100% renewable electricity: A classic kiwi stoush in the making

There’s an old joke set variously in Maine, in Scotland, and probably in any number of other places, about some city folks asking directions from an elderly local. After several lengthy, confusing false starts at directions, the local finally concludes, “You know, you really shouldn’t be starting from here.”

This, to me, is the central joke of climate change mitigation. If only we were starting from somewhere else, say from twenty years ago, or even ten years ago, or if our economic, social, and political systems were set up slightly differently, things would be so much easier.

The problem is particularly acute in New Zealand where we haven’t really begun the actual work of cutting emissions yet, and where the range of allowable strategies is unreasonably restricted. There are many actions that have been tried and tested in most other developed countries (such as solar incentives, electric vehicle incentives, and vehicle fuel efficiency standards) but which are very far from being acceptable in New Zealand.

However, the rash of climate protests and councils declaring climate emergencies is about to force the moment to its crisis.

One flashpoint is the election pledge of 100% renewable electricity by 2035. The Interim Climate Change Committee reported to the government on this target in April. The press are now reporting on a leaked copy of the report, resulting in an all too familiar media circus.

National’s climate change spokesman Todd Muller said the report exposed the “economic lunacy” of being fixated on greenhouse emissions from electricity generation, which formed only a small part of New Zealand’s overall emissions. “The report talked to the economic lunacy of seeking 100 per cent renewable energy in the first place,” Muller said, with New Zealand’s large generation from renewable giving a significant strategic advantage.

The issue has enough ingredients – a large industry that is complicated technically, economically, and politically; an election promise; obvious pollution by large companies; the price of an essential consumer item – to guarantee a classic stoush.

Setting aside Muller’s use of “renewable energy” when he means “renewable electricity” (“energy” includes things like petrol), does he have a point?

Unfortunately the ICCC report is not available yet. However, the ICCC website does host a report by the New Zealand Initiative, a libertarian think tank formed out of the Business Round Table, that comes to similar conclusions. That report, virtually a hatchet job on the whole idea of renewable energy, devotes a lot of space to criticizing two of the more successful decarbonization efforts underway worldwide, those of the UK and Germany.

For about a decade, the percentage of renewable electricity has been rising slowly, partly in response to the present target of 90% renewable (on average) by 2025:

Source: NZ Energy Quarterly, March 2019

It is now regularly over 80%, and the addition of more wind power is predicted to cut into the remaining fossil fuel baseload, cutting emissions further. Unfortunately, those emissions are still 5 million tonnes of CO2 a year. Is that really a small part of our overall emissions, as Muller claims?

The Huntly coal- and gas-fired power station before the Waikato River, a familiar sight from State Highway 1.

Here are a few different ways of looking at the significance of our electricity emissions.

  • As a proportion of our 85 million tonnes (Mt) of gross emissions, they are small but not that small.
  • On the other hand, 34 Mt of those emissions are biogenic methane, which has been set aside. That leaves 51 Mt.
  • But the important target is zero net emissions. Those are currently 24 Mt. Suddenly the 5 Mt from electricity is looking more significant.
  • In addition, some of our emissions such as aviation and shipping (6 Mt), trucking (8 Mt) and many industrial emissions (12 Mt), such as those arising from producing steel, aluminium, fertilizer, and paper, are hard to eliminate and/or protected as trade-exposed industries.
  • Some obvious uses of fossil fuels, like natural gas used to heat homes and workplaces, are possible to eliminate, but turn out to be quite small (1.6 Mt).

Taken together, we are left with only two sources that are large and possible to start eliminating right now: electricity (5 Mt) and cars (7 Mt). That requires tackling these two institutions head on.

So, to paraphrase the situation in terms of the old joke I started with: How can we get there, starting from here?

Robert McLachlan

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