Archive for the ‘Express 118’ Category

The Impossible Dream Or 100% Renewable Energy by 2020?

Posted by admin on July 21, 2010
Posted under Express 118

The Impossible Dream Or 100% Renewable Energy by 2020?

A collaborative project involving a collection of engineers, scientists and other professionals with industrial and academic experience – working entirely pro bono – has come up with a detailed and costed blueprint for the transformation of the Australian energy system to become 100% renewable by 2020. This is the word from Beyond Zero Emissions.

Matthew Wright in Climate Spectator (21 July 2010):

Last week the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy plan, a collaboration between the University of Melbourne Energy Institute and climate solutions think tank Beyond Zero Emissions, was launched at the Spot Theatre at Melbourne University.

Usually, talks about energy draw a fairly specialised crowd, but this event filled the 500 seat venue and around 300 people had to be turned away. So what is it about this project that has captured the imagination of so many people?

The answer is that this collaborative project – between a collection of engineers, scientists and other professionals with industrial and academic experience, working entirely pro bono – provides a detailed and costed blueprint for the transformation of the Australian energy system to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020.

One of the perceived blocks to a wholesale shift to renewable energy is the idea that renewable energy can’t supply baseload power. Electricity is difficult and expensive to store and, as a result, needs to be produced to meet demand at any given moment. For this reason, in a fossil fuel-based system, ‘baseload’ coal plants run at a pretty much constant output, while gas peaking plants are brought on and off line to meet demand.

The argument run relentlessly against renewables by the carbon lobby is that, because ‘the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine at night’, renewable energy can’t provide the constant, or ‘baseload,’ electricity we need to meet demand around the clock.

In fact, technology developed in the 1980′s overcame these limitations. While wind power output is variable, a combination of large-scale concentrated solar thermal plants with molten salt storage (otherwise knows as ‘baseload solar’) and wind farms can power this nation 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Baseload solar thermal is the game-changing renewable energy technology, developed by
the US Department of Energy between 1980 and 2000. It is now commercially available from SolarReserve of California, and Torresol Energy/SENER of Spain, and many other solar thermal companies are upgrading to this technology, including solar thermal industry leaders Acciona and Abengoa of Spain, Brightsource of Israel and Solar Millennium of Germany.

Solar thermal plants use many mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a receiver, generating heat to create steam and power a turbine. The heat is safely stored in insulated tanks of high-temperature molten salt, just like a thermos-flask stores a hot liquid. At any time of day or night, the hot liquid salt is used to generate steam for the turbine, creating zero-emission, baseload solar electricity.

According to US DoE projections, solar thermal will be cost-competitive with coal and gas power, as the solar thermal industry scales up to an installed capacity of thousands of megawatts
around the world.  Even the conservative International Energy Agency, to whom the world’s major economies turn for advice on energy, says that solar will make up 25 per cent of the world’s energy by 2050.

In Spain, where the solar resource is roughly on par with Victoria, plants using molten salt storage have been operational since 2008. Torresol Energy is building Gemasolar, a solar thermal power tower with 15 hours of storage, to be complete around the end of this year.

Meanwhile, US company SolarReserve has three Baseload Solar projects on the go: one 50 MWe plant in Spain, and two plants in the US ­ – 100 MWe and 150 MWe respectively. In total, the booming concentrating solar thermal industry is currently building billions of dollars of plants globally, including $20 billion in Spain and more than $20 billion breaking ground this year in the south-west of the USA.

Under the ZCA2020 Plan there would be 12 solar regions across the country, consisting of 3,500 MW of power tower units. These would supply 60 per cent of Australia’s electricity in 2020.

The other 40 per cent of Australia’s electricity would come from wind. 6,400 gearless Enercon 7.5 MW turbines are specified and and would be distributed to 23 sites across the country.

The rapid uptake of wind power in other countries is in stark contrast to Australia. Denmark, for example, with 5.4 million inhabitants crammed into an area twenty times smaller than New South Wales, is aiming for 50 per cent of its power to come from wind by 2025.

In China alone, the installed wind capacity has doubled every year for the past five years. “Wind power is vital,” says Shi Lishan, deputy director of renewable energy in China’s National Energy
Administration, “as it is the cheapest form of renewable energy. It is advantageous to put as much wind energy as you can harness in the grid because it’s cheap.”

Detailed modelling has been carried out based on wind speeds measured half-hourly for a two-year period and solar data from the 12 proposed solar sites. With a demand model based on data from the current National Electricity Market (NEM), we show that 100 per cent renewable
electricity supply can be delivered 24 hours, seven days, every day of the year matching Australia’s demand profile. The specified wind and solar system requires just 2 per cent backup from existing hydro and a small amount of co-firing with waste biomass for rare periods with less sun or wind than required.

A national grid is costed into the plan, to allow the renewable generating mix to be shifted from point of supply to demand, and to take advantage of geographical diversity. This would link WA’s two grids in the South and North with the eastern seaboard grid, the NEM. This is based on commercially available and costed High Voltage DC and AC transmission lines. The design of the grid was completed in conjunction with the advice and review of leading engineering firm
Sinclair Knight Merz.

