Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor Alan Brent assesses how well New Zealand is doing with the trinity of energy priorities necessary to tackle global warming.

The October release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report paints a stark reality of what is to come if we, as a civilisation, do not make curb global warming to below 1.5°C and reach net zero CO2 emissions by 2050. The IPCC report argues for ambitious policy support to transform how we use energy, including doubling our investment in low-carbon (renewable) energy technologies and our energy efficiency over the next 20 years, and decreasing our investment in fossil-fuel extraction and conversion by a quarter.

So how does New Zealand stack up against this challenge, and what should be our priorities? This question was debated at the recent Asia-Pacific Energy Leaders’ Summit in Wellington, with a focus on three priority areas: decarbonise, decentralise and digitalise.

In terms of decarbonisation, New Zealand is doing quite well. The low emissions economy report of the Productivity Commission, released in August, speaks along the same lines as the IPCC report, and includes a target of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 in its analysis.

The current Government is also in agreement that all electricity generation should be from renewable sources by 2035, and thanks to bankable battery storage projects, work by Mercury and Transpower, and the number of wind, hydro, and geothermal generating plants approved by the Electricity Authority—which will also support the Government policy of banning new base-loaded thermal plants—this goal is entirely achievable.

Our engineering research efforts are also investigating how the country’s established grid system can accommodate more decarbonised electricity generation. However, a number of challenges must still be addressed.

A first priority is to facilitate more electricity decentralisation. Electricity decentralisation is shaping up to be the dominant energy sector macro theme over the next two decades. It also enables more consumers to become prosumers, by using, for example, solar panels. Contact Energy is already investigating this potential market development in Wellington.

Victoria University of Wellington’s research in the built environment have shown that commercial buildings and industrial sites can be significant market players in this area, or, at the very least, can reduce much of the (morning and evening) electricity peak demands, and we haven’t even considered the potential role the agriculture sector can play in the electricity market.

As highlighted by the Productivity Commission report, a second priority is the transformation of the transportation sector. A key focus for this area is switching use of light transportation, using internal combustion engines, to higher use of electric vehicles.

This will have major implications for the electricity grid, which Transpower has analysed, and it will have to be controlled carefully with smart grid technology—an area that is, fortunately, a key focus for engineering research in New Zealand. Where we haven’t reached consensus is what to do with heavy transport and aviation, which our economy (like any other) highly

depends on. For KiwiRail to switch from electric to diesel locomotives just doesn’t make sense—unless, of course, they operate on 100% biodiesel. Enter the biofuels roadmap, released in February.

For engineers, achieving the vision set up in the roadmap will mean building a biorefinery (probably at Marsden Point) geared towards aviation fuel, as well as bioethanol and biodiesel for blending with conventional fuels.

A biorefinery like this will aid the transition away from our current heavy transport and aviation vehicle fleet, as well as feeding current and future hybrid electric vehicles.

Another aspect of the roadmap is the better utilisation of our distributed biomass, which could play a significant role in supplying industrial processes with energy, and biogas digesters (another key part of the roadmap) in our agriculture sector should be a no-brainer – for self-sufficiency, but also to (potentially) supply electricity to the grid.

The recent signing of a research and development agreement with Japan on hydrogen is also a step in the right direction for our transport industry, as long as it doesn’t mean we only export hydrogen to Japan.

All the technology hurdles of hydrogen use in transport have been overcome, and New Zealand is ideally positioned to be a leader in the use of hydrogen in transport – engineering analyses show we need not invest much in pipeline infrastructure.

All we need is decentralised electrolysis – the process of using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen – at a few strategically located fuelling stations across the country, focusing on bus networks and long-haul transport to start. This will require a collaborative agreement between the Government, vehicle operators such as logistics companies and, importantly, original equipment manufacturers that supply our trucks.

Electrolysis is also electricity hungry, so we will need to undertake research to gain a better understanding of the additional burden this will lay on the electricity grid to enable our own transportation transition, and to (potentially) export to other countries.

Our final priority regarding renewable energy is to digitalise the entire system. There is plenty of ongoing engineering work around the role of artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things, block chain, and so forth.

These can all be used to integrate technology, innovative business models and consumer needs, and thereby modernise our energy system and make it more autonomous and self-sufficient, which will support our use of renewable energy and achieve our curbing of global warming to the 1.5°C target.

Professor Alan Brent is the Chair in Sustainable Energy Systems in the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington.

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