News, opinions and activism regarding our energy future, and local solutions for Perth, Western Australia.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

New House Head Buzz

As I mentioned in my previous post, my wife and I have just bought a house near the coast in Perth's Northern Suburbs. We won't be able to move in for at least a month, but already my head is buzzing with ideas - not all of which will be feasible of course. To the right are some photos of the current state of the house. I plan to investigate the costs, benefits and options avaialble for all my ideas and publish results on this website. It might not be possible to implement all the ideas immediately due to budgetary constraints but I hope to implement the most practicable of them in a reasonable time frame.

The ideas that have been kicking around in my head, in approximate priority for implementation are:
  1. Composting.
    From the time we move in, all organic waste will be composted for recycling onto the garden. Method is yet to be determined - either an open pile or some type of bin/tumbler. The local council authority, City of Joondalup does not seem to offer any advice or assistance in this area, in contrast to the neighbouring City of Wanneroo at which it was easy to find information and an assistance phone number regarding Compost and Worms.
  2. Solar Hot Water.
    My point of view is, the sooner a Solar Hot Water system is installed, the greater our overall monetary and environmental savings will be. The Sustainable Energy Developement Office of the Government of Western Australia lists savings as "1 tonne of CO2 and $250 per year saving compared to reticulated, natural gas". The state government offers a $500 rebate for installation of natural gas-boosted solar water heaters. The decision to install seems straightforward - the only question is which model/manufacturer is technically/economically superior.
  3. Pool Cover.
    The pool will obviously be subject to evaporation and require topping up from Perth's scarce fresh water supply. Therefore I'd like to investigate getting a pool cover for it to prevent evaporation. Question is, can I sell it to the Mrs? Will it look good, and will it pay for itself in terms of the water we would save (considering water costs and the rate of evaporation). Also it may be practically difficult due to the non-rectangular shape of the pool.
  4. Fruit and Vegies.
    I've got plenty of ideas here. I've always enjoyed pottering in the garden and the opportunity to grow our own food is exciting. It will be nice to have fresh produce for which we know exactly what chemicals have been added. (Some chemical fertilisers will be required initially I am sure but the long term goal is improve the soil by use of compost and crop rotation with lupins and other nitrogen fixers such that chemical fertiliser would not be necessary. Also, the beach is near so we will be able to collect and make seaweed fertiliser). At the moment there is no laid out vegetable patch or obvious area for one so that will take some thought. Fruit trees are planned to go all around the inside fence, avocado, grapefruit, lemon, pistachio, macadamia, orange, etc. A good article by Malcom Campbell lists the most appropriate fruit & nut trees for a Mediterranean climate such as Perth's. I would like to plant Olive Trees on the verge, but the Council's regulations regarding this are unclear at the moment.
  5. Rain Water Tank.
    I have heard anecdotally that there is a rebate for installing a rain water tank. I plan to investigate the costs and options for rain water tanks for garden irrigation.
  6. Home Brew.
    The *ahem* environmental benefits of home brewed beer are obvious. I have brewed in the past from malt syrup kits (with some innovations such as mixing ale with a ginger-beer recipe) but I would like to take my brewing to the next level and start from the raw materials of barley and hops. In Scotland I developed even more of a taste for Scotch whisky so a home still would also be fun.
  7. Alternative Energy.
    Perth is one of the windiest cities in the world, hence the kiteboarding hobby. However my ideas for a home wind turbine were, well, scotched by the wife due to concerns that the (future) kids would get bullied for being different. We shall see. Solar electricity at least would not carry any social stigma, and I plan to investigate its (and wind power's) economics.
  8. Grey Water.
    I was in Bunnings the other day and noticed a $15 grey water recyling kit, which consisted of a foam bung to block your laundry/shower grey water pipe, and a roll of lay-flat hose which you could extend into your garden and poke holes in so the water could escape. I would like to look at recycling grey water into the garden but in a slightly more engineered fashion than this.
  9. Insulation.
    I'm sure the house already has insulation, but if it doesn't I'll be installing it, and as a much higher priority than this.

