Massive gains in global renewable energy generation capacity last year

The other day Chris from made an interesting comment on my post on coal power as the “saviour” of those in Third World poverty.  You can see my response here, but she got me thinking that I should look into how renewable energy generation has been going recently.

This morning ABC News saved me the trouble.  They have a post on the global expansion of renewable energy generation which provides a good overview of what is happening.  As they show, if you strip out the figures for hydropower which distort the calculation of annual percentage growth because of the very large existing base of “old” hydropower plants, the expansion of other, newer, forms of renewable energy is very impressive.

Despite tumbling fossil fuel prices, global renewable energy experienced its greatest surge in capacity last year, growing 9 per cent or around 147 gigawatts (GW) of power.

Stripping out hydro – the world’s largest source of renewable energy – other technologies such as solar, geothermal and wind grew by 18 per cent according a report published by REN21, a network of global government, non-government and research organisations involved in the sector.

“The world now adds more renewable power capacity annually than it adds from all fossil fuels combined,” the report noted.

“By the end of 2015, renewable capacity in place was enough to supply an estimated 23.7 per cent of global electricity, with hydropower providing about 16.6 per cent.”

While the growth was supported by several factors – including better financing, more sympathetic policies, as well as energy security and environmental concerns – the key driver was that renewables were now cost competitive in many markets.

“This growth occurred despite tumbling global prices for all fossil fuels, ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and other challenges facing renewables, including the integration of rising shares of renewable generation, policy and political instability, regulatory barriers and fiscal constraints,” the report said.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimated fossil fuel companies last year received subsidies totalling around $US5.3 trillion ($7.3 trillion) worldwide, although the International Energy Agency put the figure at a more modest $US493 billion ($680 billion) largely due to a lower estimate of the potential costs of carbon pollution.

Solar PV capacity grew by 27 per cent to a total 227 GW capacity, while wind power was up by 17 per cent to 433 GW.

You can see the full ABC News article here.

It would be interesting to see the current figures for solar PV installation in the Lockyer Valley Region.  In a November 2012 post I calculated that 21.2% of the private houses in the Lockyer had solar power installations – up with the best in Australia at the time.


A different approach to renewable energy generation

An investor-owned power utility in the northwestern USA state of Idaho (population 1.6 million – South East Queensland has 3.3 million) could add 461 megawatts of solar-generating capacity to its system by 2016. If all of those plants are built, Idaho Power would have a total of 1,253 megawatts of new green power on its grid, said Brad Bowlin, an Idaho Power spokesman. Last year, Idaho’s peak load was 3,407 megawatts in July, which would make green power 37 percent of its system.And that’s not counting the 1,700 megawatts Idaho Power can produce at its hydroelectric dams.

First Wind, a Boston energy company recently purchased by a bigger solar firm, has signed contracts to sell power from five solar-generation projects in Idaho. Pictured here is the company’s first solar project in Warren, Mass. [link to original article. Photo by First Wind]

Developers have signed contracts to sell electricity to Idaho Power from the 16 projects in Idaho and Oregon under a federal law that requires the utility to buy power to encourage small and alternative energy producers at the same rate it would cost the utility if it had to build its own, new natural gas plant.  That is, instead of getting a subsidy, the renewable energy projects are seen as helping to avoid the construction of new gas-fired power stations, or to put it another way, they are forced to compete on price with a notional new gas-fired power plant.

This results in the renewable energy companies being paid for the electricity at what is called the “avoided cost” rate. Even with the low cost of natural gas, solar-panel prices have dropped so much that developers can make money by earning the avoided-cost rate, even while paying to connect to Idaho Power’s grid and paying the utility the cost of providing backup power sources when the sun goes behind clouds. They also can make the projects work without counting on the sale of renewable energy credits.

Why can’t this work in Australia?  Are we lacking in imagination?  Are we being told lies about the competitiveness of renewable energy generation?  Is there a concerted attempt at State and Federal levels to look after friends with fossil-fuel fired generation plants?  Is it because too many of our governments own electricity generation or power distribution assets?

What about coal-fired power plants in Idaho?  Well, Idaho Power, the utility that has signed up for the solar powered electricity, owns two coal-fired power plants in Wyoming and Nevada in partnership with other utilities, but it is phasing out the coal plants gradually, so as not to risk the stability of its system and to avoid extra costs to its ratepayers.

