Power games from the backroom boys

By Chris Barton

When Nobilangelo Ceramalus (he won't say how he came by his rather splendid name) sidled up to Prime Minister Helen Clark at a gathering to which he had wangled an invitation, he knew he was going to sound weird.

The managing director of EStarFuture Corporation and naturist ("someone who thinks that all nature, including the human body, should be respected") who lives on Waiheke Island had only a few moments to explain what he was on about.

"Unfortunately, I had to put the whole thing in one sentence which makes me sound rather loony because if this plan was instituted, it would solve our energy needs long term. It would reduce the cost of the technology such that the whole world could afford it and we would be able to solve global warming."

But that's not all. As well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Ceramalus is convinced his scheme - solar panels on every roof married to fuel cells in every basement - can also deal with Auckland's coming power shortage and stop Transpower's controversial $500 million plan for new pylons between Whakamaru and Otahuhu.

Not surprisingly, the Prime Minister declined Ceramalus' offer of a two-hour presentation. She referred him to MP David Cunliffe - who, in turn, referred him to the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority and, when that drew a blank, to Solid Energy (formerly State Coal Mines).

The latter was the ultimate insult for Ceramalus, who scorns such people as "the boys from the black stuff" - lumping them in with those from the oil industry as responsible for "trashing the planet".

In September, Ceramalus suffered another setback - a letter from Transpower chief executive Ralph Craven advising that his proposal to convert off-peak electricity to stored hydrogen for use in fuel-cells was untested and too risky.

Ceramalus says trying to change people's habits concerning energy takes time. "If you have an idea like this you have to do something about it because if you don't then you're part of the problem - and this is such a huge problem. This is the biggest problem the human race has ever faced."

The Electricity Commission has a big problem too, although not quite on a planetary scale. It is assessing alternatives to Transpower's 400kV electricity transmission upgrade, and needs to find something that could be in place by 2010. That's when Transpower says Auckland will run into power shortages at peak times. Top of the commission's list of power-generation options (a shortlist of alternatives is due be released in the next few weeks) is new gas turbines sited in, or close to, Auckland.

But while such turbines may generate enough cheap electricity to solve Auckland's coming shortage in the interim and prevent the need for a new transmission line, they also beg some questions.

Does New Zealand have enough cheap gas to sustain the turbines long term? And in this age of global warming, is burning more fossil fuel really such a good idea?

For Ceramalus and other doomsayers the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is already too much. "It's perfectly obvious we passed the point of no return some decades ago."

Generally, the commission recognises the potential of renewable clean energy, but sees it in a distant, yet-to-be-realised future - "unlikely to offer any significant peak demand reduction". It cites the on-off nature of wind, marine and solar energy as making them unsuitable for providing a steady power supply.

But the commission's cursory glance at renewable energy also reveals a lack of knowledge. Phrases like "unable to draw any conclusions regarding commercial and technical feasibility" and "not possible to make any realistic judgment of the level of uptake" are frequent.

Meanwhile, the global clean energy market is surging ahead - projected to be worth US$229.5 billion in 2010, according to an Austin Clean Energy report.

The Herald's look at a sample of the wackier alternatives put forward to alleviate Auckland's looming power shortage shows they are not as wacky as they might sound. It also reveals frustrated voices crying in the wilderness, concerned that clean, renewable energy seems to be going nowhere fast.

Pumped hydro

Auckland is not in the grip of an energy crisis, says electrical engineering researcher David Hume. "It's more of a peak or constraint problem." Transpower's forecast graph of power usage in a typical Auckland winter shows peak times between 7am-10am and 6pm-10pm.

From about 2010, power usage during those periods exceeds the capability of the transmission line - illustrated on the graph as two small humps above a black line. Hume's take on this problem is to look at the sagging shapes below the black line - in particular the large one between about midnight and 6am. The sag represents a vast amount of unused electricity.

Hume, a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Canterbury University, suggests using the untapped resource to store power for use when it is most needed. How? By pumping water uphill to a dam where it can be let go to drive a turbine and produce power at peak times. "It is effectively a phase shift of energy - you're moving energy from one time to another," says Hume. Deploy such a scheme close to Auckland and its peak needs would be met without the requirement for a new transmission line.

Hume has done some rough calculations on pumping water between the upper and lower Nihotupu and Huia water supply reservoirs in the Waitakere ranges. His estimations indicate enough potential power to deal with Auckland's shortage to 2015. But he stresses the scheme is a concept, that no costings have been done on building the power generation, nor any investigations into how emptying and filling the reservoirs might affect Auckland's water-reticulation system.

Waikato University associate professor Earl Bardsley suggests a similar "smoothing energy" idea - creating a large cavern about 500m below the Mangatangi dam in the Hunua Ranges and "wooshing water between the two" to drive turbines.

The commission says no proponent of the Waitakere scheme was identified but it intends "to further investigate this possibility".

Tidal

"It is probably an objective the Government should have initiated some time back," says Crest Energy's Anthony Bellve. He's talking about reducing peak demand by having electricity coming to Auckland from the north rather than from the south via Transpower's wires. Bellve's remedy for this north-south imbalance is arrays of marine turbines in the tidal currents of the Manukau, Kaipara and Hokianga harbours directly feeding Auckland's electricity thirst. Tidal energy may be intermittent, he says, but it's also sustainable, repeatable and reliable.

"Tidal is totally predictable - we know there are always two tides daily and four peak current flows so it is possible to convert tidal energy into power 70 per cent of the time during each day."