Thats all I can think of for now, but if you have any suggestions please email me! A previous commentor has recommended Nylex rainwater tanks and Solazone grid connected solar power systems. I'll be updating this list with links to any posts I make as I investigate the various topics.

Back in Australia, and Back On-Line

Gday readers - if I have any left! Its hard for me to imagine that just 7 months ago I was still in Manchester (England). Since then I have moved to Aberdeen (Scotland), started a new job and lived there for 6 months and then moved back home to Perth (Australia, not the one in Scotland thank God!). So I have been rather busy with little time for blogging. However I somehow always managed to find time to check the latest on The Oil Drum or Daily Kos, even if it meant spending an extra hour(s) at work. Ooops.

Anyways I have been back in Perth for about a month now and loving it - I have a new, environmentally friendly sport in Kiteboarding (I can recommend the Australian Kiteboarding School and now religiously check and my wife have I have just bought a new house near the beach in Perth's Northern Suburbs (Satellite image shown).

Along with the new house, my priorities in energy issues are going to very much change from the global to the local. Time permitting I will still write on anything that grabs my interest, but in the medium term I will be concentrating on researching and writing on subjects that could have an immediate impact on our personal environmental footprint.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Nuclear Debate Blows Up

Updated 6/06/06 (below)

Apologies for the lack of fresh content, I have been working on a Hubbert Linearisation of Australia's oil & gas production which has required a lot of number crunching... stay tuned (but not till next week I am on the road for the next 5 days). In the meantime, the Nuclear Debate has been intensifying in Australia, Britain, and all over the blogosphere. The terms of the debate are nicely framed at The European Tribune.

In Australia, John Howard kicked off the debate:
"I want a full-blooded debate in Australia about this issue and I want all of the options on the table," Howard told a news conference in Canada on Friday.

"I have a very open mind on the development of nuclear energy in my own country and that includes an open mind on whether or not Australia should in fact process uranium for the purposes of providing fuel for nuclear power in the future," Howard said in a transcript made available on Saturday.

"The pressure for change is driven in part by environmental considerations, it's driven in part by the soaring price of fuel, it's driven in part by a realisation that confronting the challenge of high energy pricing is one of the big economic challenges."

Australia is one of the world's top coal producers and the Howard government has steadfastly supported the industry in the face of calls for more renewable energy, but until now it has not openly raised the idea of nuclear power.

Treasurer Peter Costello, heir apparent to the prime minister, said this week that nuclear power would cost twice as much as coal power, adding that nuclear energy was not economically right for Australia at the present time because it had such large resources of gas and coal.

This article troubles me on a number of levels, firstly stating that the Howard government favours the Coal Industry over renewable energy, and secondly Peter Costellos preference for burning gas and coal, considering two recent reports conclude that up to now we could have been underestimating the future effect of global warming. So, from a greenhouse and peak-oil viewpoint nuclear energy would be a Good Thing (TM).

However, nuclear power is not so much of a Good Thing (TM) if it
comes at the cost of wind power:
IT WAS May 2004 and John Howard was looking for an exit clause. A Federal Government scheme to kickstart Australia's renewable energy industry had proved successful beyond anybody's expectations. Wind, the cheapest and most viable source of renewable energy, was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the mandatory renewable energy target.

Giant wind turbines were sprouting all over the country, turbine blade and engine manufacturers were setting up shop, and cash was pouring in from foreign and domestic investors. It seemed Australia was finally tackling its greenhouse gas emissions by getting some clean electricity.

But not everyone was happy with the mandatory target. Leaked minutes from a meeting in the chilly confines of Canberra's political corridors show the Prime Minister had called on some of Australia's biggest contributors to global warming - including the coal and uranium miners Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton - to help the Government devise a way to pull the rug from under the wind industry, but still be seen to be tackling climate change.

Two years on, it has become clear just how deadly that meeting was for wind power. The Government's refusal to extend the mandatory target has left hundreds of renewable energy projects unable to secure contracts. One developer last week cancelled two wind farm proposals worth $550 million, while the future of another $250 million project is in doubt.

