Four faults in Transpower’s proposed electricity empire

This morning about 10 climate activists showed up at Downstream 2020, the electricity industry’s annual celebration of its progress over the past year. Here I explain the meaning of four of the signs that were carried.

Electricity Empire --> Energy Descent

I describe Transpower’s 2018 vision report, Te Mauri Hiko, as a promotion of empire-building: it proposed to double today’s electricity generation assets by 2050. If that’s not empire-building, then what is?

The proposed massive development of wind farms is to be supplemented by new geothermal plants. All new power stations require earth moving, road-building, concrete, steel, and high-tech turbines and control equipment. All this construction requires fossil fuels. For windfarms, the energy they yield over a lifetime is typically less than ten times the energy needed to build them (EROI)- and the construction energy is spent up-front which makes the climate crisis worse.

More incredibly, Labour is now proposing a $4 billion dam in central Otago mainly to provide pumped storage for electricity in dry years; it does not even capture much new hydroelectricity.

As we build yet more Think Big projects, “Energy Descent” will be forced upon us quicker, because a simple replacement of fossil fuels with renewable and cleaner energy sources won't be feasible in the time frame required by an effective response to the global climate crisis. Our available consumer energy will inevitably decrease.

High fixed charges = an electricity tax

The electricity industry has lobbied to repeal the Low Fixed Charge regulations, so even the most frugal electricity consumers – whether by choice or poverty – will be charged around $2.00 per day. The Electricity Price Review team accepted that, but propose to implement it over a five-year period.

High fixed daily charges guarantee revenues to the electricity industry, giving secure funding for their empire-building. And they allow per-unit charges to be reduced, so people wanting to invest in energy efficiency or rooftop solar will face longer pay-back periods. In any reasonable regulatory system this would be called predatory pricing to suppress competition. But New Zealand’s electricity regulation explicitly excludes any product or service outside electricity itself, so it would not consider high fixed charges to be predatory within the scope of regulation.

This is like the infamous “salt taxes” imposed in France around the revolution, and India more recently. Those were taxes on an essential service that gave guaranteed revenue for the ambitions – typically military – of the government regimes.

Local Energy 4 Resilience

Electricity outages are not rare, and they are likely to increase with storms and floods resulting from climate change. Households and communities are more resilient if they can provide energy for themselves, even if less in quantity or convenience than what they’re used to.

Rooftop solar plus a suitable battery could provide resilience for any household, though unfortunately the installer often omits the extra electronics needed for the solar to be independent of the grid. Even more resilience is provided by an efficient wood burner, which can provide water heat (if so designed) as well as space heat and cooking.

The old-fashioned chip-heater did all that, though smoky and inefficient. New-technology wood gasifier burners could do that even using green wood, as is done now in Europe and being even further developed In New Zealand.

Some maraes are considering providing wood burning for their wharekai, making the marae a safe haven for the community they serve.

Economy of Scale? Economies of Scope!

Centralised power generation for bulk supply enjoys well-known economies of scale. Essentially the larger the power station, the lower the cost per kilowatt-hour. This is true for coal and gas power stations, also for wind turbines which were typically a few hundred kW to 1 MW in the 1990s, and are now up to 12MW for a single offshore turbine.

Home wood burning is a perfect example of economies of scope. A single energy source, firewood, can be burnt in a modern efficient wood burner. It offers warmth as radiant heat, and space heat for the whole room. My Pyroclassic II has large cooktop (which can even go red-hot, but that’s wasteful), and a wetback. I can dry clothes on three coat hangers above the cooktop, and I keep a kettle on it so there’s always convenient hot water.

Some find wood burning inconvenient, but I plan ahead and collect and dry very large amounts of kindling and branchwood from our native trees that otherwise would cut off sunshine and view from our south-facing section. I can usually light the fire virtually smokeless with one large piece of pinex soaked in meths plus kindling and branchwood that fills the firebox with flame. And can cook a dinner in less than an hour from when I arrive home.

By managing our native trees for sunshine, view, firewood and compost we get all those beautiful services plus native birds all year round, and food for insects and bees. It’s a really spiritual experience, all of it.