Source:  Barker, R. (2014). Idaho Power: Ready to become a green giant? Idaho Statesman November 19, Retrieved November 20, 2014, from  Click on the link for the whole article.

Wind power is cheapest energy, EU analysis finds

A new report prepared for the European Commission shows that onshore wind is cheaper than coal, gas or nuclear energy when the costs of ‘external’ factors like air quality, human toxicity and climate change are taken into account.

The report says that for every megawatt hour (MW/h) of electricity generated, onshore wind costs roughly €105 (£83) per MW/h, compared to gas and coal which can cost up to around €164 and €233 per MW/h, respectively.

This was reported in The Guardian, in an article by Arthur Neslen on 14 October.  The following is excerpted from the article.

>>Nuclear power, offshore wind and solar energy are all comparably inexpensive generators, at roughly €125 per MW/h.

“This report highlights the true cost of Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels,” said Justin Wilkes, the deputy CEO of the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA). “Renewables are regularly denigrated for being too expensive and a drain on the taxpayer. Not only does the commission’s report show the alarming cost of coal but it also presents onshore wind as both cheaper and more environmentally-friendly.”

The paper, which was written for the European commission by the Ecofys consultancy, suggests that the Conservative party plan of restricting new onshore windfarms will mean blocking out the cheapest source of energy when environmental and health facts are taken into consideration. It has been suggested the Tory plan could be done through a cap on onshore wind turbines’ output, lower subsidies or tighter planning restrictions.

“Any plans to change policy for onshore wind must be looked at in the context of this report,” said Oliver Joy a spokesman for EWEA. “Investors need long-term visibility. ‘Stop-start’ policies as well as harsh retroactive changes can blindside investors, driving up the risk premium and cost of capital.”


Abbott and Co. trying to buck global trends on renewable energy adoption

The world as a whole has already exceeded Australia’s Renewable Energy Target of 20% of the country’s electricity coming from renewable energy by 2020.  The rest of the world is ahead of us and increasing its proportion of electricity coming from renewables, but Abbott and Co. [Australia’s Prime Minister and his Conservative government] would have us believe that the move toward renewable energy is a bad thing, and are going all out to dump the Renewable Energy Target.

The following is re-blogged from The Guardian.  It is part of the article Renewable Energy Capacity Grows at Fastest Rate Ever

Wind, solar and other renewable power capacity grew at its strongest ever pace last year and now produces 22% of the world’s electricity, the International Energy Agency said on Thursday in a new report.

More than $250bn (£150bn) was invested in “green” generating systems in 2013, although the speed of growth is expected to slacken, partly because politicians are becoming nervous about the cost of subsidies.

Maria van der Hoeven, the executive director of the IEA, said governments should hold their nerve: “Renewables are a necessary part of energy security. However, just when they are becoming a cost-competitive option in an increasing number of cases, policy and regulatory uncertainty is rising in some key markets. This stems from concerns about the costs of deploying renewables.”

She added: “Governments must distinguish more clearly between the past, present and future, as costs are falling over time. Many renewables no longer need high incentive levels. Rather, given their capital-intensive nature, renewables require a market context that assures a reasonable and predictable return for investors.”

Hydro and other green technologies could be producing 26% of the world’s electricity by 2020, the IEA said in its third annual Medium-Term Renewable Energy Market Report. They are already used as much as gas for generating electrical power, it points out.

But the total level of investment in renewables is lower now than a peak of $280bn in 2011 and is expected to average only $230bn annually to the end of the decade unless governments make increasing policy commitments to keep spending higher.

The current growth rate for installing new windfarms and solar arrays is impressive but the IEA believes it is not enough to meet climate change targets, triggering calls in Brussels from green power lobby groups for Europe to adopt tougher, binding targets.

You can read the whole article here.


Renewable energy – some places promote it and shout it out!

I just had to share this.  It is so positive and encouraging.  Nice to be reminded that in other parts of the world they encourage the growth of renewable energy.

Here’s a shot of the renewable energy tracking on the website of the following group of companies:

Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc.

The image is updated on the company’s Renewable Watch page, and you can click on the image there to enlarge it.

If only our governments and power companies were so proud of the level of generation of renewable energy in Australia.

I found the link to the graphic in a story on Mother Jones on the way in which electricity demand in the USA is dropping year after year.  The total demand in 2013 was two percent below the 2008 level.  The reasons for the drop are pretty much the same as in Australia: higher prices pushing people to cut usage; more people and companies generating their own power, mostly via solar PV; and  increasing efficiency (of buildings and appliances).

