Climate news, and what we’re doing about it

I have been away from home recently, with little opportunity to post to my blog, but I have been trying to keep up with the news and will seize this opportunity to share some of it. The first item re-affirms that we do desperately need to act on climate, the next two show what we are doing right, and the last two show the effect on fossil fuel consumption and (hence) companies. In each case the link is the headline and the quote beneath is a key point but the whole article is, I think, well worth reading.

What We Learned About Climate Change In 2014, In 6 Scary Charts

We are currently on track to make drought and extreme drying the normal condition for the Southwest, Central Plains, the Amazon, southern Europe, and much of the currently inhabited and arable land around the world in the second half of the century.

Earlier this month, the U.K.’s Met Office updated its bar chart of the hottest years on record to include 2014, which is headed toward a new record. …

The biggest scientific bombshell of 2014 was that the West Antarctic ice sheet appears close to if not past the point of irreversible collapse— and, relatedly, that “Greenland’s icy reaches are far more vulnerable to warm ocean waters from climate change than had been thought.”

We also learned in August that Greenland and West Antarctic Ice Sheet more than doubled their rate of ice loss in the last five years.

Those findings have led leading climatologists to conclude we are headed toward the high end of projected sea level rise this century, four to six feet. That means we are in a major coastal real estate bubble (see “When Will Coastal Property Values Crash“).

Why Elon Musk’s Batteries Scare the Hell Out of the Electric Company

… in Davis, California, Honda Motor Co. has developed a “smart home” that produces more energy than it uses while charging a plug-in car. The home was designed in collaboration with SolarCity, PG&E Corp. and the University of California at Davis to showcase energy-efficient and renewable technologies. …

SolarCity rival SunPower Corp. is offering its solar and storage systems to buyers of electric cars from Audi AG and rebates for solar-panels to Ford Motor Co. plug-in customers. SunPower also has struck a partnership with homebuilder KB Home to begin installing solar and storage systems in California.

The time when residents can charge their electric cars with excess solar stored in their home batteries is “not decades away, that is years away,” said SunPower CEO Tom Werner.

Sydney councils join forces to provide cheaper solar for residents, business

In what is becoming a familiar pattern, a group of local government councils in NSW has joined forces to take up the federal and state policy slack and drive Australian solar uptake; this time by working to providing residents and small businesses with ready access to cheaper PV systems – including through a solar leasing option.

The SMH reports that eight southern Sydney councils have jointly approached suppliers of solar PV, solar hot water and heat pumps, asking for their best offers, with the ultimate goal of having up to 30 per cent of the region’s energy needs generated by renewable sources.

‘Coal Is A Dead Man Walking’: A Look Back At 2014

King Coal ran into a slag heap of bad news in 2014. … Taken together, those developments give plenty of reasons to recall the 2011 pithy assessment of coal’s future by the head of asset management at Deutsche Bank. “Coal is a dead man walking,” said Kevin Parker. “Banks won’t finance them. Insurance companies won’t insure them. The EPA is coming after them … And the economics to make it clean don’t work.”

Or, as then New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it last year, “Even though the coal industry doesn’t totally know it yet or is ready to admit it, its day is done … Here in the U.S., I’m happy to say, the king is dead. Coal is a dead man walking.”

Oil Investors at Brink of Losing Trillions of Dollars in Assets. Gore: It’s That Road Runner Moment

A major threat to fossil fuel companies has suddenly moved from the fringe to center stage with a dramatic announcement by Germany’s biggest power company and an intriguing letter from the Bank of England.

A growing minority of investors and regulators are probing the possibility that untapped deposits of oil, gas and coal — valued at trillions of dollars globally — could become stranded assets as governments adopt stricter climate change policies.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore likens today’s fossil fuels to the subprime mortgages of the last decade that triggered the global credit crisis. Their value “is based on an assumption every bit as absurd,” specifically the notion that all known oil, gas and coal will be consumed.

There’s more on “stranded assets”, with a focus on the Galilee Basin, on a recent post on the NQCC site.

Update: the last section of this post was added a day after the rest was published, since it was too apt to leave out.

Going solar – two updates

I have been connected with two domestic solar power projects which I described here on Green Path at the time, and today I have news on both of them.

Hervey’s Range in winter

The first item concerns our solar bore pump on Hervey’s Range: we pulled down the disused power line over the weekend and took it to a scrap metal merchant. Pulling it down made the property tidier and safer and was a good excuse for mucking around in the bush for a few hours on a beautiful sunny day, while the $150 we got for it was a belated cash-back bonus on our purchase of the solar pump system. 

