Energy storage systems signal arrival of ‘baseload’ renewables  

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ReNew Economy has a look at the evolution of the home energy storage market - Energy storage systems signal arrival of ‘baseload’ renewables.

It has been widely thought that the arrival of cost-competitive rooftop solar PV systems would be the biggest game changer in the electricity market. But it may be that the emergence of affordable energy storage systems will have an even more profound impact.

There are predictions that the energy storage market is going to boom. One survey suggested that $30 billion will be spent on energy storage in the next decade in Australia alone. In the US, where $1 trillion is expected to be spent on electricity network infrastructure in the next 10 years, at least one fifth of that – or $200 billion – will be spent on energy storage.

The big question is who is going to benefit most from that investment – the customer, or the utility that delivers or sells the electricity. Or maybe even both. Most people are still trying to figure that out.

There is little doubt that there is huge interest, and likely huge demand, for the product. Given that the arrival of solar PV has enabled homeowners and small businesses to produce their own energy, it is only natural that they would want to store it.

An analysis by Energeia this year said that as a result of cost reductions in the technology, it predicted there would be 421,000 residential energy storage systems in Australian homes by 2021 – nearly half the number that currently have solar on their rooftops. The new pricing mechanisms that are being introduced into Australia – high rates for peak consumption and low rates for overnight – make it particularly attractive to have both solar, which can draw down cheap energy from the sun during the day, and energy storage – which can store excess energy and draw from the grid at low overnight rates. It effectively doubles the attraction.

Richard Turner, the CEO of Adelaide-based Zen Energy Systems, last month unveiled a new product called Freedom Powerbank, an energy storage system that will allow households to store enough electricity to cater for their average daily usage. An email sent out to 4,000 of Zen’s solar PV customers generated an enormous response – one person a minute signing up for more details, according to Turner. The response from utilities and international customers has been equally effusive, he says.

Turner describes his product as a “world first,” because it uses proprietary software to capture the energy produced by solar, wind, or from the grid, and allows it to be used when the customer chooses. “We have created the most functional energy storage system at one end and at the other end broke through major cost barriers. What we developed is the first battery operating system for renewable energy systems.”

Production of the Freedom Powerbank for households begins in Adelaide in January next year. Turner says the units will cost $29,500 – offering a payback of 7-8 years, but he says the cost will fall as manufacturing techniques improve and some of it is outsourced to cheaper facilities overseas. Larger units will be available for small businesses – who will be able to use the systems to ensure they retain their power sources through any outages – and are being tested by utilities.

Turner says the storage system is a game changer because it is clear that solar PV will be the power supply of the future, and this enables households to store that energy and utilise what is effectively “baseload” renewables.

Cypherpunks: Freedom and the future of the internet  

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I'd always figured Julian Assange was a bit of a cypherpunk - now he has written a book about them - Cypherpunks: Freedom and the future of the internet.

Cypherpunks are activists who advocate the widespread use of strong cryptography (writing in code) as a route to progressive change. Julian Assange, the editor-in-chief of and visionary behind WikiLeaks, has been a leading voice in the cypherpunk movement since its inception in the 1980s.

Now, in what is sure to be a wave-making new book, Assange brings together a small group of cutting-edge thinkers and activists from the front line of the battle for cyber-space to discuss whether electronic communications will emancipate or enslave us. Among the topics addressed are: Do Facebook and Google constitute "the greatest surveillance machine that ever existed," perpetually tracking our location, our contacts and our lives? Far from being victims of that surveillance, are most of us willing collaborators? Are there legitimate forms of surveillance, for instance in relation to the "Four Horsemen of the Infopocalypse" (money laundering, drugs, terrorism and pornography)? And do we have the ability, through conscious action and technological savvy, to resist this tide and secure a world where freedom is something which the Internet helps bring about?

BHP's Shale PR boom gathers pace  

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I speculated recently that some of the gushing press in Australia about the US shale gas boom was being driven by BHP. This weekend's SMH has a column which indicates this theory is spot on (as the author is transparent about who was feeding him information) - Shale boom gathers pace. I think the key takeaway from this one is that shale oil is uneconomic below $80 a barrel - so there is one (starting) floor price in the new age of unconventional oil.

MY TRIP to Texas as a guest of BHP and my subsequent talks in New York with economists, analysts and investment bankers in New York about America's shale oil and gas production boom meanwhile underlined that BHP Billiton got its biggest shale deal in the US right. The growing consensus on Wall Street is also that the US shale boom is a global economic and geopolitical game-changer.