Bellve is also an advocate of redirecting power generated at off-peak times into stored forms of energy - such as pumping water up from a low head to a high head, storing the energy in large batteries, or compressing air in a cavern to be used later, when needed, by an air turbine.

Others working in the tidal energy realm include Paul Henson and Graeme Pearson of Pearson Innovations, who are developing a vertical-axis-electricity generation system using advances in composite materials, such as carbon fibre. The company is finding investors to develop a working prototype.

"We think we have come up with a design [pictured above] that would be less capital-intensive and lower the maintenance costs," says Henson. "Tidal energy is in a similar position to where wind was about 15 years ago. Renewable energy was expensive in the early days but it has come down a lot and is very competitive now."

In its submission to the commission, the company expected commercial production in three to four years and a selling price of the electricity output from its turbines at competitive wholesale rates.

The commission says neither tidal nor wave generation "will be viable on any significant scale in the near future".

Hot dry rock

"Over the past 20 years investment in energy research has been compromised by a succession of governments because of the richness of the Maui gas field," says associate professor Stuart Simmons of Auckland University's Geothermal Institute and Geology Department. "Basically we've run down many of our energy technologies."

Against such a background he says it is not surprising that no research has been done on the viability of hot dry rock geothermal energy in Auckland.

The process involves deep drilling of 2km to 3km to heated crystalline rock (with temperatures of 200-250C) which is then cracked by high-pressure water creating a hot-water reservoir.

Super heated water from the reservoir is then harnessed to drive turbines to produce electricity in a closed-loop system that generates no steam or greenhouse emissions. It's not strictly a renewable resource because eventually the rock gets cold, but such reservoirs are expected to provide energy for several decades.

Because Auckland sits on a volcanic field, it was suggested to the commission there may be some potential below ground. Simmons says comparable geological settings worldwide indicate Auckland is unlikely to have geothermal resources that could support significant electricity generation.

But he acknowledges no deep test bores have been sunk in Auckland and that further research of a portfolio of volcanic areas in, and north of, Auckland makes sense. Simmons says Auckland's low-grade geothermal activity - as evidenced by the Waiwera and Helensville hot springs - may also provide potential for residential or industrial heating.

The Ngawha geothermal power station near Kaikohe is another example of unrealised potential. Top Energy which runs the station is battling through the Environment Court to get permission to increase output from the station from 10 to 25 megawatts. Chief executive Roger de Bray says that would be sufficient for 70 per cent of the electricity used in the Far North.

The commission says although demonstration projects are underway in Australia and Europe, hot dry rock technology is at the developmental stage and will not be further considered.

Fuel Cells

Nobilangelo Ceramalus demonstrates for the Herald how he gets hydrogen from sunlight by filling a fuel cell container on a model car with distilled water, then attaching a small solar panel. Sunlight on the solar panel generates electricity which is fed into the fuel cell - which at this stage is splitting the water into hydrogen and oxygen and storing the separated gases in two tubes.

When enough hydrogen is produced, Ceramalus disconnects the solar panel and switches on the fuel cell - which becomes a gas battery - and, magically, the car's electric motor whirs into life and the car tootles around the room.

But it's a big step from a model car to a solar-fuel cell network, where every residential and business property becomes an electricity production site powering New Zealand homes and vehicles.

First, there's the issue of integrating all the components - such as DC to AC current converters and compressors to compress the hydrogen into storage tanks - to make the system work efficiently. Then there's the cost.

Industrial Research technology platform manager Alister Gardiner estimates a fuel-cell system sufficient to power a house would cost about $50,000.

Industrial Research is running several fuel-cell demonstration sites, including one powered by methanol, for the US Department of Defence at the International Antarctic Centre in Christchurch.

Another is a Powerco and Australian Ceramic Fuel Cells scheme which converts natural gas to electricity delivering 1 kilowatt of electricity and enough hot water for an average home.

Ceramalus' answer to the high cost of fuel and solar cells is for the Government to put in a big order to stimulate mass production of the components and accelerate the law of supply and demand.

"The planet can't afford to wait 30-40 years until the price comes down. I say we'll force it down and we'll do it now, because there is a compelling global reason - we're trashing the planet. So this isn't just economic sense, this is life."

"Easier said than done," says ARC chairman Mike Lee, who has opened politicians' doors for Ceramalus and provided rooms for him to make his presentation. Lee is impressed by Ceramalus' concept.

"He is a kind of eccentric person, but I believe he's on to a fundamental truth. My advice to him was to focus the message, cut out the advocacy regarding the environment and the planet, and focus on the technical issues."

While Ceramalus sees the answer to our energy needs in clean, green sunlight and water, Solid Energy sees it in dirty black coal.

Ceramalus' bete noir is the people who support a $6 million project - Hydrogen Energy for the Future of New Zealand - to extract hydrogen from coal for use in fuel cells.

"The potential is there. New Zealand could make all its hydrogen from coal through gasification," says research engineer Ramon Brown of CRL Energy, one of the partners in the project.

He is referring to our 8.6 billion tonnes of economically mineable coal, enough for several centuries of hydrogen energy production provided they work out how to sequester the carbon dioxide by-product.

But for the Electricity Commission, hydrogen fuel cells, like all forms of alternative energy, don't help with the loomimg Auckland power shortage - "another emerging technology that could occur in the 10-20 year timeframe".

But in the face of environmental concerns, rising fuel costs and Kyoto obligations, should the commission be rushing to meet this 2010 deadline at all costs? And viewing clean renewable energy with such scant attention, when it's so clearly a long-term solution?

 

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