The Utility Shift To Energy Solutions Provision  

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The Climate Spectator has a pair of articles looking at how Australian utilities are trying to avoid the utility death spiral - partly by resisting change and partly by trying to work out how to adapt to i. The first article looks at AGL, which has been marching backwards lately as it invests heavily in old (but very cheap) coal fired power plants - AGL's tense shift towards energy solutions provider.

Average household customer electricity consumption was down nearly 10 per cent for the year and this comes on top of similar falls in prior years (detailed in the chart below). Part of this year’s fall is attributed to the mild May and June but, nonetheless, “AGL expects average consumer demand to continue to be impacted by energy efficiency, solar and new technologies”.

With less volume AGL finds itself unable to make the kind of margin per customer which it has in the past in the retail end of its business. Earnings per 'customer account' were down 16.7 per cent compared to last year for AGL. At the same time, the reduced energy sales also flow down the line to lower prices and margins in the power generation part of its business as well.

The problem for AGL, and indeed other power companies, is that energy equipment suppliers for buildings – such as solar PV but also other products, such as energy efficient lighting – are cutting their lunch. These equipment suppliers are helping customers to reduce the amount of energy they need from the grid.

AGL’s chief executive Michael Fraser appears acutely aware of this challenge. He suggests that the company needs to transition from a conventional vertically integrated energy supplier which makes money through selling volume of energy, to what they term an integrated energy solutions provider, which they symbolise in the picture below.

Essentially, AGL believes it needs to vertically integrate yet another step beyond the centralised grid and into its customers’ homes. Under such a model the company would make money less by selling electrons from the grid and more by charging for services linked to equipment such as solar PV, batteries and devices which would improve a household’s energy efficiency and shift its electricity demand out of the periods when power is most costly, such as very hot and very cold days.

Boston Consulting Group released a paper recently looking at how this energy solution provision model may arise and the challenges it presents for traditional power utilities. BCG outlines in the diagram below how the revenues available upstream from the customer are likely to erode over time due to solar, cheaper batteries and more efficient and communication-enabled electrical equipment. It shows that while the revenue available to generation and power networks, declines, the available revenue for behind-the-meter equipment and services – as well as metering equipment – rises.

The second article looks at another of the big 3 Australian utility companies - Origin Energy - and how the rapid rise in east coast gas prices (caused by the export of coal seam gas as LNG) is impacting the generation mix - Origin hit by solar and efficiency demand drop.

Origin, like AGL, is also talking up its ability to vertically integrate into the customer-side of the grid to counter the loss of margins through lower grid-based electricity volumes. In its presentation to investors it states it is focusing on development of a “revitalised solar business, smart meter technology, electric vehicles, distributed generation and storage”.

However, Origin does not elaborate on what is meant by its “revitalised strategy in solar”. In its latest results it notes gross profit decreased in its non-energy commodity business dropped by 35 per cent, or $17 million, primarily due to lower demand for rooftop solar PV systems. Origin used to be the largest solar retailer in the country but in the last few years its market share has declined dramatically.

At the same time Origin’s presentation seems to indicate that it is hopeful regulatory changes might alleviate declines in power consumption, such as changes to the Renewable Energy Target and adjusting network charges away from being averaged across energy consumption to more of a fixed nature.

Also, the company notes they’d be looking to limit capital investment in their energy markets division. This seems to suggest they see better opportunities in oil and gas rather than funneling money into provision of innovative energy solution offerings to replace lost grid sales.

Also just like AGL, Origin see prospects for returns to improve in conventional power generation with large price rises possible. They believe that there will be a mass withdrawal of around 15 terrawatt-hours of gas fired generation from the NEM as LNG plants suck in this gas. They also expect some further power plant capacity to be retired.

The utilisation of their mix of power plants (detailed in the table below) underlies the shift we’ll see. Darling Downs and Mortlake are running at quite high capacity factors given their position in the power plant merit order while the coal-fired Eraring operated at less than half its full capacity (45 per cent capacity factor).

One can imagine with gas rising to around $8 per gigajoule these plants will almost drop off the grid while Eraring’s output will increase considerably.

Is Storage Necessary for Renewable Energy?  

Posted by Big Gav in , , has a look at an Amory Lovins presentation on our ability to switch to 100% renewable energy even without energy storage - Is Storage Necessary for Renewable Energy?.