BHP's first purchase of shale gas leases in Arkansas for $US4.6 billion was fully valued at the gas price of the day, and the $US2.84 billion write-down the group announced in August was arithmetically generated as US shale gas production soared, and US gas prices plunged.

The group's subsequent $US15 billion takeover of US group Petrohawk at 65 per cent premium to Petrohawk's market price could produce an asset valuation uplift this financial year that more than compensates for the first write-down.

BHP can still earn returns of more than 20 per cent by developing gas wells in Arkansas, but it is aiming instead to increase production of oil and other liquids that are roughly four times more valuable by 15 per cent in 2012-13 by redirecting the vast bulk of its $US4 billion shale capital expenditure budget to Petrohawk's oil and liquids-rich fields in Texas.

In New York, the big bulge-bracket banks are all doing their sums on the shale boom. One estimate of the value transfer from the rest of the world to the US is already $US900 million a day as US domestic production grows and imports fall. That's an amount equal to 2.2 per cent of raw GDP, but what the US does with the income windfall is the key, as it was here during the commodities boom. To the extent that the new income finances consumption of imports, for example, domestic benefits of the boom will be lower.

The US will certainly benefit from cheap domestic gas that will deliver cost benefits to heavy industries including petrochemical plants and power stations, but the horizontal drilling and rock-fracturing technology that is freeing up shale gas and oil will ultimately generate sweeping global changes.

Shale oil can be commercially exploited at oil prices as low as $US80 a barrel, and as shale oil volumes rise, oil price spikes in response to accelerating growth in demand that work to slow demand again will be much less frequent. Shale oil, in other words, is going to raise the maximum speed limit of the global economy. I will have more about the amazing shale boom and BHP's piece of it in coming columns.

Fracking: A new dawn for misplaced optimism  

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The Independent has a jaundiced look at the shale gas boom in the US - Fracking: A new dawn for misplaced optimism.

You would think we were swimming in oil. The International Energy Agency's (IEA) latest World Energy Outlook forecasts that the United States will outstrip Saudi Arabia as the world's largest producer by 2017, becoming "all but self-sufficient in net terms" in energy production. While the "peak oil" pessimists are clearly wrong, so is a simplistic picture of fossil fuel abundance.

When the IEA predicts an increase in "oil production" from 84 million barrels a day in 2011 to 97 in 2035, it is talking about "natural gas liquids and unconventional sources", which includes a big reliance on "fracking" for shale gas. Conventional oil output will stay largely flat, or fall.

The IEA has been exposed before as having, under US pressure, artificially inflated official reserve figures. And now US energy consultants Ruud Weijermars and Crispian McCredie say there is strong "basis for reasonable doubts about the reliability and durability of US shale gas reserves". The New York Times found that state geologists, industry lawyers and market analysts privately questioned "whether companies are intentionally, and even illegally, overstating the productivity of their wells and the size of their reserves." And former UK chief government scientist Sir David King has concluded that the industry had overstated world oil reserves by about a third. In Nature, he dismissed notions that a shale gas boom would avert an energy crisis, noting that production at wells drops by as much as 90 per cent within the first year.

The rapid decline rates make shale gas distinctly unprofitable. Arthur Berman, a former Amoco petroleum geologist, cites the Eagle Ford shale, Texas, where the decline rate is so high that simply to keep production flat, they will have to drill "almost 1,000 wells" a year, requiring "about $10bn or $12bn a year just to replace supply". In all, "it starts to approach the amount of money needed to bail out the banking industry. Where is that money to come from?"

In September, the leader of the US shale gas revolution, Chesapeake Energy, sold $6.9bn of gas fields and pipelines to stave off collapse. Four months ago Exxon's CEO, Rex Tillerson, told a private meeting: "We're making no money. It's all in the red." The worst-case scenario is that several large oil companies at once face financial distress. Then, says Berman, "you may have a couple of big bankruptcies or takeovers and everybody pulls back, all the money evaporates, all the capital goes away."

Deutsche Bank: Don’t bet on the IEA's prediction of U.S. oil dominance  

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Reading the pages of the Business Spectator in recent months I've noticed a seemingly endless stream of articles by Robert Gottliebsen claiming the US "shale gas revolution" will result in US energy independence, a resurgence in US domestic manufacturing and the demise of Australia's LNG export industry (unless the unions are crushed and construction costs dramatically lowered).

