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Only way forward for Labour seriously green

by 29 Jul 2012Smart networks4 comments

Dr Jan Wright aboard a Meridian wind turbine

Half the Price: Dr Jan Wright, right, aboard a Meridian Energy wind turbine, the likes of which heat water at half the cost of solar water heaters, unless they do it late at night, when the cost is effectively zero. image Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

Green Party energy spokesman Gareth Hughes describes it as unhelpful.

But when the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment finds that subsidising smart meters would make a significant contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, in Aotearoa, and that subsidising solar water panels hasn’t and won’t, everybody, especially the Greens, should attempt to understand why.

With her 75-page report on the contribution of solar water heaters, commissioner Dr Jan Wright has made a heroic contribution to ‘our fight against climate change.’ The first recommendation of Evaluating Solar Water Heating tackles the primacy of global warming head on:

The Minister of Energy and Resources directs officials to recognise that the main reason for encouraging renewable energy is not renewability per se but climate change, and to incorporate this understanding into policy and advice.

Greenland ice sheet melt

Too Scary to Talk About: Psychologists warn of the danger the public will be too terrified to act on global warming. But it is the politicians who must act—individual customers don’t have the power to force their power company to intelligently install smart meters and to provide electricity for water heating late at night at minimal cost for water heating. The public needs to know that this month’s record-breaking Greenland surface ice melt means that the world must mobilise immediately. image National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Dr Wright does not belabour why the objective of addressing anthropogenic global warming is all-important, relying, as she is entitled to, on the fact that successive governments have committed to a 90% renewable electricity generation target by 2025, as part of those government’s commitment to addressing climate change. But because the mainstream media has performed so poorly in reporting the stark scenario that scientists have been attempting to communicate, with increasing urgency, for more than four decades, successive governments have been allowed to talk business-as-usual without being laughed at, chaffed and thrown out of office. This reluctance to acknowledge the moral issue of the 21st century is even reflected in the Green Party’s 2011 campaign pamphlet, which featured neither the term ‘climate change’ nor ‘global warming’.

Much has been written about the need to not frighten the populace into inaction, by attempting to describe the horrors that a hotter climate hold for humanity—much better to focus on all those green dollars that can be made from renewables. Aside from the epic failure of a similar response to the Third Reich, anthropogenic global warming is a holocaust of potentially much greater magnitude. The range of impacts run from an extinction epoch comparable to that precipitated by the Chicxulub asteroid, to runaway global warming where the atmosphere becomes so hot the very oceans evaporate. The current business-as-usual trajectory leads, quite probably, to the latter. But a world in which perhaps 50% of species go extinct would be no holiday, as balmy as temperatures will eventually become on land currently covered by ice sheets, there will be a dearth of beaches well before then as coastlines are drowned.

The mainstream media, not the commissioner, has the primary responsibility for reporting events that are critical to the wellbeing, if not survival, of humanity. The New Zealand Herald has managed to report on the current 97% melt of Greenland without using the term climate change or global warming, nor is the piece included in its Climate Change section, which is buried three deep in its online menu system. Meantime, for in-depth reporting, such as on the prospects for North America’s forests, specialist online media such as Climate Progress must be relied upon:

Foresters [in British Columbia] call the beetle irruption ‘the largest known insect infestation in North American history,’ and they point to even more chilling possibilities. Until recently, the frigid climate of the Canadian Rockies prevented beetles from crossing the Continental Divide to the interior where they were, until recently, unknown. Unfortunately, warming temperatures have enabled the beetles to top the passes of the Peace River country and penetrate northern Alberta. Now a continent of jack pines lies before them, a boreal smorgasbord 3000 miles long. If the beetles adapt effectively to their new hosts, the path is clear for them to chew their way eastward virtually to the Atlantic and to generate transformative ecological effects on a gigantic scale.

Greenland ice sheet melt

Before and After Bark Beetle: Clearly, from these 2001 and 2011 images, a Colorado’s bark beetle ravaged forests were just a lightning strike away from becoming this year’s firewood—or what should be biofuel if wasn’t for ‘the economics’ favouring fracking-derived fossil fuels. image National Aeronautics and Space Administration

In even a few decades’ time, it is going to be incomprehensible to young people as to why today’s world wasn’t mobilising on two principal fronts: The rapid reduction of population and its attendant greenhouse gas emissions; ensuring the survival of as much of humanity and as many species as possible.

