Numerous newspaper and other media stories emerged over the last couple of weeks reporting on the dispute between South Australian Government and the rest of the MDB partners (VIC, NSW and QLD state governments, plus the Federal government) over environmental flows to be delivered under the MDB plan signed in 2012.

I wrote early this year about the problems with environmental flows and it seems that the situation is escalating further.

The current dispute is about two related, but independent issues: one is the reneging on the MDB plan’s conditional provision (one has to question the wisdom of agreeing to a condition of ‘not being detrimental to river communities’ in the first place!) of additional 450 GL for environmental flows by 2024, which are in addition to the provisioned and likely to be delivered 2750 GL (the CEWH already holds entitlements for nearly 2500 GL); the second is about a proposal by the MDB Authority to reduce recovery of water for environmental purposes in the Northern Basin from the earlier planned 390 GL to 320 GL.

So, overall we talk about a reduction of 520 GL of environmental water: not peanuts, but also not a catastrophe as some present it, when you compare it to nearly 2500 GL that are already there for environmental flows.

However, a key point seems to be missed here: the stipulation of the MDB plan is that the additional 450 GL have to come from willing sellers or from state government infrastructure projects that will improve irrigation efficiency and thus reduce the irrigation demand for water, allowing the 450 GL to go to the environment. NSW, VIC and QLD are reckoning that this second option is too expensive for them, and are not going ahead with it. And they are probably right: as has been argued many times by economists, investing in improving irrigation efficiency is not the most cost-effective way to secure water for the environment.

On the other hand, the Commonwealth is worried about the ‘willing sellers’ bit. Not that there are no willing sellers – there will always be for the right price–, but that’s exactly what the Feds are worried about: they don’t want to let the CEWH bump up the price at which they are buying back water. The extra 450 GL could be secured from willing sellers and delivered for environmental flows, but it might be at a price that is very high, which the Commonwealth does not want to pay under the current fiscal situation.

So, at the end it is all about inter state and federal politics, and very little about the environment or about economics! Why am I not surprised! It has been the way of dealing with Murray-Darling since irrigation first started in Australia, and it unfortunately seems to continue that way!

0 comments |

As the second Tuesday of November is getting closer, all eyes are turning to the US, where presidential elections of unprecedented significance are about to take place. In Australia, the main concern around the election outcome has been the implication that it may have on the US-Australia strategic alliance, predominantly around national defense issues.

Not much attention has been given to the possible effects that US presidential election outcome might have on the environment, globally and in Australia. The positions of the two candidates on the environment are quite clear, and clearly reflecting the predominant views of the respective constituencies.

In particular, possible Trump presidency is seen as a big threat to global climate negotiations and treaties. This is in sharp contrast to Clinton, who is likely to continue the path that Obama’s presidency has set, although perhaps treading more cautiously in light of the possible opposition at home.

What does this all mean for Australia?

Barrack Obama subtly criticised the Australian government for not doing enough on climate change and for not putting sufficient safeguards to preserve the Great Barrier Reef. A Clinton administration is likely to continue with looking for a global leadership on dealing with climate change, and is likely to put some pressure on Australia to follow suit.

In contrast, a win for Trump is going to resonate strongly with the skeptical views on climate change in Australia, which are alive and well, and indeed well represented in our Parliament. The implication is likely to be that policy will move further away from economically effective mechanisms for pricing carbon, which have been strongly advocated by the economics profession.

So, those of us who believe that something needs to be done about carbon emissions, and that the right way to go about it is by adequately pricing them, are going to be hoping for the outcome of the US presidential election that it seems most of the world is hoping for. But, will the US voters play to those hopes? I am really not so sure about it any more! Sort of dreading the news that is about to hit us this week!

0 comments |

I am writing from Padova, Italy where there were several events and conferences last week to mark the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Padova and University of Sydney. At the end of the week, I participated at a round table that was a part of the Open Innovation Days in Padova. The title of the round table was: "Australia vs Italy – Renewable Energy: who’s gaining? Economics of Change"

Around the same time back in Australia, the enormous storm that hit South Australia (SA) and left the state in a blackout generated a stormy debate around the role of renewables in that state’s electricity generation portfolio. This followed a similarly heated public debate earlier this year, about which I wrote in a recent post.

