Issue 21 September 2006

Power about to catch a big wave?

Sydney-based Energetech Australia is investigating developing a $40 million wave power project at Portland in western Victoria as governments and energy agencies around the world give more attention to one of the largest potential renewable energy prospects of the 21st century.

Wave power generators are being tested on the coasts of Hawaii, Canada, Scotland, England, Portugal, the Azores islands and the American states of Oregon, California, Florida and Washington as scientists talk up the fact that the oceans are the world's largest solar collectors and potentially capable through coastal installations of providing as much as 13 per cent of global electricity demand. The challenge for engineers in this area remains what it has been for the past 20-30 years: how can the potential be turned in to large-scale, commercially viable power production.

Joseph Huang, a senior scientist at the US National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration,  sums up the challenge: "The potential of ocean power is great," he says," and, if you want to depend on nature (for electricity), the oceans are the only source big enough to tap." Roger Bedard, the wave power expert at the Electric Power Research Institute in Palo Alto, California, adds: "The power of the ocean is the last big natural (electricity) resource left."

The biggest driver for ocean power, and for other costly renewable energy options, is that for the first time economic assumptions are tending away from the view that the price of large-scale electricity supply is going to continue to be low. Soaring oil prices, a strong upward trend in global gas trade and the ongoing moves towards forms of carbon tax all provide wind, wave and solar power with a path towards more widespread use.

The potential of ocean power has been quantified by Dutch scientists, who estimate that world-wide there is more than 20,000 kilometres of coastline suitable for harnessing by wave-using technology.

The Electric Power Research Institute in its 2005 study on wave power comments that it could be one of the lowest-cost renewable energy sources because of its high power density. EPRI points out that ocean processes concentrate both solar and wind energy in waves, making it easier and cheaper to harvest electricity than in onshore plants for either source. Waves are more powerful than normal winds because water is 832 times as dense as air.

EPRI says that harnessing a quarter of the available resource energy base in US waters and converting it to electricity at a 50 per cent efficiency rate would provide as much electricity as America consumes today (270 terawatt hours a year).

Wave power proponents argue that their technology has another important advantage over wind power: it avoids the backlash against the intrusive nature of wind farming that has developed in rural and regional communities in many parts of the world, including Australia.

Wave power, however, is even more vulnerable than wind farms to harsh weather conditions and requirements to operate in conditions far worse than normal add substantially to design costs and maintenance. This is pushing technology development for ocean power towards sub-surface devices.

In Australia, Energetech has undertaken three trials it has declared successful off Port Kembla harbour, Wollongong, NSW, and has now told local media at Portland that it is considering installing between 10 and 15 wave energy devices one to five kilometres from the Victorian town's shores.  The company says that each unit is capable of producing enough electricity for 1,500 to 2,000 homes via an on-board generator and it also claims that each unit could alternatively desalinate enough seawater via an on-board system to provide drinking water for 3,000 to 4,000 homes.

The Energetech units would operate with standard reverse osmosis technology and would have the potential, if all 15 are installed and devoted to desalination, to produce three million litres of drinking water a day.

The company says it has chosen Portland because the coast there has "one of the best wave climates in Australia."  The technology works best with waves of between one and three metres, which are forced in to a chamber by V-shaped arms to produce a vertical movement of air that drives a turbine and powers a generator. The partially submerged units measure 20 metres in length and width.

The company has attracted $500,000 in R&D support from the Centre for Energy & Greenhouse Technologies in Melbourne and nearly $3 million in support from Australian Government agencies as well as $20 million in venture capital investment from Europe, the US and Australia.

Meanwhile, a review of energy options for the New Zealand Government by Covec Consultants has proposed a scenario in which wave power becomes available in more than demonstration plants at a cost of 10.2 NZ cents a kilowatt hour in 2015. In Europe, the European Commission has offered a 1.37 million euros subsidy to a company proposing to begin ocean power trials between Lisbon and Porto with the aim of developing a 100 MW generation system able to supply electricity to 60,000 homes.

Aim higher, Macfarlane tells gas suppliers

Federal Industry and Resources Minister Ian Macfarlane says he does not believe that projections for Australian gas supply growth averaging 6.7 per cent a year to 2025 are ambitious enough. Macfarlane has told an energy forum in Canberra that he would like to see growth achieving at least 10 percent -- and even 15 per cent.