The message pedalled for decades by activists and organisations is that, while global warming holds dire consequences for humanity, there is just enough time if decisive action is taken now. Most hearing that message assume that global warming can be stopped, when the climate becomes uncomfortably hot. The reality was always different. Carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere in large part remains there trapping additional heat, regardless of whether the brakes are abruptly put on emissions. Worse, because the deep oceans are absorbing most of the heat, today’s carbon dioxide levels won’t fully manifest in a warm and wild climate for decades to come. It is analogous to discovering, after becoming distressingly hot, that sauna’s thermostat has just turned itself up some more and jammed, and that the door has locked itself.

Intuitively, solar water heaters must make a contribution, and Dr Wright has found that they do, but only in situations where no power is used to heat water during the cloudy and windy winter days when demand for electricity is greatest. But winter nights are another matter. During the night there is likely to be hydro, geothermal and wind power going to waste. This is where smart meters, intelligently deployed, would make a much bigger contribution than solar water heaters on their own. This means that central and local government have an urgent responsibility to ensure that everything is done move electric water heating, which is 12% of all electricity used, to nighttime use only.

Evaluating Solar Water Heating, Figure 6.1

Unhelpful: Because the bulk of solar water heaters rely on grid power to a greater or lesser extent, and because that reliance is greatest during the winter when the electricity, particularly during the daytime, is being substantially generated by the burning of fossil fuels, they make much less of a contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions than smart meters would, by only permitting water heating late at night. chart Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

The bad news for the solar water heater industry is that because nighttime electricity rates, where they are available, are typically half the cost of ‘anytime’ rates, the economics struggle to stack up. And even if the motivation is purely environmental, wind power is preferable:

A kWh of electricity generated from wind farms and transmitted and distributed is currently about half of the cost of a kWh of electricity ‘generated’ by a solar water heater.

This clearly means that installing wind turbines, as part of the national grid, is twice as cost-effective as installing solar panels on roofs of individual houses. Off-grid houses, of course, are another matter, and here solar water heating and photovoltaic are a boon. But where access to it is available, and provided that at least the 90% non-carbon target is strenuously pursued, grid power will be greener.

While opposition to asset sales has focussed on the ethics and economics of privatisation, Evaluating Solar Water Heating’s final recommendation highlights the far more crucial consideration:

The Minister of Energy and Resources directs officials to investigate how current electricity regulations (or lack of regulation) are constraining the potential for load control and demand management to deliver environmental and economic benefits.

As the report details, Aotearoa pioneered load control and demand management, particularly the use of ripple control to remotely turn off electric water heaters. Prior to privatisation, there were few impediments to moving a smart grid that provided consumers with the options and information and incentives they needed to become the world’s greenest and most thrifty electricity users. Instead a fiasco has played out whereby:

Evaluating Solar Water Heating, Figure 6.1

On Their Own: Smart meters, intelligently deployed, would make a much bigger contribution to reducing emissions than solar water heaters on their own. But thanks to the ideology-driven privatisation of the power industry, Aotearoa so far has seen patchy, brain-dead smart meter implementation. Pictured is the Nucleus, which is a ‘home energy command center that delivers real-time energy usage consumption data to PCs and smart phones and serves as the hub of conversations taking place between smart meters and smart appliances.’ image GE Appliances

…most of these so-called smart meters currently being rolled out in large numbers in New Zealand lack the ability to ‘talk to’ water heaters and other appliances in a more sophisticated way than ripple control. As a result, lines companies are prevented from making full use of load control. This is because electricity retailers who own many of these meters are not concerned with the benefits they could bring to lines companies, households, and the environment.

What is at stake is the wellbeing, if not survival, of humanity. Given its earlier culpability in initiating the sale of critical state-owned assets, the Labour Party has a duty to now undertake to nationalise the power industry. With Professor Steve Keen advocating the nationalisation of the world’s financial systems, at least temporarily, nationalising a few utilities and lines companies that should not have been privatised in the first place, given they were natural monopolies, should hardly raise an eyebrow.