I usually just write these sort of crazed ramblings off as some sort of PR campaign on behalf of BHP in particular (someone needs to give Marius Kloppers some good press) and the mining and energy industries in general, as they fight the endless battle of capital against labour.

Maybe I'm missing something but from my high level understanding of the US gas industry, the natural gas "cliff" predicted by the likes of Julian Darley never eventuated courtesy of the shale gas boom - however US gas production isn't making new highs (so where is the glut people keep claiming exists ?) - instead the price collapsed due to a combination of manufacturing moving offshore (particularly gas intensive industries like fertiliser and chemicals) and the recession in the US causing demand to slump. Should the US return to growth and industry return based on the lure of cheap gas I think we'll find gas prices climbing rapidly again.

The IEA gave this sort of delusional thinking (US energy independence ahoy !) more momentum recently with the new World Energy Outlook report echoing Citibank's claims earlier this year that the US will soon be the world's leading oil producer (again, thanks to shale oil). Its probably worthwhile remembering that 10 years ago the IEA was claiming global oil production would now be over 100 million barrels per day (currently it stands at 90 million barrels per day, with significant contributions from biofuels and natural gas liquids).

Technology Review has a look at the report - Shale Oil Will Boost U.S. Production, But It Won’t Bring Energy Independence.

The idea that the U.S. could overtake Saudi Arabia, even temporarily, is a stunning development after years of seemingly inexorable declines in domestic oil production. U.S. production had fallen from 10 million barrels a day in the 1980s to 6.9 barrels per day in 2008, even as consumption increased from 15.7 million barrels per day in 1985 to 19.5 million barrels per day in 2008. The IEA estimates that production could reach 11.1 million barrels per day by 2020, almost entirely because of increases in the production of shale oil, which is extracted using the same horizontal drilling and fracking techniques that have flooded the U.S. with cheap natural gas.

As of the end of 2011, production had already increased to 8.1 million barrels per day, almost entirely because of shale oil. Production from two major shale resources in the U.S.—the Bakken formation in North Dakota and Montana and the Eagle Ford shale in Texas, now total about 900,000 barrels per day. In comparison, Saudi Arabia is expected to produce 10.6 million barrels per day in 2020.The shale oil resource, however, is limited. The IEA expects production to start gradually declining by the mid-2020s, at which time Saudi Arabia will reclaim the top spot. ...

The other potential issue is whether opposition to fracking in local communities might put the brakes on shale oil development, Sears says. Concerns that fracking will contaminate drinking water have led to objections in some areas, as have concerns that shale oil requires far more drilling wells than conventional oil production. Even if the U.S. is able to quickly develop its shale oil resource, it isn’t likely to be enough to completely eliminate oil imports. The IEA expects that the U.S. will still import 3.4 million barrels per day in 2035. The U.S. consumes nearly 19 million barrels per day, leaving a gap of more than 7 million even at the expected peak in shale oil production in the mid-2020s. However, the IEA expects the gap will be reduced partly by increased use of biofuels and natural gas in transportation, as well as improved vehicle efficiency, which could lower demand for oil.

The IEA does conclude that the United States will nearly be energy self-sufficient by 2035, but that’s after offsetting oil imports with exports of coal and natural gas. To be truly energy independent, the United States would have to invest in technology for converting natural gas and coal into the liquid fuels needed for transportation, or have other technical breakthroughs, such as improved batteries or biofuels, that would quickly reduce the demand for oil.

The Globe and Mail reports that Deutsche Bank analysts aren't convinced by the IEA's predictions for US oil production - Don’t bet on U.S. oil dominance.
An influential report arguing that the U.S. will soon become the world’s largest oil producer made a lot of headlines, especially in Canada where the implications are huge.

Too bad its findings are wrong, argue the energy analysts at Deutsche Bank.

It’s not that the oil isn’t there, but the conditions needed to develop it are lacking, Deutsche Bank analysts Paul Sankey, David Clark and Silvio Micheloto write in a note entitled ‘Why the U.S. WON"T surpass Saudi Arabia as Number 1 oil producer.’ (The emphasis is the authors’. And if you’re wondering if these guys know what they are talking about, Mr. Sankey has been ranked No. 1 for the last two years by Institutional Investor for coverage of integrated oil companies.)

