A sad state of affairs has descended over Australian politics in recent months. What went from a mad rush by both the Labor and Liberal parties to prove their climate change credentials in the lead up to the 2007 Federal election has degenerated into a mass of inaction. Prominent Liberals say that climate change is a left wing post-communist conspiracy to deindustrialise the world while Labor still talks tough on the “biggest moral challenge of our time” but is staunchly committed to doing nothing about it. Kevin Rudd’s Emissions Trading Scheme, which paid polluters to continue polluting and only attempted to reduce emissions by a pathetic 5%, was bad enough but has now been replaced by a policy of doing nothing for at least three years, akin to hiding under the blankets and hoping all the problems will magically go away while you aren’t looking.
With so much shameful inaction by our supposed leaders it has come down to individuals, local Councils and companies to make up the shortfall of action on climate change. City of Sydney, for example, is engaging in an ambitious program to use cogeneration and energy efficiency measures to cover 70% of its energy needs by 2030. In addition to this the City will be investing in renewable energy projects througout its facilities to generate another 25% of its power by diverting the $2 million currently spent of Green Power into a specific Renewable Energy Fund.
Cogeneration is the production of multiple forms of useable energy via a single process. The City’s plan is to use gas fired miniature power plants to produce electricity, heating and cooling. While natural gas is still a fossil fuel and produces CO2 when burnt, producing power through small, locally situated cogeneration plants has several environmental and economic benefits over the huge coal fired power stations that currently produce the vast majority of electricity in NSW.
Firstly, cogeneration is a much more efficient process. In a coal fired power station around two thirds of the energy that comes from the burning coal is lost straight away as heat that escapes up the massive chimneys of the power plant. In cogeneration this heat is not lost but is channelled to where it is needed – the City plans to install it’s first cogeneration unit at Prince Alfred Park Pool and the “waste” heat will go into warming the pool, thus resulting in a significant energy saving. Cogeneration units can also, counter-intuitively, use the excess heat to generate cooling by the adition of an adsorption chiller. These configurations are known as trigeneration units that produce electricity, heating and cooling simultaneously.
Additional energy savings are achieved by cogeneration through the elimination of “transmission losses”.When electricity is transmitted long distances from big coal fired power stations along high tension wires 8-10% is lost along the way. When you add this loss to the loss of energy as heat at the power plant you end up with a total waste of 70-75% - only around 25% of the energy extracted from the coal ever gets used! In an age where the effects of climate change are already starting to be felt it verges on criminally negligent that such an inefficient system remains our primary means of producing electricity.
While the City is focusing on installing medium sized cogeneration units, with outputs of 5-30 kilowatts (kW), in large public buildings and facilities such as swimming pools I am also working to encourage a second style of cogeneration – using smaller units (with outputs of around 2kW) to provide energy to private homes and social housing units. I feel this application has a much broader scope for uptake as there are many more private homes than large public buildings in Sydney. Using small units in individual homes has the benefit over using a large unit for many homes in that, while electricity is easy to transfer from place to place, heat is not, meaning that domestic generation can be much more efficient.
An Australian company called Ceramic Fuel Cells has created a 2kW cogeneration unit called the Bluegen that they plan to have on the market in 6-12 months. Rather than burning natural gas the Bluegen is a fuel cell that converts the gas via an electrochemical reaction to produce electricity and heat. The units are the size of a dishwasher and produce enough electricity to power two houses and enough heat to meet the hot water needs of one (water heating accounts for 27% of the average household’s energy usage). The company estimates that the Bluegen will produce only around 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions of a coal fired power station in order to generate the same amount of energy and at around 60% of the price per kilowatt hour.
The Victorian government agency for sustainable development, Vicurban, has recently purchased a Bluegen unit for use in the Aurora sustainable living community in outer Melbourne. A further 30 have been purchased by the Victorian housing department to provide cheap, clean power to public housing developments throughout the state. This month Council staff and myself will be meeting with representatives of Ceramic Fuel Cells to investigate the possibility of installing Bluegen units in a number of Council properties.
The work by City of Sydney and Ceramic Fuel Cells (which receives no government subsidies) are two examples of how of how Councils and private companies are working to fill the void in climate change action that has been left by our governments and oppositions, both state and federal. My Greens colleagues at all levels of government will continue to push for effective action on this most important of issues but in the meantime it is up to us as individuals to act where our governments refuse to.
Disclaimer: Cr Chis Harris owns shares in Ceramic Fuel Cells, an Australian listed company, via his self managed superannuation fund.