Green Oversite



Save the Planet - From Nonsense

Some of my gripes about what Australia is doing wrong in terms of promoting sustainability.

Promotion of Photo Voltaic (PV) Panels for electricity generation on individual houses prior to other more cost effective methods of energy saving. PV panels on your roof are sexy. PV panels are a status symbol and clear statement to the world of a persons commitment to sustainable energy. People like to be able to say that they are self sufficient in energy and in fact feeding energy back into the grid. This is all fine if you have got large amounts of money to spend (or you are in an area without mains supply electricity). My concern is that they are not the most cost effective method of saving energy and carbon loading on the environment. If the general populous wants to get the most effective return on their investment in sustainable technology they should firstly look at and implement the other multitude of energy saving possible before ever considering PV panels on their roof. If after having done all these things if they still want to spend money on PV panels then go for it.

My other issue with having individual photo voltaic arrays on each house is that it is very inefficient way to install solar electricity across the community. Each house has individual set up and electronics which is more expensive per kilowatt installed compared to a larger set up. For example a 10 kilowatt inverter is cheaper to buy, install and maintain than 10 separate 1 kilowatt inverters. A 20 kilowatt Inverter is cheaper than two 10 kilowatt inverters. Panels are cheaper when bought in larger numbers. The way photovoltaics should proceed in urban areas is that larger systems be set up on larger buildings with appropriate roof size and orientation. Systems could be set up on schools and churches, halls and large commercial buildings across the community. This could create a small income source for these bodies as they hire out their roofs. The way that I see that it could proceed is that small consortia of private people could band together with private capital to invest in the local systems. The power would than be sold back into the grid. An appropriate feed in tariff would need to be in place for this approach to take off which should be set at a level so that a reasonable investment return could be achieved from a moderate size installation (this may be less than the fed in tariff necessary to make individual household systems profitable therefore providing a better return for Government and the community). Alternately (or in conjunction) Government could directly fund installation of the PV panels on public buildings like schools. A large program like this may be more economical ($/ kilowatt produced) for Government than offering subsidies to private people or groups. However it is also probable that there are even more economical ways of setting up photovoltaic electricity generation - perhaps using solar concentrator technology. These approaches need to be fully explored and adopted if more economical.

Alcohol as a Car Fuel. If the energy input to the production of the alcohol for car fuel is the same or greater than the energy output from the alcohol fuel and if the energy for the production has come from fossil fuel then nothing has been achieved. (I have heard two different accounts of the energy used for alcohol production, one was that the energy used was the same as the energy in the alcohol. The other was that that the production energy use was 75% of the energy in the alcohol.) Even if the energy input is not as great as the energy output is there sufficient benefit to warrant gearing up for this production when greater levels of cuts are required than can be provided by alcohol fuel. The money may be better invested in other technologies.

The other problem with alcohol as a fuel is that it diverts what may otherwise be food products, such as corn, from food supply to alcohol production. Even if the corn or sugar cane is produced specifically for the alcohol industry it can effect the price of the product for food. The greater the demand for a product the more likely the price will remain high. This could even impact upon the price paid the poor in third world countries. Globalisation means that if a higher price is available elsewhere in the world (for say alcohol production) then the product will go to that place, rather than feeding people. This problem can only be solved if the alcohol is produced from a agricultural, industrial or domestic waste product and the distillation process for the production of the alcohol is powered by renewable (solar) processes.

Hybrid Cars. These are cars that have both an electric motor and battery bank, and a petrol / diesel motor and some very elaborate electronics to switch the car between the propulsion mode, thus producing higher fuel use efficiencies compared to standard motor vehicles of similar size. However with this technology there is a large embodied energy in the production of the vehicle and also will be required for recycling of vehicle at the end of its useful life. Overall the total energy for the lifetime of the vehicle could be more than a small(er) standard vehicle. Even if there is a saving the level of the saving may not be sufficient to warrant the massive costs of gearing up for the mass production of these vehicles.

