Posts Tagged ‘sustainability’

What’s wrong with pricing carbon anyway? Lessons from an old film laboratory.

I think there’s a lesson about the carbon price that can be found in the now dying business of film processing.


Tony Abbott talked about a “great big new tax”. If nothing else, that misrepresentation of the nature of the carbon price suggests that he really opposes it for the sake of opposing the Labor government that introduced it, not because he thinks it is bad policy.

The thing is, I don’t understand what the objection to pricing carbon really is.

ImageSome years ago I worked for a large film processing laboratory. It’s an almost dead technology now that cinema is digital, but in the heyday we processed millions of feet of film each week. That used a lot of water and chemicals – some of which, while not the worst substances ever invented, were not at all good for the environment. Those chemicals turned up in the processing wash water and other used chemical outflows, and in the early days went straight into the sewer. Because they didn’t break down like organic waste, those chemicals would eventually find their way into the rivers and ocean.

No big problem at first – it was a small operation, and the chemicals were diluted with heaps of water. But as we grew, the Water Board took more interest. And we found we had to pay. We had to pay for every litre of water we took from the mains, and again for every litre of waste that went into the sewer. Then they measured how much of those chemicals were in the waste water, and we had to pay for that. If we exceeded an agreed limit, we had to pay a hefty penalty rate as well.

You’ll notice this is a bit like paying for carbon dioxide emissions. Small companies – not a problem. Bigger ones charged according to how much they emit. But we never for a moment thought of our charges as a “tax”. It wasn’t a “sulphite tax” or an “ammonium tax”. It was simply a fee we had to pay to release pollutants into the system.

DSC00060How did we react to these increasing charges? We looked for different chemicals that weren’t such a problem. We found ways to recycle more of the waste chemicals. Our chief chemist developed a system for recovering and recycling up to 90% of the wash water we used. This turned out to be world-beating and the technology was adopted by labs in other countries. We developed systems that even the huge labs in Hollywood didn’t have.

Why is it so hard for fossil fuel users to take the same approach to reducing their costs?

Joe Hockey, the new Federal Treasurer, criticises the carbon “tax” saying it is misconceived because it won’t reduce the use of electricity. He says it’s an inelastic commodity: in other words, we use the same amount even if the price goes up. As it happens, even that isn’t true.

But the point of pricing carbon isn’t to reduce electricity usage: it is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It’s an incentive for companies to look for other ways to produce electricity, to reduce their costs – and a way of raising some of the funds necessary for that. That won’t happen overnight, it takes a long time to replace generating plant. But that’s a good reason to start sooner and not to give up.

chemmixBack in the film laboratory, any suggestion that the water and discharge fees were a “cinema tax” or designed to reduce cinema attendance would have been ridiculous. But that, in effect, is what the critics of pricing carbon are saying. Any suggestion that the charges would make our lab in Australia uncompetitive was just nonsense. Labs around the world used the same processes, and pollution problems were the same everywhere. Our response was based on a sense of environmental responsibility as much as on costs. And it actually made us more competitive, not less.

That company has now closed down its film processing operations.  It wasn’t financially ruined by environmental considerations: as before, it moved with the technology, and it’s now a successful digital post-production facility. It’s in Mr Hockey’s electorate. Perhaps he and his Coalition colleagues should take a lesson from its story, and reconsider their dismissal of new technologies, and their obstinate determination to abolish carbon pricing. It should be an effective tool in the challenge to clean up emissions and stem climate change.


Still paying to be green?

Electricity bills will be going up for all of us – even those who pay extra to buy “Green Power”.  Are we getting what we have been paying for?

Australia’s dependence on coal for generating electricity is higher than almost any other country’s. Of course we have lots of coal, mostly easier to get out of the ground than in many other countries. But we also have lots of sunshine and wind, and so since it’s been known just how much climate change is affected by the carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, many Australians (I’m one of them) have chosen to pay extra for their electricity so that the providers can source more of it from green energy: sun and wind.

Of course, as Tim Kelly of the Conservation Council of SA points out in “The Hidden Carbon in GreenPower“, the “green” electricity that comes to my house is no different from the plain stuff that comes to my neighbour’s house. But the supplier (in my case, Origin Energy) is supposed to match this demand for green electricity with the proportion it buys overall, and it has been understood that the surcharge it has been collecting (5c/kWh) should therefore match the additional costs it faces.