Midday wholesale price of electricity falls to zero in Queensland

An article by Giles Parkinson in The Guardian on 7 July reported that the wholesale price of electricity in Queensland fell into negative territory – in the middle of the day.  Apparently this has never happened in the middle of the day before. Here’s part of what the article reported:

For several days the price, normally around $40-$50 a megawatt hour, hovered in and around zero. Prices were deflated throughout the week, largely because of the influence of one of the newest, biggest power stations in the state – rooftop solar.

“Negative pricing” moves, as they are known, are not uncommon. But they are only supposed to happen at night, when most of the population is mostly asleep, demand is down, and operators of coal fired generators are reluctant to switch off. So they pay others to pick up their output.

That’s not supposed to happen at lunchtime. Daytime prices are supposed to reflect higher demand, when people are awake, office building are in use, factories are in production. That’s when fossil fuel generators would normally be making most of their money.

The influx of rooftop solar has turned this model on its head. There is 1,100MW of it on more than 350,000 buildings in Queensland alone (3,400MW on 1.2m buildings across the country). It is producing electricity just at the time that coal generators used to make hay (while the sun shines).

Yes, the wholesale price level around zero was due to the level of installation of rooftop solar PV systems by homeowners and businesses in Queensland.  But in reality it seems to me that the near zero pricecould more accurately be said to be due to the removal by the Queensland government of most of the feed-in tariff paid to solar PV producers – BUT …  there are still lots of solar PV owners on fixed term contracts and receiving reasonably high feed-in tariffs – so shouldn’t these tariffs have been reflected in the wholesale price when solar PV was dominating the market?  Or are there now so many recent solar PV installations that their low feed-in tariffs are dominating the market around the middle of the day?

Can anyone enlighten me as to how the near zero wholesale electricity price really came about?

Regardless of the confusion, it seems that solar PV is making its mark as a component of the State’s energy generation industry.  Are these low wholesale prices eventually going to be reflected in our electricity bills?

You can read the whole Guardian online article here.


Is a 100% renewable electricity supply possible in Australia right now?

Mark Diesendorf, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales, has posted a detailed and convincing article in The Conversation this morning about the potential for a 100% renewable electricity supply in Australia.

His conclusion (with my underlining):

The renewable scenarios would be economically competitive with the fossil system either with a carbon price of A$50 per tonne of CO2 (reflecting part of the environmental and health damage from fossil fuels) or, in the absence of a carbon price, by removing the existing subsidies to the production and use of fossil fuels and transferring them temporarily to renewable energy.

That’s right: we could start implementing 100% renewable electricity generation RIGHT NOW, and with no financial burden on the economy, just a temporary shift of the political sacred cow of hydrocarbon fuel subsidies to the renewable energy sector.  In fact Diesendorf doesn’t say it, but there would be a significant positive impact on the economy from very significant increases in both temporary and long-term employment in the renewables sector.  And, you never know, when the renewable sector no longer needs the subsidy the government of the day may decide not to reinstate it for the hydrocarbon fuel sector.  Very big win for the economy and possibly the climate if that happened.

Could we do this with current renewable technologies, or would we have to wait for the development of some currently unproven approach?  It’s can all be done with today’s technology.  Here’s Diesendorf again:

“Using conservative projections to 2030 for the costs of renewable energy by the federal government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE), we found an optimal mix of renewable electricity sources. The mix looks like this:

  • Wind 46%;
  • Concentrated solar thermal (electricity generated by the heat of the sun) with thermal storage 22%;
  • Photovoltaic solar 20% (electricity generated directly from sunlight);
  • Biofuelled gas turbines 6%; and
  • Existing hydro 6%.

So two-thirds of annual energy can be supplied by wind and solar photovoltaic — energy sources that vary depending on the weather — while maintaining reliability of the generating system at the required level. How is this possible?

It turns out that wind and solar photovoltaic are only unable to meet electricity demand a few times a year. These periods occur during peak demand on winter evenings following overcast days that also happen to have low wind speeds across the region.

Since the gaps are few in number and none exceeds two hours in duration, there only needs to be a small amount of generation from the so-called flexible renewables (those that don’t depend on the vagaries of weather): hydro and biofuelled gas turbines. Concentrated solar thermal is also flexible while it has energy in its thermal storage.

The gas turbines have low capital cost and, when operated infrequently and briefly, low fuel costs, so they play the role of reliability insurance with a low premium.”

