Phased milestones vs ‘Nanny State’: Exchanging views with Mr Brownlee

Fresh from an exchange with the Minister of Energy last week over the left-right spectrum and our 21st century problems, I questioned Gerry Brownlee in the House  about his recent draft Energy Strategy.  The ideological blinkers are clearly preventing us from moving purposefully towards a low-carbon economy.

I asked what phased milestones the Minister had to achieve his stated goal of reaching 90% electricity generation from renewable sources by 2025.  His reply was that his Government did not ‘determine the investment decisions’ needed to increase the availability of renewably-generated activity.  Rather it sets the ‘regulatory and policy environment’ in which investments are made (such as the amended RMA and ETS).  Phased milestones would be possible ‘only if we lived in a command-and-control-style economy’.   “We do not,” he observed.

Mr Brownlee is correct.  We do not live in a command-and control economy.  We never have, although a National Prime Minister came closest three decades back, igniting the neo-liberal revolution of the ‘80s that dominates this Government’s thinking even today.

But we do live in a country that is part of an unsustainable global economy, whose most obvious symptom is dangerous climate change from excessive carbon emissions.  Switching to renewable energy sources and developing a low-carbon economy within a short time-period is a condition of enduring economic welfare, both for New Zealand and the world.

It is generally recognised that this switch must be completed within two decades at the latest.  New Zealand’s goal of 90% renewable electricity is one part of that transformation.  Identification of phased milestones is a legitimate part of attaining that goal.  It does not reflect Kremlin thinking.  It reflects an agreed aspiration, through consensus, to ensure that a final goal is more likely to be attained, with public and private sectors working together.

Most people and most governments and organizations do it.  The household budget contains milestones to pay off the mortgage.  The National Party will have a fund-raising plan, most probably with targets, for the 2011 election.  The Government has a phased milestone, signed by the National Cabinet in 1997 in the Kyoto Protocol to achieve the goal, signed by the National Government at Rio in 1992, of stabilising the global climate at a level that is not dangerous to the planet’s life-support systems.  The UN has phased milestones, under the well-known Millennium Development Goals, to halve global poverty, improve educational attainment, and increase maternal health and longevity.

We all have milestones, Mr Brownlee.  It is not a betrayal of the private sector as the driver of the national economy to lay down mid-point milestones to measure how well we are moving towards a stated target.

In fact, you have them yourself, or at least your Government has access to them, notwithstanding your momentary lapse in acknowledging this.  The NZ Electricity Commission’s draft Statement of Opportunities, released in July, is intended to “provide interested parties with independent information to consider in assessing the potential for grid management efficiencies and, in particular, investment in upgrades and transmission alternatives.”  The SOO, says the Chairman, is not a plan for the future development of the grid or of generation.  Rather it is a set of scenarios as to how the generation and transmission of electricity may develop, given a range of reasonable assumptions.

The scenarios show a trend for each year for all energy sources between 2010 and 2040.  Each renewable source – geothermal, hydro, wind, tidal, solar – is expected to increase.  The Government, and the public, will have this available to assess the effectiveness of the Energy Strategy over the next decade.

The policies of the previous Government, through the thermal power station moratorium and its ETS, were broadly on target for the market to deliver a 90% renewable by 2027.  The Green Party’s ‘Getting There’ document of August 2009 showed how we could achieve 90% by 2025.  This Government’s repeal of the moratorium and weakening of the ETS has left that in tatters.  Without a clear signal through government leadership, the market will not deliver on time.

Mr Brownlee’s Strategy speaks of “fostering the deployment of new renewable sources such as marine and solar sources of energy”.  How the Government plans to foster marine energy is left unclear.

If all you do is state an aspirational goal, leave it to the Commission to postulate scenarios based on assumptions, and leave unclear how you are going to foster new renewables, you will simply not attain the target.  Yet attaining the target is an imperative for our children’s generation.  And yours is the ministerial responsibility.

Here are a few personal thoughts on how to facilitate the attainment of the 90% target.  Assume a population growth rate of 0.8% per annum, and electricity generation growth of 2% p.a.  Based on these assumptions, the table below sets out a possible ‘phase in’ of renewable electricity sources and ‘phase-out’ of fossil-fuel- based sources.

Electricity Generation (PJ) Fossil Fuels Hydro* Geoth. Wind Tide Solar** Total Rewewables
2010 780 25% 58% 13% 4% 0% 0% 75%
2015 861 20% 60% 13% 5% 2% 0% 80%
2020 950 15% 60% 13% 12% 10% 0% 85%
2025 1050 10% 55% 13% 12% 10% 0% 90%

* Some aging hydro stations decommissioned.

** Solar water heating has a negligible effect on national base-load.

This is not a command plan.  It is a heuristic tool.  It shows the magnitude of the challenge of switching to a low-carbon economy when energy consumption is growing exponentially.  The reality will not be precisely like this.  But unless we all – householders, voters, farms, companies, local authorities, government – have some idea of the phase-in / phase-out trend we need as a nation, we shall never get there.

