." Air Travel: The main changes to air travel for the average New Zealander will be the heightened cost, which UK research has estimated will kick in around 2035. Aviation is one of the trickiest areas to reduce emissions. It currently produces about 859 million tonnes of carbon each year or around two percent of global emissions. However, by 2050 it is expected to emit more than any other sector. Currently, the main way that airline companies offset their emissions is through buying carbon credits which are used to plant trees. Air New Zealand has a voluntary "FlyNeutral" option that customers can select when booking their tickets. "Forests are only a temporary measure but can offset air travel in the short term," says Ralph Sims. "However, it's something that we can't keep doing and in the next 10 to 20 years we need to find substitutes for aviation fuels and reduce the demand for air travel." The Climate Change Minister is confident this will happen."[Air New Zealand] are doing things like looking at how to use biofuels as part of their aviation fuel mix, they're investing in electric aeroplane technology and I think I've heard Christopher Luxon (Air NZ CEO) say that within ten years some of the smaller regional planes will be battery powered," says James Shaw. The biggest problem is what to do about international flights, as there is no global agreement on how to put a price on these emissions. A solution put forward by the UK Climate Commission is having industries like aviation pay to remove carbon emissions from the atmosphere. It estimates the cost of this at $20b-$40b in the year 2050, with that cost likely passed on to consumers. This means the price of flights will start to increase from 2035 as emission removals are predicted to scale up. Shopping: Online shopping can actually be better for the environment than traditional shopping, because it means people aren't driving their cars to and from the store. However, US research found online shopping is only better when consumers choose regular delivery rather than express shipping, which creates nearly 30 percent more emissions.That's because delivery companies are forced to prioritise speed over efficiency. "If we can get to the idea that we don't need that pair of running shoes immediately and we could wait for two or three weeks and therefore it's shipped across by boat from Australia [instead of by plane], and then it's put on a train and finally delivered to your home," says Ralph Sims. "It's the expectations which are driving up the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from the internet shopping." Food: This is probably the most controversial area to make changes, but with the world's food system accounting for nearly a quarter of all emissions it is one of the areas we need to adapt. By 2050, the average New Zealander will likely still be able to purchase meat and dairy, just at a higher cost, with the majority of what fills up our fridges likely to be plant based. In New Zealand, agriculture makes up half of our emissions - mainly from livestock burping methane. This gas breaks down in the atmosphere after 12 years, unlike carbon, which can hang around for hundreds of years. However while it is shorter lived, methane is 25 times stronger than carbon when it comes to warming. "There are ways to try and reduce methane which are being researched - what you feed the animal on, how you breed the animals to produce less methane," says Ralph Sims.   "But if we can increase the productivity [e.g. more milk from each cow] then that's a better alternative than having to reduce stock numbers." Sims also says that the potential of vegetable protein is something that New Zealand's agricultural sector should keep an eye on. "Vegetable protein is being used to produce artificial meat, burgers, etc, that look like meat, smell like meat, taste like meat, but they're not meat and therefore they're healthier and have lower carbon footprints," he says. Already, 10 percent of New Zealanders are estimated to be vegetarian or vegan. "As a Government we're not really in the business of telling people what they can and can't eat," says James Shaw. "I do know that agricultural practises are changing and will change over time but they always have." What still needs to be figured out:   Under the Paris Agreement, New Zealand has committed to targets to reduce emissions. The Zero Carbon Bill establishes an independent climate commission, which will give the Government advice on how to achieve them. The bill also commits New Zealand to new targets for carbon and methane over the next 30 years. However, even with these changes - it's unlikely global warming will be slowed without removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere with new technology. One way of doing this is with trees. Plants absorb carbon as they grow. The idea is that we burn them, capture the carbon and store it underground, with the electricity it generates adding an economic incentive. "There is a constraint in just how much [carbon capture and storage] we can have and how many trees we can grow, but we need all the help we can get," says Ralph Sims. For context, it's estimated forests up to three times the size of India would need to be grown, burnt and the carbon stored underground to halt global warming. "We know that it works, can we rely on it? That's really a case of having to trust that we can," says Sims. Shaw says the Government's already trying to ramp up tree planting. "We've planted over 60 million trees under the billion trees programme and the work that Shane Jones and I are doing on changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme will lead to significantly greater rates of planting than we've had in the past," he says. Shaw adds that it's important New Zealanders don't get bogged down in the negatives when it comes to the climate change transition. "Climate change represents the greatest economic opportunity in at least a generation because the transition that we're talking about represents huge amounts of investment, huge amounts of innovation and new technology and that's great for the economy," he says. Newshub Nation.