He points out that some $4.2 billion worth of major gas transmission pipelines is either proposed or under construction.  Government and industry, he adds, needs to focus on how to stimulate a much larger domestic market for gas as well as to continue to promote international sales of LNG. "There is room for much greater use of gas in our domestic market."

The project is intended to be commissioned in 2008-09.

National energy trade falls further into deficit

EnergyQuest head Dr Graeme Bethune says Australia's production of oil and natural gas liquids is now at its lowest in 23 years. He reports that Australia incurred an energy trade deficit of $1.3 billion in the June quarter this year, with the cost of oil imports outweighing oil, LNG, thermal coal and uranium exports.

"We think of Australia as an energy exporter," says Bethune, a former Santos senior executive, "but net petroleum imports cost $3.2 billion in the June quarter and this is considerably more than the $1.9 billion earned from thermal coal and uranium exports."

The June deficit follows an energy trade gap of $697 million emerging in the March quarter as oil prices continued to rise.

Bethune reports that, while LNG production for export rose by 2.2 per cent to three million tonnes in the June quarter, domestic oil production, partly influenced by the impact of cyclone activity, fell 24.8 per cent to 25.8 million barrels.

Transcos belt national planning proposal

The Queensland Government-owned Powerlink continues to lead the charge of Australia's transmission businesses in opposing proposals to establish a national planning body to promote high voltage developments and "span institutional, regional and State boundaries" (to quote the Energy Users Association).

The case put forward by the five eastern seaboard transmission network owners -- Powerlink, TransGrid, SP Austnet, ElectraNet SA and Transend, with the UK National Grid Company, owners of Basslink, not included -- is that actual outcomes in the national electricity market do not justify introduction of a separate planning body. Only changing the regulatory costs/benefits test for interconnectors will change the level of interconnection, they argue.

Proponents of a planning body, particularly energy-intensive manufacturers, argue in return that it is lack of robust interconnection that causes the NEM to be five regional markets and opens the way for generators to exercise market power. The manufacturers use about a third of the electricity supplied in Australia.

In a further submission to the Energy Reform Implementation Group set up by the Council of Australian Governments with an instruction to report on market improvement steps by the end of 2006, Powerlink has strongly rejected data and analysis contained in a report by the consultancy Firecone to the Victorian Government, which alone in Australia has a separate planning authority, VENCorp, to oversee HV augmentation.

Powerlink says that Firecone comments related to Queensland are "seriously incorrect" because it has "mixed apples with oranges" in its analysis.  The key consultancy assertion to which Powerlink takes exception is that it is augmenting the Queensland grid at a much greater rate than demand growth requires.  Powerlink says its grid is the most heavily loaded in the NEM and must be augmented continually to meet high demand growth.

Powerlink says it will spend $1.3 billion in augmentation capital outlays in the next five years plus $800 for end-of-life replacement of assets.

In the past five years, it adds, demand in Queensland has grown by 31 per cent, 2-3 times greater than consumption increases in Victoria and South Australia. Peak demand in the State is forecast to grow by another 21 per cent over the next five years.

The transmission operator also points out that "$1 billion buys a lot less physical network capability today than it bought 3-5 years ago" because of a substantial increase in key input costs, including the costs of steel, aluminium and copper.

Powerlink says that it has spent more than its capex allowance (by the ACCC) in the currently regulatory period because of the increase in input costs and because peak demand growth has been 31 per cent instead of the 16 per cent basis used by the regulator. The forecast for the 2007-08 summer peak is 8,612 MW -- more than 1,250 MW higher than the forecast when the ACCC made its 2001 determination. "There is no data to support Firecone's attribution (of a higher capex outlay) to government ownership," Powerlink asserts.

The government-owned business adds that international benchmarking shows its "delivers above average reliability for below average cost."


Reading most of the reviews of Al Gore's climate change propaganda film, and especially those in the Fairfax newspapers, one is struck by the dichotomy between the writers' depressive mindsets and their anti-Howard Government attitudes on the one hand -- "facing a tipping point within 10 years" and "Howard's greenhouse inertia" -- and, on the other, the wealth of information available, especially via the Internet, that indicates the technological opportunities available to pursue low-emission (or no emission) energy supply as well as much-improved use.

One also is struck by the one-way reporting by most media of the alleged imminent human-made crisis we face at the same time that there is growing information emerging from science about the Sun's past and potential near-future impact on the Earth's climate.

