Saturday, July 26, 2014

Australia, carbon taxes, and the market for solar

Australia's knuckle-dragging prime minister, Tony Abbott, has thrown his lot in with the nation's coal industry.  This in spite of the fact that Australia has been beat up more by climate change than almost any other nation on earth.  In fact, he even managed to roll back her carbon tax.

Personally, I have mixed feelings about carbon taxes.  The basic idea is to tax carbon energy so the price more accurately resembles what burning this stuff actually costs the environment.  Intellectually, this makes sense.  Unfortunately, raising the costs of energy is the surest way possible to screw up the real economy and goodness knows there are already far too many ways to do that. I probably could get behind the idea of carbon taxes IF they were directed into a fund that could only be used to finance projects that actually replaced carbon fuels.  Even better would be if the carbon taxes were used to capitalize one of Ellen Brown's public infrastructure banks so we could leverage up some SERIOUS projects.  You cannot just tax a necessity like fuel—you must promise to provide a meaningful alternative so that people can choose to behave so they can avoid the tax.

In any case, carbon taxes are still 1000 times better than bogus schemes like cap-and-trade.

But getting back to Australia.  She is rapidly discovering that even without carbon taxes, the solar alternatives have become realistic and cost-competitive.  Again, cheap solar cells change a very great deal.  Australian has a LOT of coal but she has even more sunlight.  The whole continent is one big solar site.

Aussie Households Go Solar: Game-Changer

Dr. Reese Halter  07/23/2014

Australia's household solar revolution has caught the government-owned electricity sector by surprise.

More than one million Australians have already installed solar panels on their rooftops. It has caused demand for electricity from the grid to plummet.

Despite being a sun-rich country, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott continues to promote coal, a known heat-trapping pollutant, as the only source of energy for the future.

The government has just spent over $50 billion upgrading the coal-powered energy grid expecting more demand for more electricity.

As a result of falling demand, the remaining customers are being charged more for electricity. So more people are switching to solar.

The Australian boom for solar installations shows no sign of slowing down.

In the meantime, Abbott's Coalition government has abolished the carbon tax. It's just another in a series of initiatives to promote coal and undermine innovations in renewable energies like solar thermal and ocean wave farms.

The Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, spent one year studying and writing a university thesis on "A Tax To Make The Polluters Pay." It appears that at one point in his life he believed, "it better ensures that the polluter bears full responsibility for the cost of his or her conduct." That was when he was young and not in charge of the environment, which regularly takes a back-seat to the Coalition's economic plan for the coming decade, one which will see a ramping-up of coal production to a whopping 770 million metric tons per annum - a death knell for the biosphere.

The abolition of the carbon tax comes at a time when Australian researchers lead the renewable energy sector with breakthrough solar thermal 'supercritical' steam. It's another game-changer for power stations enabling them to utilize supercritical solar steam that pressurizes water with enormous force.

Solar thermal can almost compete with the peak performance capabilities of fossil fuel sources especially as the International Monetary Fund disclosed when the global fossil fuel industry subsidies of $1.9 trillion annually are removed and the playing field is leveled.

For the past 15 years, climate disruption has battered the Australian continent. Bushfires, prolonged sub-continental drought, extreme heat waves and enormous floods are occurring more often, eclipsing more records more frequently.

Australian households are fighting back against climate disruption by leaving the coal-powered electricity grid in droves. Technological advances in battery capacity enable households to now operate during peak demand, at night.

The price of solar panels in Australia has plunged by 80 percent over the past 4 years. One in eight households is now powered by the sun and the race has only just begun!

Tony Abbott and Greg Hunt have bet the 'family farm' on coal, a dirty, old, heat-trapping technology that's killing the Great Barrier Reef and contaminating the biosphere. Australian households, on the other hand, are leaving the coal-powered grid by capitalizing on innovation that harnesses the power of the sun thereby erasing their carbon footprints. We need a government that is in touch with the people. more
Thermal solar goes supercritical.  I am not absolutely convinced that thermal solar has much of a future—too much complicated equipment and monkey motion to get to the electricity.  But this is still an amazing accomplishment.

World first: Australian solar plant has generated “supercritical” steam that rivals fossil fuels’

A CSIRO test plant in Australia has broken a world record and proved solar power could efficiently replace fossil fuels.

A solar thermal test plant in Newcastle, Australia, has generated “supercritical” steam at a pressure of 23.5 MPa (3400 psi) and 570°C (1,058°F).

CSIRO is claiming it as a world record, and it’s a HUGE step for solar thermal energy.

