Jeanette Fitzsimons, Green Party Co-leader

Jeanette Fitzsimons, Green Party Co-leader,
speaking at the Solar '98 Conference

Newsletter Issue 8 No 1, February 1999 N

Solar '98 Conference -

'Creating the Right Climate'

By Simon Prout


Indoor Air Quality

Living Sustainably

Book Reviews

Notice Board



The conference theme of "creating the right climate" had a double meaning - a shift in the meteorological sense as well as the political and social sense.

The Solar '98 conference was opened by Gary Moore, the Mayor of Christchurch, who gave a brief snapshot of Christchurch City Council's attitude towards renewable energy. He was also openly critical of the Government's energy policy.

The conventional thinking on energy was represented by Max Bradford, the Minister of Energy. He outlined New Zealand's Energy Policy and tried to sell (in vain in the writers eyes) his latest tampering with the electricity market - the Government directive that power companies can only be a lines business or a retail / generating business.

Bradford also spoke about the Government addressing the threat of climate change; however, reading between the lines, what the Government is currently doing in this regard appears to be nothing.

A different political viewpoint on policies for a sustainable energy future was given by MP Jeanette Fitzsimons, Green Party Co-Leader. She suggested several simple and obvious ways to achieve this, including the need for some regulation and standards.

A pricing mechanism that recognises the environmental benefits of renewables is needed, but most of all, says Fitzsimons, we need a new attitude, and it has to start at the top. In her words "Ordinary citizens I meet are far ahead of the Government and the Round Table in their understanding of what has to be done and their willingness to try it."

Other suggestions were solar water heaters on all relevant public buildings, and passive solar design for all new government buildings. Also a redirection of Public Good Science Fund research money to recognise that the fossil fuel industry can stand on its own feet and needs no more public help, and that solar technologies should get that help instead until they catch up. In the electricity industry, structures and rules are needed that encourage and facilitate embedded renewables owned by local line companies, rather than prohibit them.

Fitzsimons recommended the setting of targets both for the reduction of greenhouse emissions and for new renewables as an increasing proportion of our primary energy, and regular reporting to the public on whether those targets are being met.

By modifying the earth's environment in various ways, human activities are changing the climate, most clearly through changes in the composition of the atmosphere. This human experiment is under way and cannot be turned off if we do not like the outcome, because of the long lifetimes of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. So says Dr Kevin Trenberth, a New Zealander with the National Centre for Atmospheric Research in the USA, who gave his address by videoconference.

Trenberth made it clear that the case that the climate is changing partly in response to human activities is building stronger with every passing year. Moreover, the rates of change are projected to be rapid enough to cause disruptions in natural and human systems, and there is already evidence of this.

While it now appears that we will have to live with and adapt to some climate change, the case for slowing the rates of change to allow this to be a more orderly process is compelling. Renewable energy and increased energy efficiency are the keys.

Another keynote speaker who gave his address by videoconference was Amory Lovins, Director of Research at the Rocky Mountain Institute in the USA. The Wall Street Journal's Centennial Issue named him among 28 people in the world most likely to change the course of business in the 1990's.

Lovins, as he is renowned for, gave a very thought provoking address which was one of the highlights of the conference for me. Forever the technological optimist, he gave us his usual quantum leaps in thinking and spent his time advocating a world which is less than obvious to many of our political and corporate leaders.

The surprises are coming, says Lovins. New energy shocks are coming rapidly over the horizon from all directions. These surprises are mainly technological and analytic. They will astound most economists. Their implementation is largely driven by market mechanisms but not by energy prices. They're unstoppable and probably imminent. They're too new to be in normal literature. They generally favour appropriate renewables and many conditions prevalent in Australia and New Zealand.

A typical Lovins response, when asked 'How do we get there from here?' by a member of the audience, was an analogy that took us back to 1750. Could we make industrial processes 100 times more efficient then? There was disbelief at the time of course, but we did.

* 1 TWh (terawatt hour) = 1,000,000 MWh (megawatt hours)

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A challenge was made by Paul Gipe, wind energy expert and author from the USA. New Zealand has the potential to be the first nation on the planet to move to a completely non-fossil, non-nuclear electricity supply system. With over 85% of New Zealand's electricity supply being derived from hydro sources, a significant amount coming from geothermal, and with the installation of the large wind farm near Palmerston North together with other renewables, this target is not impossible. Unfortunately our Minister of Energy had left the conference by the time this challenge was made.

On a global picture, in 1997 more than 1600 MW of new wind generating capacity was installed worldwide. Including retirements and removals, mostly in California, total installed capacity worldwide reached nearly 7800 MW. Wind power plants and distributed wind turbines generated almost 13 TWh* of electricity in 1997 and are expected to produce more than 20 TWh in the year 2000.

Europe continued to dominate new installations, with Germany and Denmark again taking the lead. Germany and Denmark offer the rest of Europe, as well as North America and other countries, a model for the most effective method of developing renewable energy - REFITs, or Renewable Energy Feed In Tariffs. These are far more effective at developing renewable energy than any other programme.

REFITs are especially more effective than competitive bidding programmes, such as those in Great Britain or France, and are more effective than "green" power programmes like that in the Netherlands.

One of the most entertaining addresses was that given at the conference dinner by Kirsty Hamilton, who was representing Greenpeace International. During the first half of this decade she was based in New Zealand working tirelessly as Greenpeace's climate campaigner, and has been based in their Amsterdam headquarters since 1996.

Hamilton certainly makes for a different after-dinner speaker, combining her passion for climate change with humour. She gave what I would call the "real world" view on climate change.

One of her comments, which seemed to stick in the minds of most people at the conference, was that one of the oil giants (from its own reports) plans to invest US$43 million in the next five years in renewable energy but in the last five years has spent US$500 billion on fossil fuels. And a considerable amount of this was spent on searching for more oil reserves.

Peter Newman, from the Australian Centre for Renewable Energy, Murdoch University, Western Australia was cautiously optimistic about the future for renewable energy, in particular for Australia.

The Kyoto agreement on the greenhouse effect has pushed the nations of the world into a flurry of policy activity, which has considerable potential for the renewable energy industry to exploit.

The Australian Federal Government's response to Kyoto contained a mandated 2% of all power to be from new renewables before 2010. This could be the catalyst that propels the renewable energy industry forward but it depends on the resolution of a number of thorny policy issues.

Other aspects of the greenhouse response, especially transport, remain in the too-hard basket. To put things in context, the 2% is a substantial boost for renewables but if achieved it will displace a mere one year (or less) of normal load growth in Australia. Thus the main game remains energy efficiency.

Business as usual cannot occur if Kyoto is to be taken seriously. Kyoto and the 2%, Newman believes, are a defining moment and a turning point for the renewable energy industry in Australia.

Kyoto remains the major spur to the development of the global renewable energy industry. In Australia the 2% is the first regulation to spark investment and innovative action by utilities in renewables. When will our government wake up and realise that you have to stimulate a market before market forces can prevail?

Overall Solar '98 assembled a wide and varied range of papers. It had a diverse and interesting mix of people and ideas. It also had visits to relevant technology and other sites in the Canterbury region and further afield.

You can get your own copy of the Solar '98 proceedings for A$70 by contacting ANZSES. Their address is ANZSES REPLY PAID 32, P O Box 1140, Maroubra, NSW 2035, Australia.