South Africa has a lot to boast about power – but faces sustainability challenges beyond the ‘Stobie’ poles

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SOUTH AUSTRALIA AND SUSTAINABILITY, N°1: Past investments in renewable energy have given South Australia’s new Prime Minister, Peter Malinauskas, a great starting point to make his state greener. But have renewable energies diverted the State from other forms of energy efficiency?

Last March, Labor leader Peter Malinauskas was elected South Australia’s new premier, toppling the one-term coalition government led by Steven Marshall.

Heading into this election, a number of planning, energy and sustainability policies were major campaign issues. These included the recent privatization of South Australia’s rail services, the construction of new hydrogen facilities and the future of state planning laws.

In the first part of this short series focusing on planning and sustainability of the built environment in South Africa, The fifth state delves into the strengths, challenges and opportunities facing the state and its recently elected prime minister.

In some ways, the state leads the nation, especially in the amount of renewable energy flowing through its “Stobie” poles, which has now opened the door for the state to become an energy exporter. own.

(For the uninitiated living outside of SA, the next time you’re in Adelaide you might notice that most of the lampposts and utility poles have a layer of concrete sandwiched between two steel beams. This unique design is known as the “Stobie” post, named after inventor James Cyril Stobie.)

However, while the electrical grid is a major source of emissions in the built environment, it is far from the only source.

A major risk with too much focus on renewables is that they can become a distraction from the need for energy efficiency in buildings, or other sources of emissions, in areas such as embodied carbon in construction materials or transport.

With recent steep increases in electricity prices, there has never been a more poignant time to focus a business on these issues – at least from a bottom line perspective, not to mention our net zero challenges. .

To explore these questions further, The fifth state dug into the data and spoke to three experts from the University of South Australia:

  • Dr. Andrew Allan, Lecturer in Transport, Urban and Regional Planning
  • Dr. Johannes Pieters, Director of the Urban and Regional Planning Program
  • Dr Sadasivam Karuppannan, Lecturer in Urban and Regional Planning

Renewable energies in the network

South Australia’s good news on the sustainability front, and where it has much to teach the rest of the nation, is its speed in moving away from coal and into renewable energy.

Over the past 15 years, South Africa’s electricity mix has grown from less than 1% renewable energy to around 65.7% of the energy produced in 2021, according to OpenNEM. The state shut down its last coal-fired power plant in 2016.

According to the Clean Energy Regulator, approximately 40% of all South African households have photovoltaic panels on their roofs.

As a result, 17% of electricity generated in the state came from rooftop solar in 2021, another 5.1% from solar farms, and a very impressive 43.6% from wind farms. Most of the rest came from gasoline or diesel.

This puts the state behind Tasmania only in terms of the share of its electricity from renewable energy sources.

In contrast, just 24.6% of electricity generated in NSW came from renewables last year and 73.9% came from black coal, while in Victoria 31.6% came from renewables. renewable energy and an incredible 66.5% lignite.

The state has also led the country in constructing Australia’s first grid-scale battery storage facility, the Hornsdale Power Reserve, with the first 100MW/129MWh completed in November 2017 and a 50MW/ 64.5 MWh in 2020.

Impressively, in 2021 the state was powered exclusively by wind and solar for a period of 93 hours.

The majority of electricity flowing through these Stobie poles now comes from renewable sources. Image credit: Roo72 on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Dr Allan, senior lecturer in transport, urban and regional planning at the University of South Australia, said The fifth state South Australia’s strong performance in renewable energy is no accident – ​​it is the product of concerted government policy.

“The former Labor government under Mike Rann and Jay Weatherill pushed very hard on the environment in its early years, in water and energy. It is a very impressive legacy that positions the Malinauskas government well for the future,” said Dr. Allen.

Premier Malinauskas has pledged to add to this legacy a 250 MWe hydrogen electrolyzer facility, as well as a 3,600 ton hydrogen storage facility and a 200 MW hydrogen power plant.

Interestingly, in discussing these hydrogen projects, Premier Malinauskas focused on how they improve the economy, rather than their environmental benefits.

“It has seen us move from just generating renewable energy for domestic consumption to exporting energy from South Australia, which they see as essential to supporting the future economic well-being of the state. , but it also has an environmental benefit,” Dr Allan said.

Press the pause button on the zero carbon case

While SA has made great strides in reducing its emissions for energy, there is still a lot of work to be done to make its built environment more sustainable. This includes improving energy efficiency, reducing embodied carbon in building materials, increasing sustainable transportation, and removing gas appliances from buildings.

For example, around 57% of homes in South Australia, or around 427,000 in total, are connected to the gas network. Although this is lower than the ACT (85%), Victoria (80%) or WA (75%), it is well above NSW (42%).

In theory, this could lead to situations where most power from the electricity grid comes from renewables, yet thousands of South Australians are burning methane gas for cooking, hot water and heating.

“When you look at a lot of national housing, with a lot of the development that has been approved, in isolation, those projects are far from zero carbon. So I think that probably needs to be looked at,” Dr. Allan said.

“We shouldn’t just rely on power generation utilities to achieve zero carbon. There are still many households that, for example, could install photoelectric solar panels, and even solar water heaters, which very few households actually have.

The Hornsdale power reserve.

Early indicators on this front from the Malinauskas government are a bit concerning, with the 2022-23 budget marking the end of the state’s home battery program, as well as its Switch for Solar program.

“There’s nothing that’s actually going to get us to zero carbon living with the built environment yet. We might find a path there, but I haven’t seen any policies that really really push really hard to really get there. to zero-carbon housing,” said Dr Allan.

“There were some really good inroads into this problem about 10 years ago under the Rann/Weatherill governments, but it’s kind of like we’ve hit the pause button for the last four or five years.

“It’s almost like we’re there and we don’t need to do more. I think we need to review. How are we going to live without carbon by 2050? »

dark roofs

Limiting the state’s ability to get ahead of the rest of the nation is the fact that South Australia follows the National Building Code for its building code.

This is a major limiting factor in terms of, for example, the state mandating lighter colored roofs for new residential homes.

“So it’s not an AS-specific code. It used to be, but now the national code has been adopted. And whatever the national code prescribes, if you follow that code, your building will be approved,” said Sadasivam Karuppannan, senior lecturer in urban and regional planning at the University of South Australia.

“Light colored roofs, which reflect a lot of heat, compared to dark roofs, have been discussed from time to time, but not in a very serious way. In South Australia, the last heat wave we had, it was up to 50 degrees Celsius. So really, this is a debate we should look at.

There are some signs of progress in roofing, with the City of Adelaide recently partnering with the University of Adelaide to test the use of a ceramic roof coating called Super Therm, which is distributed in Australia by the South Australian company NEOtherm.

The New South Wales government recently abandoned the Design and Place SEPP planning policy, which mandated light-coloured roofs.

Industry sources say it was being watched closely by bureaucrats and industry people in Victoria and Queensland to see what progress would be. Its cancellation is seen as a delay in the nationwide Cooler Homes and Suburbs agenda.

In South Australia, according to Dr Johannes Pieters, director of the urban and regional planning programme, concern is lacking.

“A lot of the consultants here work in the rest of Australia and are very knowledgeable about this, but in terms of talking to people in the industry from time to time, I can’t say I’ve heard a lot of people talk about it. Maybe they should be,” he said.

In future episodes of this series, we’ll take a closer look at South Australia’s planning codes and the brewing battle for transport privatization.

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