Wednesday, 4 June 2014

If Gas Is 'Renewable', Nothing Is

In the Victorian government's as-yet unreleased submission to the panel currently reviewing Australia's federal renewable energy legislation, there lies a fairly outlandish suggestion, one that I feel really deserves some close scrutiny. Tom Arup writes for The Age, describing the suggested course of action:

"The Napthine government says it is concerned that "reliable baseload capacity" is being driven out of the electricity market and calls for consideration of including gas-fired power under the target to help the power grid cope with times of peak demand"

The legislation lists the types of generators that are eligible for inclusion in the renewable energy target scheme:

"17  What is an eligible renewable energy source?
             (1)  The following energy sources are eligible renewable energy sources:
                     (a)  hydro;
                     (b)  wave;
                     (c)  tide;
                     (d)  ocean;
                     (e)  wind;
                      (f)  solar;
                     (g)  geothermal‑aquifer;
                     (h)  hot dry rock;
                      (i)  energy crops;
                      (j)  wood waste;
                     (k)  agricultural waste;
                      (l)  waste from processing of agricultural products;
                    (m)  food waste;
                     (n)  food processing waste;
                     (o)  bagasse;
                     (p)  black liquor;
                     (q)  biomass‑based components of municipal solid waste;
                      (r)  landfill gas;
                      (s)  sewage gas and biomass‑based components of sewage;
                      (t)  any other energy source prescribed by the regulations.
             (2)  Despite subsection (1), the following energy sources are not eligible renewable energy sources:
                     (a)  fossil fuels;
                     (b)  materials or waste products derived from fossil fuels."

It's this subsection that we can presume Napthine is advocating the alteration of. Namely; shifting fossil fuels upwards. 

For every unit of energy you get from gas, you get about half of the carbon emissions, compared to coal. But gas makes up about 12% (it varies across the year) of the fuel types used to make electricity on the National Electricity Market (NEM): 

Despite gas having a lower emissions intensity than coal, it's still a fossil fuel, and it still comes burdened with carbon pollution. In 2012, usage of natural gas for electricity generation was responsible for 21,259,810 tonnes of carbon emissions. 

The RET legislation doesn't define 'renewable', but I like this one, from the US Energy and Information Administration, which outlines the advantages and limitations of renewable energy: 
"Renewable energy sources are energy resources that are naturally replenishing but flow-limited. They are virtually inexhaustible in duration but limited in the amount of energy that is available per unit of time. Renewable energy resources include: biomass, hydro, geothermal, solar, wind, ocean thermal, wave action, and tidal action"
It takes millions of years for natural gas deposits to form (note that creationists beg to differ). For natural gas to be classified as renewable we'd have to use insanely tiny amounts of it. 

Categories are meaningless if we decide the rules governing them can be broken at will. Incentivising production from lower carbon sources (in addition to low-carbon sources) has benefits and disadvantages, but clumsily deciding that the term 'renewable' can apply to anything isn't a fantastic idea. 

If gas is 'renewable', then coal immediately qualifies as renewable, too. The term then becomes synonymous with 'fuel', and loses all meaning. 

Using gas instead of coal does reduce carbon emissions. But, using gas and renewable energy instead of coal reduces carbon emissions even further (and it's cheap). We can get that done without savaging the categorisations in our energy system. 

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