Physicist and energy expert Amory Lovins, chief scientist at The Rocky Mountain Institute, recently released a video in which he claims that renewable energy can meet all of our energy needs without the need for a fossil fuel or nuclear baseload generation. There’s nothing unusual about that - many people have made that claim - but he also suggests that this can be done without a lot of grid-level storage. Instead, Lovins describes a “choreography” between supply and demand, using predictive computer models to anticipate production and consumption, and intelligent routing to deliver power where it’s needed. This “energy dance,” combined with advances in energy efficiency, will allow us to meet all of our energy needs without sacrificing reliability.

Okay, so there is a little storage involved: ice-storage air conditioning and smart charging of electric vehicles. But where others, including myself, have assumed that large storage devices will need to be added to the grid, Lovins thinks that massive storage facilities are unnecessary, and he presents compelling evidence to support his claim, including actual data from Europe and computer models from NREL. ...

Lovins presents this in the context of storage vs intelligent routing of electricity - which one do we need? That’s a false dichotomy. There will always be a need for storage since many applications are off grid. Obviously storage is needed in order to electrify transportation. So I agree that dynamic routing is the best long term solution for the grid, but we still need to invest in storage technologies. The good thing is that both storage and smart routing can be implemented together, a little at a time, and scaled up gradually.

Powering Australia  

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The Australian is running a poll on energy related issues in Australia - it's one of the few reasons I could think of visiting it (just long enough to vote) - Powering Australia.

Globe sees fourth warmest July on record; Oceans tie for warmest July  

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The Washington Post has an update on the warming globe - Globe sees fourth warmest July on record; Oceans tie for warmest July.

The average global temperature in July was the fourth highest on record for any July since records began in 1880, according to NOAA. This is after two months of record warm global temperature in May and June. So far, 2014 is the third warmest year on record, with an average temperature 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.

In addition to NOAA’s analysis, the Japan Meteorological Agency ranks July as the second warmest July on record. It ranked as the fifth warmest July in the satellite record, which dates back to 1979, according to the University of Alabama at Huntsville.

Combined land and ocean temperature was 1.15 degrees above the 20th century average of 60.4, NOAA says. On land, 32 countries across every continent had at least one station report a record warm month of July. In Norway, the average July temperature was an astonishing 7.7 degrees above average, which made July the warmest out of any month for the country, beating the old record by 1.8 degrees.

US shale: What lies beneath  

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The FT has a pair of pieces on the shale oil industry - one in-depth article comparing the optimistic and skeptic views of the shale oil boom / bubble and another letter to the editor declaring the shale boom the oil industry's "retirement party" - US shale: What lies beneath and Shale: last act at retirement party.

The skeptic view features long-time peak oil proponent Dave Hughes and Bill Powers.

The letter to the editor notes "The crippling problems of shale oil production remain, which are a depletion rate 10 times worse than a conventional well, to produce oil at a 10th of the rate, via wells that cost vastly more to drill than a conventional (land-based) well. Better perhaps than an offshore well, but with a desperate race to drill thousands of wells each year, every year to maintain present production levels."

How Badly Is the Wave and Tidal Industry Struggling? Likely Worse Than You Thought  

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GTM has a look at the woeful performance of the ocean energy industry (though it's probably worth noting that South Korea has had some big successes) - How Badly Is the Wave and Tidal Industry Struggling? Likely Worse Than You Thought.

Nearly a decade after the surge of attention in marine energy technologies, the industry has not been able to overcome severe technical and financial challenges. As a result, installations have remained at pilot scale, while financing has been largely limited to government programs for testing and demonstrations.

And new projections from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) show that the market for marine energy will be inconsequential for years to come.

According to BNEF, tidal power installations are expected to hit 148 megawatts by 2020, down 11 percent from forecasts made just a year ago. Wave power will be even smaller, with global capacity expected to reach 21 megawatts by the end of the decade -- a 72 percent downward revision from earlier forecasts.

To put that in perspective: SolarCity is installing more solar PV every seventeen days in America than the entire global installed base of wave power through 2020.

The promise of the technology is alluring. The International Energy Agency estimates that wave resources could theoretically provide 29,500 terawatt-hours per year, and tidal could produce more than 1,200 terawatt-hours per year. That's a little bit more than the total primary energy use of the U.S.

But the commercial deployments promised over the last ten years have largely failed to materialize. Between 2007 and 2010, numerous "landmark" projects were scrapped due to faulty equipment and high costs.

Gizmag reports that hope springs eternal in the Severn Estuary, with another plan being floated for a tidal power project in the area - Huge world-first man-made tidal lagoon could power over 155,000 homes.