And the only way to get there, in light of the above, is a robust carbon price signal for the market economy to react.  There, the Government is failing us as well.  But that is for another time.

25 Comments Posted

  1. The technology for tidal flow energy use is well developed. We have been using electric motors/generators connected to a propeller/turbine since the 1880’s. Currant setups run for 25 years easily. Cook Strait is ideal, but there are other places in NZ with strong tidal flows and they can be set at depths that do not interfere with traffic or other uses. Far less damaging to the environment than fish farms and pobably better for our economy as we replace imported oil for urban transport with electricity.

  2. I did a Uni environmental tech project on biomass. The capability is less than 10% given current knowledge and it would require some big changes in land and forest products use. In most cases the products or the land are worth more for other uses. New research into biomass growing on sewage etc looks promising. However a usefull percentage of energy use for the forestry industry and energy users close to wood waste producers can come from woody biomass. Council street sweepings (from leave fall etc) are another possible source of energy.

  3. I’m interested in why 3 people gave my first comment the thumbs down. Do they think economic growth is sustainable?

  4. Trevor,

    I’m not sure why increasing our population through immigration would lead to less need to ship food and materials around the world, unless you mean that those extra people are here, rather than somewhere else. However, that assumes that the home country of those extra people could not supply their needs. That may be true in some cases but I wouldn’t have thought it’s a significant factor. In any case, we would certainly have to set an upper limit, since runaway population growth is most certainly a significant factor in the predicament that the world is now facing.

    I’m reminded of a point made in Daniel Quinn’s book, Ishmael, where if the world provides the resources for an increasing population, an increasing population is what it will get.

    As for New Zealand being well placed to develop marine power, that may be true but I hope (with little expectation) that we carefully consider the consequences of that (or of any scheme that diverts natural energy flows for our use). In nature, you can’t do just one thing; every action has a consequence.

  5. Tony – if New Zealand’s population grows because of immigration and we have the resources to support that growth unlike many of our trading partners, would that not be a good thing as it would lead to less need to ship food and other materials around the world?


  6. Missing off the table entirely is generation from biomass. One option would be to burn some wood or charcoal in Huntley, instead of low grade coal. Another would be combined heat and power plants where low grade heat is needed in winter, possibly rest homes or hospitals. However I doubt that biomass would provide more than a few percent of our needs, but they could be a very useful few percent as biomass is one of the few controllable forms of renewable electricity generation.


  7. A1kimm is correct – aluminium production can use off-peak electricity, and in most countries it does. New Zealand’s smelter is unusual in that it runs constantly.

    Marine environments are harsh. That is why LIMPET (Isle of Ishay) is built on land and has no parts moved by the sea. It has been running for a number of years now. The LIMPET system was chosen by CHIME (Chatham Islands Marine Energy Ltd) and the government is now supporting them. Wave-powered systems have an advantage over wind generation in that their output varies more slowly and predictably, making it easier to fill in the troughs with other generation. However systems using both wind and wave power benefit from the diversity and have fewer periods of no or very low generation. Given New Zealand’s history of marine experience and our wave and tidal resources, we are well placed to develop marine power.


  8. @ A1kmm

    “much of our industrial energy use (aluminium production, for example) can work around differential spot electricity prices based on the time of day, weather, and the like”

    Say wha? I think you;’ll find that industrial processes require constant power not regulalrly interrupted flows. They can respond at times but it is expensive and sometimes dangerous and can take many hours to wind up and down.

    And marine energy needs to be written off as an energy source until it actually has more experimental runs on the board.

    We need to get real about costs because generation competes against other methods. When has it ever been cheaper to build something to cope with a marine environment than for a land one? So more likely for nZ is increased wind.

  9. Tony is right that we need to reduce total energy use – based on Kennedy’s targets:

    (1 – (1050 PJ/year * 10%/100%) / (780 PJ/year * 25%/100%)) * 100% = 46.15%

    In other words, achieving his milestones will result in a 46.15% reduction in electrical energy generated from fossils fuels. Note that these are net figures, not gross – thermal electricity generation (and electricity transmission) is an inherently lossy process, and it takes more than 1 PJ of chemical potential energy from oil to generate 1 PJ of electrical energy. It might be the case that efficiency improvements mean that efficiency improvements mean that the actual carbon use would increase by more than 46.15%. However, this would involve investing in improvements to thermal power generation stations, which is probably throwing good money after bad.

    We will almost certainly be on the downward slopes past peak oil 15 years from now (and even if it isn’t, climate change will make in unfeasible to emit much anyway) so using only 46.15% less fossil fuels will probably not be feasible (remember that chemical manufacturing & plastics gets a much higher economic return per kilogram of fossil fuels, so burning cheap fossil fuels for transportation and electricity is going to be the first casualty of declining oil production).