For any of these types of technologies that are proposed as solutions to reducing greenhouse gas production (eg. hybrid cars, alcohol fuels and others) analysis needs to be done to to ensure that over the total life cycle there is significant greenhouse gas savings, not just in the usage phase, and that the cost of gearing up for the technology is warranted. As a starting point a technology which requires significant capital and time investment to establish should return greenhouse gas savings of at least 75% (Factor 4 Savings) to be considered worthwhile pursuing, as we should be aiming at at least a 75% decrease in Greenhouse gas production to tackle the enhanced greenhouse effect and consequent climate change.

It is ridiculous that the local manufacturers are going to produce large hybrid cars, for example a hybrid Holden Commodore. While this will reduce the energy consumption compared to a standard Commodore, it will still be above a smaller standard cars - it will allow people to have that warm tingly feeling that they are doing their bit for the environment but if they keep driving 20 - 30K per annum then they have not done enough. Nothing significant has been gained. And the $500 million (or whatever it is) government contribution and company development cost is wasted that could have been better spent tackling green house. It supports the mindset that we do not need to change our lifestyle to tackle greenhouse problems which is not correct. (Use the $500 million to develop better batteries for electric vehicles or to otherwise store solar or wind energy, build a wind turbine factory or develop geothermal power rather than subsidising large multinationals).

Use of Planted Trees for Carbon Trade-Offs. What qualifies for carbon credits under carbon trading needs to be carefully determined. For example I am skeptical about the validity of carbon trade offs gained by planting of plantations of trees. The reason is that a planting of trees is not a permanent carbon store, as is unburnt fossil fuel in the ground. Once a fossil fuel is burnt the carbon is in the environment, trees can store it but there is no guarantee that the storage will last forever: - tree die; or are burnt or are cut down and their carbon released into the environment again. In a hundred years can we guarantee that the coup of trees that was planted as part of a carbon trading deal in 2009 won't be cut down? Governments, and policies change. The planting of trees, should definitely go ahead, but not as part of a carbon trading scheme, but part of an effort remove already existing carbon from our environment. The folly of using trees as carbon store has been further highlighted by the disasterous bush fires (wildfires) in Victoria (Feb / March 2009). It is also quite possible that climate change will lead to a higher frequency of serious fire events in the future.

Also the trees that are planted for some carbon trade off schemes are often mono-cultures (or have limited diversity) rather than having the biodiversity of a natural forest. In preference to planting these mono-cultures we should stop clearing of existing natural forests - however even this should not qualify for carbon trade-offs.

(If it were to go ahead it would need to be under strict guidelines. Eg. Planting only to occur on old cleared land, The land would then need to be protected by covenants on titles which would prevent future clearing (or titles transfered to a government body after full establishment, to be retained as native bush land). Or else the carbon should be sequestered out of the forest in some manner.)

There is one possibility for carbon sequestering using trees - sequestering the carbon in timber in the ocean - although I still think that this should be used for taking existing carbon out of the atmosphere rather than as a carbon trade-off under a trading scheme.

Housing Star Energy Rating. The current house energy rating system (in Victoria Australia) has some serious defects. The Victorian Rating system only rates the house shell for heat flow (although the houses are required to have either a water tank or a solar hot water system to pass). There is no consideration of the energy usage (both gas and electricity) of appliances, including heating and cooling. So consequently houses achieving a "satisfactory" energy star rating of 5 stars can be packed inefficient quartz halogen down lights and have inefficient heaters or air conditioners. There is also no requirement for higher efficiency for larger houses nor any consideration of the embodied energy and carbon production in the construction (and final demolition) of the house. As a consequence of this despite the mandatory energy rating of new houses, recent studies have shown that newer houses use on average 6% more energy than the older houses built prior to the introduction of the energy rating system. This clearly indicates that there is a problem with the rating system requirements. It is not giving a desired outcome (although energy usage is lower than what it would have been without any system at all in place).

I recently (May 2009) visited a set of display homes in a new housing estate - I was disappointed to say the least. First thing I noticed was the odour inside the house. The air was positively toxic with volatile organic compounds (VOCs). I could not imagine having to live in these houses for the first few months until these VOCs have dispersed to a large extent. It can't be good for the health of the occupants to live and sleep in such a toxic environment. Lower VOCs and other odour inducing materials must become a higher priority for building developers. (The VOCs would mainly be from the carpets and underlays, painted walls and other surface finishes and from the manufactured timber products (particle board (MDF or chipboard) usually containing formaldehyde glues) and other plastics and glues in the houses.) (Read more about VOCs in housing.)