Energy trade association RenewableUK calls the UK "the undisputed global leader in marine energy." If plans for a tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay go ahead, that claim will be reinforced. Tidal Lagoon Swansea Bay would be the world’s first man-made energy-generating lagoon and could power over 155,000 homes.

Renewable energy is, of course, an area of huge importance and growth. A 2011 study by researchers at University of California-Davis and Stanford University suggests that the world could be powered completely by clean energy within 20-40 years.

Of the renewable options available, tidal is particularly intriguing. Renewable UK says wave and tidal energy could produce around 20 percent of the UK’s current electricity needs, and that the ongoing reduction in its technology costs will make it increasingly viable from a commercial perspective.

The lagoon would be used for a variety of activities other than energy generation Swansea Bay has a high tidal range of up to 10.5 m (34 ft), making it an ideal location for tidal power generation. The proposal would see a 9.5 km (6 mi) lagoon wall constructed, halfway round which would be a 550 m (1,804 ft) turbine housing. The turbine housing would provide a means of allowing water to flow in and out of the lagoon as the tide rises and falls. Up to 26 turbines would be contained in the housing and would be driven with the flow of water in and out of the lagoon.

The Tidal Lagoon (Swansea Bay) development group says the lagoon would provide an energy production capacity of 320 MW and would provide sustainable and predictable electricity for 120 years of operation.

Hawaii utilites capitulate on solar, in 65% renewables plan  

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RNE has a look at moves in Hawaii to shift from oil-fired power generation to solar power - Hawaii utilites capitulate on solar, in 65% renewables plan.

Just months after being ordered to lift their game on distributed, grid-connected solar, Hawaii’s investor-owned electric companies have revealed plans to triple the amount of rooftop solar installed on the island state by 2030.

Hawaiian Electric, Maui Electric and Hawaii Electric Light, collectively known as HECO, announced on Wednesday plans to upgrade the grid and boost solar as part of a broader goal to achieve a minimum of 65 per cent renewable energy generation and to cut electricity bill costs by 20 per cent – also by 2030.

In late April, HECO came under direct pressure from Hawaii’s energy regulator, which ruled the utilities were not moving fast enough to address key sources of customer frustration, namely challenges connecting solar PV systems to the grid.

Mobile Security Robot To Be Mass Produced  

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Factor has a look at a new "night watchman" robot - BOTS ON PATROL: MOBILE SECURITY ROBOT TO BE MASS PRODUCED.

In a move that will rock the job security of night watchmen everywhere, the world’s first commercially available security robot is set for mass production in the US.

Designed by Denver-based Gamma 2 Robotics, the robot will now be manufactured entirely in the States, with a process that can be scaled up to full mass production as demand grows.

The robot, which is known as the Vigilant MCP (mobile camera platform), features a digital camera and an array of sensors to detect the presence of unauthorised intruders, and will activate the alarm and send out an alert should it find someone where they shouldn’t be.

It is being pushed as a solution to night security in particular, with proposed industries including retail, warehouses, data centres and convention centres.

Personally i think a better design would look like this :

Watts happening? Electricity demand falling as prices continue to rise  

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Ross Gittins at the SMH has a look at the strange dynamics being exhibited by the Australian power market - Watts happening? Electricity demand falling as prices continue to rise.

We know the two great certainties in life are death and taxes, but many thought there was a third: the inexorable rise in consumption of electricity. As the population grew and each of us got a little more prosperous each year, we'd use more power. The mighty electricity industry was built on that certainty.

Except that electricity consumption has been falling for the past four years. To say this has taken the industry by surprise is an understatement. For well over a century – even during the Great Depression – the quantity of electricity used in Australia each year was greater than the year before. ...

There are few aspects of the economy – global or national – where change is more significant, more diverse or more interesting than energy supply and demand – where energy covers coal, gas (conventional and unconventional), petroleum, wind, solar and other renewables. Expect to hear more from me on the topic.

But there are few questions more interesting than exactly why the unthinkable, a fall in electricity consumption, has come about. Short answer: a surprisingly large combination of reasons ...

The best attempt to quantify the various factors involved comes from a report prepared by Dr Hugh Saddler, an energy expert with the Pitt and Sherry consultancy, for the Australia Institute. Saddler's modelling covers the years to 2012-13, but we know from reporting this week by Origin Energy and AGL that the fall continued in 2013-14.

Saddler focuses on energy produced and consumed from the National Energy Market, which covers the five eastern states and the ACT, but the decline is occurring also in Western Australia. After peaking in 2008-09, consumption from the national market in 2012-13 was down by almost 8 terawatt hours, or 4.3 per cent.