This article literally has me seething. Wind power is clean, already close to economic versus coal (some reports say nuclear is twice as expensive as coal) and can be distributed at the site of use, perfect for Australia's long coastline and isolated communities. Perhaps that is the problem - less large companies with large political donations, and less opportunities for government control as recently discussed by DeAnander at The European Tribune: "Megaprojects vs Micropower":
Technologies shape the societies which adopt them. What shapes may the adoption of nuclear power encourage our societies to take? What are the policy and governance implications of increased reliance on this source of electricity?
The industry remains tightly coupled to the military and to weapons manufacturers; plants are considered part of the "Security State within the state" for this reason as well as for their manifest vulnerability to terrorist attack. Secrecy, coverups, and obfuscation continue to be the normal working methods of the industry when dealing with errors, near-mishaps, and actual mishaps at nuclear facilities (which I hope to discuss in subsequent diaries). Moreover, nuclear power has an appeal to the kind of government/elite cadres who prefer an autocratic or repressive Security State model for their country.

Tony Blair, for example -- a fan of Panopticon type public surveillance, national biometric ID cards, increased police powers and support for US military adventurism -- is also a fan of nuclear power. After years of preparing the ground while he pretended to vacillate (for example by suppressing a government study showing nuclear to be uneconomic and then issuing a total re-write, ignoring warnings from the waste management committee, and preparing one secret plan and then another), he has most recently attempted to impose the nuclear power option by fiat as UK energy policy.

The Australian Labour Party, on the other hand, is implacably opposed to nuclear power with Kim Beazley stating:
"The economics don't stack up," Mr Beazley said. "We have abundant sources of alternative energy, waste disposal issues are unresolved and there are important national security issues to be considered.

"For these reasons Labor doesn't support nuclear power in Australia."

Mr Beazley said that if Mr Howard was serious about developing nuclear energy, he should reveal which suburbs would host new nuclear reactors and how he would ensure the safety of surrounding homes and schools.

This is a shrewd move by Labor to climb on board the inevitable NIMBY backlash, especially after the left-leaning think-tank the Australia Institute published a list of favourable nuclear sites. However in my view Labor's statement is not constructive as they have not enunciated what Australia should do instead, they have no clear alternative energy policy, which leaves the status quo of burning Coal as the unstated policy.

To finish with a positve example, Jerome a Paris, a French energy investment banker wrote a good overview
Nuclear energy in France about a year ago, which appears quite successful and uncontroversial:
France is happy with nuclear energy and intends to continue using it on a large scale. It has workes so far because it has been run in a highly centralised way, with one operator with the full backing of the State under a very long term plan. Both the operator and the public supervisory body have a strong engineering culture with an emphasis on technical excellence and safety, and they are generally trusted, despite occasional lapses in transparency which are increasingly corrected nowadays.

Update 6/06/06
Three of the six panel members in the Aus Federal Government's Nuclear Review have been announced. The panel is headed by former Telstra chief executive Dr Ziggy Switkowski and includes nuclear physicist Professor George Dracoulis and Professor Warwick McGibbon of the Australian National University.
"I am not persuaded as yet, although in my bones I think there has been a fundamental change," he [Prime Minister Howard] said.
"But I want to see the evidence."
Mr Howard also says he thinks the Australian public is warning to nuclear power.

Personally, I have cooled to nuclear power recently, after reading a detailed article about Nuclear Power at the Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability, which considers the life cycle energy & greenhouse gas costs of nuclear power. It is well worth reading as it describes all aspects of the nuclear power cycle from mining, enrichment through decommissioning of power stations (which has not been carried out anywhere in the world as yet).

Mr Howard says if nuclear power stations are built in Australia, they will not be built by the Commonwealth. He says any decision on sites would largely be down to the businesses building them.

This is something that I disagree with. I think the economic, safety and disposal aspects of nuclear energy require strong oversight, and a common design and engineering culture, as has been the case in France.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Week in Algae

Ahh, algae! Where would we be without them? Certainly not living on a planet with a breathable atmosphere of 20% oxygen at least. Considering that they produce at least one-third to one-half of the Earth's oxygen they are not much talked about. However I noticed algae in the news in four different areas this week...