Interestingly, one of the participants at the round table in Padova was making an argument that we will have to rely on localised energy production and use in the future, giving an example of households generating their own electricity. I noticed that a similar argument is sort of being made in the case of the SA blackout. The blackout was caused by switching off the interconnector from Victoria, and an argument has been made that if SA had a reliable source of base load in-state, there would have been no blackouts. By extension, the blame was again thrown on the renewables, as it is claimed that the ambitious renewable energy policy in SA has crowded-out fossil fuel based generators that could have provided the in-state base load.

So, these two arguments hitting me around the same time made me think again about a point that I was making in the recent post that greater interconnectedness is a way forward, which will help us resolve the problem of intermittency of renewables. Are we really looking at an interconnected energy future, or is the future much more localised, where each state, each municipality, building, or household generates its own energy and doesn’t depend much on what others do?

It didn’t take me too long to reassure myself that a localised energy future cannot be a viable way forward. The very human history is all about getting away from localisms, and about connecting with other people on ever-larger scales. There are fundamental reasons for this, which essentially lie in the heterogeneity among people, places and environments. That heterogeneity is the source of wealth on this planet!

We are witnessing the way the economy is currently developing, resulting into a much greater interconnectedness across many dimensions, and at a global scale. It is a world of a sharing economy. Energy cannot be an exception! I still believe that we should be looking at how to better connect, and not at how to attain energy self-sufficiency. Making sure that the electricity interconnectors among Australian states remain active irrespective of circumstances is a much better way forward than replacing the renewable energy capacity in SA with old-fashioned fossil fuel capacity!

0 comments |

Electricity prices have been very high and volatile during the months of June and July in parts of Australia, and specifically in South Australia (SA). One of the reasons, of course, is that the electricity demand has been high and fluctuating due to some serious cold-snaps in SA over that time.

Some of the media were hasty in blaming the electricity price spikes on the large share of renewables, especially wind farms, in the SA energy generation mix.

This was met with rebukes from other media outlets, which pointed to many of the other reasons why electricity prices have spiked in SA over the period.

So, what to make of all this? Firstly, it is worth noting that the observed price spikes in SA are not unique or unprecedented in the Australian context. We usually get similarly high price spikes in the summer months in Queensland .
Secondly, a thing to bear in mind is that the extremely high price spikes last for short periods of time, say an hour or two.

The reasons for electricity price spikes are multiple. The local electricity generation mix is only one of the contributing factors. Other factors that are as, or probably more important are: availability of supply from other regions, the length and severity of the particular hot or cold weather snap, as well as speculation on the National Electricity Market (NEM), which is rife at times of great electricity price volatility.

Another point to note, which has not been mentioned in the media, is that the spot prices observed at NEM are only counting for a relatively small proportion of the electricity actually traded among market participants. This is because most participants in the electricity market take part in an incredibly active market for derivative contracts for electricity (e.g. electricity futures, options and swaps), which they use to hedge their positions. So in reality, the enormous price spikes have relatively little actual bearing on the players in the market.

At any rate, the argument that renewables are exclusively to blame for the situation in SA does not really hold. This was acknowledged by the new federal energy minister. The intermittency of supply that plagues renewable energy sources is well known, but that doesn’t mean that renewables do not have a place in the electricity generation mix.

The fundamental problem is the interconnectedness of electricity networks. Given that Australia is an isolated / island continent, and that electricity networks in Australia itself are not entirely interconnected, we have difficulties to meet a surging local demand at critical times. High prices on the NEM reflect those difficulties. Building a better connected energy networks within Australia, and ideally, linking with the Asian electricity markets in the future would reduce the chances of price spikes.

In fact, a wider (and possibly in the future, a global) electricity network connectedness combined with improvements in transmission efficiency would be best possible ways to overcome the intermittency of renewable energy supply. The sun is always shining somewhere on this planet, and the wind is always blowing somewhere!

0 comments |

May in Sydney was absolutely gorgeous! Bar these last few days, the weather was dry, warm and sunny. It was one of the warmest Mays in history! Ideal for lazy weekends enjoying the sun, going for a walk, or indeed going to the beach.

However, the glory of several of these weekends in May was spoiled by the smoke coming from the back-burning activities in the numerous national parks and forested areas in and around Sydney. The air quality was extremely poor, and in fact in parts of Sydney it was a health hazard to be outdoors.

The cause of the smoke was that the Rural Fire Service (RFS) took advantage of the nice weather conditions to conduct back-burning of lose vegetation (dead leaves, branches, etc.) to reduce fuel that could result in bushfires in the spring or summer. And they are doing this on the weekends, presumably because there are volunteer fire-fighters who can join on the weekends.

