Gondwana Man

A New Zealander’s journey to a sustainable future

Smart Idea, Dumb Idea

Posted by gondwanaman on November 24, 2007

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Here’s a smart energy idea – build wind turbines at or close to the point of demand for electricity (‘distributed generation’), utilizing brownfield sites:

“Wind turbines will increasingly be built in urban and industrial areas as power firms seek to avoid the planning problems that have blighted some rural generating schemes…”

Here’s a dumb energy idea – fight climate change by chopping down forests to grow biofuel crops:

“Increasing production of biofuels to combat climate change will release between two and nine times more carbon gases over the next 30 years than fossil fuels…”

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Posted in Climate change, Energy, Sustainability | Leave a Comment »

The Oil Drum Goes Down Under

Posted by gondwanaman on November 23, 2007

The Oil Drum has recently gone ‘down under’ with an Antipodean site, The Oil Drum: Australia/New Zealand.

As I suggested in an earlier post, don’t rely on governments or oil companies to tell you about peak oil – the maximum limit of world oil production which many experts consider has already occurred or will occur soon. The NZ Government, for instance, recently released the “New Zealand Energy Strategy to 2050”. You’d expect peak oil would warrant more serious attention than a few paragraphs, given the significant concerns that a range of experts – including people who have held senior positions in the oil industry – have about the peak’s imminent timing, and about how conventional oil is not substitutable (in any serious way) by oil sands and biofuels.  But the Government’s view on peak oil is essentially “move along, nothing to see here”:

“So while there will, at some point, be peak ‘cheap’ oil from conventional sources, the world has plentiful sources of fossil-based oil.” (NZES page 47).

Read about peak oil, transport and sustainability here at The Oil Drum: Australia/New Zealand.

Posted in Blogs, Energy, Oil, Peak Oil, Sustainability, Transport | 1 Comment »

Some Practical Motoring Advice

Posted by gondwanaman on November 22, 2007

Thank goodness we’ve got the NZ Automobile Association (AA) giving us practical advice on dealing with the end of the era of cheap oil. In this Stuff article, AA spokesman Mark Stockdale suggests that one way to beat the petrol price hike is to use supermarket petrol discount vouchers:

“It’s definitely worth shopping around. You can save a lot of money by shopping somewhere else and picking up your petrol somewhere else with one of the vouchers.”

Sounds great, but hang on, let’s check the math. Mr Stockale says that most vouchers offer on average a discount of 4c a litre of petrol. The petrol tank of my car takes 45 litres. 45 litres x 4c = $1.80. So, I’ve slashed $1.80 off the cost of a tank fill. If I fill my car’s tank every week (I don’t but let’s pretend) then 52 weeks x $1.80…I save $93.60 per year. 

Am I missing something here? Or is this one of those ‘bargains’ that aren’t really bargains? Sorry AA, but $1.80 a week doesn’t seem like “a lot of money” to me. Try giving your members better advice, like leaving the car in the garage and walking or cycling.

>> “Extremely Lame”

Posted in Energy, Lobby groups, New Zealand, Oil, Sustainability, Transport | Leave a Comment »

Forewarned is Forearmed

Posted by gondwanaman on November 22, 2007

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With the price of crude oil closing in on US $100 a barrel, now seems like a good time to talk about peak oil.

The Oil Drum, an authoritative US-based energy website I read regularly, has posted a short, readable and useful introduction to peak oil. (Peak oil is maximum global oil production; many experts consider that the peak has occurred, or will occur soon.) The document can be downloaded as a power point presentation or pdf. I’d encourage you to read it and other posts, and forward it to friends and family.

As The Oil Drum says, don’t rely on governments or oil companies to tell you about peak oil. Praemonitus praemunitus – to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Posted in Energy, New Zealand, Oil, Peak Oil | 1 Comment »

Vehicle Emissions Standards vs Vested Interests

Posted by gondwanaman on November 22, 2007

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Question time in Parliament today was soporific. I dozed after listening to Ministers batting off questions on the Electoral Finance Bill, so missed Jeanette Fitzsimmon’s question on vehicle exhaust emission standards. Thankfully there is Hansard for the transcript.

To recap, this was Ms Fitzsimmon’s question to the Associate Minister of Transport:

Q. “Does she expect proposed vehicle exhaust emissions standards to reduce the number of premature deaths from air pollution from vehicle exhausts; if so, how many lives does she expect this rule change could save?”

The Minister’s reply was the expected ‘Yes’. What was more interesting was Ms Fitzsimmon’s first supplementary question, and the Minister’s reply:

Q. “Will the Government stand firm on its proposed schedule for emissions standards in the face of industry pressure from both the Imported Motor Vehicle Dealers Association and, more surprisingly, the Consumers Institute of New Zealand, which both seem to believe that cheap cars are more important than saving lives?”

A. “Yes. The Government will stand firm on its proposal to improve the quality of the fleet coming into New Zealand by ensuring emissions standards are put in place. It is notable that the proposals being put up by the used-car dealers are simply aimed at having every sector of the car industry pay the costs, except those who import used cars. We are far too used to having shonky, old, worn-out, “clocked” vehicles brought into this country and foisted on the public; it is time we had some better-quality vehicles.”