A combination of U.S. policy restricting exports and sagging domestic U.S. demand for oil products will keep prices soft relative to the rest of the world, making the projects needed to create the huge U.S. supply growth uneconomical, they wrote Thursday in their critique of the report by the International Energy Agency which pointed to a huge shift toward North America in oil production.

“We don’t think the U.S. can become the largest oil producer in the world. Why not? Price, cost and returns. None are really dealt with by the IEA.” has an interview with longtime shale gas critic Arthur Berman - Shale Gas Will be the Next Bubble to Pop - An Interview with Arthur Berman.
The “shale revolution” has been grabbing a great deal of headlines for some time now. A favourite topic of investors, sector commentators and analysts – many of whom claim we are about to enter a new energy era with cheap and abundant shale gas leading the charge. But on closer examination the incredible claims and figures behind many of the plays just don’t add up. To help us to look past the hype and take a critical look at whether shale really is the golden goose many believe it to be or just another over-hyped bubble that is about to pop, we were fortunate to speak with energy expert Arthur Berman.

Arthur is a geological consultant with thirty-four years of experience in petroleum exploration and production. He is currently consulting for several E&P companies and capital groups in the energy sector. ... How do you see the shale boom impacting U.S. foreign policy?

Arthur Berman: Well, not very much is my simple answer.

A lot of investors from other parts of the world, particularly the oil-rich parts have been making somewhat high-risk investments in the United States for many years and, for a long time, those investments were in real estate.

Now these people have shifted their focus and are putting cash into shale. There are two important things going on here, one is that the capital isn't going to last forever, especially since shale gas is a commercial failure. Shale gas has lost hundreds of billions of dollars and investors will not keep on pumping money into something that doesn’t generate a return.

The second thing that nobody thinks very much about is the decline rates shale reservoirs experience. Well, I've looked at this. The decline rates are incredibly high. In the Eagleford shale, which is supposed to be the mother of all shale oil plays, the annual decline rate is higher than 42%.

They're going to have to drill hundreds, almost 1000 wells in the Eagleford shale, every year, to keep production flat. Just for one play, we're talking about $10 or $12 billion a year just to replace supply. I add all these things up and it starts to approach the amount of money needed to bail out the banking industry. Where is that money going to come from? Do you see what I'm saying? You've been noted suggesting that shale gas will be the next bubble to collapse. How do you think this will occur and what will the effects be?

Arthur Berman: Well, it depends, as with all collapses, on how quickly the collapse occurs. I guess the worst-case scenario would be that several large companies find themselves in financial distress.

Chesapeake Energy recently had a very close call. They had to sell, I don't know how many, billions of dollars worth of assets just to maintain paying their obligations, and that's the kind of scenario I'm talking about. You may have a couple of big bankruptcies or takeovers and everybody pulls back, all the money evaporates, all the capital goes away. That's the worst-case scenario. Energy became a big part of the election race, but what did you make of the energy policies and promises that were being made by both candidates?

Arthur Berman: Mitt Romney, particularly, talked about how the United States would be able to achieve energy independence in five years. Well, that's garbage.

The Oil Drum also has some cynical words about the potential of shale gas - Tech Talk - Global Oil Supply .
One of the headlines this week from the IEA Report suggests that the United States will be the top global oil producer in five years. Yet back in DeSoto Parish in Louisiana, where the Haynesville Shale discovery in 2008 started the bonanza, revenues are now falling and school board budgets are strapped as the end of the glory days are beginning to appear.

Just this week Aubrey McClendon said that Chesapeake’s prospects for oil in Ohio, where Chesapeake had high hopes for the Utica Shale, are now dim. It is easy to look at one of the large maps showing all the shale deposits in the United States that the Oil and Gas Journal include in their print editions, and to be carried away (as the IEA apparently are) with the vast acreage that is shaded on the map. Unfortunately, as we can see, reality tells another story. The size of the resources have been measured in the past, and with the best plays being given preference, the recognition of decline rates and unprofitable wells have not yet been given the prominence in the popular press that they will ultimately draw.

It seems unrealistic to anticipate the levels now being projected for future North American production of oil. Nevertheless, these projections do tend to crowd conflicting stories on the subject out of the spotlight. Further, if the predictions for American production gains, even in the short term, turn out to be optimistic, then the impacts may be even more exaggerated than is currently appreciated. Consider that OPEC now expects that North America will continue to provide the greatest y-o-y increase in supply over other nations, and there are in fact, few other nations that will contribute much more in the next year.

