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OXYGEN FILES: Warwick Johnston, McKibbin, Wilderness Society, Tim Buckley, Engineers

Feeling a bit like a frog in a heating pot? If not you’re not paying attention, which is the point really. A round up of what needs to gain some oxygen this week, from a boom in solar energy to deforestation, rising emissions and why India won’t need so much coal in future.


The Fifth Estate recently checked in with founder of SunWiz Solar Consultants, Warwick Johnston.

He told us that the commercial solar momentum in Australia is escalating. Name a sector that comes with roofs and they are installing PV, particularly hospitality, retail, small and medium commercial enterprises.

There are also moves afoot on the part of the NSW State government to see solar going onto the roofs of schools, and he said the tenders are now out.

The residential market also shows no sign of slowing, and for the first time, NSW has overtaken Queensland in terms of new installs.

There is no observable government policy driving demand, Johnston said, so it is most likely a reaction to energy prices.

In Victoria, where recent policies have incentivised solar installs, uptick in activity from systems being purchased and commissioned is yet to make an appearance in the market data – but it almost certainly will.

Footy or the planet – take your pick

If you could find it among the incredibly extensive coverage of football over the past week, the headline news in sustainability was the government releasing the latest official emissions data.

The boiling frog is an apt metaphor, with emissions continuing to climb. We are in the saucepan well and truly and the heat is turning up.

A few less sport-obsessed media outlets pointed out that the timing of the government’s release – the Friday before Grand Final weekend, might just have been a strategic move to bury the bad news.

350.org founder Bill McKibbin writing in The Guardian observed a similar phenomenon happening in the USA, and alleged the president used the fuss around Brett Kavanaugh to distract from two linked initiatives around climate change policies and refugee policies.

McKibbin says the climate-related policies “serenely contemplate” a four degree rise in average global temperatures. At the same time, its policies around refugees from Central America are ignoring the reality that it is the carbon dioxide exported by the USA over the borders that is contributing in a significant way to motivations for people to flee nations like Guatemala and Honduras.

“Telling people to stay home is not a moral option,” he notes.

Australia is now a deforestation disgrace

Land clearing continues to be a massive scandal. The Wilderness Society notes that the data for the first time specifically reports on clearing in the Great Barrier Reef catchment.

“The report projects 152,000 hectares of deforestation in one year 2016-2017 alone. In total according to the Quarterly Update, for the last five years there has been 770,000 ha of deforestation in reef catchments, an area more than three times the size of the ACT,” TWS said in a media statement today.

“This is a disaster, placing further serious stress on the ailing natural wonder.”

Wilderness Society nature campaigner Jessica Panegyres said Australia is now a “global deforestation hotspot, right up there with the Amazon and Indonesia.”

“These latest figures confirm unacceptable levels of deforestation in Great Barrier Reef catchments, at a time when the federal government has promised the world it is doing everything it can to protect the Reef. The federal government has simply refused to act on deforestation, despite the major impacts on forests, wildlife, the Reef and the climate.”

Perhaps ironically, the ongoing inquiry into the government’s controversial $444 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation continued to make news over recent days. One of the more bizarre defences of the grant reported was a claim the grant was made “to balance the budget”.

The New Daily in its analysis of the emissions data pointed out that while emissions from the electricity sector appear to have fallen by just over four per cent, fugitive emissions largely caused by gas exploration and extraction projects soared by over 13 per cent.

There is no sign of this abating any time soon, with news in the business pages that exports of liquid natural gas to China and elsewhere are expected to keep booming. One report covering the latest projections from the government’s natural resources experts confidently predicted that LNG exports, thermal coal exports and oil exports from Australia are all projected to remain buoyant in terms of generating revenue.

Not everyone is ignoring the link between fossil fuel use, climate change, social disruption and the opportunities of progressing towards low-carbon technologies.

The International Monetary Fund in its recent Finance and Development magazine took a deep dive into the experience of climate change impacts in Southeast Asia and the steps required to address both the need for nations such as Vietnam to progress energy access while at the same time achieving it without a surge in emissions already impacting communities.