The system itself, six months down the track from its installation, has performed well. Cloudy weather has not troubled it as much as we thought it might, and neither has the shorter span of daylight in winter.

Back in town, the 1.5 KW system we put on our roof has just passed a good round number in its total output: 7 000 kWh, or 7 MWh. We installed the system in May 2011 so it has produced an average of 6.2 kWh per day for three years. By power-station standards that’s nothing, of course, but it’s a useful percentage of a household’s consumption: Ergon says (on the back of our power bill) that the average daily consumption for a household like ours is about 20 kWh per day, so our panels are producing nearly a third as much as we use.

Of course, we use some of our solar power during the day and export the rest of it and then use Ergon’s power all night, so our net benefit doesn’t quite reflect those numbers. I did the sums a year after the installation and came up with a figure of $700 p.a., with the expectation that that would increase as power prices increased.

The general tariff has just gone up from 29.4 to 30.8 c/kWh, which doesn’t look like a big change until you note that the same tariff was only 19.4 c/kWh when we installed the system three years ago.

In May 2011 the “service fee” or “daily supply charge” was only $23 per quarter, whereas by May this year it had risen to 55 cents per day ($49 per quarter) and it has just increased to 92 c/day (about $83 per quarter). That will make it a major part of our power bill.

The huge increase in the supply charge is obviously Ergon’s attempt to make up for people like ourselves who still want the security of mains power but don’t actually use much of it because we generate a lot of our own. That’s fair enough, maybe, but it simultaneously encourages us (and people like us) to go completely off-grid. I will return to this scenario in another post; meanwhile, Australian households could go off-grid by 2018 is a thought-provoking introduction to it.

Put Solar On It!

putsolaronitFor a while now I’ve been collecting snippets of news about innovative – or just plain smart  – uses for solar photovoltaic power (PV) with the intention of posting them to Green Path. When I read about an American day of action coming soon, #Put Solar On It!, I decided I should assemble my finds now rather than later.

#PutSolarOnIt brings together the strength of Organizing for Action, Mosaic, The Solar Foundation, Solar Energy Industries Association, SolarChat, Vote Solar, NRDC, Interfaith Power & Light, Sierra Club, Environment America, World Wildlife Fund, REVERB, The Climate Reality Project, Alliance for Climate Education, League of Conservation Voters  and The Solutions Project.

This June 21st, the longest day of the year, a coalition of groups will come together in a National Day of Action to show support for switching to clean energy, fighting climate change, and the power of bringing solar power to communities all across the country. …

All across America there are opportunities to #PutSolarOnIt – to turn our homes, our churches, our schools our lands and our neighborhood rooftops into solutions to climate change. June 21st is a National Day of Action for us all to find a way to #PutSolarOnIt by identifying, supporting, and rallying our social networks to support solar energy, or joining a local event to support a community based solar installation.

Their press release also notes that …

2014 has been a breakout year for solar. Solar equipment costs continue to come down and installations continue to grow. More solar energy generation has been installed in the U.S. in the last 18 months than in the 30 years prior, and solar energy is the leading source of new electric generation capacity so far this year.

– and this is in spite of a sustained Republican campaign to block any and all renewable energy initiatives.

Anyway, back to the good stuff, the ingenuity and innovations. As in previous collections here, I’ve linked images to sources where I can. After collecting items for a while I realised that a lot of them involve transport. That’s a Good Thing, to my mind, since transport has always looked liked being one of the hardest areas to decarbonise because it requires compact portable power, and I will start with them.


PV trees make shade sails and a recharging station for electric cars. Townsville airport has had a smaller, simpler instance of the same idea since 2011 – see it on YouTube here. Or there’s the no-frills (but still really useful) version here.
Of course, if you know you won’t be near a facility like any of these, you can take your own gorgeous solar umbrella with you and erect it as you leave your car.

Solar roads, which in practice may begin as driveways, bikeways and car-parks.

Solar cars (and don’t forget the World Solar Challenge).

There’s probably a partially solar powered car in your future, but I wouldn’t bet on a solar powered plane – however pretty this one is.

Good places to put lots of solar panels

solar-airport• Airports – whether closed down, as at left, or fully functional as here – are wide open spaces near urban areas, already kept clear of trees and tall buildings which might shade any panels.


• Canals (above) and dams – reducing evaporative water loss as well as making electricity.

• Football stadium – one good outcome of the World Cup building programme in Brazil.