While the benefits of back-burning are indisputable, the question remains of whether or not they can be conducted in a way that minimises the negative effects on the public. If it is to be judged by the extent of the area affected and the duration of the episodes, it seems that RFS may not be taking into account the full cost of conducting the back-burning. There are significant health costs imposed on the wider public as a result of increased incidence or respiratory and cardio-vascular diseases due to poor air quality. In addition, there are significant costs resulting from diminished recreational and site-seeing benefits imposed on a very large number of Sydney residents and visitors. They cannot enjoy being outdoors, being at the beach, or sightseeing. Environmental economics has shown that the losses of these benefits can be very large when expressed in monetary terms.

Back-burning is an important activity for bushfire prevention. However, taking into account the health effects and diminished recreational and site-seeing benefits warrants that RFS takes a much more prudent approach to it. And, the sheer importance of back-burning should not be used as a trumping argument against calls for minimising its negative air quality effects!

0 comments |

The Parliament of NSW has launched an inquiry into the water supply for rural and regional NSW.
I am guessing that the word ‘augmentation’ was deliberately put in the title of the inquiry, even though the word ‘management’ might have been more appropriate. The term ‘augmentation’ explicitly implies that current supply is not enough, and that greater water supply is needed for rural and regional areas of NSW. This is in response to the acute water crisis experienced in the Far Western NSW earlier this year.

Economists have known at least since the early 1980’s that augmenting water supply in what is called ‘a mature water economy’ is going to be increasingly difficult (see a paper by Alan Randall in AJARE from 1981). This is due to increasing social cost of capital for new water infrastructure, increasing costs of maintenance of existing infrastructure, and greater environmental concerns about new water impoundments, among other things.

Despite this strong economic argument, governments and politicians tend to panic in times of acute water crises, and talk about ‘proofing’, as in ‘drought-proofing’, ‘flood-proofing’, ‘future-proofing’...
We have already seen the failure of that approach in Sydney, where a 3 billion dollar desalination plant was built to supposedly ‘augment’ the water supply at the time when Warragamba Dam was only 37% full. The plant was build, the costs incurred, but it has practically never operated. At least some local politicians in Far Western NSW are being reasonable and oppose the panic reaction that calls for costly quick fixes.

On top of these economic concerns, the inquiry has also been criticized for not taking climate change explicitly into consideration.

Water use and management in NSW should be in the public eye, and the fact that NSW Parliament is taking water issues seriously is encouraging. However, the terms of reference of the current inquiry seem to have missed some important points about economic feasibility of water supply augmentation, and the likely effects of climate change. Let’s hope amends could be made in the course of the inquiry itself.

0 comments |

Recent newspaper report alerted me to the fact that the latest edition of the NSW State of the Environment has come out.

The newspaper article highlights a figure from the report that emissions of green house gasses (GHGs) in NSW have only fallen by 1% since 1990 (1990 being a benchmark year under the Kyoto Protocol, and in fact Australia as a nation had an agreed increase in emissions from that 1990 benchmark).

Looking at the report a bit more carefully unpacks some of the reasons for it. Electricity demand, which is one of the largest factors determining GHG emissions, has been falling over the last six years. This is paralleled with a significant change in composition of electricity generating capacity, with no new coal-fired plants, and significant addition of new gas, wind and solar capacity. Surely, this should result in significant reduction in total state GHG emissions, right?

Well, not exactly, because as the report states, the energy consumption in the NSW transportation sector has experienced strong, stable and sustained growth, which is predicted to continue in the future. In the same time, we have not seen major changes in emission efficiency of the NSW vehicle fleet. While there is some penetration of electric and hybrid vehicles this is still very, very small. As a result, transportation is now the single largest GHG emitting sector of the NSW economy.

And it doesn’t look like improvement can be expected any time soon. Trucks and cars are cheap (nominal prices have barely changed over the last 10-15 years, which makes real prices low in relative terms), petrol is cheap (cheapest that I have seen certainly over the last ten years, and again I am talking nominal prices), and public transport is expensive (catch a bus and a train to and from pretty much anywhere in Sydney, and it will be at least $10 on your Opal).

So, we will keep driving, ‘enjoying’ the traffic jams in Sydney, and sending GHGs in the atmosphere. Well done NSW!

0 comments |