Now, ostensibly because of the so-called carbon tax, electricity is going up – quite substantially in some cases. I’ve been studying my bills, together with the new price structure that Origin has published, to try to understand why I’ll paying more.

Origin offers a range of price structures, so my analysis only applies to what I pay. However, some very interesting facts emerge.

Up to now, after a standard daily service charge, there is one rate for the first 1,750kWh (in a quarterly bill), and a second, higher rate for what we use over that amount. In my case, we don’t reach the 1,750kWh on the summer bill, but go well past it in the winter. There is also a much lower rate for off-peak power (which we use for hot water) and then there is the 100% green electricity surcharge – which up to now has been exactly 5c/kWh on the total amount used.

Not all those rates are going up. The green energy surcharge is coming down from 5c/kWh to 3.08c/kWh. If the price rises are being sheeted home to the “carbon tax”, it’s hard to see why this shouldn’t be totally eliminated – but more of that later.

The daily service charge and the initial rate are going up, the latter from 20.6kWh to 26.8c/kWh. The breakpoint is coming down from 1,750kWh/qtr to 1,000kWh/qtr. And there is a second breakpoint, at 2,000kWh/qtr, after which electricity will cost 37.73c/kWh. So, except for a small range of usage, the rate per kWh will go up around 30%.

So in my case I’ll be paying at least some of my bill at the higher tier rate even in the summer quarter. Over the year, it looks as though I’ll be paying about 14% more.  If I wasn’t already paying the green surcharge, it would be closer to 26% or 27%.

Power costs for green and non-green users

Origin is very precise about its green surcharge: a reduction from 5c/kWh to 3.08c/kWh. Not 3c, not even 3.1c: but 3.08c. A reduction of exactly 36.4%. I think that suggests that they know quite precisely how much it costs them to service a green customer compared to a non-green customer. It is hard to see why those paying the green surcharge should have to bear any of the carbon tax costs.

There is an obviously simple explanation: that a great part of the price increase has nothing to do with the carbon tax, but is simply the increase in the costs of maintenance, replacing infrastructure, wages, etc, which applies equally across the board.  I have written to Origin asking them to confirm that this is the case, and for their assurance that this explanation will be circulated with the next round of bills. I’ve had no response.

If it’s not the case, then the remaining 3.08c/kWh of the 100percent green surcharge is simply being used to subsidise non-green customers, and reduce the impact of the increases on them.  And I’m not happy about that. It’s one thing to pay extra to reduce one’s own contribution to greenhouse gases: something quite different to pay extra to allow other householders’ emissions to continue.

Apparently some other providers are not reducing their green power surcharge at all, arguing that the tax is applied to their total costs, and they cannot calculate the proportion of carbon costs that should be borne by individual customers. This exposes the entire green surcharge system as even more of a fraud.

My calculations show that those paying quarterly bills up to $700 for normal coal-fired electricity will find they are now paying almost exactly what green users were paying before the rise.

The corollary of this is that those currently paying for green electricity could cut their price rise to virtually nothing (or less for big users) by discontinuing their green surcharge.

It’s a temptation, in the face of such a big increase, and the evidence that the surcharge isn’t actually directly related to emission-free electricity. I guess some will do just that, but I also guess that Origin will be expecting very few to do so: these are people who have already chosen to pay more than they had to, on a point of principle.

However, if there is a drop-off of customers paying the green surcharge, will Origin revert to a lower proportion of green energy (thereby increasing their reliance on coal-fired power and presumably increasing their carbon tax liability)? This, surely, would not be a good outcome for the carbon tax.

Arguably, the existence of the surcharge has been a big factor in persuading many people that renewable energy is simply “too expensive”. But given that, regardless of any cost increase due to the carbon tax, the costs of all forms of renewable energy are steadily falling, that won’t continue to be the case. Already we are told that wind and coal costs are more or less on a par in South Australia.

So finally, we must ask how much longer we will be expected to pay any premium at all to encourage suppliers to buy green electricity.

No Smoke and All Mirrors

How to build a miniature Concentrated Solar Thermal (CST) model.