Sound like a big task? All those wind farms and solar plants? Could we do it?

Australia has a huge and powerful industrial economy that is well up to the task. At the peak of construction, by 2016, we’d need an 80,000-strong construction workforce building the infrastructure.

That’s only about 8 per cent of Australia’s existing construction workforce of one million people, and in the resources boom from 2003-2008 the construction industry was growing at 50,000 new jobs per year, every year.The ZCA2020 Plan requires a ramp rate about 20 per cent of this. The manufacturing to build all the components? We’d need about one decent-sized car manufacturing plant to produce all the mirrors we’d need. We already have three of those.

There is a focus on detailing the kind of industries and jobs that will grow from the construction and manufacturing of the solar and wind plants and the modernised electricity grid. A vibrant renewable energy sector can be built in the current powerhouses of the Australian economy ­ the Hunter and Latrobe Valleys, and the Bowen basin in Queensland.

We know we have the technology, the industry, the workers, the engineers, the money and the materials to do the job. Now we need the leadership to step forward.

To go to zero emissions, we do not just throw on a carbon price and rely on the ‘unlocking’ of innovation to do the job. Instead we get ourselves a plan. The Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Plan is a detailed, pragmatic and costed plan to get on with the job and deal decisively with these crucial issues – and to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020.

Matthew Wright is an executive director at climate change solutions think tank Beyond Zero Emissions


What Value Does Australia Put on a Green Investment Bank?

Posted by admin on July 21, 2010
Posted under Express 118

What Value Does Australia Put on a Green Investment Bank?

The formation of a Green Investment Bank in Australia can provide a vital, necessary link between projects requiring long-term debt funding and demand from an existing, large group of private sector bond investors. It can also explore the creation of new markets for financial products with hybrid characteristics. The main challenge will be to find the right structure for government support that balances the allocation of risks and returns between the public and private sector. Phil Preston says this in Climate Spectator.

Phil Preston in Climate Spectator (20 July 2010):

Those who oppose economic intervention may shudder at the prospect of a Green Investment Bank, but the reality is that urgency is required to build renewable energy infrastructure. Recent conversations in developed countries have focused on the potential for such a bank to help mobilise private sector savings.

As Giles Parkinson points out, the concept has gained traction in the UK and it is an option for Australia to consider. We must ask the question though: can a Green Investment Bank work in practice?

To answer this, we need to consider the features of project financing, the natural investors for such projects, and the role that a Green Investment Bank (GIB) could play in mobilising capital. We must be careful that we are not fooled by the simplicity of the concept, as there are some key elements to get right if it is to be a serious option at all.

The cycle of project financing

Project financing has several stages that can be broadly classified as feasibility, financing, construction and operating. To be feasible in the eyes of private sector sponsors, the basic project economics need to stack up. That is, the likely returns achievable from the equity invested in them must be commensurate with the risk taken. I’ll come back to that point in a moment, but assuming a given project is feasible, the debt and equity financing needs to be locked in and then the project needs to be built, successfully commissioned and operated.

At various points, the project’s risk profile changes and investors will be sensitive to their point of entry. Financing a tested and fully operating project is a different proposition to financing construction.

A side point here is to note how critical the off-take pricing of, say, a renewable energy project is to its feasibility. Currently, fossil fuel-based energy is cheaper than renewable energy – so government policy is required to stimulate investment.

A feed-in-tariff is one such government intervention, in this case to regulate the off-take prices for the energy produced. Such intervention at the project level ensures that energy prices, and therefore revenue, can be forecast in advance, which reduces revenue risk for the project sponsors. It also allows more debt to be raised against the project’s value, because lenders are faced with less risk.

Government support could also include such measures as carbon pricing or favourable tax treatment – some readers may recall the much sought after infrastructure bonds of the 1990s; economists can argue over which mechanisms will work the best – the point is that government support will be vitally important for project feasibility and will help shape the subsequent actions of the private sector.

Who are the natural investors during the various stages of a project?

Initial sponsors would typically be dominated by construction and energy companies. Once a project is commissioned and proven operational, then construction companies usually head for the exit in order to recycle their capital into new opportunities. This is the point where both listed and unlisted infrastructure funds find the lower risk and reasonable return prospects attractive and may build positions, or the project may simply stay on an energy company’s balance sheet.

The debt financing of project construction requires sophisticated lending skills. The major commercial banks possess those skills and have the right business structures to assess, manage and monitor project debt. Once the project is operational, the sponsors will want to refinance the bank debt with longer dated debt or bonds. The banks won’t mind – they prefer to recycle their capital into other projects because they are penalised from a capital perspective for holding long-term debt. The natural holders of long-term debt are those investors with long-dated liabilities: superannuation funds and insurance companies.

So there is a clear cycle of natural investors, starting with construction companies and banks and ending up with listed or unlisted funds and bond investors. Energy companies may also retain interest through some, or all, of this cycle.

What role is there for a Green Investment Bank?

Assuming feasibility has been dealt with through government mechanisms, the main issue is financing. Energy companies with large and solid balance sheets could undertake and finance projects themselves, however the quantum of capital required will limit the amount they can supply.