Stuart at Early Warning also has a post on the IEA report - IEA: US To Be World's Largest Oil Producer. Plus Energy Bulletin has a set of links to commentary too - Commentaries on the IEA WEO 2012 - peak postponed? - Nov 14.
I am less persuaded myself that using a thousand oil rigs to generate an extra one million barrels per day of oil is necessarily a sign of a large and long-term sustainable increase in US oil production (as opposed to, say, frenzied scraping of the bottom of the barrel). But, still, I'm not certain beyond a reasonable doubt just how deep this particular barrel can be scraped.

At any rate, one thing that is interesting is that the chart above shows the US second peak just reaching 10mbd of oil, and yet the US will be the largest producer of oil. Since the IEA says Saudi production is currently at 9.5mbd and Russia at 10.75mbd, the implication is that neither Russia or Saudi Arabian production will increase at all between now and 2020 when the US will surpass them.

Apparently, the strategy of massed hordes of drilling rigs fracking for shale oil can only be of benefit in the United States.

It used to be Saudi Arabia that was used to fill in the wedge between desired supply and expected demand in official energy projections. Apparently the agencies have now accepted that Saudi Arabia cannot or will not increase production and the US is now being assigned the role of supplier of last resort for future energy projections.

Gas industry rattled by findings of triple normal levels of methane emissions  

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ReNew Economy has a report on research that may result in a massive tax bill for the coal seam gas industry - Gas industry rattled by findings of triple normal levels of methane.

LEVELS of the potent greenhouse gas methane have been recorded at more than three times their normal background levels at coal seam gas fields in Australia, raising questions about the true climate change impact of the booming industry.

The findings, which have been submitted both for peer review and to the Federal Department of Climate Change, also raise doubts about how much the export-driven coal seam gas (CSG) industry should pay under the country’s carbon price laws.

Southern Cross University (SCU) researchers Dr Isaac Santos and Dr Damien Maher used a hi-tech measuring device attached to a vehicle to compare levels of methane in the air at different locations in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales. The gas industry was quick to attack their findings and the scientists themselves.

The Queensland government has already approved several major multi-billion dollar CSG projects worth more than $60 billion, all of which are focussed on converting the gas to export-friendly liquefied natural gas (LNG).

More than 30,000 gas wells will be drilled in the state in the coming decades and the industry has estimated between 10 per cent and 40 per cent of the wells will undergo hydraulic fracturing.

The industry and state and federal ministers have claimed that electricity derived from coal seam gas will help slow growth in carbon emissions but, so far, no comprehensive independent lifecycle assessment of emissions has been carried out.

Last August, a Right to Information request submitted by me and reported in the Brisbane Times revealed that the state’s government was prepared to rely on industry-funded research when it came to understanding the industry’s carbon footprint.

A later report from the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, which looked at emissions from CSG when burned for electricity in China, was produced by Worley Parsons, a company which had won a $580 million contract to work on a major CSG-to-LNG project in the state.

The Federal Energy Minister Martin Ferguson has also waved away suggestions that the government should commission its own independent research into CSG emissions, and was reported as saying such a study was “unnecessary”.

The work at Southern Cross University is arguably the first attempt to independently measure levels of methane coming from gasfield areas.

Dr Santos said in a university release: “The current discussions on CSG are often based on anecdotal evidence, old observations not designed to assess CSG or data obtained overseas. We believe universities are independent institutions that should provide hard data to inform this discussion. The lack of site-specific baseline data is staggering.”

In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Dr Maher said while it was not possible yet to say “definitively” that the raised levels of methane were due to leaks from the CSG facilities, “we have multiple lines of evidence to suggest that that is what is causing it”. He said the initial findings pointed to the CSG operations as a likely source of the raised methane levels – in particular, from “fugitive emissions.

Forbidden City of Oil Platforms: The Rise and Fall of Stalin's Atlantis  

Posted by Big Gav

Der Spiegel has an interesting article on the remnants of the old Soviet oil extraction system in the Caspian Sea - Forbidden City of Oil Platforms: The Rise and Fall of Stalin's Atlantis.

In the 1950s, Soviet engineers built a massive city in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Azerbaijan. It was a network of oil platforms linked by hundreds of kilometers of roads and housing 5,000 workers, with a cinema, a park and apartment blocks. Gradually disintegrating but still closely guarded, this astonishing place inspired a fiery scene in a James Bond movie. ...