Let’s hope the Government holds the line. For too long, New Zealand has imported second hand, clapped out and polluting vehicles from Japan – we’ve become a dumping ground for wrecks. This scheme benefits used car dealers, while the rest of us pay the costs, such as air pollution, traffic congestion, and declining use of public transport.

Posted in Environment, Lobby groups, Parliament, Politics, Transport | Leave a Comment »

In Parliament Today

Posted by gondwanaman on November 22, 2007

Here is today’s list of oral questions in the NZ House of Representatives. National will continue to attack the Government on the Electoral Finance Bill and the Clare Curran hiring debacle at the Ministry for the Environment. There are also two sustainability and climate change-related questions to listen for:

  • Hone Harawira (Maori Party) to the Minister responsible for Climate Change: “Is he happy with the Government’s commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions; if so, why?”; and
  • Jeanette Fitzsimmons (Green Party) to the Associate Minister of Transport: “Does she expect proposed vehicle exhaust emissions standards to reduce the number of premature deaths from air pollution from vehicle exhausts; if so, how many lives does she expect this rule change could save?”.

Tune in at 2pm.

Posted in Climate change, Energy, New Zealand, Parliament, Politics, Sustainability, Transport | Leave a Comment »

Extremely Lame

Posted by gondwanaman on November 21, 2007

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Petrol is now NZ 173.9c a litre, diesel 127.9c a litre. 

As world oil prices close in on US $100 a barrel, and the price of petrol and diesel climbs in New Zealand, the Automobile Association (AA) says that the latest pump price rise is “a disappointing development, leading into Christmas, when people are going to be travelling more”. It urges its members to take advantage of supermarket discount deals.

This is the AA’s stock standard response to rising pump prices. Its lame complaint shows no comprehension of the deep structural factors driving the global oil supply crunch and the shortfall between global supply and demand. These include the approach of maximum global oil production (“Peak Oil”), soaring demand for oil in developing economies like China and India, continuing heavy oil consumption in western countries, and endemic conflict and instability in oil producing regions such as Iraq and Nigeria. These factors mean that the era of cheap oil is upon us and petrol shortages will soon be commonplace.

Rather than encouraging people to cling to their delusions about care-free motoring, the AA should be preparing its members for a future in which the oil supply is very tight and the oil price is very high. It should advise members to buy smaller, fuel efficient cars, and get to work on public transport or by walking or cycling. It should lobby government to boost public transport, cycleways and long distance rail, rather than building more motorways.

Is it realistic of me to think that the AA ostrich might pull its head out of the sand? Probably not. The AA is car-crazy – just look at its website, which currently features a review of the grotesque Hummer, and an article that tells you how to help “your child” buy his or her first car. Expect to hear more plaintive bleating from the AA when pump prices surge again.  

(Photo: Brett Phipps/NZ Herald.)

Posted in Energy, Lobby groups, New Zealand, Oil | 1 Comment »

Hydrogen car hits the streets

Posted by gondwanaman on November 21, 2007

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I’m not a car lover. I have no empathy with petrol heads. I usually toss the motoring section of Saturday’s newspaper straight into the recycling bin. But I must admit that Honda’s move to mass-produce a hydrogen fuel cell car in 2008 is exciting.

As this article in the Times explains, “the fuel cell has long been the holy grail of eco-motoring because it produces a smooth, almost silent ride and zero emissions”. The idea that you can drive your car without polluting the environment or plundering the resources of a foreign country has a lot going for it – guilt free motoring.

Before fuel cell cars hit the streets in large numbers there are big obstacles to overcome. Honda may have resolved issues of cost and storage. But there are others, including public perceptions of safety, and lack of infrastructure (e.g., hydrogen-filling stations, pipelines and tankers).

Then there’s hydrogen production. Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not a primary energy source. It has to be made from something, and at present most hydrogen is made from oil, coal and natural gas. This takes lots of energy and emits a lot of greenhouse gases.

Ideally, hydrogen would be made from renewable or nuclear energy. But the energy infrastructure required to make hydrogen for a large transport fleet is of mind-boggling dimension. To fuel the American transport fleet (some 230 million vehicles) with hydrogen instead of oil, a wind farm covering most of North Dakota, a solar panel array the size of Massachusetts, or 430 nuclear power plants would be needed.   

This is probably why Toyota continues to push hybrid-electric vehicles. The Prius can be fuelled through existing infrastructure – the national electricity grid. There is something very cool about a car that you can recharge overnight by plugging into the mains. But if the electricity is generated by coal, oil or natural gas, the environmental benefit of green cars is offset by increased carbon emissions.

To work, hybrid-electric cars have to run on electricity generated from renewable energy. But this strikes the same problem as fuel cell cars – can you build enough wind farms or solar panels to run a large vehicle fleet? More likely the pressure would come on for environmentally destructive hydro dams or coal fired plants to be built. There’s also a resilience aspect – if a national grid is sabotaged by a hostile foreign power or terrorists, or is damaged in a natural disaster, transport would grind to a halt.

Possible solutions include distributed generation – generating electricity near the point of demand – and micro-generation, where houses, offices and farms generate at least some of their electricity through solar panels and wind turbines. Combined with energy efficiency and conservation measures, this would reduce demand on the grid and eliminate the need for large new power stations. It would also ensure local resilience in times of trouble.

(Photo: The Times)

Posted in Energy, Environment, New Zealand, Resilience | 12 Comments »