But that's only half the story. Just as important as why demand has fallen is why it hasn't continued growing, as continued growth in the population and the economy would lead us to expect. Saddler estimates that had demand continued growing from 2004 at its average rate of growth over the previous 20 years (2.5 per cent a year) it would have been 37 terawatt hours more than it actually was in 2012-13. ...

"All of the decline in consumption has been at the expense of coal-fired generators, with the result that many are now barely profitable," Saddler says. ...

So what has caused our power consumption to fall rather than rise? The biggest single reason is the introduction from the late 1990s of regulations to increase the energy efficiency of refrigerators, freezers and many other residential and commercial appliances, and to increase the energy efficiency of new buildings.

Saddler estimates this explains 37 per cent of the 37 terawatt-hour shortfall from what might have been.

The next biggest part of the explanation is structural change in the economy away from electricity-intensive industries. Over the year to September 2012, three major NSW industrial power users – Port Kembla steelworks, Kurri Kurri aluminium smelter and the Clyde oil refinery – were partly or completely shut down. This explains 10 per cent of the 37 terawatt-hour shortfall.

The evidence also suggests that power consumption by other major industrial users has been little changed over the three years to 2012-13. Saddler estimates that this failure to grow explains a further 14 per cent of the shortfall, taking the total contribution from structural change to almost a quarter.

The next most important part of the explanation is the response of electricity users, particularly residential users, to the higher prices they were being charged. Saddler finds that after 2010 there was "an abrupt change in consumer responsiveness to higher prices". ...

He further calculates that the growth in output from rooftop photovoltaic solar and other small, distributed generators accounts for about 13 per cent of the shortfall. This, of course, is a fall in the demand for electricity supplied by the major, mainly coal-fired generators, not a fall in the use of electricity as such.

Saddler notes that for the past three years the annual peak demand has been falling, not increasing, despite the huge investment to cope with ever-rising peaks. When will this additional capacity, which is now built and for which all electricity consumers are paying – and will continue to pay for some years to come – be required, if ever, he asks.

Peak Peak ?  

Posted by Big Gav

I thought declaring Peak Everything peaked a few years ago, but according to The Guardian peak peakism only recently passed by - Have we reached peak peak? The rise (and rise) of a ubiquitous phrase. Can't say I'm going to miss beards...

Rob Brooks is the Australian researcher who used the term "peak beard" back in April, triggering write-ups on news portals around the world and, eventually, when coverage had crested, the phrase "peak peak beard". The Guardian's report alone was shared 28,601 times on Facebook. But Brooks was not first to use the term peak beard. In 2013, the Guardian used the phrase in a story that was shared a humbler 926 times, which goes to show: you can peak too soon. In the late 16th century, peak beards – beards shaped like an isosceles triangle – had a moment. But nobody recalls those now. If they did, someone would have called peak peak peak beard: too many stories about the popularity of peak beards.

Not all peaks are bristle-related. Before beards there was "peak stuff", the title of a 2011 research paper by the environmental writer Chris Goodall. He says he came up with the phrase because "the characteristic meme among environmentalists is that everything is getting worse all the time. I started to notice that this wasn't the case. In fact, there's a lot of evidence that humankind's impact on the environment in mature economies has peaked." He cites "things such as the amount of waste we produce, the amount of fertiliser we throw on food, the weight of clothing we buy".

Where else had he seen or heard the phrase "have we reached peak ..."?

"I was hoping you were going to say that I was the first person to do this," he says. But by 2011, other peaks had already cut through: "peak times" (Urban Dictionary, 2010), for instance, or plain "peak" (2009), meaning very good or very bad. Further back in time, the references fall away. Before 2009, the only peaks in Urban Dictionary were "very erect nipples".

"Have we reached peak X?" belongs to a family of tropes known as snowclones – a templated phrase whose components offer tireless possibilities for adaptation and regeneration. Other examples are "X is the new Y", "We are all X now" and "How I learned to stop X and love Y".

The authority on Snowclones is the Language Log blog run by celebrated linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman. "This particular idiom is hard to track," emails Liberman, "because 'peak NOUN' is a commonplace expression, with head nouns denoting things that are (or can be) measured, eg 'peak performance', 'peak demand', 'peak power'." In other words, the usage is too broad, and the adjective too common to be traced on databases. It would be impossible to separate comic formulations from more serious peaks.

There is some good news, though. Liberman remembers the first time he noticed the phrase. It was in 2008, when the US writer John Cole blogged that "we may have hit and passed Peak Wingnut", a derogatory term for rightwingers.

Cole's post is nearly six years old, but can he recall what inspired the phrase? "I came up with 'peak wingnut' because I was shocked," Cole says. "The Republicans seemed to get crazier and crazier. The source of it is [US blogger] Kevin Drum. At the Washington Monthly, one of the things he was always talking about was peak oil."

Earning a living  

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Replacing coal with biogas  

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RNE has a look at some CEFC programs to increase the use of biogas in Australia - Major beef processor turns to biogas to halve power bills.

One of Australia’s largest meat processors – and a major regional employer, providing 830 jobs – is among the latest recipients of funding from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, in a deal to co-finance a major on-site energy project at northern NSW-based Bindaree Beef.

The CEFC announced on Tuesday it would provide up to $15 million, together with additional bank finance and an Australian Government Clean Technology Investment Program grant, to fund the installation of a biodigester and energy efficient rendering facilities to improve the efficiency and competitiveness of operations at Bindaree Beef.

As well as the biodigester, the funding will go towards development of an electricity generation facility using biogas (produced by the biodigester) as fuel, and a new more energy efficient rendering plant to replace the existing coal-fired plant and eliminate the use of coal. Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 10.37.13 AM

The new equipment is expected to halve the company’s power bills and cut its annual carbon emissions by three quarters. The biogas plant will also create a new business revenue stream through sales of organic fertiliser – a by-product of the energy conversion process.

Bindaree Beef Director John Newton said securing finance from the CEFC – a $10 billion Labor government initiative, which remains on the Abbott government’s chopping block – had been integral to securing the interest of additional private finance, which, along with the government grant, would cover the total project cost. ...

In March this year, the CEFC contributed $20 million to a funding deal with Quantum Power Limited – Australia’s leading biogas company – to catalyse up to $40 million in biogas infrastructure aimed at helping farmers and manufacturers cut costs and boost productivity in the face of rising electricity prices.

Global Gasoline Guzzling Set To Plummet  

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Cleantechnica has a post on some research into future oil demand for transport - Global Gasoline Guzzling Set To Plummet.

Policies designed to minimise and redefine dependence upon oil for transportation have been the talk of many towns around the world over the past several years, leading Navigant Research to posit that gasoline consumption for road transportation will fall by 4% from 2014 to 2035.

Policies intended to reduce fuel consumption have ranged from subsidising alternative fuels and alternative-fuel vehicles, making the development of new and economic biofuels a priority, as well as higher fuel-economy requirements for new vehicles. Each policy has been one step in a cleaner future, and another nail in the coffin of traditional fuel-oriented transportation.

“The anticipated effects of climate change are driving international cooperation on mitigation efforts, including reducing oil consumption in the transportation sector,” says Scott Shepard, research analyst with Navigant Research. “Markets for both vehicles and fuels have gradually begun to respond to these efforts, and alternative fuels ‑ including electricity, natural gas, and biodiesel ‑ are beginning to have an impact on global oil demand.”

How important is gas to China's energy mix?  

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The Climate Spectator has a pair of article on EIA research into China's appetite for natural gas. The first looks at where China currently gets its gas from - How important is gas to China's energy mix?.

China more than tripled natural gas production since 2003, producing 3.8 trillion cubic feet in 2012, and the government is targeting production to reach about 5.5 Tcf of natural gas per year by the end of 2015. Most of the anticipated production growth is from large onshore fields in the western and north central regions of China as well as from the offshore deepwater regions in the South China Sea. China's natural gas consumption has outstripped domestic supply since 2007, triggering rising imports of both liquefied natural gas and pipeline gas. China's natural gas consumption rose at an average annual rate of 17 per cent from 2003 through 2013, reaching nearly 5.7 Tcf in 2013.

In 2013, China imported nearly 1.8 Tcf of LNG and pipeline gas to fill the growing gap between supply and demand. Imported natural gas met 32 per cent of China's demand in 2013, up from 2 per cent in 2006. China is swiftly developing its LNG import capacity in the urban coastal areas and currently has 10 major regasification terminals with 1.7 Tcf/y of capacity. In 2012, China rose to become the third-largest LNG importer in the world, after Japan and South Korea, and in 2013, the country imported 870 billion cubic feet of LNG. Estimates for the first half of 2014 show LNG imports growing at faster levels than in previous years.

The second article looks at the supply situation from Russia - China's gas equation, post-Gazprom.