The backdrop of the floating city Bond battled his way out of in the 1999 movie "The World Is Not Enough" was built in Britain's Pinewood Studios -- but it was inspired by a very real location that counts as one the world's most astonishing cities: Neft Dashlari, far out in the Caspian Sea.

This area of Azerbaijan has been famed for its rich oil resources since ancient times. The "liquid fire" with which Constantinople drove the Arab besiegers from its walls in the seventh century consisted largely of oil that bubbled to the surface unaided along the coasts of the Black Sea and the Caspian. The Persians called the area the "Land of Fire," where priests lit their temples with oil from these natural sources.

The petrochemical industry didn't take off here until 1870 after Russia conquered the territory. In the years that followed, industrialists like Ludvig Nobel and the Rothschild brothers transformed the capital Baku into an oriental version of the French Mediterranean jewel of Nice. In 1941, Azerbaijan, then part of the Soviet Union, was already supplying 175 million barrels of crude oil a year -- 75 percent of the country's entire oil production. That's why German forces fought so hard to try to seize the city and the surrounding Absheron Peninsula. They failed.

After the war, Soviet engineers took a closer look at a reef that mariners called the "Black Rock." They built a shed on the tiny island and conducted test drilling. During the night of Nov. 7, 1949, they struck top-quality oil at a depth of 1,100 meters below the seabed and shortly thereafter, the world's first offshore oil platform was built at the spot, now renamed Neft Dashlari, or "oily rock." "Platform" is a hopelessly inadequate word for the many-armed monster of steel and timber that gradually spread across the waves of the sea, which is only 20 meters deep on average, over the following years.

The foundation of the main settlement consists of seven sunken ships including "Zoroaster," the world's first oil tanker, built in Sweden. In Neft Dashlari's heyday, some 2,000 drilling platforms were spread in a 30-kilometer circle, joined by a network of bridge viaducts spanning 300 kilometers. Trucks thundered across the bridges and eight-story apartment blocks were built for the 5,000 workers who sometimes spent weeks on Neft Dashlari. The voyage back to the mainland could take anything between six and twelve hours, depending on the type of ship. The island had its own beverage factory, soccer pitch, library, bakery, laundry, 300-seat cinema, bathhouse, vegetable garden and even a tree-lined park for which the soil was brought from the mainland.

It was a Stalinist utopia for the working class. A Soviet stamp from 1971 summed up the gigantic hopes it embodied in a tiny image: against the black outline of a drilling rig, a road made of bridges snaked its way across the deep blue sea towards further rigs and a red sun on the horizon.

But there are few things as precarious as a world built on water and oil. The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in the decline of this floating city as new oilfields were discovered elsewhere and the price of oil began to fluctuate. The workforce has halved to 2,500, and most of the rigs are now out of use or can't be reached because the bridges leading to them have collapsed. Of the 300 kilometers of roads, only 45 kilometers remain usable, and even they have fallen into disrepair. During a flood a few years ago, many apartments were submerged up to the second story.

Powerless: legal heavyweights used to silence farmer  

Posted by Big Gav

Michael West at the SMH has an interesting article on attempts to silence a farmer who has successfully managed to make a lot of people aware that the huge rises in network costs for electricity costs in eastern Australia has not been due to the claimed cause (rising peak demand - demand has actually been falling in recent years) - Powerless: legal heavyweights used to silence farmer. The resulting outrage resulted in the grid companies backing down - well done Michael - 'We're sorry' - Grid Australia cans legal action.

The thing that really irks Bruce Robertson is not just that the giant power companies are threatening to sue him but that their lawyers are demanding he pay for their costs.

“It was a service I never requested," quips Robertson, who has had to resort to black humour since the letter from Grid Australia arrived out of the blue last week.

In the quintessential act of corporate bullying, the nation's electricity transmission giants are threatening to sue the corporate-analyst-turned-cattle-farmer from the mid-north coast of NSW.

Robertson has been a constant thorn in their side this year, revealing how the industry's 'gold-plating', dodgy forecasts and misleading rhetoric have been the main factors behind the nose-bleed rise in power bills.

And so Grid Australia, the peak body for the transmission giants, is trying to muzzle him with legal threats.

This story is not just about power companies gagging an outspoken critic. It is about governments too. Grid Australia's members are mostly state-owned power companies. They speak for $10 billion in network assets and they don't like Robertson accusing them of gold-plating one little bit.

Here's the catch. Governments are not allowed to sue their citizens (this is a good thing).

