Energy use and availability play a role in nearly every aspect of New Zealand life, from warming us in winter to powering our daily commute or transporting us overseas. How much energy costs and what it does to the environment are correspondingly of concern individually and to the country as a whole.

The way the world uses energy is changing rapidly and in New Zealand we are ambitious of a future that has more renewable energy, lower costs and reliable and resilient supply. So how do we get there?

The National Energy Research Institute (NERI) is a consortium of research providers and other stakeholders in the energy sector, including Victoria University of Wellington, committed to stimulating, promoting, coordinating and supporting high quality energy research and education in New Zealand. To further the goal of a sustainable energy future for the country, NERI yesterday launched an Energy Research Strategy for New Zealand.

The amount of research globally on energy production and use is enormous (although many would argue still not enough). New Zealand’s contribution is small and most of our energy technology is imported.

But New Zealand has its own opportunities and risks when it comes to energy. In its strategy, NERI has concentrated on issues with high impact, which are unique to New Zealand, and where business as usual or imported technology isn’t sufficient to solve our problems.

The goal is an energy supply that is secure, resilient and meets environmental objectives such as commitments on greenhouse gas emissions.

New Zealand has significant advantages in electricity generation, including a large resource of hydro, geothermal and land-based wind energy. The strategy emphasises the ability to boost geothermal in particular to meet the goal of a larger base of renewable electricity supply. Research needed to make this possible includes economically growing the geothermal resource, ensuring the reliability of the network and finding low cost ways to reduce peak demand.

But New Zealand has its own opportunities and risks when it comes to energy.

Solar is also an under-utilised resource in New Zealand and its uptake could prompt potential disruptions to the current system such as greater peer-to-peer trading.  

A major use of non-renewable energy in New Zealand is transport. With the advances globally in electric vehicles, light vehicle transport may see a rapid transition to electricity as the dominant power source. Coupled with more renewable energy generation, this would be a relatively easy way to reduce our carbon footprint.

New Zealand technologies of inductive power transfer and rapid charging would help with this transition and the NERI strategy marks these as areas in which we have, or could have, internationally competitive technology earning export revenue.

Heavy vehicle, sea and air transport are not so easy to convert from high energy density fossil fuels and this is where the NERI strategy suggests a useful focus. Low duty cycle heavy vehicles (those that stop and start frequently) have the best chance of being converted to cleaner fuels. A combination of rapid charging of batteries and inductive power transfer could hasten a transition to electric or hybrid-electric vehicles.

To reduce fossil fuel use in marine and air transport, use of biofuels is needed. Hybrid electric-combustion technologies can make their use more economic. NERI suggests biomass feedstocks are a worthwhile research priority and that New Zealand should join international efforts on marine and air transport technologies.

The Robinson Research Institute at Victoria University has recently moved in this direction by collaborating with international partners to develop the technology for long-range hybrid-electric aircraft. Achieving breakthroughs in the power/weight ratio requires using superconductor technology, which has much higher power density than any copper-based electric motors. The principle is to employ a high-efficiency generator continuously running at its maximum efficiency point. In this way, fuel efficiency gains of up to 33 percent can be achieved over existing combustion-jet technology.

Renewable hydro, geothermal, wind and solar can provide our electricity needs, including powering our light vehicle and low duty cycle heavy vehicle fleet.

Superconductor-based generators can also be used to convert the stored energy from flywheels for rapid electric vehicle charging. Having energy stored locally in flywheels reduces the sudden peak loads that would stress the distribution network. Robinson has been collaborating with international partners to develop this technology too.

In a project led by the University of Auckland, and also involving Victoria, researchers are developing dynamic inductive power transfer technology to allow charging of vehicles while in motion on roadways.

These are simply a handful of the energy use projects being worked on at Victoria (including in our School of Chemical and Physical Sciences, School of Engineering and Computer Science and School of Architecture and Design) and other New Zealand universities and research organisations.

A strong research capability therefore already exists to give effect to the NERI strategy and the ideal energy future for New Zealand seems eminently attainable.

Renewable hydro, geothermal, wind and solar can provide our electricity needs, including powering our light vehicle and low duty cycle heavy vehicle fleet.

Issues of managing peak demand, energy storage and the resilience of the grid can be addressed with the right research strategy and support for an innovative commercial environment.

Air and marine transport, so important to our international trade in food and tourism, can evolve to use biofuels and more efficient hybrid systems, reducing the risks of consumer perception around greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, ICT technology such as virtual and augmented reality can substitute energy use by reducing the demand for travel. ICT technologies will also play a major role in optimising energy use and mitigating risks in the reliability and resilience of our grid, through such things as the implementation of demand response systems whereby peaks in demand can be reduced.

We know what the future looks like. Now we just have to complete the journey. NERI’s Energy Research Strategy for New Zealand provides a valuable framework to help us do so.

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