Russia's largest natural gas company, Gazprom, finalised a deal with the Chinese National Petroleum Corporation in May. New natural gas production in Russia will mainly come from fields in eastern Siberia, which currently lack export infrastructure. The planned Power of Siberia pipeline will export gas south to China and east to a liquefied natural gas plant on Russia's east coast.

This contract is Gazprom's largest to date. Gazprom has a monopoly on pipeline natural gas export contracts made by Russia. The situation differs from that in LNG markets, where other companies such as Rosneft and Novatek may participate.

China's northern and eastern provinces have growing natural gas demand that cannot be met by existing pipelines or LNG, and the new Russian natural gas will mostly go to meet demand in these regions. China has also committed to purchasing 38 bcm (1.3 Tcf) per year of natural gas from Turkmenistan by 2016, increasing to 65 bcm (2.2Tcf) per year by 2020.

As a footnote, Technology Review has an article on China's problems trying to develop shale gas - China’s Shale Gas Bust.

In 2013 China became the third biggest user of natural gas behind the United States and Russia, consuming 166 billion cubic meters (bcm). By 2019, the International Energy Agency expects China’s annual natural gas consumption to grow 90 percent, to 315 bcm. Half of that increase is expected to be supplied by domestic gas production, which would come from multiple sources, including shale reserves.

That IEA estimate for gas consumption is much lower than the production target China had set for itself: 420 bcm of natural gas annually by 2020, with hydrofracturing, or fracking, being used to get 60 to 80 bcm from shale.

China is estimated to hold the largest technically recoverable reserves of shale gas in the world—nearly twice as much as the U.S. But the shale industry in China has struggled to get off the ground. Most projects are still in the exploration phase. In many cases the formations that hold gas are deeper than in North America and more expensive to reach. Further, Chinese shale tends to have more clay in it, which is an obstacle to extraction (see “China Has Plenty of Shale Gas, But It Will Be Hard to Mine”). These challenges led the government last week to reduce the 2020 shale-gas target to 30 bcm.

Even that would represent a huge increase. Of the 117 bcm of natural gas that China produced in 2013, only 0.2 bcm came from shale.

Nobel gurus fear globalisation is going horribly wrong ?  

Posted by Big Gav

While I rarely agree with Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's conclusions I generally enjoy reading his column in the UK Daily Telegraph as he does consistently ponder interesting topics. The start to his latest column - Nobel gurus fear globalisation is going horribly wrong - is somewhat baffling however it does improve as you get into it (ignoring a few red herrings like claiming globalisation has pushed up wages for some workers everywhere).

The idea that it could be surprising that globalisation is widening inequality everywhere (while the income differentials between countries as a whole narrow) is baffling. Global free trade and movement of capital forces labour forces everywhere to compete against one another, slowly equalising wages. Neoliberal capitalism itself creates a huge gulf in the incomes between the owners of capital and those with none. Surely this is simple to understand (and nowadays, to observe).

It is interesting, however, that he discusses income redistribution within rich countries to soften the blow on labour. I think there is a slow dawning of understanding amongst the elites that the current model is going to break at some point - and re-instituting some ideas from the past (public transport/ living wages / negative income taxes / shorter working weeks etc supplemented with some new ideas like paying people to keep their children in school) might have to be done to ensure the stability of the system...

David Ricardo's Theory of Comparative Advantage has broken down after 200 years, or so I learned at the Lindau forum of Nobel laureates in Bavaria.

The theory published in 1817 has been a guiding principle of free trade, taken as a given by every student of economics in the modern era. It has served us well, but just as Newton's theories ran into limits and were overtaken by Einstein's relativity, comparative advantage no longer explains the world.

Under Ricardo's model, inequality was supposed to narrow within countries as globalisation accelerated exponentially in the Nineties. Instead it is getting wider. The Gini coefficient measuring the spread between rich and poor is narrowing between countries, but is widening almost everywhere within countries, leading to a corrosive concentration of wealth.

"Globalisation today is very different from the 19th century," said Eric Maskin, winner of the Nobel Prize in 2007. Ricardo described a world where free trade in goods was opening up, but labour markets remained largely closed. This is no longer the case. Globalisation bids up the wages of high-skilled engineers or software analysts towards international levels wherever they live. ...

Prof Maskin said it would be a counsel of despair to turn away from globalisation. The last quarter-century has led to a surge in living standards for the emerging world as a whole. Yet it must be tamed. An answer lies in Brazil, one of the few countries to buck the trend and lower its Gini index.