This is not, of course, an argument that we should rely on a fortuitous shift in solar radiation to enable us to dodge our responsibilities to our grandchildren and their successors to pursue far more sustainable development. The lack of strength in pursuit of energy supply and use innovation in the past 20-25 years does not stand to the credit of the current generation of policy and business managers here or in most of the rest of the industrial world.

The wave power article published in this issue is only one example of non-greenhouse gas emitting energy supply that has the potential to make a substantial impact in this century.  The fact that 168 new nuclear power stations are proposed for development around the world by 2020 is also worth some thought (although not, apparently, by Gore). So, on the other side of the ledger, is the fact that more than 500 coal-fired power stations worldwide are planned for construction in this time.  The growing contribution to Australia's eastern seaboard electricity generation from coal-seam methane is another example of innovation changing national emissions patterns.

Alarmism is rife in the greenhouse gas  debate, and, if the politics of climate change actually drive governments to better energy supply and use management (eg through doing something realistic about the poor use of wind glass in Australian homes and commercial buildings -- confer the Australian Glass & Glazing Association submission to the Productivity Commission in 2004)), some good may come of it -- but the great danger remains that the alarmists obtain sufficient leverage on majority party policies to cause real economic damage without real greenhouse gas emission benefits.

In this regard it is important to keep drawing attention to the warning issued by The Allen Consulting Group to the Australian Business Roundtable on Climate Change (March 2006): "It should be emphasised that the assumption of global action is fundamental..........any large-scale unilateral action by Australia would constitute bad policy in that it would impose significant costs on the community while having a negligible impact on climate change."

Not a single review of the Gore film urging its values on the Australian community -- and attacking the present Australian Government policies -- has referred to this warning, which is in essence the position taken on emissions trading and carbon taxation by the Prime Minister.

Nor do any of the alarm boosters confront the fact that the modelling which gets so much media attention is based on modellers choosing scenarios to test outcomes -- these are not predictions of what is going to happen but scenarios of what might happen given certain parameters. There are not two sides to the climate change debate amongst scientists, but a myriad of "sides" and much has still to be done to establish in a scientifically-rigorous manner that human impact on global climate will be dangerous in such-and-such a time frame (let alone "the next 10 years").

In this regard, it is worth pointing to comments by one of the world's most respected environmental scientists, Dr Jesse Ausubel, Director of the Program for the Human Environment, The Rockefeller University, New York: "I like to use a triad for thinking about problems of this kind: there is the known, the unknown and the unknowable. I think in the case of climate predictions and climate modelling, the scientific community has gotten very mixed up about what is unknown versus what is fundamentally unknowable. What will actually be the climate for Washington DC in 2050 is unknowable. No amount of computational power can predict this. The more equations you add, the more fudge factors you have. There is a big dispute about the quality and performance of the climate models. If the key questions being asked of the scientific community are unknowable, the real question is how risk averse to consequences should our society be today?"

Ausubel's point about risk goes to the heart of the issue. One can mount a perfectly good case for arguing against profligate use of energy and for  under-pricing carbon to the detriment of some important energy technology developments. Good energy policy will not pretend the greenhouse gas emission issue is irrelevant; nor will it take reckless steps that imperil the national economy. And nor will it pander to populism by deflecting price signals (such as is occurring with Australian  petrol prices at present) which could, and should, drive behavioural change.

As for Gore, his exhortations to the rest of us to take personal and national radical steps to deal with greenhouse gas emissions have already been set by some critics of his film against his jetting around the world in a private plane and chauffered limousines and his own lifestyle in the US. This, however, is not the real dagger that should be held to his throat, metaphorically speaking:  Gore was the US Government architect of the Kyoto agreement. When he returned to Washington, he found President Clinton unwilling to put the treaty to the US Senate for ratification because he knew it would be defeated. An honourable course would have been for Gore to resign the vice-presidency and to have taken to the hustings to campaign for Kyoto. He didn't do that because it would have shredded his presidential opportunity and it is pretty obvious that he is touting his film around the world now because he still harbours political ambitions .

'Nuff said. The Gore film is not the issue. A genuinely sustainable energy policy that also supports Australian economic development is our issue. Some progress has been made in pursuing these goals, but much, much more remains to be done and far greater, realistic clarity on the time frame in which we have to work is very necessary. The media have a very important role to play in educating the debate and they can do a lot better than Al Gore as a mentor.

Keith Orchison

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