Australia forges ahead with green energy opportunity

Jun 12, 2002 02:00 AM

The Federal Government may be unwilling to endorse the Kyoto Protocol aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions but corporate Australia knows a golden opportunity when it sees one. Among the more visionary concepts is a 1 km high “solar thermal chimney” just outside Mildura mooted to cost $ 700 mm. The idea is to use solar panels to produce a column of hot air which rises up the chimney and powers turbines.

It may not be just a pipedream: The project's promoters are pulling out all stops, with site works planned to begin early 2003, and construction in the second quarter. If it succeeds, it will be the nation's largest single “green” energy project, with its planned 200 MW output likely to rival the total planned wind power from the Portland area, in Victoria's west a project mired in delays, awaiting planning approvals.
The Mildura project, which is being promoted by EnviroMission, may sound crazy but the list of backers for alternative energy continues to grow as the pressure mounts on theenergy sector to source more of its needs from renewable energy. Along with the usual roll-up of bio-mass and wind farm projects, another group, Geodynamics, is working on a project to tap geothermal heat in an area near Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley, seeking to use the higher geothermal heat in that area for generating electricity a not uncommon technique in parts of Europe.

Pushing promoters of renewable energy projects towards the starting gates are the state governments, which are putting pressure on electricity retailers to use more renewable energy. For example, the Victorian Government decided to follow NSW in toughening up mandated measures on the power industry to move further towards renewable energy. The NSW measures include penalties on power retailers from next year for minimum renewable energy usage.
“The penalty of $ 15 a ton from January 1 is driving interest now,” says Dr David Brand of Hancock Natural Resources Group. “There is also provision for large energy users to manage theirgreenhouse compliance costs without having to go through the retailer. Large users can move independently with offsets,” he says.

Progress at the state level comes as the Federal Government refuses to back the Kyoto Protocol, even though Australia's special pleading won concessions during the last round of negotiations.
Recently all 15 EU countries signed on the dotted line for the Kyoto Protocol and were followed by Japan. Others such as Russia and New Zealand are due by the end of the year, with the US now beginning to make positive noises about the need to act.
The Federal Government may be adamant that it is not going to follow suit but efforts at the state level could result in a significant reduction in carbon emissions, with local groups unable to access the emerging global market in carbon credits. Some Australian coal is now being sold abroad with carbon credits attached, giving buyers a ready market in carbon offsets.
These offsets typically involve saltbush plantations in western NSWand central Australia. But by not endorsing the Kyoto Protocols on reducing green-house gas emissions, Australia may be locked out of the ratification system now emerging.

Even though there has been limited marketing of so-called “green electricity”, demand for renewable energy is strong so strong that EnergyAustralia was forced last year to stop marketing its “pure energy” product, generated from renewable energy sources, because of a lack of supply. Not that it was cheap. It cost as much as 40 % more than routine electricity (14.28 cents per kWh compared with 10.32 per kWh). But even with the cost penalty, EnergyAustralia has sold over 50 mm kWh of the green electricity, enough for over 30,000 households.
“We're working with SEDA to identify suitable supplies,” EnergyAustralia said. Data compiled by SEDA, the Sustainable Energy Development Agency, shows that in the first three quarters of 2001-02, electricity retailers such as EnergyAustralia and Integral Energy bought more than 630,000 kWh of electricity, largely to meet the mandated requirements of governments. Yet at the same time, demand for specifically “green” electricity, sourced from renewable energy where the customer typically pays a premium, was less than of half this.

The SEDA data shows that Integral, the company which supplies much of western Sydney with its electricity, has only negligible sales of “green” electricity compared with EnergyAustralia's sales of about 110,000 MW. The gap is largely due to limited efforts by electricity companies to develop a specific market for renewable energy.
The economics of alternative energy is marginal at best and the public must be convinced that it is worth paying extra before many of the projects get off the drawing boards.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald
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