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Smog, Solar Power, and Electric Car Batteries

 Here is an opinion piece I wrote for the Otago Daily Times. It was published on Monday 28 July, 2014

“Solar power gets round high line charges”

Richard McKenzie of Alexandra suggests a solar smog solution

Tesla Model S

Dense energy storage … The battery pack in this Tesla Model S has a capacity of 85 kW hours, enough to run a two bar heater continuously for nearly two days.

Winter is upon us, and we are stoking our fires.

We are regularly reminded of our failure to curb the long-standing pollution issues in Alexandra, Milton, and Cromwell. Last year Alexandra breached the National Standard for Air Quality Standard [1] 47 on days. By year 2016, we are supposed to achieve to no more than 3 such polluted days per year.

Clearly, we won’t meet that target. Regardless of impacts on health and tourism, our failure to meet these targets can impede our economic progress and development, because the clean air act has teeth.

According to the Ministry for the Environment’s 2011 “Clean Healthy Air for All New Zealanders: National Air Quality Compliance Strategy to Meet the PM10 Standard”, if the standards are not met then the Minister for the Environment “may commence an investigation of the performance of any non-complying councils”. This could curb future commercial investment.

I first raised the smog issue with the Central Otago District Council in 1991, and subsequently with the Otago Regional Council. Many of my recommendations were implemented, albeit much later, in the Otago Regional Council’s Regional Air Plan which was developed in 1996.

One of my suggestions was to use more electric heating appliances. It should have been a win-win situation because heat pumps, with efficiencies up to four times greater than conventional heaters, were not yet widespread – and their rollout in the years that followed should have solved the problem.

But, following Max Bradford’s so-called “deregulation” of the electricity industry, prices have skyrocketed at about four times the rate of inflation [i]; and despite the gains in efficiency of heat pumps, we can’t afford to heat our homes electrically. Many are reverting to wood burners – and our winter smog persists.

To reverse that trend, power prices have to be lower. About two thirds of our winter power bill goes towards Aurora Energy’s lines charges, this is the obvious place to look for future economies.

One option is harvesting our own electricity from solar PV systems on our roofs. But for systems that have available up until now, there is no guarantee that any power company will purchase unused power at suitable rates over the long period needed to recover the substantial capital outlay – especially now that power generation companies are being sold off to private enterprise.

But Vector Energy (http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/industries/9697467/Sun-shines-on-Vector-roll-out) have a plan that may help. Key differences with their scheme are: (1) No large capital outlay is needed; only a relatively small installation fee, followed by a monthly rental fee; and (2) It includes on-site storage batteries, so energy produced during the day can be used at night (and hopefully energy produced in summer can be used in winter) without having to sell it and then repurchase it at costs that include these excessive lines charges.

Currently, they can supply only in the Auckland region. But there is a huge potential in Central Otago/Lakes District where the lines cost component of electricity represents over 60% of the total bill (compared with 30% in the Waitaki district for example, [2] and probably much less in Auckland). This factor, and the high sunshine hours in summer, heavily outweigh the slightly reduced capability of solar PV generation during the winter months. It represents a huge opportunity for companies like Vector. I want to be first in line for one in our region.

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[1] 50mcg per cubic metre of airborne pollutant, with a particle size below 10 microns

[2] It’s interesting to note that in other regions, line charges seem to be much less than in Central Otago. For example, in the Waitaki region, they represent only 30% of the bill (ODT, 5 Feb 2014, http://www.odt.co.nz/regions/north-otago/290479/increase-lines-charges-52-year), rather than over 60% of ours. The difference is probably because at deregulation, the Waitaki Region retained their lines, whereas in Central Otago we sold them to Aurora Energy, and retained the generation capacity (Pioneer), vested in the Central Lakes Trust.

The day after this opinion piece appeared in the ODT, Waitaki Lines company reported record profits. The Waitaki region has similar demographics to Central Otago, but their lines charges are only 1/3 of the power bill, not 2/3. The difference is that their lines company is still in community ownership. For more details, see http://www.odt.co.nz/regions/north-otago/311055/network-waitaki-financially-sound.

[i] See my earlier opinion piece, published in the ODT on 18 Nov 2013 (also published here).

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September 7, 2014 · 10:33 am