"It's like breaking the sound barrier; this step change proves solar has the potential to compete with the peak performance capabilities of fossil fuel sources," Dr Alex Wonhas, CSIRO’s Energy Director, told Colin Jeffrey for Gizmag.The Energy Centre uses a field of more than 600 mirrors (known as heliostats) which are all directed at two towers housing solar receivers and turbines, Gizmag reports.

This supercritical steam is used to drive the world’s most advanced power plant turbines, but previously it’s only been possible to produce it by burning fossil fuels such as coal or gas.

"Instead of relying on burning fossil fuels to produce supercritical steam, this breakthrough demonstrates that the power plants of the future could instead be using the free, zero emission energy of the sun to achieve the same result,” Dr Wonhas explained.

Currently, commercial solar thermal or concentrating solar power power plants only operate a “subcritical” levels, using less pressurised steam. This means that they’ve never been able to match the output or efficiency of the world’s best fossil fuel power plants - until now.

The commercial development of this technology is still a fair way off, but this is an important first step towards a more sustainable future. more
And even in the US which has made only the most feeble attempts at a solar energy policy, renewables are growing anyway.  My most vivid memory of an official response to the energy problems by a Washington policymaker is of Jimmy Carter claiming that becoming reliant on foreign-sourced energy was the Moral Equivalent of War (which it was) and then went on TV wearing a cardigan sweater (which doesn't really keep you warm, it just makes you look ugly.)

Half of All New Energy Capacity in the US This Year Is Renewable
Solar and wind lead the way.

Brandon Baker July 21, 2014 |

Renewable energy continues growing its share of new electricity generation in the U.S.

According to the latest Energy Infrastructure Update from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, solar and wind energy constituted more than half of the new generating capacity in the country for the first half of 2014. Solar and wind energy combined for 1.83 gigawatts (GW) of the total 3.53 GW installed from January to June.

New generation in-service (new build and expansion). Graphic credit: FERC

Natural gas constituted much of the remainder of installed capacity with about 1.56 GW. Coal and nuclear energy came to a complete half with zero projects and zero capacity. Last year, coal had two new units during the same time period. Since then, the Obama Administration issued a proposal for U.S. power plants to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent compared to 2005 level. Coal plants account for nearly half of the country’s carbon emissions.

Solar and wind combined for 120 of the 180 projects in the first half of the year. That figure is slightly down from the 137 projects during this period last year. Installed capacity was also higher by this point last year at about 2.16 GW.

Still, natural gas suffered a much larger fall from the 41 units for nearly 4.5 GW during the first six months of 2013.

In 2013, renewable energy projects tripled the amount of new coal, oil and nuclear projects. Natural gas accounted for more than half the installed capacity for all of last year.

Here are a few renewable energy highlights from the first half of the year:
  • First Wind’s 14 MW Warren Solar project in Worcester County, MA is online. The power generated is sold to National Grid USA under long-term contract.
  • NRG Solar Community I LLC’s 6 MW Community Solar 1 project in Imperial County, CA is online. The power generated is sold to Imperial Irrigation District under a long-term contract.
  • Two Dot Wind Farm LLC’s 9.7 MW Two Dot Wind Farm project in Wheatland County, MT is online. The power generated is sold to Northwestern Energy Montana under a long term contract. more


  1. Mr. Larson,
    I can’t remember how I came across your website (something related to global warming and climate change I think)? I’ve become a daily reader and I am also learning a lot from your “Elegant Technology” postings as well as from the many other links on your sites sidebar.

    Very interesting stuff, amazing and overwhelming… And so it puzzles me if you are not aware of James Hansen’s latest proposal about “Fee-and-Dividend” (a special form of a Carbon Tax) as opposed to Cap-and-Trade or Cap-and-Tax…

    In his latest email to his followers he says, “How can we make clear that Cap-and-Tax is a nightmare?” To which he replies, “Australia helps.”

    I don’t know how to cut and paste the three links in his email so here they are raw:

    The email:

    His website:

    His newest website:

    All three links connect to the following message (which may not copy and paste?) :

    Australia’s Carbon Cap-and-Tax Fiasco
    24 July 2014 by James Hansen

    I have been fortunate to be able to speak with government officials in a dozen countries in the past 8 years about climate change and needed policies. I usually focus on fee-and-dividend, the non-tax way to put a rising price on carbon in a way the public would support — because most people would gain financially as they witnessed rapid reduction of fossil fuel pollution.

    Interactions I had with Australian officials, described in Communications on my web site, especially the one on 24 April 2009, were pleasant. Face-to-face meetings (as in other countries where I tried to find one nation, any nation, to try the simple, honest, fee-and-dividend approach) ended with the conclusion that, yes, fee-and-dividend seemed better, but they wanted to try cap-and-trade, which was “almost as good.”