TabletopCST model

Talking to people about renewable energy, I’ve found that most people haven’t heard of Concentrated Solar Thermal power plants like the Gemasolar one in Spain – so models and photos are really useful in explaining the concept.

Table-top models (like this one) that have been made are proving to be real attractions. But they’re big and heavy. Wonderful for larger venues, but I wondered if something smaller would work too. Something I could carry under my arm.

If you’re here looking for an explanation of how CST works, you might find this link useful. Otherwise,  read on . . . .


What I bought . . .

what I boughtI found packs of 20 mirrors, one inch square, for $2.00 in a craft shop. Previously I’d been planning a slightly larger model using clamshell make-up mirrors, but I couldn’t resist the bargain here, and so the ultra-miniature CST model was conceived.

To mount the mirrors at an angle, onto a baseboard, I bought a pack of ¾” paper fasteners, also for $2.00, and a tube of Tarzan’s grip.

The whole thing was going to be not much bigger than a sheet of A4 paper!


Gluing the fasteners to the mirrors

mirrors glued onto clipsI bent each paper fastener to about 30 degrees before gluing it to the back of a mirror. Tweezers came in handy to push the brass fastener down to the mirror and make sure it was as square-on as possible.



The baseboard

The baseboardThe baseboard was just a 30cm square of particle board I had. It needs to be something that will stay flat and not warp in the hot sun.

For my model I decided to have the tower in one corner, about 7cm from the edges.

I had found a fairly long bolt in my box of stuff, with a matching nut. I glued the nut onto the baseboard. That way I’d be able to screw and unscrew the tower to pack the model away for transport.

I drew a series of arcs centred on the tower, at 25mm intervals, and radiuses at 22½ degree intervals. This was going to give me enough room to fiddle with each mirror as I glued it on the board. Each row of mirrors also had to be far enough back from the ones in front to get a clear straight line throw to the tower top.


Placing the mirrors – first step

I glued the front row in place – 9 mirrors, all at a 75mm radius from the tower. At this stage I hadn’t built the tower, but in any event, I needed a larger screen to focus the reflected light.

I folded a sheet of white card and sellotaped it to the baseboard, with cross-hairs pencilled in about 18cm from the baseboard.

The important thing was to get each mirror aligned correctly in the L-R plane before the glue set.

Vertical adjustment would be easier later, by slightly bending the brass fastener. It helped to get each one right before gluing the next one into place.

( I actually did one row at a time – so this picture was taken at a later stage)

As I got more and more mirrors fixed, it got harder to see which reflects spot was the one I was trying to adjust. Placing a card to mask off the ones already fixed helped, so that only the newest mirrors actually produced a reflection, but then there was a danger of knocking them out of alignment before the glue set.

(I was concentrating on this bit so hard I forgot to take a photo of how to use a card to mask off unwanted mirrors. Here’s the second row in place, but not quite lined up yet.

Fast work needed, before the glue set too much.After the second row of mirrors, I found I needed sunglasses to do the job.


Let the glue dry

let the glue dryIt was important to let the glue dry before trying to adjust the mirrors vertically.







The tower – “your message here”

Now the tower. I was going to make a long and narrow box from white card (postcard weight): about 20cm high, and each side was 18mm. It would have five sides so that sides one and five would overlap for gluing. The box would fit over the bolt mentioned earlier.
To decorate the box, I drew up a pattern on the computer using a graphics program. Paintshop Pro is my favourite, but you could also do it with Word, making a table with five columns 18mm wide, and putting centred text (about 48-point Arial) into each column, and shading the background.



Assembling the tower

I discovered that a matching length of garden hose would exactly fit over the head of the bolt, and fit snugly into the card box. That made it easy to assemble the whole thing.



Aligning the mirrors – stage 2

With just the narrow tower, you can’t see the spots that are out of line – with a wide card you can. So I kept the wider card in place for the time being, to make sure all the mirrors were aligned.

In theory all the mirrors were aligned L-R, so the reflections should have fallen on the vertical centre line. In practice, a few had drifted a little as the glue set. The job was to tease each reflection into alignment – vertically by bending the brass fastener, with a slight horizontal twist if needed. I found the best I could do was to line them up to an area about twice the size of the mirrors (about 25mm square). After getting two lines of mirror settled I made up a third row and glued them in place in the same way.