How can a GIB help to mobilise capital quickly? As per Murray Ward’s analysis, there is a vast cavern of capital sitting in pension, insurance, sovereign wealth and other private funds. A GIB can play a key role as an intermediary between projects and the providers of debt.

Firstly, it can act as an underwriter of debt, meaning that it commits at the financing stage to buying long-dated bonds when the project is successfully commissioned and operating. This has the benefit of reducing uncertainty for the sponsors and banks, who still retain the construction and commissioning risk. The GIB also becomes a hub for investment specialisation, a skill base that is expensive to re-create for each of the investment teams acting on behalf of the natural long term investors.

Secondly, the GIB can retain the long-dated bonds on its own balance sheet and issue its own bonds to match the needs of investors, whether they are short or long-term focused. By having the capacity to issue shorter-term debt they attract a much wider, global investor base. If the GIB can achieve a decent credit rating (of AA or AAA) and issue bonds in deep, liquid lines into the market, then it will be able to mobilise a serious amount of capital. Investment managers will buy highly rated and liquid bonds in spades without needing any specialised skills of their own to do so. In my experience, as the debt proposition becomes increasingly complex then the universe of potential investors falls away at an exponential rate.

The GIB may also have a role to play in providing equity support. Discussions in the UK include a host of ideas on this front. The designers and owners of the GIB would need to think long and hard about capital efficiency and conflict of interest under this approach – it may be more effective to consolidate equity support activities under an investment fund structure rather than as part of a special purpose bank. Mobilising debt funding should be its main purpose and priority.

What are the main challenges in the formation of an effective GIB?

This is no ordinary bank. It has an asset portfolio that consists of loans to renewable energy projects, which means that its assets are concentrated in one area. In layman’s terms, it has all of its eggs in one basket. An unexpected change in technology or regulation could seriously impact the value of its portfolio. To get a decent credit rating it would need to either hold a large amount of capital relative to traditional commercial banks, thus straining the economics and feasibility of a commercial return from the equity in the GIB itself, or receive some form of explicit government support.

Another problem is the mismatch risk in its portfolio. It owns long-dated bonds and funds them with shorter-dated debt, which can lead to trouble if the market goes through a credit or liquidity crisis, which it invariably does every five-to-ten years. This is an area in which government may be able to get more “bang for its buck” by providing explicit, contingent financial support that could be drawn in the event of asset quality problems or market disruption. It could be in the form of additional equity or lender-of-last-resort for refinancing debt, or a combination of the two. It is not ideal, but may be necessary. Because the support is contingent, it has close to zero cash cost today, which may be politically appealing. The downside is that it may become a burden in the future. Organisations such as the World Bank perform a similar role in developing countries. A major reason they achieve their AAA credit ratings is because their member countries commit to providing additional capital if required.

Further discussion is needed to tackle the issue of exactly who provides the equity and owns the GIB, and how a balance can be achieved between public and private objectives. That discussion will be driven by the nature of the explicit government support, should it be provided.

There has also been discussion in the industry of GIBs issuing instruments that are hybrid in nature, such as bonds whose returns are somehow linked to carbon prices. It is premature to consider these options seriously before getting the basic structure right. If a massive amount of capital needs to be mobilised, then there is a compelling case to raise it using existing markets and mechanisms that we know will work. Hybrid instruments may work in the future. They require new markets to be formed and the risk and return characteristics of those instruments will be very complex. It would be wise to view them as a ‘phase two’ idea.

Can it work?

The formation of a GIB can provide a vital, necessary link between projects requiring long-term debt funding and demand from an existing, large group of private sector bond investors. It can also explore the creation of new markets for financial products with hybrid characteristics. The nature of its assets and activities means that it will need explicit government support in some form to ensure its own viability. The main challenge will be to find the right structure for government support that balances the allocation of risks and returns between the public and private sector.

Phil Preston is the principal of Seacliff Consulting, a firm offering specialised consulting services in the financial and responsible investment fields. His prior work includes 17 years of financial research and portfolio management in the funds management industry.


Lucky last: Climate change and the role of clouds

Posted by admin on July 21, 2010
Posted under Express 118

Lucky last: Climate change and the role of clouds

Philosophers, artists, politicians and daydreaming kids have long looked to the sky’s ungraspable clouds in search of meaning. But those innocuous clumps of water and ice, seen by British poet William Wordsworth as lonely wanderers, are being closely watched by climate scientists for clues to our future.

Clouds and water vapour play an important part in climate change, but the exact details of their role remains cloudy, writes Graham Readfearn on ABC Environment (12 July 2010).

“It still remains one of the top challenges in climate research – getting a better understanding of clouds,” says Steve Sherwood, a professor of atmospheric physics at the University of New South Wales Climate Research Centre. “It’s the main known unknown in predicting future climate.”

Water vapour in the atmosphere is invisible and everywhere – it is our most abundant greenhouse gas. The way that water vapour affects the climate is similar to that of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases. They all absorb and re-emit radiation, acting like a blanket enfolding the globe. For more go to: