While Australia drags the chain on integrating cogeneration plants with the power grid other countries are getting on with it

by Lynne Blundell

While Australia continues to flounder on the issue of fast-tracking independent power generators (see our story on cogeneration), elsewhere in the world cogeneration systems, also referred to as decentralised power, are bypassing the grid altogether.

The small city of Woking in the UK has been at the forefront of decentralised energy, which has allowed Woking Council to slash energy use by nearly half, and council CO2 emissions by 77 per cent, since 1990.

There, the generators are connected to users via private electricity wires owned and operated by Thameswey Energy Ltd – a company set up and partly owned by Thameswey Ltd, a municipal energy and environmental services company itself wholly owned by Woking Borough Council.

Woking raised capital for energy infrastructure development initially through energy efficiency savings. These savings then allowed the council to invest millions in energy supply innovation and also attracted investment from Danish pension companies – energy systems like Woking’s are a common component of investment portfolios for pension and insurance companies across Europe.

Increasing interest from Australian superannuation funds in sustainable investments could point to future funding in these types of schemes here.

Alan Jones, who set up the Woking power network and is now heading up London’s Climate Change Agency, spoke in Sydney last year about the benefits of cogeneration for cutting emissions. Jones is currently working to take London off the coal-fired power grid and feed London’s insatiable need for energy through alternative localised power generation.

Jones pointed out the enormous inefficiency of current power networks, saying that for every unit of power generated by the network, two units of heat were generated.

“This heat is then thrown away through great big thumping cooling towers, “ says Jones. “And in the UK we use fifty percent of our water resources to throw that heat away. It’s probably more here in Australia because of the warmer climate,” said Jones.

Even more power is then lost in getting it to customers. In the UK the energy regulator estimates that US$1billion worth of power is lost each year just in heating up the wires and transformers in the distribution network.

Now in the UK the politicians are listening and taking action. In London, says Jones, it is now mandatory for all new developments to use decentralised energy plus 20 per cent usage to come from renewable energy sources. By law, each new Mayor of London must commit to climate change policies and action.

In the Woking project, the enormous barriers to small generators operating as part of the existing energy grid was overcome by bypassing it altogether. By installing private wire networks and taking the power directly to homes and businesses Woking avoided the prohibitive costs charged by the energy regulators.

“Essentially that meant we could supply customers with power at a lower price than they could get it from the grid and it increased the economics by about 400 per cent and funded the technology in the first place,” said Jones.

Because of the success of the Woking project, the UK government has now made it possible to set up private wire networks that bypass the grid. These will be used in London’s energy plan.

Alan Jones: "The heat generated by electricity generation is then thrown away through great big thumping cooling towers. And in the UK we use fifty percent of our water resources to throw that heat away. It’s probably more here in Australia because of the warmer climate."

Elsewhere in the world, The Netherlands increased its use of cogeneration plants so successfully that in the period from 1985 to 1995 it grew to be the biggest single source of generation in Holland and according to the government will continue to grow – playing the most important role in the Dutch energy system.

According to a review by the Dutch government cogeneration also played the most significant role of any policy instrument in reducing CO2 emissions in the Netherlands in the period 1990-2000 and was also the most cost efficient policy instrument for reducing emissions.

In Denmark a strategy of decentralised energy focused on district heating and improving efficiency in the housing stock has led to a fall in final energy consumption for space heating of over 15 per cent, according to the Danish Board of District Heating. At the same time the actual floor space heated has increased by over 20 per cent.

In Australia, despite the rhetoric on energy efficiency from the Rudd Government there is a long way to go in convincing politicians and bureaucrats that the energy supply system must be overhauled.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au