Monday, August 29, 2005

Ralph Sims on our energy future

Massey University's Ralph Sims is on National Radio at the moment talking about the prospects for biofuels in New Zealand. In many countries they blend ethanol into petrol for sustainability; in the US they use a 10% blend, in France it's 5%, in Brazil 24%. We don't use any, and its an obvious way of reducing both our dependence on imported oil (and hence our balance-of-payments deficit) and our greenhouse emissions. The age of our vehicle fleet is a limiting factor (older engines are apparantly less able to cope with lower energy fuel), but we can easily handle a 5% blend, using ethanol from whey protein or biomass. This would reduce our net greenhouse emissions by 0.9%, or about a tenth of our excess over the five year first Commitment Period.

He's also talking about the Parliamentary Commisioner for the Environment's report on Future currents: Electricity scenarios for New Zealand 2005-2050 [PDF]. This lays out two future paths for energy policy: a "brown path", where we simply build more and more coal-fired power stations to meet demand (chosen by National), and a "green path" where we use technology and innovation to pursue sustainability and efficiency. An important part of the latter is distributed generation - generation at the point of demand, rather than at a centralised location. While this forgoes efficiencies of scale, it also means no transmission losses - and if you can find some way of using the waste heat, it more than makes up for it. Some large industries (dairy factories, pulp and paper mills) do this already, generating electricity as a sideline to their main goal of generating steam and heat. But there's also scope for domestic use - having a gas hot water system which also generates power, for example - and this would lead to a far more efficient energy system. The problem is the policy framework - at the moment, electricity companies offer a bad deal for selling electricity back to the grid - and this needs to change in order for these technologies to take off.