The price of solar cells has dropped to a point where unsubsidised solar power is cheaper to install than coal-fired power and the reliability and longevity of solar power installations is beyond doubt. Solar power now seems unstoppable and stories like this one on Think Progress drive home that point. Its last line, “shifting economics has increased interest in Texas’ long-untapped solar power potential,” is code for, “coal is no longer a profitable investment,” something for which the environment should be profoundly thankful.

Going solar is not for everyone

In the early days of this blog I wrote about whether going solar is always the best option and I have just revisited that question in real life after a Melbourne friend asked me for advice. Things have changed since I wrote that post – two and a half years is a long time in renewable energy development – so I thought that presenting her query as a case study might be worthwhile. Here it is; I have changed her name and lightly edited our emails for clarity, but that’s all.

solar pv advertisement

Paula lives alone in a unit in Northcote. She works as a nurse but is looking forward to retiring in the next five years and, sensibly, wants to set herself up for retirement by reducing her future expenses, which is where the thought of solar power came in.

She saw ads like the one at left and spoke to a salesman who recommended a 2.5 kW system on the roof of her garage, the biggest that would fit there, for a net cost to her of nearly $4000. He promoted it on the basis of how much it would reduce her power bills but she had second thoughts, writing …

I have gas ducted heating for winter and the air-conditioner is the cheaper-to-run evaporative type. My hot water service is gas. I rarely use the dishwasher, and the fridge and freezer are usually full so not a lot of power is used there. It is true I use my clothes dryer twice a week but apart from that it’s hard to see where the power goes.

I use lamps at night except in the kitchen and don’t have lights on all over the house, and I am in the process of replacing all the down lights with LEDs – which leads me to wonder how much can be saved.

Apart from the obvious long term considerations I’m starting to wonder how much of a good idea this is.

I asked her to send me a copy of her power bill and the solar power proposal, and took it from there:

Hi, Paula,

Thanks for sending the documents. They confirm what I was already beginning to think and, from your “I’m starting to wonder”, you were too: that going solar may not be the best thing for you.

(1) Looking at the pie chart showing average Victorian enargy use patterns on we find 16% goes on water heating (but you’re using gas) and 32% on heating (but again, you’re using gas). That means only half of your total energy bill goes to electricity, and agrees with the fact that your current electricity consumption is pretty low – around 60% of a typical one-person household’s use. It also means, of course, that reducing it can’t save you anywhere near as much as it would if you were all-electric.

(2) The feed-in tariff you can get from a new solar PV system is only 8 c/kWh. Any PV power you generate but don’t use during the day only makes you 8 c/kWh (that’s what they pay you for it). Any power you generate and do use makes (saves) you 27 c/kWh (it’s free but that’s what you would have paid for it).

While you are working, the only electricity you use during sunlight hours most days of the week is keeping your fridge ticking over. That is far less than the 2.5 kW the PV system will put out, so 90% of your PV system output is only going to be worth 8c/kWh to you. And what’s the output going to be? Maybe 7.0 – 7.5 kWh per day, or 2700 kWh per year; at 8c, that’s only about $200 … not a great return on your investment.

(3) When you retire, you will probably run the air-con a fair bit during summer so more of the PV output will be worth 27 c/kWh to you (probably more than that, actually, since power prices are only going one way – up!). But your air-con probably doesn’t use 2.5 kW anyway, so a smaller system (1.5 or 2.0 kW) will be a lot cheaper and give you almost as much benefit.

(4) There is no particular advantage in installing solar PV now rather than in two or five years’ time. A few years ago, feed-in tariffs were set high to encourage people to install systems but those days are gone. Meanwhile, component costs are still dropping and the technology is still improving, so you will probably get more bang for your buck in a few years’ time.

As you know, I am pro solar and anti fossil fuels but I think in your present situation a solar PV system, especially one as big as the one you’re looking at, is not worthwhile. That could change when you retire, but there’s no reason to install a system ahead of that time and a few reasons to leave it until that time.

And if you do decide you still want to go ahead now, please (1) go for a smaller system, probably 1.5 KW, and (2) shop around, since $4000 for a 2.5 KW system seems a little bit on the high side.

Meanwhile, your best money-saving tactics centre on minimising waste – not over-heating your house or your hot-water, not over-cooling your house in summer, turning off appliances which are perpetually on stand-by, improving insulation, etc. looks like your best resource, but you probably know most of it anyway.

That was enough to confirm Paula’s doubts and she decided not to proceed with the installation but I kept on thinking about the issues.

