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Jack Santa Barbara: No time to be silent about the future of electricity in New Zealand

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Staying silent means being an accomplice to an unsustainable energy future for New Zealand, writes Jack Santa Barbara

The Electricity Authority has released a document outlining a plan to meet the government’s goal of more than doubling the amount of electricity produced in New Zealand over the next several decades.

This goal is seen as a way both to reduce our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions overall, as everything becomes electrified, and to ensure that we have a 100% renewable energy system. Often times, these two goals are taken to be the same – to decarbonize, we need to switch to more renewables to power our society.

But these are quite different goals and must be clearly differentiated. GHG emissions could be controlled very effectively by rationing the use of fossil fuels, with decreasing rations available over a few years. Such a direct method of controlling emissions would ensure that we are doing our part to stay within a secure carbon budget.

If we took this dramatic step, we could stop worrying about how to cut emissions (which would be guaranteed by rationing), and instead focus on how to adapt our lives to the absence of fossil fuels.

Again, this may seem like the same task, but it isn’t. Decarbonization is generally viewed in terms of replacing fossil fuels with another source of energy. Adapting our lives to the absence of fossil fuels prompts us to ask more fundamental questions about how much energy we really need, why we need energy and the impact that energy has on our environment.

MBIE data indicates that between 1990 and 2020, New Zealand nearly doubled the total amount of power it produced from renewable energy sources – hydropower, geothermal power, and some solar PV and wind turbines.

Allowing the current profit-driven trajectory to unfold is a recipe for disaster for our children and grandchildren.

Over the same period, our GHG emissions have increased by approximately 25%. The increase in renewables has not resulted in lower GHG emissions as we have increased our total energy consumption by almost 50%, mainly by using fossil fuels. The largest increases in fossil fuels were used in transportation, agriculture, forestry and fishing (about 60 percent increase for each).

These data clearly demonstrate that increasing renewable energy sources does not necessarily lead to reduced GHG emissions.

The same MBIE data indicates that during this same period, the amount of the Loss and personal use category for energy consumption more than doubled. In 2020, almost 30% of all energy consumed in New Zealand fell into this category.

These data indicate that more renewable energy sources are historically associated with less energy actually available to perform work in society.

Although the Losses and Own Use category is not a net energy analysis, the large increase in this category makes the demand for a system-wide net energy analysis all the more urgent.

Net energy is the amount of energy available after subtracting energy inputs to produce and provide energy. There is a lot of data available indicating that solar PV and wind turbines have a much lower net energy surplus than fossil fuels.

And there is further evidence that when intermittency and storage requirements are built into a total renewable energy system, the net energy of the entire system decreases sharply. Could the increase in losses and other uses over this 30-year period be an indication of things to come?

Final energy invested to reach 100% renewable energies by 2060

Final energy invested by factor for 100% renewable energies by 2060. Source: Iñigo Capellán-Pérez, Carlosde Castro and Luis Javier Miguel González

Despite the importance of net energy analysis in designing a national energy system for energy security and resilience, there is not a single mention of net energy surplus in the document. EA reference.

For example, over the past 30 years, New Zealand has doubled its renewable energy capacity, while increasing its GHG emissions and reducing the overall efficiency of the national energy system.

And we now plan to more than double our renewable energy system yet again over the next 30 years. We have to ask ourselves if this is a good idea.

How can we expand solar PV and wind turbines in New Zealand without using fossil fuels? We can not.

How could we expand our solar PV wind turbines and wind turbines without extracting rare minerals, further contributing to ecological destruction and often increasing social injustices? We can not.

Even if we could build, deliver, install and maintain solar PV wind turbines and wind turbines without generating more GHG emissions and destroying ecosystems and poor communities, this “renewable” infrastructure is expected to be replaced in a few decades. But there are at least two major issues with this supposed scenario.

The rare earth minerals needed for this replacement will already be depleted by the initial construction. Recycling will only provide a limited number of replacements.

The other challenge is that a predominantly “renewable” energy system is likely to have a significantly lower net energy surplus. So where, in 2060, will the energy come from to extract or recycle raw materials, and to rebuild, reinstall and maintain the next iteration of a renewable energy system?

There is currently no plan for this replacement. To call these energy technologies “renewable” is a serious misnomer. This is not the case because they depend on considerable inputs of raw materials and fossil fuels for their endless production and replacement.

New Zealand is, of course, blessed with an exceptionally high level of hydroelectric and geothermal energy. New Zealand currently uses over 170 GJ of total energy per capita, 40% of which is “renewable”. This provides approximately 70 GJ of “renewable” energy per capita with our current population.

This is the average global energy level per capita from all sources in all countries. Several countries operate on roughly that total amount of energy per capita that New Zealand can generate from “renewables” alone.

It’s worth thinking about the 170 GJ of total energy we are consuming right now. Different studies give very different results regarding the levels needed for a good life.

For a complex industrial society like ours, 100 GJ bw would be needed for a high level of well-being, determined both subjectively (measures of life satisfaction / happiness) and objectively (e.g. infant mortality rate, female morbidity as an index of population health, access to nutritious food and to educational and health resources, etc.). These studies do not take into account the large amount of energy that is wasted either by inefficient technologies or by frivolous use.

Other studies that consider the minimum energy needed for well-being suggest that a much lower level of energy consumption per capita is needed. These studies take a different approach and focus on maintaining basic well-being, but not necessarily with all the finery of a complex industrial society. Their results indicate that a level of about 20 GJ per capita is adequate.

In both cases, in New Zealand, we waste a lot of energy, both in terms of the efficiency of our technologies (see information on losses and personal use above), but also in our uses. that do not contribute to well-being (think of the private vehicle trips that could be made by active or public transport – if we had a good infrastructure in place).

We in New Zealand need a national dialogue about our future. And the availability of energy is only one aspect. We need to discuss our carrying capacity, the level of sustainable consumption for our population and whether we want to make any adjustments to our per capita consumption or to our population. The two together determine whether we are on the sustainable side of carrying capacity. Currently, we are on the unsustainable side, which means our way of life cannot last. Not good to be a good ancestor.

The current trajectory of the government and the Electricity Authority appears to be utterly unsustainable. At the very least, they should be able to answer the questions posed here about the GHG emissions of implementing a fully renewable energy system, the net energy of such a system and the environmental consequences and social associated.

Public dialogue is essential to collectively shape our future. Allowing the current profit-driven trajectory to unfold is a recipe for disaster for our children and grandchildren.

To remain silent on these issues is to revel in the fact that short-term financial interests and a reliance on convenience threaten a truly secure and resilient future. Let’s get answers from the government and the Electricity Authority to critical questions about energy security.


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