Nirmal Nair on global energy issues, electricity blackouts, infrastructure resilience and university trends for export skill/qualification training and more

Today's Top 10 is a guest post from Nirmal-Kumar Nair, an associate professor at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Auckland.

As always, we welcome your additions in the comments below or via email to And if you're interested in contributing the occasional Top 10 yourself, contact

See all previous Top 10s here. 

For this issue of Top 10, I discuss items on global energy issues, electricity blackouts, infrastructure resilience and university trends for export skill/qualification training.

1. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Item#1 had to be an item about President Trump and his administration’s organisational impact on energy. The first of this happening is around the EPA, a 15000+ workforce organisation, with 2016 budget of $8,139,887,000, which will impact its focus going forward.

2. Sankey: Energy Flow Diagrams.

The EPA governance will impact the energy transition/security pathway for the USA.  To illustrate this Sankey diagrams are good way to visualise the interdependent flows. One of the US National labs, Lawrence Livermore National Lab, maintains the Sankey flows for energy.

Another example of this is the estimated relationship between water use and energy.

3. Blackout Watch: It is Australia’s turn now.

This is in continuation to my Feb 2015 Top 10 item #9 on blackouts, May 2015 item #9 on Turkey’s complete country wide shut down, item #7 April 2016 on Ukraine & Sri Lanka outage.

2016 was pretty bad for South Australia, which experienced several serious instances of large scale blackouts. The investigation, fallouts, electricity market issues, severe weather impact renewable generation, changing composition of generation mix are all being intensely discussed even now.

Security of supply with large scale renewable generation for any network needs to be analysed and modelled by electricity grid engineers technically, following up on international best practises without burdening them with issues around markets, policy, media, political discourse and other associated issues. The social and economic confidence allied with direct financial impacts of blackouts are too significant for this issue to be treated lightly.

4. Electricity Growth and GDP Decoupled in OECD Countries.


EIA estimates electricity growth in OECD countries flattening out and not being linked to GDP as it was in the past. Things might be different for non-OECD where electricity can be a close proxy to their growth targets. The composition trends might change based on policy settings of the various countries and technology preferences available.

5. Estimating Economic Costs for Natural Disasters.

We have had two major quake disasters in the past seven years. The cost of the recent Kaikoura quake is estimated to be in the $2-3 billion mark. Are there opportunities to reduce the economic costs in the future by resilience-hardening of essential life-line infrastructures?

The national infrastructure unit goes through a thought exercise to come up with factors in the planning stage. Once an event does happen, the price then become much more evident based on the impact.  

6. Estimating Economic Costs for Future Urban Growth.

Similarly, for a case of urban growth region, like Auckland, estimates are in the $20 billion mark for capital infrastructure and $38.7 billion of operating expenses over a 10 year period.  

Energy, communication and other national infrastructure pieces are in addition to these numbers.


The above exercise does give a big ballpark number, but the challenge is how you prioritise, disburse and assess the implementation.

7. Coordination of actual  AUS/NZ Infrastructure Build plans.

The previous two items showcase the challenges of assessing the impacts and coming up with the numbers they pose for the country as a whole. But in terms of actual projects and implementation of them, a better way to appreciate is a view of things that are actually ongoing or at least committed to. Click here to find out what they are now for Australia/New Zealand   

8. Tertiary education Facilities as Local Economic Divers.

I have had an item on University education in my previous Top 10 columns: Feb 2015 item #4 on cost of tuition fees; item #8 of May 2015 on Australia/New Zealand international student; Future of Universities through item #10 in Oct 2015, and Tertiary Education Watch: Global Flow Patterns through item #10 in April 2016.

Currently, New Zealand’s fifth largest export item is Education. Also, the new building program of older campuses accounts for significant local economic activities. In the UK, Universities are giving a boost to the local construction activities, reported to be rising 43% year-on-year.

One of the challenges in this sector is to align the immigration settings alongside the economic activities of export education offered by a country.


9. Opportunities and Challenges of having offshore University Campuses.

There are currently 247 reported International Branch Campuses (IBC), with 22 more in the pipeline and 42 having closed off.

The US and Australia seem to have been leading this pack for several decades now. Some of them appear to have hedged the danger of reputational risks successfully.  Strangely, New Zealand Universities does not seem to have dipped their toes yet! 

With Brexit, UK is on this journey as well.

10. Current renewable electricity generation (update to my Top 10 item from Sept 2016).

Our current renewable generation obtained from web-tracking tool for the public. It is clocking above 85%.

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

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Ham & Eggs - how does this sit with your view of energy resources?

I don't know what H&E thinks but the energy flow chart by LLNL is pretty interesting. Biomass is up to 4.72% of their energy production. I'm wondering how much that will change as more research is carried out and new biorefining technologies become more common.

The US has a long way to go on reducing their transport use of petroleum. They waste a lot of fuel driving oversized and efficient vehicles.

"The US has a long way to go on reducing their transport use of petroleum. They waste.."

Link below is a different perspective. Orlov argues that the petroleum is basically the (worthless) by product of what is useful out of a barrel of Oil ... so burning less petroleum doesnt achieve anything. Its the rest that we "need" for industrial society ...

"About half of what can be usefully extracted from a barrel of crude oil is in the form of gasoline. It is possible to boost the fraction of other, more useful products, such as kerosene, diesel fuel, jet fuel and heating oil, but not by much and at a cost of reduced net energy. But gasoline is not very useful at all. ..."