One thought: by the time she retires, the technology may have changed enough that she might go solar in a different way. For instance, she may be able to buy a plug-in electric vehicle as well as a solar PV system and use the batteries of her car as storage for household power. This kind of integration has been trialled for at least five years and must be ready to go mainstream soon.

Another thought: the 8c feed-in tariff seems way too low to be fair, and if and when that gets sorted out the long-term level for feed-in tariffs may be half to two-thirds of the retail domestic tariff, i.e. 16c on current rates. The library which lives behind my computer screen (I love the internet!) backs me up on that: RenewEconomy says:

Are Australian solar households getting ripped off?

Households in Australia adding solar PV arrays to their rooftops have an important question to ask themselves: Are they getting a fair deal from their local utility for the solar power that they export back to the grid?

Why is it, they might wonder, that households in regional Queensland which pay 26c/kWh (even after state-sponsored subsidies) for their electricity from the grid will get just 6.321c/kWh for their solar exports? In some areas, such as south-east Queensland or NSW, there is no obligation to pay households at all.

Yet in Minnesota, a state in the US (think of the film Fargo), households which pay a retail electricity rate of just 12c/kWh are being offered 10.9c/kWh for the solar that they export back to the grid.

In turn, that page references another RenewEconomy article called, Could a 500-house community go off-grid? which says, “Last year, a CSIRO study suggested one-third of consumers could go off-grid by 2050, based on the prospect that it would be economic for [individual] households and businesses to do so from around 2030 onwards,” and says that it’s economic right now for new housing estates to set up their own off-grid power supply.

Those pressures are going to radically transform the economics of electricity supply in much the same way that the internet has transformed (“trashed” may be a more accurate word) both print media and the post office. Utilities will find distribution costs per customer rising inexorably as customers go off-grid, and the resulting increases in supply charges will drive ever more customers off-grid – unless, perhaps, companies entice them to stay by offering very generous feed-in tariffs

There are going to be big changes and they are going to come more quickly than anyone would have predicted a few years ago.

Water from the Sun

windmill on skyline
A windmill on the edge of Hughenden in Western Queensland

Much of Western Queensland has always depended on underground water and for years a windmill on the horizon was a traveller’s first sign of the next homestead. That’s gradually changing now, however.

Free, non-polluting, renewable energy from the wind was first challenged by diesel pumps decades ago; they were cheaper to install and easier to maintain but had the disadvantage that they needed regular refuelling at a significant cost in dollars and (unless the pump was near the house) time. Then there were mains-powered electric pumps – so long as the bore was close enough to a power-line that running a wire to it was feasible. Now solar power is taking over from all three. It has the advantages of windmills – endless free power, anywhere – and it has quite recently become cost-competitive with all three older technologies.

When relatives built a house on Hervey’s Range thirty-odd years ago the only bore was half a kilometre away and they chose to run a power line through the scrub to an electric pump. It served the house well until cyclone Yasi came along and knocked over a few of the termite-weakened power poles. Replacing the line wasn’t an automatic decision since a new one would be expensive and would still be vulnerable to termites and storms, while the pump itself was old enough that replacing it was on the horizon anyway. The family chose to run the pump from a portable petrol generator – taking it to the pump every time the tanks needed filling – while investigating other possibilities.

In the end, a new overhead power line was going to cost about as much as a whole new solar pump system while an underground power line was prohibitively expensive so solar it was! A complete kit was ordered: panels, mounting frame, pump, and controller. Batteries and inverter? No and no: the pump simply runs when the sun shines and stops when it doesn’t so there’s no need for any storage. (More correctly, there’s no need to store electricity because the water tank above the house stores the pumped water instead.)

Installation was straightforward and was all done by unskilled family members. A couple of us dug a post-hole and cemented a steel pole in place, then returned a week later to remove the old pump, assemble the kit according to the instruction booklet and connect the new pump to the existing pipeline.  It all took less than a day.

solar panels on pole
The completed solar pump set-up
control box under solar panels
The whole of the control gear.

The black box up on the H-frame is the isolator switch and the bigger one on the post is the control box – and that’s all there is. The only other component is the pump, six metres down the bore at the foot of the post.

This is very early days in our experience of the new system but so far, so good. It pumps for four or more hours per day and when the panels are getting full sun it pumps enough water to run four sprinklers up at the house. It costs nothing to leave it running so that’s what we’ve been doing, making up for a long spell when the garden got less water than it needed.

This installation is only one small example, of course, but it points to two larger trends – one positive, one a little sad. The good one is that solar power is now a genuine alternative to fossil fuels in yet another application. The sadder one is  that all over inland Queensland, windmills are going the way of the blacksmith’s forge.