One of the tricks was a scheme introduced twelve years ago to make "conditional cash transfers" to poor families provided their children stay in school up to the age of 17, and must be vaccinated. The idea is spreading to Africa and the Mid-East. Another trick is to build public transport linking the poorest slums with the places where the jobs can be found, usually far away. This is the task of microeconomics, one brick at a time.

The Maskin theory is not to be confused with "labour arbitrage", in which global multinationals take a greater share of the pie in profits by playing off cheap workers in Asia against blue-collar workers in the West – holding down wages in the US and Europe.

That too is going on. It may cure itself over time. It has not down so yet. Sir James Mirrlees, who won the Prize in 1996 for work on incentives, advocates outright subsidies for poorer workers in the West to stop them falling out of the bottom. "Just as you have social security taxes on employment, you could have negative taxes. Housing subsidies already work in this way in the UK," he told me.

Prof Mirrlees says capital controls may be needed to right the ship, warning Europe could be trapped in high unemployment for "years to come", unless they keep their capital at home for their own use. "The Europeans don't yet seem to have realised this," he said.

There is an enduring myth – a self-serving one – that inequality is a price we must pay to achieve higher growth. Advocates posit a trade-off effect. They argue that "levelling" pulls down everybody and damages the economy in the end.

Prof Joseph Stiglitz says the data proves otherwise. "We now realise that less inequality leads to greater stability, growth, and economic efficiency. They compliment each other," he told the Lindau forum. "We are seeing an ever-increasing concentration of wealth. It is fundamentally different from what occurred in the 19th century and up to the First World War, when real wages were rising. What we have seen with globalisation since the Eighties is stagnation in real wages," he said.

Prof Stiglitz, a former chief economist for the World Bank and winner of the Prize in 2001, said real median pay for full-time male workers has fallen back to levels last seen 40 years ago, yet productivity has risen 100pc over the same period. The workers have been excluded from all the gains, or as he puts it, we now live in an "inherited plutocracy" where the rich accumulate ever more in a perverse dynamic that will not necessarily self-correct. It may continue until we change the way society is organised, that is to say until we change our laws, spending policies, and taxation.

His preference is the "Scandinavian Dream" but there are many ways to skin a cat. It is not a Left/Right issue. It is common sense. Democracies will not last long with the wealth concentration of pre-modern despotisms.

The $500-a-day service charge designed to kill solar in Queensland  

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RNE has a look at moves in Queensland to shift from usage based pricing for electricity to a model with heavy "service charges" for grid connection, punishing on-premise generation - The $500-a-day service charge designed to kill solar.

Queensland businesses are being hit with daily service charges of more than $500 a day on their electricity bills, in a move the solar industry says is designed to kill the roll-out of commercial-scale rooftop solar across the state.

The charges were quietly unveiled by the Queensland Competition Authority and the state government in July. But their implications are only now being absorbed as business operators do the numbers on proposed solar installations. ...

The changes have horrified members of the solar industry, businesses looking to install solar, and those who have invested tens of thousands of dollar in energy efficiency measures such as LEDs or upgraded machinery.

That’s because, according to Steve Madson, director of Country Solar, one of the country’s largest installers of commercial-scale solar, the new tariffs reduce any incentive for businesses to lower consumption from the grid, either by installing solar panels for their own use, or by investing in more efficiency machinery and lighting.

Madson says the charges appear designed to stop the rollout of commercial-scale solar in Queensland. “The changes are clever in their design,” Madson told RenewEconomy. “They do not actually result in an increase in total electricity costs, and in some cases they actually cause a fall. But they kill the possibility of reducing the bills by installing solar. ”How can they charge $500 a day to read the meter, that is what the daily service charge is after all.”

The QCA, and the state government has long been accused of acting only to protect the interests of the network operators and retailers, and to boost the dividends paid to the government. Last year, as RenewEconomy reported, QCA came out in favour of special tariffs on residential solar customers, even though it admitted that they would be more costly, ineffective, unfair and possibly illegal. But they favoured the move because it would protect network revenues.

The raising of fixed charges has been a common response among utilities fearing the impact of rooftop solar and a “death spiral” of falling revenues on a fixed asset base.

Analysts such as Morgan Stanley have ridiculed the practice of imposing high fixed charges, saying it was ultimately self-defeating and could simply accelerate that death spiral, and encourage people to go off-grid, particularly when battery storage became commercially viable. “There may be a ‘tipping point’ that causes customers to seek an off-grid approach — higher fixed charges to distributed generation customers are likely to drive more battery purchases and exits from the grid,” the Morgan Stanley researchers wrote.