    I think we probably could make good use of solar generation – much of our industrial energy use (aluminium production, for example) can work around differential spot electricity prices based on the time of day, weather, and the like.

  10. If the assumed growth is because of population increases, then we need to consider how we stop those increases. Population growth is as unsustainable as economic growth.

    Diverting energy from its current use, in nature, may have adverse consequences. Please, please, please, let’s stop assuming we can do what we like without there being consequences. The best approach is surely to power down.

  11. Actually the 13% ramp up in geothermal looks as though it will be a real stretch as well.

    Most of the known geothermal systems that can be developed (ie not Waiotapu, Orakeikorako, Tongariro, Horomatangi and Te kopia) have been or shortly will be developed. The developed systems are producing 1.2GW(e) and expected to last about 30 years at this rate of generation.

    Unless serious efforts are made to find and explore (prove) more resource, then you should prudently be projecting decreased geothermal generation. As with other resource development, there is also a lead in time. The last serious geothermal prospecting was done by the MOW in the late 1970s, 1980s – Think Big anyone?

    This is not to say the geothermal resource isn’t there – we just don’t know where it is and how to get at it. (And many of the NZders who know how are being pulled overseas.)

  12. And aren’t we all working flat tack to solve the capacity problem.. making power for nigh immediate use from the grid is so last century…

    As to good ole Gerry can I recommend a wee healthy dose of Joe Keohane cited right here and topmost item.

  13. Actually, if the Chinese government hurries up and finishes buying up NZ properties / companies / resource licences before the NACTs catch on, then we won’t need to worry about Gerry and the Fossils. The Chinese definitely know about the limits of natural systems and aren’t too worried about vested corporate interests (other then their own).

    So “sell Gerry sell!”

  14. Aaryn,

    Kennedy was not talking to Brownlee when he presented his personal thoughts on milestones. Those personal thoughts included the notion of growth.


    Yes, tidal could be a winner but extracting energy from the tides will doubtless have some impact on the environment. We should tread carefully and try to assess impacts thoroughly, instead of assuming, as we usually do, that it’s all good.

  15. Well in Kennedy’s defense, keep in mind he’s talking to Greey Browlee. It’s hard enough selling the idea of milestones for the renewables target let alone reducing energy use. Energy efficiency measures are generally below the cost curve so reducing usage is possible. Though, if we want to diversify our economy, de-intensify agriculture, and produce high value exports we will require more energy. Plus electric cars are coming whether we like it or not.

    Re the table, I think we could be more ambitious with wind considering it is already around 6% of market. With solar, residential energy use in New Zealand accounts for 13% of the total energy consumption in the country and a third of that is for hot water. Solar hot water will play a role and PV is getting down to around $5 per Watt. Tidal, who knows – I’m interested to see what comes out of the Kaipara initiative and whether it is ecologically viable. We could also expand geothermal considerably.

    Lets aim for 100%, it’s very doable. We can still keep gas fired power stations as dry year back.

  16. Tidal energy is the most promising alternative energy source we have. There is plenty of it. It does not create an eyesore or effect river flows. For once I agree with Photo about its predictability. It uses proven technology. Tidal energy has been used in France for decades.

  17. The advantage with tidal is that unlike wind power, on any given day, at any given time, even a year ahead, you know how much power you will be generating.

    And unlike hydro, there is no problem in low rainfall years.

  18. That’s an ambitious target for growth in tidal energy. Although the cook strait has great promise…

    Still, Kennedy has demonstrated how easy it is to come up with some simple milestones, a task Brownlee seems unwilling to do.

  19. “Solar water heating has a negligible effect on national base-load”

    Can that be the case?

    The ads on the telly state that something like a third of domestic energy consumption is for water heating…

  20. If we pretend that economic growth is possible for ever by becoming more efficient, then we’d need something to replace fossil fuels. In a contracting economy, though, I don’t see why we’d need to increase electricity generation. If we increase our efficiency in using electricity and conserve, then that saved electricity could be used to replace energy sources that are in decline. And, if the economy is contracting, there’d be spare electricity generation even without conservation.

    Is this what Kennedy sees? Electric cars coming to the rescue and needing the extra electricity?

  21. Tony – surely even if the economy contracts, and we spend LESS on health, education, benefits etc, we will still need MORE electricity generation to replace fossil fuels.

    For example, more generation needed for electric and hybrid transport, replacing petrol cars, heat pumps replacing coal fires, manuafacturing making more use of electricity instead of gas, deisel etc, more electric trains rather than deisel – the list goes on.

    So even in a contracting economy we will need more generation if you want carbon emmisions to go down.

  22. Kennedy,

    I’m astounded that your personal thoughts include increasing electricity generation (from all sources), by 35%, over the next 15 years. Is that to support unsustainable economic growth? Even if you had to pretend to support the unsustainable (because the electorate doesn’t understand limits, any more than the main parties), surely, the best action is to use less energy per capita, be more efficient?

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