The next thing I noticed was how little consideration had seemingly been given to energy efficiency. While all houses must have met the statutory minimum Star rating there was just so much wrong with the houses. It showed me how insufficient the current rating system is.

Specifically all the houses where quite big, the smallest being about 190 sqm floor area with the larger ones over 300 sqms. Also there was no possibility of zoning in the house. The kitchen, living rooms, lounges and hallways were all just one big open space, with no doors between them. You would be forced to heat the whole area even if you were only using one or two rooms. They all had ducted central heating and air conditioning through out all of the house. I could not determine whether this was zoned with individual room or zone thermostats, or not but I doubt it on most of them. Vents were located in the roof so would be difficult to adjust if this was possible. They all had down lights inset into the ceiling, most of them were quartz halogen, a very inefficient form of lighting, although some were compact fluorescent down lights, much better but still with problems (you still need to effectively put a hole through your ceiling insulation for each down light, you still have the 12V transformer running continuously (or hopefully they at least use transformers based on pulse width modulation which would be more efficient) and you still have to have more of them than other standard CFLs. There was no sign that I could determine that much consideration had been given to correct solar orientation and window shading for summer. Double storey houses were located to the northern side of other houses eliminating their winter solar access. There was two houses in the dozen or so that I saw that claimed to be "7 Star" energy rated and they did have some efficiency features such as double glazing to most windows. They even had an internal concrete block wall as thermal mass - however the benefit of this is questioned when the houses still had ducted central heating and cooling (the thermal mass would be largely ineffective if this heating and cooling system was used all the time the house is occupied (excluding sleep time) and could in fact increase energy use). They also still had all the other faults mentioned earlier (lack of zoning etc.) However at least they had made some efforts to achieve a higher energy efficiency - and I note in their advertisements from the time that they were even advertising the cheapest of their "7 Star" range at a lesser price than the cheapest of their "normal" range - so much for the building industry arguement that it is too expensive to build in energy efficiency.

All in all it is clear we have a long long way to go. It is going to be a massive job to fix all current housing stock let alone the newer stock they are still thoughtlessly building. It is clear to me that regulation is the only way to fix these problems - the housing industry will not do it by itself.  The mandatory "Star" rating needs to be a lot higher and the Star rating needs to be adjusted so as to give recognition for zoning, limited house size and also the efficiency of electrical and gas equipment included in the house. In conjunction with this there needs to be an education program to educate house buyers about what to look for in an energy efficient house and also how to live in an energy efficient house (as maintaining a comfortable environment requires a knowledge of how they work - it is not just a matter of hitting an air conditioning switch).

"Energy Efficient" Housing Architectural Magazines. Many of these magazines usually display architecturally designed supposedly energy efficient houses. These houses are usually very nice to look at but their energy efficiency credentials are often questioned. Usually they are large, have large areas of plate glass windows and high vaulted ceilings. Often they are littered with quartz halogen down lights and have things like swimming pools and spas and the double garage. Many of them are on large blocks in what looks like a rural setting, so they do not have that same site restraints that would need to be addressed in a normal suburban block. They are not the houses for people who genuinely know what sustainability means and have embraced the lifestyle. A cursory inspection shows numerous things that could have been done better. In these house it is apparent that appearance has taken precedence over good energy efficient design - appearance over substance. My other concern is that they give the impression that to be energy efficient a house needs to be magnificent looking, architecturally designed. This is not the case. There is very little relationship between energy efficiency and how a house looks. Energy efficient houses can look very similar to non energy efficient houses, so much so that it would take a trained eye to know the difference. Sure an energy efficient house can be architecturally designed and may be good looking but it is not a necessary requirement. It is not necessary to engage an architect and have a mega budget to have an energy efficient house - you just need an experienced solar house designer. If you can afford it an architect can be used but they need to know that you are not just interested in appearances but genuine energy efficiency, a lot above the measly 5 Star mandatory minimum, even if that means architectural compromises. Architects and other building designers should not be able to claim that they are providing a special energy efficient house design service if all they are doing is providing the statutory minimum Star rating. If they do they are just green washing. They should be providing at least 2 Stars above the statutory minimum before they are able to claim a special energy efficient housing design service.