    As predicted, cap-and-trade was ineffectual and recognized by the public as a cap-and-tax. Australia is now the largest carbon polluter per capita among major nations (see Figure 1).
    Recognizing my frustrations in communicating, Clive Ellsworth of London has extracted from my book (Storms of My Grandchildren) and made available a summary of Fee-and-Dividend.

    Here’s good news: Citizens Climate Lobby (CCL) continues to grow and expand internationally.
    CCL is teaching us how to communicate. See 3-minute video of this summer’s DC meeting.
    I also recommend the 4-page summary of a non-partisan economic analysis of fee-and-dividend.
    Citizens Climate Lobby (see their no-cost Vote Now!) needs more volunteers to write op-eds and letters to the editor, to visit legislators, and to form new chapters, in the U.S. and abroad.
    As noted in the video, we will win this thing, but it’s important that it be sooner rather than later.

    Jim (A graph showing per capita carbon emissions would not paste)

    1. Thanks for the heads-up on Hansen. HUGE fan of the man. No, I was not aware that he had made modifications to the cap-and-trade idea.

      But here's my take on these things. The only way we can actually make a dent in our carbon output is to build new devices, homes, and infrastructure that uses no carbon-based fuels to operate. As far as I am concerned, the only really important financial transaction is when a worker gets a paycheck for building / installing something that gets us closer to a zero-fire society. The further you get from that transaction, the less important it is. And details of the tax codes are REALLY far away. Since it hasn't been tried, I have no way of knowing whether fee-and-dividend works better than cap-and-trade as a method for getting the necessary work done. My guess is it probably wouldn't make much difference at all.

    2. I agree that the “only way to make a lasting dent in our carbon output is to build new devises, homes, and infrastructures that use no carbon-based fuels...” So, to hasten that prospect and to encourage “new devices, homes, and alternatives to carbon-based fuels,” I think it makes sense (as Mr. Hansen proposes) to charge an extra “fee” for carbon-based fuels (at the point they enter the economy) and give all that money back to the people, 100%, in a monthly “dividend” check that would get bigger each year until carbon-based fuels cease to be cost-effective.

      The fee is proposed to start out at $15 dollars per ton…and goes up $10 a ton every year after that until the increases become effective. Giving all proceeds back to the people is the key. It helps make alternative fuels more cost effective and helps ease the pain on those least able to afford the higher costs (with maybe some additional help for laboring coal miners who will be devastated by this switch but free finally from the stigma of coal).

      Of course this is my “oversimplified version” of what Mr. Hansen proposes… There are many details of Fee-and-Dividend (and how it would actually be administrated) that I can’t claim to understand, much less explain… But I believe it would be a step in the right direction.

      By the way, I don’t believe there are any informed honest persons left on earth who seriously believe a case can be made for Cap-and-Trade (or Cap-and-Tax) as a control over carbon use and output. Even Henry Paulson, the Secretary of the US Treasury during the economic meltdown of 2008 (who should be in jail) wrote an op-ed for the New York Times recently in favor of a Carbon Tax. The only “real” debate left is over a Carbon Tax (that each sovereign state would collect and spend as it sees fit to help reelect its incumbents) (the approach I assume Paulson and all politicians would be if favor of) versus a Fee-and-Dividend approach that would be distributed back to the people to hasten the switch away from carbon-based fuels. In fact, I think Fee-and-Dividend is a really important “financial transaction” that each worker and citizen in the world, eventually, could get in a monthly “paycheck” for helping the world to “build/install and do something more that gets us closer to a zero-fire society!”

      If you don’t see or agree with what Jim Hansen has to say about this, what hope is there? Maybe you could look into it and report back. I believe his main website these days on this subject is:

    3. This isn't about me agreeing with Hansen.

      My hope is that all this tinkering with tax policy, feed-in tariffs, subsidized solar panels, etc. is going to become increasingly irrelevant as solar power just simply becomes cheaper than burning carbon fuels. It is almost to that point already and while solar panels are getting cheaper still, fossil fuels are getting more expensive because of the iron law of non-renewable resources.

      The other reason why I leave tax policy to others is that I am absolutely certain that climate change / peak oil is about 1% a public policy matter and 99% a scientific / technological / engineering matter. Finding a perfect tax law is absolutely trivial compared to inventing a cost-effective way to store electrical energy, more effective ways to distribute the power, etc. This means the folks in jobs like the material sciences are 1000 times more important than the tax lawyers.