Madson agrees: “In three years’ time (when battery storage improves), this will also be enough for a mass exodus from the grid altogether.”

Humans Need Not Apply  

Posted by Big Gav in

The impact of massive automation of jobs seems to be one of the emerging concerns of the past few years - this video from CGP Grey is quite a good summary - Humans Need Not Apply.

Could hemp nanosheets topple graphene for making the ideal supercapacitor?  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

The American Chemical Society has a post on the possible use of hemp in creating supercapacitors - Could hemp nanosheets topple graphene for making the ideal supercapacitor?

David Mitlin, Ph.D., explains that supercapacitors are energy storage devices that have huge potential to transform the way future electronics are powered. Unlike today’s rechargeable batteries, which sip up energy over several hours, supercapacitors can charge and discharge within seconds. But they normally can’t store nearly as much energy as batteries, an important property known as energy density. One approach researchers are taking to boost supercapacitors’ energy density is to design better electrodes. Mitlin’s team has figured out how to make them from certain hemp fibers — and they can hold as much energy as the current top contender: graphene.

“Our device’s electrochemical performance is on par with or better than graphene-based devices,” Mitlin says. “The key advantage is that our electrodes are made from biowaste using a simple process, and therefore, are much cheaper than graphene.”

The race toward the ideal supercapacitor has largely focused on graphene — a strong, light material made of atom-thick layers of carbon, which when stacked, can be made into electrodes. Scientists are investigating how they can take advantage of graphene’s unique properties to build better solar cells, water filtration systems, touch-screen technology, as well as batteries and supercapacitors. The problem is it’s expensive.

Mitlin’s group decided to see if they could make graphene-like carbons from hemp bast fibers. The fibers come from the inner bark of the plant and often are discarded from Canada’s fast-growing industries that use hemp for clothing, construction materials and other products. The U.S. could soon become another supplier of bast. It now allows limited cultivation of hemp, which unlike its close cousin, does not induce highs.

South Australia wind energy jumps to 43% in July  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

RNE has a look at the relentless penetration of wind energy into the South Australian grid - South Australia wind energy jumps to 43% in July.

South Australia’s wind farms produced enough electricity to meet a record 43 per cent of the state’s power needs during July, and on occasions during the month provided all the state’s electricity needs. ... Combined with the state’s 550MW of solar power, it is likely that nearly half of the state’s electricity demand came from variable renewable sources such as wind and solar – a record for a major developed economy.

Spain, for instance, this week, said that in July solar made up 8 per cent of its power supply, spread evenly between concentrated solar thermal and solar PV – while wind energy contributed 16.8% of the overall energy generation mix.

“With more than 40 per cent of the state’s power demand provided by wind energy for the entire month, it is clear that large amounts of renewable energy can be added to the system without the need for extra backup generation to be built,” Clean Energy Council acting Chief Executive Kane Thornton said in a statement.

Solar Power Installations Jump to a New Annual Record  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

WorldWatch has a report on the global solar power market - Solar Power Installations Jump to a New Annual Record.

The year 2013 saw record-breaking growth for solar electricity generation as the photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar thermal power (CSP) markets continued to grow. With over 39 gigawatts installed worldwide, the PV solar market represented one third of all newly-added renewable energy capacity, write Worldwatch’s Max Lander and Climate and Energy Intern Xiangyu Wu in the Worldwatch Institute’s latest Vital Signs Online trend (

Solar PV installations nearly matched those of hydropower and, for the first time, outpaced wind additions. Even though photovoltaics continue to dwarf CSP capacity, the CSP market also had another year of impressive growth. By the end of 2013, a total of 19 countries had CSP plants installed or under construction.

Consumption of power from PV and CSP plants increased by 30 percent globally in 2013 to reach 124.8 terawatt-hours. Europe accounted for the majority of global solar power consumption (67 percent), followed by Asia (23.9 percent) and North America (8.1 percent). Worldwide, solar consumption equaled 0.5 percent of electricity generation from all sources. ... In July 2014, global PV module spot prices reached an all-time low of $0.63 per watt. For the first time, Asia overtook Europe as the largest regional market.

While global PV module production increased by only 3 percent over 2012, module shipments jumped by 24 percent, signaling an easing of oversupply problems.

Prospects are bright for solar development as prices continue to fall and approach grid parity in an increasing number of contexts. Rooftop solar is already less expensive per megawatt-hour than retail electricity in Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Italy, and Germany. Estimates now also show that PV has become price-competitive without subsidies in 15 countries. For2014, solar installations are estimated to reach 40–51 gigawatts.




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