While New Zealand is ahead of many countries on the way to a zero-carbon power grid, a low population and aged infrastructure pose significant challenges

Electricity in New Zealand comes from predominantly renewable sources, with around 84 percent of all the power generated across the motu coming from wind, solar or geothermal sources.

Along with this comes a high per-capita energy consumption from renewable energy, at 18 megawatt-hours per person, behind only countries like Canada, Sweden, Norway and Iceland. The latter two, however, outstrip New Zealand by more than double.

But while a relatively high share of renewable energy bodes well for the country meeting its government-set target of 100 percent renewable generation by 2035, there remain a host of unique challenges on the road to a fully-sustainable power grid.

According to the Treasury, the need to renew ageing infrastructure, changing technology, limited funds, climate change and the increased pressure on natural resources all make infrastructure problems hard to solve.

And for the country’s many remote populations, sometimes even being part of the national power grid is easier said than done.

Electrical engineer Soheil Mohseni began looking into hooking isolated communities up with sustainable energy a decade ago in his native Iran.

Now as part of his post-doctoral work at Victoria University of Wellington, he is using artificial intelligence to find the cheapest way to get reliable and accessible power to some of New Zealand’s most remote corners.

Chief among these is Rakiura Stewart Island, where 405 electricity consumers are forced to pay handsomely for power from a system of diesel-run generators.

For many of New Zealand’s isolated communities, access to the national grid is expensive and inefficient, or without cables stretching across the Foveaux Strait in the case of Rakiura – plain impossible.

Former international student Mohseni and his team of researchers used an AI programme to develop the most cost-effective plan possible for sustainable energy on the island, which would include solar panels, wind turbines, a hydrogen-based energy storage system, a hot water storage tank, a heat exchanger, hydrogen refuelling station and power convertors.

“We conceptualised a sustainable energy system that was 100 percent self-sufficient which would lead to around a 54 percent reduction in energy costs,” Mohseni said.

By using an AI programme to go through all of the potential set-ups for the grid and determine which would best serve the community, he said the risks of having too much equipment for small grids can be avoided.

“With the AI it is truly cost-optimised,” he said. “This has the potential to bring sustainable systems into place faster.”

The AI optimiser was inspired by natural systems such as the schooling of fish or how flocks of birds move together – part of a growing trend of nature-inspired computing paradigms put together to solve engineering problems.

Per capita energy consumption from renewables, 2020

Source: Our World in Data based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy & UN Population Division

This comes as Minister of Energy and Resources Dr Megan Woods announces funding for 15 big businesses to abandon fossil fuels in their production processes and move towards renewable energy.

Woods announced $13 million of government funding at New Zealand’s largest capsicum farm near Warkworth this week – funding that is expected to help achieve annual emissions reductions commensurate with taking 14,400 cars off the roads.

“The fund is about encouraging innovation and supporting early adopters of technologies that can be replicated by others,” said Woods.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said the announcement is one of a growing list of actions by the Government to move towards carbon-zero.

“In 10 or 20 years’ time the world will be a very different place. But investments like these show we can move now to secure our part in it, and ensure the Aotearoa of the future is carbon-zero and climate-friendly, with fairness and opportunities for all,” he said.

Funded projects will include DB Breweries’ Waitematā site installing a heat pump and start recovering heat from its refrigeration plant to reduce reliance on natural gas, and an Ōtāhuhu-based meat processor decommissioning two hot water boilers and installing heat pumps.

But most of this will be powered from the grid. It’s part of a trend that has seen renewable energy rise by 20 percent over the last 25 years. The same rate would see New Zealand reach its 2035 target comfortably.

The growth of renewable energy has been slower in New Zealand than in many other countries, in large part due to our large existing amounts of renewable production. Countries like Brazil, Russia and China have all seen faster increases, although none have reached the per capita renewable energy consumption New Zealand was already at in 1965.

New transmission pricing plans announced earlier this month may also help hasten New Zealand’s movement towards carbon-zero energy. Rob Bernau, director of network pricing at the Electricity Authority, said the changes like reducing costs for providers shifting to new kinds of energy generation will make it easier for the electricity sector to go low-emissions.

“The new transmission pricing methodology will encourage investment in renewable generation and electrification of industrial processes – the right investments in the right place and at the right time,” he said. “This will ultimately bring forward investment in new, cheaper renewable generation. The transmission pricing methodology will also help future-proof the system to meet increasing demand and use of distributed energy resources, like EVs, batteries and smart appliances.”

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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