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The tide of change in energy production

22 June 2018

I think everyone reading this will agree that the future of energy is in renewables.

The days of dragging huge volumes of coal from mines or gas/oil from drilling rigs as a way of fueling the world's demand for power are over (almost) -- the environmental costs of fossil fuels are simple too high.

Here in NZ we have some excellent advantages over many other countries when it comes to switching to renewable energy -- but if you ask me, we've got our strategies all cocked-up and that's going to cost us.

We've seen quite a few wind-turbines go up around the country... and that's great... but it's not the answer -- because wind is too fickle to be a 100% replacement for existing fuel-based generation.

Certainly we could probably do with another decent hydro scheme but even they have their limits and with climate change introducing wild fluctuations into weather patterns, it's not hard to imagine us out of power after a series of "drier than normal" years, if we rely too heavily on hydro.

So what else is there?

Well there's solar but unfortunately, it's not only expensive (on a large scale) but also even more fickle than wind. Although wind may come and go, we know for sure that solar is limited to just a few hours a day in mid-winter, when demand is highest.

Here in NZ we also have geothermal so in theory, we could aspire to be more like Iceland, which is almost 100% powered by renewables (70% hydro and almost 30% geothermal). However, putting too much reliance on geothermal is also risky -- because it's the type of generation that would be most vulnerable during major natural disasters such as earthquakes. Also, as we saw in Rotorua a few decades ago when too much energy was extracted from below ground, a receding water table can cause dramatic drops in output, effectively leaving you high and dry.

Of course we have tidal energy -- which, although cyclic, is 100% reliable (until such time as the moon disappears or the seas dry up). Another benefit of tidal is that some of the prime positions for tapping into tidal energy are close to the major population centred of Auckland and Wellington. A connection between the Waitemata and Manukau harbours or between the North and South Kaipara heads would be perfect for the North and another system in Cook Straight would serve the Capital very well.

Sadly though, this is where the environmentalists face something of a dilemma.

They don't want us burning oil or coal because that's bad for the environment -- but they also don't want us messing with tidal flows because it could inconvenience the red-breasted, pied fleeble droid stilt mangler -- or some other oddball bird which nests or feeds in tidal estuaries that might be affected.

Sorry greenies... but you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs and if we'd had today's "protect nature at all costs" attitude back in the mid 20th century, we'd probably all be huddled in caves, warming our hands by a fire and dressed in flax skirts right now.

Yes, I think it's time to bite the bullet and say "sorry" to a very small cross-section of our wildlife who might get their beaks or fins out of joint as a result of harnessing tidal power -- and go for it.

Yes, tidal power is cyclic... but when the tidal flows are at their maximum there is an extraordinary amount of energy available -- and that happens around four times a day. During the "lulls" at peak high or low tide, hydro can fill the gap quite adequately, even in the driest of years.

But perhaps more important than any of this is the way we use energy.

New Zealand is one of the most energy inefficient first-world countries on the planet.

The vast majority of NZ's housing stock only has single-glazed windows. Very few houses are designed with energy efficiency in mind (having suitable orientation, eves, thermal mass, etc) and the level of self-generation is abysmally low when compared to our neighbours in Oz and many European nations.

This is why we find so many low-income families who are all-but freezing in winter and why we have some of the highest electricity costs in the world (despite our relatively high percentage of generation from renewables).

This morning I read this bit of drivel on Stuff and breathed a deep sigh.

Whilst some of the opinion piece has validity, much of it was just twaddle from Greenpeace.

The piece urges us to cut back on fossil fueled generation (that's good) but fails to mention that it's Greenpeace and other environmental organisations which make the most noise when really good ideas (such as tidal power) are proposed.

Oh, think of the snapper in the Kaipara Harbour, think of the birds in the estuaries, think of...

Whilst demanding billions of investment in "wind turbines" (not the best option as already pointed out), they don't once consider that perhaps, rather than just ramping up energy production, we should be spending far more effort (and money) on reducing energy consumption.

I said several years ago that the best thing the government could do as a way of improving the nation's energy score would be to give *every* household a full set of LED lights -- for free! The result of this would be very similar to building a massive new generation facility -- except that there would be no delay, a much lower cost, and no environmental impact.

Even today I see that many of the homes I visit still have old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, many of which will run for 6-7 hours a day in winter -- each individual bulb sucking enough energy to light an entire house equipped with LEDs.

Why are there so many people blinded by ideology, unwilling to take a pragmatic approach to our energy future?

Why are we delaying the crucial decisions that will leave us even further disadvantaged once EVs become the norm?

I shudder to think where the extra electricity is going to come from to power our EV fleet and I shudder even more if we believe that either solar or wind will be reliable enough to keep NZ's transport fleet moving all day, every day. How long before we end up with "no work" days after a prolonged period of calm, cloudy mid-winter days which have left us without sufficient power to recharge the EV in the garage?

IMHO, tidal is the future and we should be already building our first systems because if we wait until we need them, it will be too late.

And... we can't afford to waith the 10 years we've been told it will take before the first practical fusion generators are ready for use (LOL).

Your thoughts?

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