“BASELOAD POWER!  You’ll need baseload power!”, I hear the coal and gas industries shouting.  Well, clearly such a system would NOT require baseload power in the form that they understand.

I like it too that he has addressed the bogie inherent in the use of biofuel powered gas turbines: the possibility that they will require unacceptable volumes of timber from forests or the allocation of unacceptable areas of food-producing farmland to grow the fuel to run them.  Keeping the gas turbines in reserve, to be used only for periods of a few hours a few times per year would mean that not only would fuel demand be low, but the fuel could be sourced from wastes over a longer period and stockpiled for later use.

Do we know whether it would work in reality?  How about on hot summer evenings, or on those cold, windless winter nights?  Diesendorf’s team used real figures from the National Energy Market (presumably the ones published daily by the Australian Energy Market Operator), to model many different mixes of current renewable energy technologies to come up with the proportions set out above.

 “Ben Elliston, Iain MacGill and I at UNSW have performed thousands of computer simulations of the hour-by-hour operation of the NEM with different mixes of 100% commercially available renewable energy technologies scaled up to meet demand reliably.

We use actual hourly electricity demand and actual hourly solar and wind power data for 2010 and balance supply and demand for almost every hour, while maintaining the required reliability of supply. The relevant papers, published in peer-reviewed international journals, can be downloaded from my UNSW website.”

 Read the full article on The Conversation.

There’s nothing new under the sun

If you are at all concerned about sustainable energy supplies and the need to get off the fossil fuel powered electricity path you can’t have missed what some solar PV groups are calling a proposal to “tax the sun”.

What it comes down to is that the Australian Energy Market Commission has issued a report highlighting what they see as the need for new tariffs for every solar home connected to the grid because, they seem to be saying, grid connected solar homes are “free-riding” on those electricity consumers who don’t input solar-generated electricity into the grid.

In a longish article on the issue published in REneweconomy, Giles Parkinson said:

AEMC chairman John Pierce on Wednesday [October 9] unveiled a “strageic priorities” document that highlights solar PV as one of the most pressing issues for the electricity industry – both for providers and consumers – and suggests that network tariffs in particular do not reflect the reduced use of the grid caused by solar households.

“Distributed generation is blurring the traditional delineation between consumers and producers of electricity,” Pierce said in a speech to the East Coast Energy Outlook conference in Sydney

“One source of stakeholder concern is that network costs of consumers with rooftop solar PV are subsidised by other consumers because the full costs and benefits of distributed generation (such as solar PV) are not reflected in the prices consumers pay for electricity.”

The solar industry is outraged by the singling out of solar, because they say it is clear that the greatest cross subsidy in the electricity industry goes to users of air-conditioners: The government white paper conceded that each $1,500 air con system imposes five times that amount in network costs on other users.

Now is starts to seem like AMEC has got their strategy out of the playbook of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which Wikipedia describes as a US  forum for politically conservative state legislators and private sector members [read organisations] to collaborate on model bills, i.e. draft legislation, often serving the interests of the private sector members, that members can customize and introduce for debate in their own state legislatures.  The website ALEC Exposed is dedicated to uncovering the doings of ALEC, its corporate connections, and its funding sources.

In what a recent article in The Guardian calls “a sweeping new offensive against renewable energy”, ALEC proposes that governments penalize homeowners who install their own solar panels—casting them as “freeriders” who are not paying for the infrastructure they are using. In effect, they say, all the other non-direct generation customers are being penalised, and instead homes with grid-connected solar PV  should be paying to distribute their surplus electricity on the grid.

The article reports that this is a part of a larger anti-renewable energy strategy which will promote a suite of model bills and resolutions aimed at blocking Barack Obama from cutting greenhouse gas emissions, and blocking state governments from promoting the expansion of wind and solar power.

If the AEMC is copying the ALEC strategy, stand by for more or the same here in Australia.

The Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) was set up by the Council of Australian Governments through the Ministerial Council on Energy in 2005.  It is is the rule maker and developer for Australian energy markets, and also provides advice to Ministers on how best to develop energy markets over time.

I can’t help wondering whether the AEMC is as independent as it should be as a statutory commission set up by government, given the similarity of its stance on grid-connected PV generation to that of the ALEC.  Or, if it really is acting independently in this regard and the similarity to the ALEC stance is coincidental, whether its terms of reference might not be too much focused on maintaining a stable market for the large energy generators and distributors, and not enough on the best outcomes for the country in the long term.  There is also the question of whether the AEMC regards the totality of the multitude of grid-connected electricity generators as a valid player in the market – or are they seen as “collateral damage” in moves to maintain profitability for the traditional players?

