By Gareth Vaughan
Climate Change Commissioner Rod Carr says New Zealand needs a national energy plan covering the next 30 years.
Speaking to interest.co.nz in a Zoom interview Carr said there's no single silver bullet to meet New Zealand's energy requirements in a climate friendly way.
"We're going to need to solve the dry year problem, we're going to need to increase geothermal output, we're going to need wind and solar. What we really need is a national energy plan for the next 30 years," Carr said.
"What we have to remember is we're going to need to do a range of things. There is no single silver bullet where we go 'we did that, we're done, we move on'."
Last weekend Energy and Resources Minister Megan Woods announced the Government will investigate the potential use of pumped hydro to reduce the need for coal and gas fired energy generation in dry years. Pumped hydro moves water to an upper reservoir when there is surplus renewable energy generation and demand for electricity is low. It's released back down to a hydro power station to generate electricity when demand is high, Woods said.
Carr said the important aspect of the government announcement was looking at alternatives so all of New Zealand can have confidence that we haven't missed obvious better options before we choose whichever option we ultimately go for. He wants New Zealanders to understand there is no free lunch.
"...We have chosen quite appropriately, and are unlikely to choose otherwise in my lifetime, not to have nuclear power. We are adverse to damming bodies of water and interrupting their natural flow, we like to protect our landscapes against the intrusion of wind turbines, and we don't like our neighbours having large solar arrays. But at some point if we are going to reduce our emissions from carbon fuels,... we have to increase the amount of electricity we generate. And we have to generate that electricity not from coal, gas and oil unless we find substantial technologies to capture carbon at the point of combustion and sequester it permanently. And the issue with that is that there are no cost effective technologies widely available today," said Carr.
Additionally he said we need to address the issue that whilst hydro might be "beautifully renewable," it's not infinitely expandable.
"There are only a limited number of places and spaces that can be dammed and an even smaller proportion that New Zealanders tolerate being dammed. So we cannot keep expanding hydro forever. We need to make efficient use of the energy that we already generate, and that's why home insulation and other energy efficiency uses are critical in our own energy pathway and planning."
"Further, we've seen some conversations about the problem of the dry year, when there is not enough inflow into the hydro lakes to offset the winter use. That leads to the consequence that we need to have other forms of storage of energy to cover for hydro. There are a number of possible alternatives and the Government has recently announced sufficient funding to look into the business cases for a number of those options. The high profile one is obviously the pump storage at Onslow. But there may be a number of other smaller scale pump storage options that could be evaluated alongside that option together with other alternatives," said Carr.
Electrification of the South Island
With Rio Tinto's Tiwai Point aluminium smelter seemingly set to close, Carr said the electricity it consumes could be put to good use elsewhere. The smelter uses about 13% of New Zealand's electricity output, which is supplied by Meridian's Manapōuri hydro power station.
"The Manapōuri output, which is about 500 megawatt hours, could almost all be absorbed in the electrification of the South Island. So if you were to electrify low temperature processed heat in the dairy factories and the glass houses, and do that at a cost effective point for electricity, and you were to electrify a reasonable chunk of ground transportation - trains, buses, and motor vehicles, and you were to electrify residential and commercial heating of spaces, then a large proportion of the leftover power with Tiwai's departure could be absorbed in the South Island," Carr said.
In terms of transport Carr notes people value point-to-point personal transportation highly. Electrification of the vehicle fleet is a key way to reduce emissions from our petrol and diesel powered vehicles, Carr said. Currently he estimates there are about 20,000 fully electric vehicles in the New Zealand fleet of nearly 4.5 million.
"One of the solutions that is emerging globally is obviously the development and uptake of hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles. And the infrastructure to support that uptake, particularly of fully EV plug-ins, needs to be developed ahead of demand otherwise the demand is simply not going to emerge as quickly. So that's about charging stations, it's about upgrading our home charging capabilities, and it's also about the technology emerging to reduce what is known as range anxiety."
"But I don't see in my life time people willingly giving up the point to point mobility at a scale that we need in order to get off the fossil fuel emissions...So the electrification of ground transportation will be a critical part in New Zealand reducing its emissions," said Carr.