Nor are the other two members of Grid: Victoria's SP-Ausnet, which is controlled by a Singaporean multinational, or South Australia's transmission provider, ElectraNet, which is a consortium of powerful financiers. Both are too big to sue.

Under reforms to the defamation laws seven years ago, big companies are no longer permitted to sue (Section 9 Defamation Act, 2005). The intention of these reforms was precisely to stop this sort of intimidation by large vested interests.

They were designed to prevent large corporations from using the law for commercial purposes – to shut down bad press, among other things....

Departing from the legal aspects for a moment to deliver a layman's observation: Grid Australia is as much of a secret society, controlled by state government agencies, as it is a proper legal entity with a right to sue people for exercising their rights to free speech.

And so we have a front for Transgrid, spending a bundle of taxpayer dollars with a big-city law firm, in an effort to stop a farmer from having his say. And the taxpayers of Victoria and other states are also subsidising this ethically dubious exercise.

Already, Transgrid has spent taxpayer money securing the services of Sue Cato, often regarded as the most expensive crisis management consultant in the market, to assist with its reputational issues. Now it has resorted to lawyers.

BusinessDay has endeavoured for more than a week to contact the Ashurst staff involved in the action. We have also tried the PR department. Despite repeated requests for a response there was none forthcoming.

Randers: What does the world look like in 2052?  

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While I've always argued "The Limits To Growth" was totally misunderstood by most of those who pass comment on it, Jorgen Randers' latest book does seem to have gone more down the path of mildly gloomy prediction than mere scenario planning - Randers: What does the world look like in 2052?.

What will the world look like in 40 years time. In 2052, will we have enough food and water? Will there be too many people? Will our standard of living be higher. Will we have taken decisive action on climate change.

To briefly summarise Jorgen Randers, the renowned Norwegian futurist, the broad answers to those are yes, yes, maybe, no and no. But it’s the way he reaches those conclusions that makes his latest book 2052: A global forecast for the next forty years, so compelling.

Randers made his name as the co-author of the book “The Limits to Growth”, which underpinned the Club of Rome’s work on resource depletion and helped spawn the sustainability movement. Not that he thinks the book and his work had that much impact. “I spent 40 years working on sustainability and failed. The world today is a much less sustainable world,” he lamented during a visit to Australia this week.

Now 67, Randers runs the centre for climate strategy at the Norwegian Business School. And having outlined 12 scenarios for the world running from 1970 to 2100 in his first book, he now feels there is enough information to make more concrete forecasts.

It is not a picture he finds particularly attractive, but one he sees as inevitable because of mankind’s inability to look beyond short-term solutions and the obsession with growth. “I’m not saying what should happen, but this is the sad future that humanity is going to create for itself.”

Here are the base numbers for his predictions. Unlike others that predict a world population of 9 billion in 2050, he sees it peaking at 8 billion in 2040 and then declining, because he says the rich world will choose jobs over children, and the poorer urban families will choose fewer children.

He expects the world economy to grow much slower than most, because it will be harder to increase productivity at the same rate as has occurred in the last four decades. The low hanging fruit in the agricultural, manufacturing and office sectors have been picked. And he does not believe the poor countries will “take off”. He says that by 2050, the world economy will be no more than 2.5 times bigger than it is today, rather than four times bigger as many assume.

The US has a bleak outlook because their average disposable incomes will not grow, because they have already gone further than most in productivity and have a huge debt to China. And, Randers says, because the US is not capable of making simple decisions, it will also be not capable of making difficult decisions. He puts the current debate around climate change, or the lack of it, as an example.

“China is the real winner and they will be 5 times as rich in 40 year time,” Randers says. That’s because of China’s ability to make quick decisions that are in favour of the majority. The rest of the world, he suggests, remains poor,

Still, while the economy and the population will not grow as fast as some predict, and there will be no huge shortage of food, water or energy, it will still grow fast enough to trigger a climate crisis, because the short termism of the political class and business means that greenhouse emissions will not be addressed. He expects emissions will peak between 2030 and 2040, and will have only returned to 2010 levels by 2050 – pushing the world beyond the 2°C scenario and locking in disastrous climate reactions in the second half of the century.

“We will spend more money repairing the damage of climate change after it has occurred instead of spending up front avoiding the climate damage,” he says. “We know what to do. The only reason we do not do it is because it is slightly more expensive than doing nothing, so we don’t do it. It is very frustrating.”


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