In past the worthless by-products that are used to make plastics used to be burnt on a flare. My personal preference is that petroleum is used for more productive pursuits rather than "lifestyle" driving or doing burnouts. I would also prefer that we use every part of a barrel of oil rather than throw it away.

So overall it's not about burning less but burning more efficiently, in my opinion.

maybe so .. but then there is Jevons paradox...

You could also debate in circles whether plastics has been a good thing ...

Yeah I realise that there's a lot of issues and details that could be debated. I have no doubt that the monomers made available have been very useful from the synthetic chemistry point of view, with obvious problems with the build of of non-degradable polymers in the environment. No point arguing about pro and cons all day. I just try to do my part by minimising my use of petroleum products, but realise that it's impossible avoid.

These days I'm more focused on biorefining and using waste as inputs for the process rather than big picture environmental issues.

Yea, I'd agree with you on both points you make.
Petroleum is essentially a bi-product of synthesis these days.

We only really differ in our perspectives on abundances of reserves.

A quick note on Jevons Paradox. I see it in play a lot in personal finance. People tend to use more fuel based on how much disposable income they have. I've seen people in the US buying a larger vehicle in response to fuel prices dropping. If a larger vehicle became more efficient they'd just put more fuel in as their budget allows.

totally right - human nature. No one willingly curbs their consumption (i deserve it...) - it has to be enforced
We are seeing this in record numbers of people flying everywhere... despite more general environmental awareness ...
All you can do is focus local and not try to change/save the wider system ...

Not exactly sure what hes trying to say. But basically
-Trump will try to lessen environmental regulations to keep the Oil flowing .. no surprise ..whatever it takes
- grid blackout problems not surprising in Aus ... gail tverberg discusses why adding solar & wind capacity actually adds costs & problems for the grid as a whole

- we arent short of electricity (yet), we are short of dense abundant hi quality liquid fuel, that is "cheap" enough to extract. The grid is totally reliant on this underlying base for support
- as for GDP levitating away from electricity/energy use ... this isnt historically been possible for long

The oil needs to flow, though. And there is a huge amount of it to flow.
That relates to your other point of cheap fuel - 'cheap' fuel now is only known as cheap fuel because we only think about it in a marginal cost perspective. It is entirely likely that Keystone access will turn relatively expensive fuel into relatively cheap fuel.

GDP has been diverging from energy consumption for a considerable time in western/developed nations. A relationship is only notable in developing countries; even that isn't as pronounced as it once was.

The recent electricity supply failure in Aus is attributed to peak generation not being dispatchable when required, sounds like lack of maintenance to me.
One plant had some problem with its turbine and another not enough gas pressure.
But you can draw your own conclusions.

Dont claim to be an expert but it makes sense that peak loads are difficult to manage when solar and wind are providing intermittent supply - overseas Germany & California get round it by "dumping" excess capacity elsewhere but if everyone did this it makes the system very unstable ... and more costly. Germany's electricity prices have actually gone up .. Essentially you're running & maintaining a duel system ... see the charts down here

Peter Oborne challenges BBC News propaganda on Radio 4 Today

SA's energy issues are well covered by Joanne Nova - sample here

The issue is really a hideous mixture of :

  • Intermittency of generation from wind
  • Uncontrollability of hundreds of thousands of individual solar installations (but these are at least predictable as the sun rises and sets on a well-known cycle)
  • Economic perverse incentives which have apparently driven out traditional baseload (coal) generators
  • Issues with readiness and spin-up times for peaking plants (typically gas)
  • Interconnects (to VIC lignite-fuelled generation) which are limited in capacity, will trip off to protect themseleves and their sources, and which generators are under the same type of economic disincentives)
  • The 'island/end-of-line' nature of SA which means if the interconnects trip out, there is no 'other State's generation' avialable (unlike Germany, ringed by other countries where excesses can be dumped to or shortfalls imported from)
  • A grid system that, following incentive frameworks set politically, has ended up with production-crippling blackouts, and is now regarded as a basket case in terms of attractiveness to industry
  • A system that is not equipped to even recognise key constraints let alone model and manage them: AEMO was not informed (as it had a right to be) of the software settings on the strings of wind turbines which would shut down output upon a number of high-wind events during a specified timeframe. Result - a massive and practically simultaneous (within 6-7 seconds) collapse of wind generation as everything tripped out in unison, overwhelming the VIC interconnects which tripped in self-protection.

The energy regulator (AEMO) has Interesting reports on the successive State-wide black system events of the last few months. Example:

Cautionary reading.....

Thats is an interesting report.
Situation looked good on paper but on the day the plant wasnt available for a variety of excuses.
Could that happen in NZ?

Probably not, because our 'renewables' are overwhelmingly Hydro, which is easy to start (a pumped-storage plus hydro plant in Wales is a 'black-start' reserve system for the UK), easy to manage (alter the flow through the turbines) and easy to predict capacity for (look at upstream lake levels or river flows).

We are positively blessed cf SA.....

I think so too.
It a histrionic world we live in, predicted by my favourite marxist, Guy Debord, in his publication " Society of the Spectacle" recommended reading for anyone who doesnt believe economic theories.
In a nut shell capitalism was always going to self destruct. He wrote it around the 1960's