"In addition there are reasons to believe that New Zealanders will benefit by a move to electrification of ground transportation by the production of renewable electricity. We will reduce our dependence to the volatility and vulnerability from imported oil. So there is an opportunity for New Zealand to not only move to a lower emissions transportation fleet, but also one that is able to be domestically resourced."
Higher density in our cities could also help.
"It is also possible to think of a different model of public transport in which we think more of transport as a service, where we create smaller vehicles, more frequently picking up and dropping off at a wider range of points more closely representing the personal mobility that an owned vehicle may give you. So transport as a service we've come to assume means trains and buses rather than personal vehicles. And there may be emerging technologies closer to the middle of this century that allow drones or autonomous vehicles to increase both the frequency of publicly provided transport services, but also the pickup and drop off points which would be available and accessible," Carr said.
"So urban form matters a lot, where we build, what we build so that we can live close to alternative modes of transport. Electrification of that transport, be it in-city trains and buses or inter-city trains and buses, does represent a significant opportunity to decarbonise public transport as we know it today."
'Alternatives to the diesel and petrol driven freight system is going to be challenging'
Carr also points out the major role of transporting freight.
"Of course freight is a non-trivial part of what goes on in our transport fleet and the ability to develop low emission, or no emission alternatives to the current diesel and petrol driven freight system is going to be challenging. There may be ways in which we can increase the utilisation of existing capacity. Often our vehicles are full on the journey out, but not necessarily on the journey back. And that may be about information asymmetries, it may be about the fragmentation, the ownership of the freight fleet," said Carr.
"We don't necessarily have simple answers. But we know if we can actually increase the utilisation of the freight fleet from roughly 50% utilised to 70% utilised that would be a dramatic improvement in emissions per kilometre travelled. In addition if we can get to the point where people choose multi modes rather than just being a user of public transport or a private vehicle, maybe one day a week people choose to take public transport, maybe two days a week they choose to work from home, there will be options here to reduce emissions that aren't necessarily about eliminating emissions but at least it's a pathway to reduction."
In the video Carr also talks about air and marine travel through a climate change lens. He splits air travel into long and short haul, noting it's conceivable a Cook Strait hop by electric plane might be possible by about 2030. For longer haul flights he suggests biofuels may be the only likely way of getting carbon dioxide emissions out of long haul air travel, but will be expensive.
Following on from an earlier Zoom interview with interest.co.nz in April, Carr also touches on the challenges for climate friendly travel for overseas tourists.
"It may well be the case that while mass market, long haul, high volume, low margin tourism is going to be a feature of our history not of our future, it is still conceivable that tourists will come to New Zealand and will arrive here and leave here on flights that are fuelled by biofuels rather than fossil fuels," said Carr.
"In 1980 we had about 400,000 international visitors and by 2018 we had four million...Covid has essentially chopped it [overseas tourism] off at the ankles. What we need to do is make sure that the sector that we rebuild is fit for purpose in the 21st century in a thriving, climate resilient, low emissions Aotearoa."
In terms of climate friendly marine travel Carr notes experimentation with electric tugs and ferries, and potential for the use of biodiesel.
"For long haul seafreight hydrogen could be an option. But I wouldn't bank on that much before the middle of next decade," said Carr.
The Climate Change Commission is a Crown entity established under the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act to provide independent, evidence-based advice to government to help New Zealand "transition to a low-emissions and climate-resilient economy." It's also tasked with monitoring and reviewing the Government’s progress towards emissions reduction and adaptation goals.
In April Carr sent a letter to Minister for Climate Change James Shaw, copying in other ministers including Finance Minister Grant Robertson. In it he encouraged the Government to "put a climate change lens" across the measures chosen to help drive an economic recovery. The letter offers six principles for the Government to follow, which can be seen here.
Carr is the former vice chancellor of the University of Canterbury and former deputy governor and chairman of the Reserve Bank. He's also an independent director of ASB, and former managing director of Jade Software. He has a PhD in insurance and risk management.
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