Welcome to our two weekly review of energy and environmental events and developments from both here in New Zealand and around the world.
Fossil based fuel makes our lives perceivably easy, but there is a growing groundswell that we must change our focus away from fossil fuels for the sake of our planet. The International Monetary Fund estimates that, this year alone, fossil fuel companies will receive global subsidies of $5.3 trillion, not just in cash, but including the avoided costs of the clean-up of the effects of use of their products (which they are not currently required to do). That’s $168,000 per second or $14.5 Billion per day. How could that money be better used?
So, what are the options if fossil fuels are no longer to be the preferred energy source? We next look at an article where the UN Climate Chief says technology has changed carbon politics. Technological advances and cost reductions allow more people and countries, even poorer ones, to see renewables as an economically viable option. An example - the price of solar panels has plummeted 80% since 2009, so solar power is now the same price or cheaper than power from the grid in at least 60 countries. A record $271 billion was invested in renewables last year, the growth of renewables outpacing the growth in fossil fuel fired capacity.
A good substitute for fossil fuel stored energy is now available. We next look at Tesla, currently better known for their EV cars, who see battery based storage as the future, and can now deliver this at $250 per kWh. Utility analysis had previously said the breakeven point for storage would occur when the price per kWh fell below $350. The ability to replace fossil fuels is here.
Countries that lead the switch to clean energy will reap financial rewards. Price is certainly a key. Look at coal - it comes at $2.30 per watt, but the Chinese are selling solar panels for $0.42 per watt. Renewables are now a realistic economic consideration by the mainstream. But it’s important to also mention the social rewards of switching to renewables: improved air quality – less emissions and smog, better living conditions and health.
This week we take a closer look at the ‘World’s Workshop’, which is a euphemism for China. We are all only too well acquainted with many of their manufactured goods, but are likely far less knowledgeable about what it is like within the country itself.
It used to be a common adage that everything in the US was always assumed to be bigger and faster than anywhere else. These days, this analogy should be applied instead to China, where everything is far bigger and far faster than anywhere else. However, the brakes on unfettered growth are finally coming on, as costs of being the World’s Workshop are finally proving too high. For example, according to China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection (yes, they have one), more than half of China's water is so polluted it cannot be treated to the point where it is safe to drink, and a quarter is so polluted it is unfit even for industrial use. What a truly disturbing statistic and little wonder that the thought of living in NZ is so very attractive.
In February of this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly unveiled the "Four Comprehensives", his list of political goals for China. They are “Comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, deepen reform, govern the nation according to law and strictly govern the Party." Business as usual then? Maybe not, as Xi has publicly pledged not to sacrifice the environment to promote temporary economic growth, comparing caring for the environment to "caring for one's own eyes and life."
With tens of thousands dying each year from poor air quality, caused mainly by emissions from coal fired generation, the first signs of environmental awareness are, not surprisingly, an accelerated shift to renewable generation. With China already boasting the world’s largest electricity generation capacity of 1.36TW, (36% greater than the US), it still managed to add another 56GW of renewables to a new total of 444GW, now representing 33% of total installed capacity.
So what does China need all this electricity generation capacity for? To build things, it would seem, on a scale that is hard to fathom.
To attempt to understand why there is this focus on building, you first have to understand the relationship between Beijing and the Provinces. Each Province is required, by Beijing, to achieve year on year double digit GDP growth, much of which is achieved through domestic construction.
Here in NZ, we have ‘Spec Homes’, which are defined ‘as a residence built without a particular buyer in mind or under contract, but designed to appeal to the maximum market possible’. In China, they have ‘Spec Cities’. This has led to what have been labelled as ‘Ghost Cities’ – finished cities, full of amenities and apartments, but devoid of people. We examine Ordos, which is probably the best known ghost city, and specifically, its new quarter of Kangbashi. Complete with stadia, hospitals, police stations, universities, and row upon row of apartment buildings, the lights are on, but no one is home. What was once a NZ joke truly is the reality there.
And boy, can China build things quickly! An example - erecting a 57 storey, 800 apartment, 180,000 m2 skyscraper in only 19 days. Or using huge 3D printers that are capable of ‘printing’ 10 single storey residential houses each day!! All of which requires considerable energy, hence the continuing installation of even greater levels of electricity generation.
In writing this, we couldn’t help but draw some parallels with NZ. China has polluted its environment with heavy metals and other by-products of manufacturing, whereas we are polluting our waterways with Nitrates as a result of unfettered conversion into intensive dairying. Perhaps the Chinese lesson of growth at any cost should serve us to think carefully about our own economic considerations…
Now, to a different topic - Mattresses. We all use them, and when they have reached the end of their useable life, it’s usually off to the landfill. We look to Connecticut, USA, for a better solution, now offering the first State-wide mattress recycling programme. A top recyclable item if ever there was one.
We finish up with a look at a German start-up company called ‘Kiezkaufhaus’ which translates to ‘Neighbourhood Department Store’. Local deliveries are by elderly people on bicycles. Shop locally and avoid unnecessary truck or car journeys and the related greenhouse gas emissions. Another good idea.
Thanks for taking the time to read this issue and we look forward to catching up with you again next time.