You need to do this vertical alignment at the time of day you want the model to work best. Once set, the mirrors can’t be adjusted any more, and as the sun changes its elevation, the reflections will move.

I chose 1pm (solar midday in daylight saving). As the sun goes down, the reflections rise higher, and don’t converge so well. You can chase them a little by tilting the baseboard.


Other structures

The tower in actionI fiddled about with some scraps of things I had around the place, to represent holding tanks, pipes etc. I might add a few more blocks for pumps, turbines etc – though of course they won’t be functional in any way.

Here’s the finished result, in the midday sun.

I might add some more tanks and pipes and other structures if I get around to it.




The working model

No smoke and all mirrors

Last thing needed was a box to carry the thing in. I had planned to use a pizza box, but in the end I made one out of a cut-down wine carton which was exactly the right size. I put a little partition near one edge so the tower could be unscrewed and prevented from rolling about and banging the delicately adjusted mirrors.

The project needed a name. Since it’s all about replacing coal-fired power stations with solar ones, I called it  . . .



What do we want?

I went out door-knocking yesterday. My group, Climate Change Balmain-Rozelle, joined with dozens of other groups across the country, talking to people about Renewable Energy. We’ve been doing this for a couple of months now, but yesterday was the culmination of the campaign, and happened to be on the same weekend as the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee was spending the weekend in Canberra, drumming out details of the proposed Carbon Tax.

It’s not like delivering pamphlets, or even collecting for a charity. Door-knocking takes a lot longer to get up and down a street: more often than not there’s no reply at several houses in a row, but then you find someone at home and you’re there for at least five minutes and often ten, going through the questions. But most of us yesterday got to speak to about a dozen people, and I guess that would have added up to several thousand across the country.

All but one of the people I spoke to thought the government should be doing more about renewable energy.  Mostly they said “it’s all talk and no action” or “they’re just playing politics instead of tackling the issues”. Nearly everyone believed we should setting policies that would move Australia towards reliance on renewable energy, not on fossil fuels.

Many people admitted to being a little short on real information about the subject, and complained that the opposition and big business were clouding the issues.

And all but one said we should have a carbon tax, and we should have it now. There was discussion about how it would work, and some concern about its effects and its effectiveness: but as to the general principle, the answer was “yes” there must be a price on pollution, there must be a carbon tax.

a tonne of coal sends over three tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when its burnt

You might point out I was in the streets of Balmain, where they’ve just elected a Green MP to the NSW State parliament.  So of course I’d get a  pro-renewable energy response from people. But we’ve been doing this all around the country for months, and all across the country I am learning that the results are similar with only minor variations. People want a carbon tax, and they want to get on with it.

In the climate change movement, we know that the most important thing is to get these voices heard. That’s why we’re doing this door-knocking, to get the opinions of ordinary Australians.

After we’d finished, I got in the car and turned on the radio, scanning the dial for a news station.  As I was backing out of the car park I heard a voice seemingly echoing exactly those ideas.  ” . . .need to hear from ordinary people about this carbon tax . . . “.

I paid closer attention:

” Because let me tell you” the voice went on, ” if these politicians would just  listen to what the people want, they’d hear that we don’t want a bar of this stupid tax.  Nobody wants it.  And let me tell you, we’d hear no more about it – they’d drop it like a stone”.

A shock. After hearing from “the people” all afternoon during a national day of door-knocking, I turn on the radio, and hear exactly the opposite result. I glanced at the radio and found it was tuned to 2UE.   That explained a lot.

Regrettably, political decision-making in this country seems to be based more on who shouts the loudest than on sensible examination of the issues. Politicians take notice of the loudest people, regardless of the actual strength of their support. But yesterday’s door-knock underlined, for me at least, what a small base of support the shock jocks actually have for their views.

And so the task continues, never more important than now: to stand up for action on climate change, for a price on pollution, for support for renewable energy, and against misinformation, fear and the greed of vested interest.