Biodiesel from Algae

Biodiesel from algae has long been seen as a potential solution to our liquid transport fuel needs, with the US Department of Energy (under the forward thinking, but politically inept Carter adminstration) establishing an aquatic species program to research biodiesel from algae. The program was cancelled in the 80's however currently research is ongoing with one research group at UNH promoting that "just" 200,000 hectares (780 sq miles) of desert salt-water algae ponds could meet the entire US demand... provided certain practical problems are solved, of course.

So it was very encouraging to read this week that New Zealand has become the first nation in the world to commercially produce biodiesel from algae. NZ company Aquaflow Bionomic Corporation formed an agreement with the Marlborugh District Council to extract oils from excess algae coming from a municipal sewerage pond discharge.

Production is estimated at 1,000,000 litres per year, which in oil-field speak is only 6,300 bbls/year, as much as some productive wells would produce in a day. However this production is from a small town, and there are many other sources of nutrient rich waters to grow algae in, such as dairy farm run-off, so if this system were established widely it would provide significant volumes of biofuels.

Hydrogen from Algae

Suprisingly, some algea can photosynthesise hydrogen gas, but they only do so when under certain stressed environmental conditions and at very low yields. However, a join German-Australian research team has had some success genetically modifying algae to produce more hydrogen gas.

Economic feasibility with regard to algae sets in only when the energy efficiency - the conversion of sunlight into hydrogen - reaches 7-10 percent. But alga in its natural form achieves at most a meagre 0.1 percent. The new "turbo-alga" has now come up to 1.6-2.0 percent.

"We have not reached our goal yet," says [microbiologist] Kruse, calmly announcing: "We want to reach it in five years."

Apparently, when the goal is reached "a reactor shaped like a cube measuring three metres per side and filled with algae could supply a two-person household with their energy needs." I am somewhat skeptical of this claim, however this does appear to be a promising area of research.

And now for the bad news...

Ocean warming set to devastate coral

Corals live in a mutually beneficial relationship with photosynthetic algae. But when sea surface temperatures at a given location rise above summer limits, the corals expel their single-celled bedfellows (possibly because the algae start producing toxins).

Algae provide corals with most of their energy and their colour - hence the term bleaching. If the high temperatures are prolonged, the corals start to die off en masse.

I don't really have much to say. Except considering that the global temperature response to system forcings (e.g. green house gases, carbon dioxide et al) is delayed by many years take the opportunity to dive on some living coral reefs now.

And finally, something


The latest in the long line [of supplements] is a type of marine algae called Dunaliella salina. It grows in only a few places around the world, including Australia, Israel and India, and it's getting researchers excited on several counts.

Marc Cohen is the founding professor of Complementary Medicine at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University and president of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association. He says that Dunaliella salina isn't new - in fact, it's been around for over 500 million years.

"Microbiologists have known for a long time about the benefits of Dunaliella salina," says Professor Cohen. "It's the world's richest source of beta-carotene and has, gram for gram, more than 350 times more beta-carotene than carrots."

I bet my carrots taste nicer though, stir-fried with some soy, honey, garlic and sesame seeds... oh joy.

A Practical Legislative Action Plan

Considering that the US is responsible for 25% of the planet's energy use and greenhouse gas production, any global solution to the coming energy and environmental crisis unquestionably requires action on their part... action that the current US establishment has been recalcitrant to provide, considering the power of industrial lobby groups in US politics, and particularly with the Republican party.

So its no suprise that the US progressive movement has some... well progressive suggestions. Its a document called Energize America, which has just seen the fifth draft recieve public release, and its a collaborative effort to force some positive change within our capitalist system (i.e. its not a communist or utopian solution, which at the end of the day, are impractical given the realities of present social and power structures). It has mainly been developed through the Daily Kos community, which is the highest traffic blog on the net, with over half a million visits daily.

I have watched the development of this document over the past year, as it has taken input from investment bankers, politicians, lawyers, engineers and many many others, all united by a vision that something needs to be done. Please at least read the brief Executive Summary, if not the Full Draft, which is very long. Its long because it describes why the action plan is needed, how it can be promoted, and specific legislation that can be enacted.