Come 2014, with the world will still be firmly mired in the Second Great Depression and the electorate will be hungry for more than the failed more-of-the-same free-market medicine. Professor Keen’s prescription for a modern debt jubilee, for debt that he told Radio New Zealand should never have been created in the first place, is being listened to:

Much to my amazement the [reception for a debt jubilee] in Europe was far more positive than I thought it would be. I thought I would be floating something that people would scoff at for five years. When I first raised it at a public meeting in Ireland, in a fairly conservative economic think tank, the number of nodding heads actually stunned the hell out of me. So things are far worse in Europe than they are at the moment in the Antipodes and in that situation people are considering much more drastic action, and frankly what I’m talking about sounds a lot healthier than letting the fascists take over, which is one of the other options people are considering when they are voting in places like Greece today.

Evaluating Solar Water Heating, Figure 6.1

Almost Shoulder to Shoulder: If Labour’s Davids were to stand shoulder to shoulder on evidenced-based policy, Aotearoa could promptly mobilise to put its 83‍ ‍000 youth unemployed to work protecting the motu, its people and its endangered indigenous species, to the greatest extent practicable.

Professor Keen claims that such action can be taken unilaterally, but whether it should be taken independent of climate action is another question entirely.

If the courage displayed in David Cunliffe’s last three policy-positioning speeches, and in David Parker’s last one, is emulated by Labour’s leadership, the party would dominate the election landscape between now and November 2014. The party’s fresh new leader, David Shearer MBE, following his humanitarian career for which his received the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire for his work in Mogadishu, is brilliantly equipped to describe to New Zealanders just how beastly life has already become for the billions most exposed to a warming climate. Worldwide, the willingness of nations to make good on aid commitments has been impacted by the depression. In Aotearoa, successive governments, deplorably including Labour, have dragged their heels in funding aid to other countries, and as a rich island nation, Aotearoa has a particular duty to the World’s small island nations, some of which face wholesale, sea-level rise forced, relocation—these are exactly the places where Aotearoa should be investing in solar energy.

Evaluating Solar Water Heating, Figure 6.1

Craven Cowardice: In the unlikely event that the tobacco giants win their World Trade Organisation case against the origin-neutral, science-based restrictions that Australia is imposing on tobacco packaging, or that Australia is bankrupted in the process, Aotearoa has the option of declaring the substance a Class A drug. Image included for its maritime appeal, and for its likeness of Cimino’s mother, whose addiction to nicotine likely caused a brain aneurism to rupture, resulting in her death in 1962, at age 50.

There is little danger of the National Party coming up with anything half as courageous as Cunliffe and Parker have outlined, and its asset-sale-inclination guns could be spiked by Labour promising to nationalise anything sold off in the interim. Last week for example, in a cravenly disloyal desertion of the Anzac spirit, Prime Minister John Key indicated his support for plain packaging had suddenly deflated, just as Australia faces 12 tobacco-producing countries at the World Trade Organisation case, effectively alone. What is at stake is the sovereign right of governments to:

…adopt regulations that impose origin-neutral, science-based restrictions on specific tobacco products or classes in order to safeguard public health.

Instead of backing Key, Shearer should swiftly have backed the Māori Party in its rightful determination to render Aotearoa smoke-free by 2025, and gone on to warn the tobacco companies that if they persisted with their threat to mire the country in international legal action, from the moment of his election he would bring the 2025 deadline forward a decade, and for good measure nationalise any assets that remain in Aotearoa at that time, and without compensation. Besides, by the time the Australians are done with these despicably deliberate purveyors of death and disease, they will possibly have decided that the piddling Aotearoa market is not worth a tupenny Woodbine. But if Shearer choses a less flamboyant approach, he could simply announce his intention to declare tobacco a Class A drug:

Very high risk of harm and illegal.

Since Labour’s canning in the 2011 election, the polls have begun a slow recovery. Meantime the Green’s best ever result has not been sustained, with its popularity falling away as memory of a convincing campaign recedes. By attacking the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s findings on solar water heating the Greens gained one mainstream media mention—a blatant case of cherry-picking, given the party is happy to quote the commissioner on lignite. Had the party responded intelligently to Dr Wright’s report, it could easily have owned the issue—instead it is there for Labour for the taking.

The Green Party’s cynical decision to downplay global warming at last year’s election leaves the way clear for the Labour Party to own the moral issue of the 21st century: Labour—seriously green.

But that will take considerably more courage than Mr Shearer has displayed as Labour’s leader, to date.

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