When it comes to climate change, it often feels like things are out of our hands. But a few big decisions from enough of us - like choosing an EV, changing to electric water heating or installing solar - will make a big difference.
What if instead of feeling like you have to give something up to fight climate change, you could just choose a better option? What if we thought about climate change not just as a systemic issue for governments to solve, but as a problem where a few big decisions in our own lives could help push things in the right direction? What if instead of austerity, we talked about abundance?
Saul Griffith, an Australian engineer, inventor and author, thinks it's possible for us to keep our big cars, big houses and big, comfortable modern lives without trashing the planet by electrifying everything. And rather than making lots of small decisions that don't add up to much, he believes we all need to make a few big decisions that add up to a huge difference to our individual emissions - such as buying an electric vehicle, putting in electric heat pumps or water heaters, or going with rooftop solar panels.
As he says: "There are a few decisions that really matter: where you choose to live, how you power your home, and what you drive. That's really what matters. So I think about this on a 10-year time horizon, which matches the urgency we need. I say the next time you buy a water heater, the next time you buy a car, in the next 10 years, make it electric."
We should still do the smaller things, of course. Compost your food scraps. Eat less meat. Turn the lights off when you're not in the room. Use the bike when you can. Support sustainable businesses. Lots of small things done by lots of people can add up to big emissions reductions. But, for many, these things are often seen as sacrifices or hindrances. Humans don't like giving up the pleasures we have come to expect, and Griffith doesn't believe we will get people to buy into decarbonisation if there's a feeling we need to go back to living stone age lives; in his view, we need to focus on having our cake and eating it too and move away from the antiquated narrative of pain, suffering and efficiency-seeking.
Amazingly, creating this clean energy cake doesn't even require any new technological leaps. A lot of the renewable technology we need is already here.
New Zealand is already well-placed as far as renewables go. In part, that's due to fortunate geography. About 55 per cent of the country's generation is hydro, but hydro storage capacity is limited and without rainfall, there is only about 6 to 12 weeks of hydro storage available (the Lake Onslow pumped hydro scheme aims to help that, but it comes at a huge cost). Dry years, which are expected to become more common due to climate change, will become worse as electricity demand increases.
Coal is thought to be the single biggest contributor to climate change globally. Coal supplies over one-third of the world's electricity generation and electricity accounts for 30 per cent of the world's carbon emissions. Historically, New Zealand has relied on coal or natural gas to provide enough electricity at peak times or when the water levels are low. The Huntly Power Station, which runs on gas and coal and has been kept alive by Genesis to provide back-up generation, doubled its use of coal in 2021 when compared to the previous year due to a lack of natural gas, although it said recently that coal use had peaked as other energy sources come onstream and it plans to phase out coal use by 2025 "under normal market conditions" and will phase it out completely by 2030 (Genesis had planned to shut Huntly's coal units down in 2018).
But what if you could help speed that shift up? Lightforce has recently started a trial with Octopus Energy, a large British renewables group that specialises in sustainable energy, to create a virtual power plant of interconnected batteries throughout the country.
Customers store energy in their battery, which can be sent back to the grid during times of peak demand when we would otherwise be calling on "dirty peakers". As well as cleaning up the grid, the high price that stored energy can be sold for has the potential to bring down the time required to pay off a battery significantly, which will make them even more appealing to even more people.
Not getting enough rain is an obvious issue when you're reliant on hydro. But so is getting too much rain and, as we've seen in New Zealand recently, climate change is also increasing the frequency of extreme weather events. That means this reliance on hydro is becoming riskier.
A recent study in the journal Water found that, globally, 61 per cent of current and projected hydropower projects will be in river basins with high to extreme risk of water scarcity, floods or both by 2050. Higher temperatures will accelerate snowmelt, increasing the risk of floods. And while there are dam technologies to help deal with high volumes of water, there's only so much humans can do to hold back nature.
Around the world, solar is increasingly seen as part of the solution, in part because the price of panels has come down so steeply over the past decade and the performance has improved. The US aims to generate 50 per cent of its energy from solar by 2050 and while New Zealand is considered a solar laggard, there have been a number of announcements made recently about large-scale solar farms. These solar arrays can be located in paddocks, at airports, and even on municipal ponds.
Forsyth Barr estimates that if all the projects announced are completed in the next five to seven years, they could add 8 per cent more to our country's total electricity generation. And if we follow the lead of Australia, which has implemented large-scale public battery schemes to store solar energy, this electricity can also be fed into the grid when the sun isn't shining.
If New Zealand wants to reach its net-zero targets by 2050 and supply what's estimated to be double the current amount of electricity as we transition away from fossil fuels, we need to make it easier to build this kind of renewable energy generation. That will require overpowering the Nimbys - and, in some cases, the powerful fossil fuel interests - that are slowing things down. And while a lot of this large-scale infrastructure investment can feel distant from our individual lives, rooftop solar - either on your own home or at your business - is proving to be a good way to feel like you have some control over your carbon footprint.
Many of our own customers change their behaviour once they have solar installed. People often become addicted to the analytics, look more closely at their consumption and modify their usage to harness the technology in the best possible way. Many of our customers are also EV owners, so we like to think of solar as a gateway drug to other sustainable options.
When it comes to predictions about the environment, there are, as the science journalist Charles Mann argues in his book, two types of people: wizards and prophets.
Wizards are those who, like Norman Borlaug, one of the main brains behind the "green revolution" that greatly increased the amount of food that was able to be grown, saving millions from starvation in the process, believe we will always find a solution to the bind we find ourselves in. Technology, as it has done for thousands of years, will be developed to solve our problems and the economic growth that results from these innovations will help bring more people out of poverty.
At the other end of the spectrum are the prophets like William Vogt, an ecologist who is often thought of as the founding father of the environmental movement. Back in the 1950s, he argued that humans were already exceeding the "carrying capacity" of the planet and needed to find a better balance with nature. To him, science and economic development only made things worse and created new problems.
We certainly need warnings, but we also need innovative responses to those warnings, so the tension between these two camps can be beneficial. Perhaps not surprisingly, Lightforce is firmly in the wizard camp. Turning the sun into electricity feels a little bit like magic, as does being able to store it in a battery. So whether you're in government, in business, or in your own home, it's time to change the way we think about climate change from a series of sacrifices to an opportunity to make better decisions.
- Luke Nutting is the managing director of Lightforce.