Much of this legislation can be applied to Australia, which has similar problems as the US with regards to urban sprawl, coal based electricity generation, low fuel economy cars and poor mass transit. The plan includes 20 legislative acts:

I.......The Passenger Vehicle Fuel Efficiency Act ("500mpg cars")
II......The Transportation Industry Efficiency Act ("Long Haul")
III.....The Fleets Conversion Act ("Mass Transit")
IV.....The Community-Based Energy Investment Act ("Neighborood Power")
V......The Passenger Rail Restoration Act ("Bullet Trains")
VI.....The Clean Coal Generation Act ("Clean Coal")
VII....The Wind Energy Production Tax Credit Act ("Reap the Wind")
VIII...The 20 Million Solar Roof Act ("Harness the Sun")
IX.....The Renewable Portfolio Standards Act ("Fair Everywhere")
X......The Federal Net Metering Act ("Get on the Grid")
XI.....The State-Based Renewable Energy Investment Act ("Green States")
XII....The New Energy Technology Demonstration Act ("Liquid Coal and Golden Glow")
XIII...The Sustainable Energy Economic Prosperity Act ("Focused for Lasting Success")
XIV...The Carbon Reduction Act ("Atmosphere Stability")
XV....The Federal Energy Policy Enforcement Act ("People's Energy Watchdog")
XVI...The National Energy Efficiency & Conservation Act ("EnergySMART")
XVII..The Home Efficiency Act ("C the Light")
XVIII.The Demand Side Management Act ("Real Time Energy Pricing")
XIX...The Telecommuter Assistance Act ("Work Smart")
XX....The Energy Security Funding Act ("Paying the Piper")

For more detail see the Full Fifth Draft of "Energize America". I just hope the progressive movement in Australia, if it exists, (please, if anyone knows where it is let me know in a comment!) can pick up on some of these ideas and run with them.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Opportunity Knox, Nobody Home

I see according to recent article in The Australian due to soaring demand in China and India and high commodity prices Australia is set for a long resources boom. According to "treasury papers" this is justification for electorally popular taxcuts:

Treasury suggests the phenomenon could boost Australian living standards.

And it raises the prospect that a prolonged world commodity boom could see future tax cuts and handouts as governments spend their bigger-than-expected surpluses.

The Government only feels it necessary to run big surpluses in good times to cope with downturns in periods of economic stagnation.

A prolonged mining boom would reduce the need for Treasury to retain big surpluses, allowing it instead to focus on items such as tax cuts.

To me, this is very short sighted. The prospect of the end of the age of cheap oil means that we could be on the cusp of the longest economic downturn in history. Those funds from windfall resource taxes should be invested in the future of the whole nation, rather than used as an electoral bribe.

Why not spend the money on something visionary, like a program to change Australia to a renewable energy economy, or at least create a National Fund like the Norwegians have from their nation's resource rents. But vision is not something I have come to expect from any recent politicians.

The article also refers to Australia's terms of trade:

The current budget is based on forecasts that Australia's terms of trade - export prices compared to import prices - will stay close to current levels after soaring by 30 per cent over the past four years to a record level last year.

Considering my previous post about Australia running out of oil and having a $20 billion trade deficit on oil, and my belief that globally we are well and truly on the downside of the Hubbert Peak, Australia's terms of trade could be in for a decline. However this will largely depend on how energy cost increases (which Australia will be importing in the future) feed through to commodity prices (metals and ores Australia exports). Subject for a future blog, maybe.

Australia Running Out of Oil

I found two links regarding Australia's coming oil production decline on LATOC's breaking news which were a major prompt for me to start this blog. After thinking and reading on this subject for some considerable time its time to start writing on it!

The subject of is of major national importance and recieved some attention in the traditional media due to the recent APPEA (the Australian upstream industry body) conference in Queensland.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the "Lucky Country is running out of oil". (Which raises an interesting question in my mind, how much of Australia's complacency on this issue is due to the national belief in being the lucky country?) Due to declining self sufficiency, Australia will soon be required by the IEA to build a strategic oil reserve holding 90 days supplies. Globally, 4 billion barrels of oil are held in strategic reserves, of which governments hold about 1.5 billion barrels. My rough calculation is Australia's reserve would need to be about 63 million barrels.