If you want good information on energy efficient housing design the best book I have come across is the Your Home manual compiled by the Department of Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts of the Australian Government. The full version of this is available on line, however if you are building or renovating a house it will be worth the investment of $50 (Aus) to get a hard copy version. (Although I note that some ('though not all) of the case studies in the rear of the book also fall for the problems referred to above - architectural master pieces and not normal every day homes that every day people can afford.)

Greenwashing. Greenwashing is the situation where the manufacturer of a product (or service) makes environmental claims for the product or even just use a Green sounding name, which make the product sound better for the environment than it really is. This is a sales ploy aimed at misleading the consumer. It is despicable and must be stamped out. If a manufacturer makes an environmental claim this needs to be justified through an "Environmental Effects Statement" which would need to be approved by a government agency. The manufacturer would also be required to include a clear summary of the statement on the product. The use of the words such as "Green", "Eco" and "Environmentally Friendly" would be restricted. One of the tricks I notice that is in use is that they have one aspect of their product which may have some green advantage and then label their whole product as green. An example of this a cleaning product which is packaged in packaging manufactured from recycled material. This is good but it doesn't mean that they should be able to claim that their whole product is somehow "green" if it is just the same as other products on the shop shelf.

Wood Heaters are not environmentally friendly.

Wimpy Politicians and the Political Process. The introduction of the schemes and systems necessary to tackle climate change is going to create pain in some parts if not all of society. Any change causes pain and while it can be ameliorated it cannot be completely eliminated. I am concerned that the politicians will not have the intestinal fortitude to carry the society with it and carry through with the changes. The recent Rudd Government reaction to opposition attack on petrol prices, a knee jerk reaction and a continuation of the "Me Tooism" of the election campaign carried over into Government, is very concerning. I fervently hope this is just the teething problems of a new Government rather than indicative of how they are going to react to all challenges of green house and associated opposition attacks (of which I expect there will be many from an opposition going for short term political gain at the expense of Australia's future. Please prove me wrong.)

The other problem with the political process is the tendency to do what is popular rather than what is required. So if something is seen as being potentially popular, such as the local manufacture of hybrid cars, this will be rushed through without proper analysis. Basic questions (such as: will it make significant greenhouse gas reductions over the total life cycle cost effectively, is there a better way to solve the problem, is there a better way to spend the money, a more cost effective way,) may not be asked in the political rush. This complete analysis needs to be done and then action taken on the basis of the analysis, not political expediency.

Politicians need to be investing more in research and also practical implementation. Government should be building wind farms or solar plants. If carbon geosequestration is seen as an important part of the solution then Government should put not just a little bit of money into it but a lot and now (although I would prefer the industry to invest the largest proportion of funding). Geothermal power, solar chimney power - the same. As it is clearly a market failure it is incumbent on the Government to invest whatever money is necessary. There should be a Government authority which is charged with investing in this research and investing. It should have billions (built up over years). It should be on the basis that money invested will be in the form of capital investment, with returns hoped for, rather than grants to private industry. It will be risk capital as not all projects are going to bear fruit, but that's OK as it will be working on the cutting edge. If industry won't gear up quickly enough then Government should go into the business of electricity generation, like it use to in the past (remember the SECV and other state authorities - ah nostalgia!). The universities and CSIRO should have large departments dedicated to this problem.

Governments around the world have recently (October 2008 and onwards) come up with TRILLION$ of dollars (and Pounds and Euros) to bail out the financial system with little apparent trouble. We are now entitled to treat with contempt (if we didn't before!) any claims by politicians that saving the environment by changing to a carbon free lifestyle will cost too much. The money can be found if the priority is recognised - which it must - the environment is much much more important than the economy. We can live without a healthy economy (if we share resources equitably) but not without a healthy environment. Rudd (when he was Prime Minister) gave away billions of dollars as economic stimuli (in December 2008). I certainly don't begrudge needy pensioners a bonus, however a lot of money has gone to people who are perhaps not so desperate. This is clear as Rudd is encouraging the people to go out and spend it, not necessarily on basic requirements but just to "get the economy going". The package should have been better targeted, A significant proportion of this "economic stimuli" money should go to building solar generating infrastructure. In this way the money would not be frittered away and would still stimulate the economy while significantly boosting the solar generating industry and decreasing green house gases. 

