Friday, July 16, 2021

The wishful thinking driving NZ's energy policy

This week the media and political classes were aghast at the revelation that New Zealand was importing record quantities of coal to fuel the Huntly Power Station. More than half of New Zealand's electricity is generated by hydro stations and recently the country has experienced less rainfall resulting in lower storage lake levels. Huntly is New Zealand's only large coal-fired power station and as such provides the perfect backup generating capacity, being able to be cranked up at short notice when other sources fail to meet demand. But instead of thanking the foresight of earlier energy planners for building a power station that could be used as a giant backup generator - providing the electricity that literally keeps people alive in the middle of a very cold winter - we have the usual whingers treating this blessing as a curse.

New Zealand is being set up for a serious fall in its energy policy. The Ardern Government has banned offshore oil and gas exploration, eliminating the best prospect for an independent energy future, and at the same time is pursuing a policy of being "Net Carbon Zero" by 2050. The radical Climate Change Commission, appointed by the Ardern Government, wants to go one better and eliminate the use of fossil fuels in all transport, manufacturing and other important economic sectors by 2035. The Government has already started to implement the Commission's recommendations by announcing special taxes on fossil-fuelled vehicles and subsidies on electric cars.

This is all delusional. The increased use of the Huntly Power Station shows that we do not have sufficient so-called renewable sources of electricity generation to meet current demand, let alone adding everything that presently drives our economy using fossil-fuels. Factories, farms, schools, hospitals and transportation all run mostly on petrol, diesel, natural gas and coal.

A modern internal combustion engine car can fill up with 50 litres of gasoline in a couple of minutes, and drive all the way from Auckland to Wellington, a distance of 650km, without stopping. The best electric cars today take up to 12 hours to fully charge and even if you believe the manufacturers' most optimistic claims about range, they will need to charged at least once more during the journey. The batteries add about half a tonne to the weight of the vehicle (compared to 40kg for that tank of gasoline), so you are using a considerable amount of the energy consumed just to carry the battery with you. And all that electrical power has to be generated somehow. Currently in New Zealand, as we have seen, the additional generating capacity can only come from imported coal.

There is a reason the world is powered mostly by fossil fuels and that is their incredible energy density. Petrol contains more kinetic energy than the equivalent weight of TNT, and a litre of petrol has more than a litre of hydrogen. That can of gasoline you fill up to power your lawnmower is still the most practical, portable source of energy ever developed. The best battery technology is at least two orders of magnitude worse in terms of energy storage. The only superior energy source in this respect is nuclear.

The Energy Minister, Megan Woods, talked about something called the New Zealand Battery Project, as if it would be the solution to all our future energy needs. This isn't actually an engineering project, as the name suggests, but a committee of eight people that "will evaluate the viability of pumped hydro schemes of various sizes". The committee comprises one electricity industry and one construction industry expert, with the remaining members being academics, environmental activists, local government bureaucrats and the requisite representative from a Maori tribe. Their only consideration of anything real is a speculative idea to build a pumped hydro storage scheme at Lake Onslow in the South Island, this in a country that hasn't built a large hydro power station since the Clyde Dam was commissioned in 1993.

If this Government is serious about becoming Carbon Zero, we need to start building power stations at rate never seen before in this country. We need dozens of new generation plants, not just a pie-in-the-sky hydro storage scheme. Ideally, these new plants would be nuclear-powered. The Chinese and Russians are the leaders in modular, safe, latest-generation nuclear power generation and we should be looking to invest billions of dollars in their technology. This is what the Government would do if it was serious about New Zealand being Net Carbon Zero. But the Ardern Government is no more serious about this that than they were about building 100,000 new houses.

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