IEA executive director Claude Mandil spoke at the APPEA conference:
[Mr Mandil told the conference] that, while the world was well supplied with oil, spare capacity was low.

In a recipe for continued strong prices, the spare capacity remained vulnerable to geo-political upsets that could drive prices higher. Mr Mandil said annual global demand was forecast to grow by 1.5-2 million barrels a day until at least 2010.

With production in non-OPEC countries under pressure, it would be up to OPEC to fill the gap. But huge investment would be required, something OPEC had said it was reluctant to do.

All of my reading and research is extremely sceptical of OPEC reserves and production capacity, with many of the largest fields thought to be in the initial stages of decline. Venezuala recently had to buy oil on the open market to meet its contractual obligations, and graph followers believe that OPEC is declining.

The ABC's (thats Australian Broadcasting Corporation) well respected Lateline program also had a report by Tom Iggulden about the APPEA conference, "Oil Supplies Set to Decline", with some interesting transcripts:

BELINDA ROBINSON, CHIEF EXECUTIVE, APPEA: Australian petroleum liquids production declined 29 per cent since it peaked in 2000, and by 2015 our production will represent less than 30 per cent of our consumption [from 70% today]. In the last year, no liquids finds in Australia exceeded 10,000 barrels. There are massive implications - economic implications - associated with a decline like this, including a potential trade deficit in oil and condensate in excess of $20 billion. To give you some sense of proportion, Australia's total trade deficit at present is around $19 billion, total.

Those are massive economic implications indeed - thats a doubling of our trade deficit, not to mention a massive reduction of oil revenues state and federal governments will be receiving from oil production. IMO what is needed now is for the windfall tax revenues from the oil & commodities boom to be invested in alternative energy now, in order to wean Australia off the oil teat so that trade deficit is never realised. Pro-actively establishing an alternative energy industry would also have future benefits in terms of Australia being able to export technological expertise.

Iggulden then adopts they typical he said/she said style of reporting that is a sure sign the topic is beyond the technical competence of the reporter.

He said...
MATTHEW SIMMONS, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISOR: We are now out of spare capacity. We used up every scrap of wellhead capacity, refinery capacity, refining capacity, tanker capacity, rig capacity, so now we are really stuck in a jam.

TOM IGGULDEN: But it's not just infrastructure that's putting a block on increasing supply. Mr Simmons accuses the oil industry of misleading the world about how much oil is left. According to his research Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, hasn't found a major new reserve of oil for more than 40 years and it's known reserves are running out faster than it's letting on.

She said...
DR ANDREW LATHAM, OIL GEOLOGIST: Broadly, most are agreed that the ultimate yet-to-find potential of the planet is still fairly large. We expect over the next couple of decades more than 10 billion barrels of oil-equivalent resource will be found in new fields.

Apparently that was the view of the APPEA conference - that oil peak isn't due until some time between 2020 and 2050. Personally, I would argue that even if it isn't due till then we need to do something about it now, however if my opinion and that of many other industry observers is correct that the oil peak was 2005, then we REALLY need to do somethinga bout it now. At least that question is starting to get asked:

ALI AL-NAIMI, SAUDI OIL MINISTER: There is no truth whatsoever to the popular belief that the dependence on foreign crude oil leads to higher prices for gasoline at the pump.

TOM IGGULDEN: That drew this response from senior Democrats.

NANCY PELOSI, HOUSE MINORITY LEADER: For the oil minister of Saudi Arabia to say that is a myth is wishful thinking on his part. This has to happen in our country. Perhaps if the President of the United States could have a conversation with his Saudi friends as he held hands with them and kissed with them on his ranch and tell them the ground truth of what is happening in America. The stranglehold of Middle Eastern oil is over for our country.

TOM IGGULDEN: With Australia facing its own oil crisis, the question now is what it can do to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Tom Iggulden, Lateline.