In the late 1970s, New Zealand was at a crossroads, faced with the decision of whether to start building the country’s first nuclear power station on the Kaipara Harbour. We said no – newly discovered gas and coal reserves offered cheaper domestic sources of electricity – and have never looked back.
I’ll be talking about New Zealand’s historical plans for nuclear power this month at Energy at the Crossroads: Energy Innovation for a Sustainable Society, a conference organised by the National Energy Research Institute and Victoria University.
So, are we at another crossroads? Ralph Sims, professor of sustainable energy at Massey University, is one of the keynote speakers at the conference. Our choice now, he says, is whether to “turn left, along a road heading into more fossil-fuel use and climate change impacts, or right, along a road that gets us away from fossil-fuel dependency and towards cleaner energy alternatives”.
In international comparisons, New Zealand does well, producing 70% of our electricity from renewable sources. The Government’s aim is to move to 90% renewables by 2025. But that’s not enough, says Sims. The transport, industrial and agricultural sectors are also emitting significant amounts of greenhouse gases and are not as easy to decarbonise as electricity generation.
“Every policy from now on should give cognisance to greenhouse gas emissions and what happens as a result of that policy. We have a major disconnect between the Government’s aim of voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions – of 10-20% of 1990 levels by 2020 – and other policies relating to roading, rail closures, energy efficiency, electricity assets, mining, lignite, oil and gas exploration, fracking and ruminant animals.” Policies are being implemented “without any thought whatsoever about the impact on climate or the wider environment”.
As the leading author of the transport chapter of the next IPCC mitigation report, Sims is particularly interested in transport policies. “If we want to make this new world where we don’t rely so heavily on imported fossil fuels, then we don’t need more roads; we need improved rail networks and coastal shipping.” But that doesn’t fit with what the Government’s doing. “We’ve got a focus on short-term economic gain and no analysis of what we could get if we took this money being devoted to roads and spent it on transport alternatives instead.”
But we don’t just need policy changes, we need good sustainable energy alternatives, says Sims. One of the goals of the conference is to highlight energy research being done around the country. At the University of Auckland, engineers are working on wireless recharging of electric vehicles, a technology that could one day power cars as they drive along the road. The YikeBike, developed by Christchurch inventor Grant Ryan, is a lightweight electric bicycle that can be folded and carried when not in use. Victoria University physicist Justin Hodgkiss is aiming to develop a cheap and efficient solar cell using polymers rather than conventional silicon. WhisperGen, a micro-cogeneration product developed at the University of Canterbury, is a dishwasher-sized fuel burner that can provide heat and electrical energy to a small apartment, reducing reliance on grid power and increasing energy efficiency. And at Scion, researchers are developing liquid biofuel products from wood.
Although products like WhisperGen and the YikeBike are already on the market, a lot of these projects are years away from commercialisation. “But sooner or later there will be a real technology breakthrough, hopefully a New Zealand breakthrough, and we can all benefit,” says Sims. As for whether New Zealand ever needs to reconsider nuclear power, that decision is a little further down the road.
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