And again Rudd gave away $42 billion (February 2009) - a lot of it frittered away with grants to the not so needy with exhortations to spend - on anything! What a waste. A few welcome crumbs given to sustainability - but it is not enough. Sure schools are important but a portion could have been invested in direct renewable electrical generation. Even one billion dollars would build quite a few wind turbines. Five or six or more billion would be even better. If they don't wanted to build them directly they could have put a tender (or tenders) out to the market for the purchase of sufficient green power to run all Government business for the next ten years (with appropriate phase in), on the proviso that all the Green Power must be new Green Power. What a boost to the large scale green power industry. If they needed more they could enlist the other levels of government, state and local government with appropriate financial incentives to do the same. It would be massive.

I call on all politicians to do what is right for the environment rather than what is politically expedient. After all if John Howard can introduce an unpopular policy such as the GST (and then manage to blame the Democrats for it!) this shows that the introduction of unpopular policy and/or policy that causes pain to some parts of the society is possible. (This is not praise of Howard, just an example of what is possible.)

Politician need to act in the near future unless they want to be condemned by history and by those who will still be living while climate change begins to impact significantly. They can't say they weren't warned of the consequences. I want Governments to stop the talking and start the doing.

However I will say one thing in support of politicians: despite what I have written above I believe that most politician start out with the best of intentions and would love to be able to implement in full their many ideas however the political process does not allow any one politician implementing his policy completely and even doing what he/ she knows is right at all times. In one sense this may be just as well - we don't dictatorship. However it means what ever is done is a compromise. Also politicians always have one eye on public opinion - they want / need to get re-elected so will not do anything to radical that would hurt people financially or change their lifestyle. So people need to be educated to accept change prior to any politician risking his/her skin on significant change. In essence a society gets the politicians it deserves. Only very occasionally does a politician arise who is capable of rising above the political process and really leading, of having a vision which is true and the charisma and powers of persuasion and oratory to implement the changes necessary, despite short term pain. We need this person now.

Climate Change Deniers lack credibility.

On Site Home Black Water Treatment. Why is the treatment of blackwater (water from toilets and kitchen sinks) at home promoted as being desirable in areas that have quite reasonable tertiary treatment systems provided by the community through Government? I find it desirable that communities continue to work together through their Government to provide basic infrastructure such a good quality tertiary sewerage treatment plant. While privatisation has undermined this in many areas (electricity being the prime example in Victoria) where a public system that work well exists it should be supported.

What is the environmental advantage (because that is what I am primarily concerned about) in transferring from a publicly owned system that works reliably to a multitude of privately owned systems?

While I am sure that these on site systems would work well initially what happens when the house is sold, perhaps to somebody that is not as interested in keeping the system operating. Imagine tens of thousands of these systems in an urban setting. You could be sure that some are going to go wrong, resulting in odour and possibly health problems.

(There could be some justification for on site treatment where good quality tertiary treatment is not provided by Government (or even privately) or where water is extremely scarce. Unsewered country properties should should look at on site tertiary treatment - beyond the septic tank. I also think that Governments should be looking at ways of reusing the tertiary treated effluent rather than straight discharge to the sea or to other waterways.)

On site home water systems should be limited to ensuring efficient water use and the collection and use of rain water (for showers, clothes washing and toilet flushing) and the use of the cleanest part of grey water (say water generated from clothes washing, showers and baths) for garden watering during summer and toilet flushing. This would ensure that most efficient use of the capital to establish the system. Also the use of high pressure pumps needs to be carefully considered in any design to minimise pump energy use. Use low pressure (low head) pumps where possible - which is most housing applications. (There is no need to effectively raise the water to a pressure equivalent to a 30 to 40 metre column of water to fill a toilet cistern - this is just a waste of energy.)

Save the Planet Page

Green Oversite Home Page

Top of Page
| Site Information | (C) |