June 25, 2016: ‘Renewable Electricity’ is NOT ‘Renewable Energy’

Here in Australia we are just one week away from a federal election and, as usual, the choices are dismal and misinformation abounds. For example, I’m starting to notice that politicians and the media happily use the term ‘Renewable Energy’ when they really mean ‘Renewable Electricity’. For example, the ACT government recently announced that, due to the success of their Renewable Energy policy, they have brought forward the deadline for achieving 100% Renewable Electricity from 2030 to 2020. This is an exceptional achievement for which the ACT is receiving international recognition as a world leader in Climate Action. However when I read about it in the media or hear politicians and bureaucrats bragging about it they often accidentally say ‘100% Renewable Energy’ instead of ‘100% Renewable Electricity’.

Even this recent article from ‘The Conversation’ (who seriously should know better) makes this mistake. It states that, ‘More recently, Queensland committed to generating 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2030′. So much for ‘academic rigour’. This is not only untrue, it is VASTLY inaccurate. If you read the announcement you find that, in fact, Queensland has committed to generating 50% of its ELECTRICITY needs by 2030. Assuming that Queensland has a similar energy mix to the national statistics quoted below, 50% of its electricity would be equal to 7.5% of it energy, not ‘50% of its energy’. This is a BIG error and we need to start watching for it and calling them out on it because most people don’t realise that they’re being lied to. To that end I have written to ‘The Conversation’ pointing out their error and requesting that they write a follow-up piece explaining the difference between ‘Renewable Energy’ and ‘Renewable Electricity’ and why this is such an important distinction to make.

It’s obvious when you think about it. Electricity is only a portion of the energy we use. People, homes, businesses, industry, agriculture, and transportation systems all use energy in various forms including electricity, petrol, diesel, oil, kerosene, aviation fuel, natural gas, uranium, coal, coke, wood and LPG (i.e. ‘Propane’ for our American readers). According to this report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the total amount of energy consumed in Australia in 2013-14 was 5831 petajoules and the total amount of electricity generated during the same time period was 894 petajoules or 15% of the total. So when we do achieve the worthy goal of 100% Renewable Electricity we will still only be at about 15% Renewable Energy. As you can see, this is a MASSIVE difference. In order to get to 100% Renewable Energy we will have to replace ALL of the fossil fuels (all the coal, oil and gas derivatives) with renewable forms of energy.

Where it gets tricky is that, in order to reach the real goal of 100% Renewable ENERGY, we are going to have to electrify much, if not most, of the economy. With the best in currently available technology we can make and store renewable energy in a number of forms including ELECTRICITY (which can be stored in batteries), HEAT (which can be stored in molten salt, graphite, water, etc), GASES such as hydrogen or methane (which can be stored in tanks or as metal hydrides or other chemical combinations), MECHANICAL ENERGY (which can be stored in flywheels or using gravity e.g. lifting a weight or as compressed air), and LIQUIDS such as biodiesel or ethanol (which can be stored in tanks). Of these, the form of renewable energy that is currently most readily available and cost-effective for the majority of people is electricity.

We are already starting to see more and more of our energy uses switching to electric. The obvious one is cars where electric vehicles are making huge waves around the world even though we’re hardly seeing a ripple here in Oz. But we’re also finding that lots of other things like home heating and hot water systems are more efficient and cost-effective in the form of electric heat pumps than the old gas units. We’ve had electric trains for a long time but soon we’ll be seeing more and more electric buses and trucks and motorbikes and bicycles. Even things like lawnmowers are rapidly getting electrified. The good thing about this is that we can potentially and quite easily make the energy to run all these things from renewable sources. The scary thing is that, if we were to electrify the whole of the Australian economy, it would require something like a 600% increase in the amount of electricity that we currently consume. In that scenario I can see the goal of reaching 100% Renewable Electricity rapidly receding into the distant future.

The answer, of course is that we need to find every possible way to conserve energy as we progress through this transition to renewable energy. As I quoted my friend Manny last week, ‘We have to REduce before we PROduce’ and meanwhile we have to not let politicians and the media get away with confusing Renewable Electricity with Renewable Energy.

Rasa Rocks the Cradle-to-Cradle Concept

The Riversimple-Rasa starts on road testing in the UK. (Source: Gizmag)

The Riversimple-Rasa starts on road testing in the UK. (Source: Gizmag)

Speaking of electric vehicles and hydrogen energy storage, I wrote about this fabulous little Welsh car called the ‘Rasa’ by Riversimple in our Newsletter back in February. Not only is the technology revolutionary (with things like hydrogen fuel-cell power, in wheel electric motors, carbon-fibre shell, supercapacitor energy storage, and fuel economy of 0.9L/100km) but the way it is being offered to customers is very different too. As you can read about in this Gizmag article

The Rasa will not be available to buy when it is launched in 2018, but instead customers will be able to enjoy the car by paying a monthly fee that covers fuel, maintenance, repairs and insurance. This type of plan, says Riversimple, will eliminate built-in vehicle obsolescence and make sustainability a competitive advantage, rather than a cost.

Riversimple have produced this YouTube video to help explain the brilliance of their business model. I particularly appreciated the following statement from Hugo Spowers, Founder and Technical Director of the company…

‘we pay for all the running costs so our interests are longevity and  low-running costs rather than obsolescence and high running-costs.’

This is fantastic! I have often lamented the fact that manufacturers no longer make things that last. In fact it is typically considered sound business practice to deliberately make things that don’t last or are outdated very quickly. This is the idea of built-in obsolescence which theoretically leads to economic ‘growth’ by forcing people to buy more and more crap that they don’t need and won’t last. What it really leads to is waste and environmental destruction. So it is SUCH a blessed relief to hear a company founder extolling the virtues of ‘longevity and low-running costs’.

This is exactly the sort of thinking that went into the Greeny Flat. Longevity, low-maintenance and low running-costs were high priorities in our design and material selection processes and the results are proving to be very successful. The entire running-cost for our first year living in the Greeny Flat was $312 and, apart from normal house cleaning, it requires almost no maintenance. On top of that, the whole structure is designed so that it can be dismantled and the materials reused at the end of its useful life. Apart from the concrete slab and the tiles in the bathroom the entire Greeny Flat can be taken apart with a screwdriver which allows the materials to be harvested and put to use in the next project. Much of this thinking was first expressed by William McDonough in his wonderful book, ‘Cradle-to’Cradle‘ in which he puts forward the idea of developing ‘closed-loop’ industrial cycles.

”…waste equals food’ is the first principle the book sets forth. Products might be designed so that, after their useful life, they provide nourishment for something new, either as “biological nutrients” that safely re-enter the environment or as “technical nutrients” that circulate within closed-loop industrial cycles, without being “downcycled” into low-grade uses (as most “recyclables” now are)’

The Rasa car is sophisticated example of this philosophy put into practice and it will be worth watching how it develops because it has the potential to revolutionise manufacturing around the world. And, if you’re interested in Willaim McDonough and his Cradle-to-Cradle philosophy, it’s also worth watching this TED talk from 2005. It’s not the easiest talk to watch or listen to but it will give you an idea of what an interesting thinker he is.

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