The IMF says Southeast Asia faces a dual challenge. Not only must it adapt to climate change caused by advanced economies, and more recently by China and India, “it also must alter development strategies that are increasingly contributing to global warming.

“The region’s growing reliance on coal and oil, along with deforestation, are undermining national pledges to curb emissions and embrace cleaner energy sources,” it says.

Another challenge is that solar panel manufacturers in the Asian region may lose market shares as US tariffs on solar panel imports kicks in as part of the US’s trade fracas with China, but the opportunity is possibly a ready market in the SE Asian nations, the IMF said.

“Even so, incentives such as tax breaks, duty-free imports, and preferential loans, along with easier access to financing, will be needed to increase investment in renewables and encourage adoption of more energy-efficient technologies.”

India could help point the way, as the Institute for Energy Economics and Finance director of energy finance studies, Australasia, Tim Buckley explained during a recent chat about corporate Power Purchase Agreements.

IEEFA had just completed a report on solar irrigation in India, he said.

Currently, the nation has 28 million irrigation pumps operating using diesel-generated electricity. The government decided it was a good idea to create a new industry by building three million solar-powered pumps a year to supply 30 million families with the technology over the next decade and therefore reduce the diesel use.

These families are also located at the end of the grid, Buckley said. So the bonus is the households get solar energy as well. That’s an effective 30 million power plants at the edge of the grid.

Excess power can be sold into the grid to supply other customers, generating a second income stream for the farming families.

This initiative will reduce water use, cut pollution, reduce imports of diesel, provide a second income for some of the nation’s poorest families and support the functioning of the grid, he explained.

Everybody wins – go India!

Engineers Australia Awards include a solar powered train and virtual power plant

More good examples of people taking action to turn down the heat – or even escape the saucepan altogether – could be found in Engineers Australia’s recent Australian Engineering Excellence Awards.

Proving there is a better life to be had after coal, the Byron Bay Railroad Company founded by former coal baron Brian Flannery and his wife Peggy won an excellence award for the world’s first solar-powered train.

The award was shared with project collaborators Lithgow Railway Workshop, Nickel Energy and Elmofohave.

The train is a restored 69-year old diesel train retrofitted to operate on solar PV. It provides a regular passenger service linking the Sunrise Estate and Byron Arts and Industry Estate with the CBD using 3 kilometres of the Casino to Murwillumbah rail line that used to host XPT passenger trains through Byron.

Launched to coincide with the 2017-18 peak tourism season in December and January, the train hosted 10,000 passengers in its first 19 days of operation, a report in The Northern Star said.

The project attracted no government funding, and cost $4 million, including $1.8 million on track restoration and rebuilding a bridge over Belongil Creek. $1 million was spent on two platforms and a train shed – itself covered in rooftop solar PV – and $750,000 on restoring the train and converting it to utilise electric batteries charged by the solar.

The BBRC has said the train currently only uses one third of the total energy generated by the train’s panels and the shed panels, and the balance is exported to the grid.

The major award, the Sir William Hudson Award, was also won by a sustainable energy exemplar – Reposit Power’s ACT Virtual Power Plant project.

The judges noted the VPP makes the electricity cheaper, cleaner and more reliable and protects network assets via Virtual Power. It also allows energy utilities to use consumer owned batteries. More than 500 Canberra households participated in the project, which was believed to be an Australian first.

Reposit Power chief executive Dean Spaccavento, said VPPs are the building blocks of the future energy grid.

“There has been a lot of discussion in the energy industry about building VPPs to solve grid problems, and it’s an honour to be recognised for building robust and reliable technology that is proven to help society,” Mr Spaccavento said.

“We realised that creating a distributed electricity grid using residential solar battery setups would solve a lot of grid problems.

Network provider Ëvoenergy partnered with Reposit on the project.

Alinta Energy also took home an award, for the Newman Battery Storage Project. EA said it is believed to be one of the world’s largest utility-scale battery energy storage systems, and as far as can be determined, the first in the world provide grid-forming services on a high voltage network.

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