An insight into how energy is changing and the different commitments being made around the world

An insight into how energy is changing and the different commitments being made around the world

CO2 headed towards 450 ppm and beyond? I remember a few years writing an opinion piece for the Dominion-Post about atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reaching the distressing milestone of 400ppm (parts per million). In 1900 CO2 levels were around 300ppm. That is a rise by a third over a century or so. That trend of increasing CO2 levels is showing no signs of levelling off. The last few years have seen significant increases. We are now at 414ppm and will probably reach 420 by 2021. Scientists tell us we should not breach 450 and if we do we are headed for a climate catastrophe. But we seem to be headed that way. As we explore in this blog the news is not all bad. There are some exciting initiatives and trends underway that could mean we do avert climate catastrophe. People catching the train in Sweden In Sweden there is a new trend – to catch the train rather than fly. Train journeys are up by 8% in the first quarter of this year with business trips up 12%. People flying domestically were down 8% for the quarter following a decline of 3% last year. A new term has crept into the Swedish language - “Flygskam” meaning “flight shame”. According to Swedish Rail a single short haul flight can generate as much CO2 as 40,000 train journeys, one assumes via an electric train powered by renewable energy. Options for flying in NZ So what are the options for not flying around New Zealand in fossil fuel planes? Our rail infrastructure is not really there for business trips around New Zealand and then we have the issue of getting across Cook Strait in a timely manner. There are all sorts of plans to develop electric planes internationally. Currently 2 seater battery powered electric planes are commercially available and next year a 9 seater will go into production. General consensus is that shorthaul electric planes will be flying commercially in 2030. Los Angeles commits to 100% renewable energy To me Los Angeles with its massive freeways and air pollution is the antithesis of sustainability. I have always thought that only when the likes of Los Angeles embraces action on climate change and the environment will we be sure of a safe future. Well that’s happening!  Los Angeles has committed to achieving 100% renewable energy by 2050. And they have developed a plan to get the city to that target. This plan is an example of the kind of change that is beginning to sweep the world. 2 weeks in the UK without coal and aiming to operate a zero carbon electricity system by 2025 Earlier this year the UK achieved a week without coal-fired electricity generation. This was the first time since the industrial revolution and coal was first used to generate electricity. Now the UK has experienced two full weeks without coal generation. At one point during the two weeks solar made up 25% of generation. Meanwhile the UK national grid operator is aiming to be able to run the grid on a zero carbon basis by 2025, in anticipation of a zero carbon future. Coal use in the electricity sector has declined by 88% between 2012 and 2018. For the first quarter of 2019 coal use is down by two thirds compared to last year and is now in single digits as a percentage of electricity production. End of coal fired electricity globally?  Have we finally reached the point where the amount of coal fired power stations in the world is starting to decline? The International Energy Agency thinks we may have. In 2018 for the first time ever, final investment decisions for new coal plants dipped below the number of retirements. What this means is that in a few years time we will see a reduction in the number of coal plants around the world. In the US, UK and Germany coal plants are closing due to cheaper renewables and gas. But in Asia coal is still growing.  Changes in NZ – Electricity Authority view on benefits to consumers The Electricity Authority has always argued that it had no role in helping New Zealand achieve its climate change targets. That role, the CEO of the Electricity Authority consistently argued, was the role of other agencies and different policies across government. The role of the Authority was to ensure the long term benefit of consumers. What exactly does the Electricity Authority do? It sets the rules for how the electricity system operates. It sets rules the enables lines companies to do certain things, for example, whether a lines company can put in place a “solar tax” as Unison Networks (covering Hawkes Bay and Taupo) tried to do a few years ago.  Recently the Electricity Authority’s position has changed. It now seems that it thinks that doing something about climate change is to the long term benefit of consumers. That is good news. Colorado shoots for 100% renewable electricity – and has a plan It’s one thing to have an aspiration to achieve a 100% renewable electricity system and another thing to have a plan to get there. The State of Colorado has released a plan to get to a 100% renewable electricity system. It contains a raft of measures; a price on carbon, the right investment in the distribution network, enabling community solar and the sharing of solar energy on distribution networks etc.  Cities in the US are aiming for 100% renewable The city of Glenwood in the US (I am sure you have not heard of it) is the seventh city in the US to secure a 100% renewable electricity. The City Council has signed a contract to purchase 100% renewable electricity. The cost of the electricity is actually cheaper than electricity from fossil-fuel sources, confirming that renewables are cheaper in the US than fossil fuel generation. General Electric bets on thermal power plants and loses A decade or so ago General Electric developed a workstream called “Ecomagination”. This was an initiative to deliver environmentally sustainable solutions, such as renewable energy, cleaner jet engines and the like. Seems like it may not have been embedded into the DNA of GE. According to a report by an economics and financial research group, GE has lost $193b or 74% of its market capitalization largely through losses in its thermal power division. According to the report the collapse in the global market for thermal power plants caught GE and its investors by surprise.  Bloomberg launches US$500m climate fund The former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, who is also the UN’s Secretary General’s Special Envoy for Climate Action has launched a US$500m climate change campaign. The campaign is unashamedly political, aiming to change policies and presumably politicians across the US. The aims of the initiative include: Securing state and local policy changes. Grow the climate movement. Extend the “Beyond Coal” campaign to a “Beyond Carbon” campaign. Ensuring “climate champions” are elected.