Of drought and flooding rain

Tropical Cyclone Yasi, Feb 2011It would be a mistake to say that the recent dramatic weather events in Queensland and elsewhere are proof of climate change – or even that they have been caused by climate change. The mass of data gathered around the world over many years is proof of climate change: a single event, ore even two or three, is not. What the scientific models predict of climate change is not a simple overall warming, but increased extreme weather patterns of all sorts. As David Karoly of Melbourne University put it recently, Australia has always been a land of drought and flooding rain: climate change means it is becoming a land of more drought and more flooding rain.

Andrew Bolt argues in a blog in The Herald Sun that more rain fell in the 1974 floods in Queensland than in the 2011 floods, and uses this to deny that climate change has anything to do with the current crop of disasters.  After TC Yasi, no doubt he will point to the devastation caused by Cyclone Tracy at the end of 1974 as further “proof” that climate change is not happening. But it’s irrelevant. We know that we get floods and cyclones from time to time and some of them are extreme. On a year-by-year basis there isn’t much pattern, but over decades we can detect trends in the number of events. Greenpeace reported recently that overall there were just as many tropical cyclones around the world in the 1970s as there were in the most recent decade: but the number of category 4 and 5 cyclones has doubled.

The costs and disruption to normal life that these events have caused are also something that Australians should be familiar with. Perhaps we should have an ongoing fund to provide for reconstruction: perhaps we should simply take it in our stride. But the recent devastation in SE Queensland and now in the tropical north is a reminder, and a taste of what will become more frequent, bigger and more expensive disruptions to our comfortable way of life. Those who fret about the cost of any measures taken to combat climate change, or who argue that “warmists” would drive us back to the horse and buggy era – if not back to living in caves – should consider the cost of doing nothing.

This is why Julia Gillard’s recent announcement of massive cuts to carbon abatement programs is exactly the wrong response. In any enterprise, when something goes wrong, we need not only to fix up the problem, but to seek the cause and take steps to prevent it recurring. The Prime Minister speaks of a price on carbon, but there is no sign of it yet: and while some of the carbon abatement programs were less than effective, this widespread slashing sends a strong signal that the Federal Government still doesn’t really plan to show any leadership, locally or globally, in climate change reduction.

Populism, peer review or poppycock?

How do we break the impasse on Climate Change? At the moment it’s all talk and very little action. And yet we know that every day spent talking makes the tast of reversing the CO2 build-up that much harder.

The technology is available to convert all our power stations to renewable energy sources. Yes, we can do this. But instead of getting on with it, what is proposed?  A 150-strong Citizens’ Assembly will be appointed to examine the evidence on climate change, the case for action and a market based approach to reducing pollution.


Surveys show that an overwhelming majority of people agree that Climate Change is real, and action is needed.  So what’s wrong? Is this a good example of the failure of surveys to distinguish attitudes from behaviour? Or is it a case of political leaders not only not leading, but not even following?

Or is it simply that the fossil fuel lobby is very powerful and well organised? The miners certainly showed their strength and ability to turn public opinion rcently when it came to the Mining Profits Super Tax.

The Citizens’ assembly approach seems to be a bit like the way John Howard aborted the Republican debate – although he appeared to put a mechanism in place to move forward, he actually led it into a blind alley by changing the argument.

The best way that the fossil fuel lobby can skew opinion in their favour is to go over the old ground again and again, feeding off the few remaining climate change deniers, and never letting the argument go forward to the much clearer arguments. After all, changing technology is simple compared with understanding how the global ecosystem works.

So, in the face of this, how do we communicate the imperatives of Climate Change?

We need to stop the “save the earth” rhetoric. It’s wrong and it trivialises the argument. And we need to stop the “climate change” rhetoric too. There are too many deniers around, and it’s easy to get sidetracked into flat-earth type arguments with simpletons, or to be accused of negativism and predictions of doom. 

So, how should we communicate?

The word “sustainable” is getting dragged into every corner these days for a good reason. It works. It seems to mean something to people. People don’t like change, and generally don’t understand it, and “sustainable” systems are those that can go on and on without change. I get a strong sense that people often wring their hands about Climate Change – seeing it correctly as a global problem, but incorrectly as something that an individual or even a smallish country can’t influence. But they are much more comfortable thinking about sustainability,  as it’s something they can tackle in their own life, in their backyard or on their roof. Next step, building momentum, companies and governments can adopt sustainable solutions.

Sustainable systems use renewable resources. And renewable is do-able.