Do we need to be paying high prices for unsustainable electricity?

Alex Wonhas (Director of Energy Flagship at CSIRO) has an article in today’s issue of The Conversation on options for Australia’s energy future.  Apart from the need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to avoid runaway climate change, high and increasing electricity prices should be a major driver for changing the way we generate and distribute energy.

As Wonhas points out:

Over the past five years electricity prices have risen more than 60%. This is due to a combination of factors, but upgrades of electricity networks are the main driver for the increases. At times, we as consumers chose to use this expensive infrastructure in an inefficient way. Network infrastructure worth $11 billion across the National Electricity Market is only used for an estimated 100 hours per year of peak demand.

Australia needs a pricing system for electricity that signals the true network costs to households and businesses. We also need to remove barriers to deploying solutions that can enhance energy productivity and reduce costs.

Many solutions already exist that could make our electricity system more efficient.

The full article is well worth reading.

Preserving Food – and how to avoid botulism

Preserving excess food is one of the cornerstones of a sustainable lifestyle.  I used to do a lot of preserving of stone fruit when I lived in country Victoria, but those days are gone, along with the antique Fowlers preserving set.

Now that we are trying to establish a permaculture lifestyle I think the time has come to get back to preserving food, not least so we have a more varied back-up larder to increase our food independence.

There was a good blog post by Farmer Liz over at Eight Acres the other day, with consideration of the pros and cons of preserving fruit, vegetables, and meat.  Farmer Liz concluded that with our climate (Southeast Queensland) allowing us to produce vegetables pretty much all year round, there’s no reason to preserve vegetables.

Meat isn’t usually preserved (canned) in Australia, possibly because it’s always available (if you are getting yours from the butcher or supermarket) and can always be dried or smoked.  Personally I’d rather store my meat by keeping it on the hoof (or claw) till it’s needed.  If we buy meat in bulk we tend to freeze it, and when we finally get some chooks, if we ever have to kill more than one then they’ll go in the freezer too.

Speaking of meat, we just bought a quarter of a Low-line Angus and it’s in the freezer now, all bagged up in daily serves.  We have friends who raise this breed of beef cattle in an ecologically sustainable (pasture fed on cell grazing) and humane way, and market them by the quarter.  Not that you have to buy a front quarter or a back quarter, but you get a quarter of all the cuts from the animal.  It’s a nice feeling to know where our meat comes from and how it was raised, even to the point of having seen the paddocks that it grazed.  The fact that we are supporting friends who are members of our community is an additional consideration.  More and more farmers seem to be changing over to specialty marketing of sustainably produced bulk meat.

Aren’t we worried about blackouts and losing all the food in the freezer?  Not while we are off the grid and on solar power – and own a generator that can take over from the solar batteries if the need ever arises (it hasn’t).

When the floods hit in 2011 (remember the disastrous Grantham/Toowoomba floods in the early part of that year) we were cut off for days, and when we eventually got out to the supermarket pretty much all the shelves were bare.  All of the people on the electricity grid had experienced days of no power, but our solar power kept right on going.  We didn’t even have to run the generator to top up the batteries (I thought about doing it, just to be on the safe side, but a mouse had made its home in the alternator and it and the wiring got fried when I turned the generator on).  Anyway, we had a quarter of a cow in the freezer and about three-months’ supply of non-perishables in the pantry, so being cut off wasn’t a problem.

The subject of preserving meat always starts a discussion on botulism.  Botulism is caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, which can occur in the soil, the bottoms of waterways, or in the intestines of mammals such as humans, cattle and horses.  The spores are not killed by boiling.  However botulism is uncommon because special, rarely obtained conditions are necessary for botulinum toxin production from C. botulinum spores, including an anaerobic, low-salt, low- acid, low-sugar environment at ambient temperatures – the kind of habitat you might find in a container of badly preserved meat, for instance.

While I was thinking about preserving, Northwest Edible Life (another of my regular reads) came out with a post on “How Not to Die from Botulism”.  It’s a must-read if you are doing any preserving, and is useful generally if you are regularly preparing or storing food.  You can find the blog here  and you can download a full-size pdf file of the poster below here.

Avoiding botulism