Carbon: going off the grid
- by: SPECIAL REPORT: DEB RICHARDS
- From: The Australian
- April 20, 2012
WITH the help of 13 major property owners, including Lend Lease, Stockland, Colonial First State and GPT, the City of Sydney is about to generate its own electricity.
Not only that, it will supply hot water for heating and air conditioning to buildings without using additional electricity, delivering substantial cost savings.
At 15 locations in the CBD and inner-urban residential zones, gas-fired generators will be able to supply 70 per cent of the city's electricity and cut greenhouse emissions in city buildings by 40-60 per cent. The city's remaining energy needs will be met through renewable sources such as solar. Starting with the city council's own 230 buildings, the plan aims to take the city entirely off the grid, supplying low-carbon power at a competitive price.
Combined with master plans for capturing and recycling water and "greening" the waste stream, the vision holds the promise of transforming the Emerald City into the "greenest" city in Asia.
It's the brainchild of engineer Allan Jones, who was headhunted from the City of London's Climate Change Agency. In Britain he introduced local energy generation and renewable energy projects and delivered large cost savings in the process. His vision for Sydney is no less transformative, aiming to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70 per cent by 2030, with a suite of initiatives including using gas recovered from sources such as landfill, the sewerage system and treated household waste.
It sounds futuristic, even overly optimistic, but implementation has begun. Cogent Energy, a subsidiary of Origin Energy, was recently chosen as owner-operator, and the first generator plant is expected to be in place at Town Hall by the end of 2013.
Known as tri-generators, the plants perform three functions. Firstly, they generate electricity, thus avoiding the huge network costs incurred in transmitting power from the Hunter Valley. Secondly, they capture heat normally vented to the air. This is used to supply hot water and to heat buildings in winter. And thirdly, an absorption chiller converts the hot water to cold, which is used for air conditioning in summer. These systems are up and running overseas and are more than twice as energy-efficient as conventional coal-fired power.
Ten buildings in Sydney already have small tri-generators in the basement, supplying some of their own needs. But the key plank in the Sustainable Sydney 2030 strategy is a network of generators in strategic locations around Sydney's heart, making the power and hot water available to commercial and residential premises alike.
For this, Jones needed commercial co-operation. He studied land ownership within the city's boundaries and discovered 60 per cent of city land was owned by 11 private companies, as well as by the City of Sydney Council, Sydney University and the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). In an Australian first, they have joined together as the Better Buildings Partnership (BPP), with electricity and hot water from the tri-gen scheme to be available to the entire city property market.
Amanda Steele, deputy chairwoman of the BBP and sustainability manager for Stockland, tells the deal the collaborative aspect is very attractive. "You can achieve a lot more if landlords work together to solve problems," she says. "And it makes tri-generation much more efficient if the load is shared."
Steele says Stockland has already managed an emissions intensity reduction of 38 per cent in its office assets and 18 per cent in retail over the past five years. Stockland took this approach ahead of the introduction of federal government reporting requirements for businesses using more than half a petajoule of energy per year - equivalent to 10,000 homes.
Sydney's tri-gen plan now offers low-carbon energy, which will further cut the company's energy intensity. "Gas produces lower emissions anyway," Steele says. "But with coal-fired electricity, only 30 per cent of the fuel produces electricity, whereas tri-gen gas generators are 80 per cent efficient."
The tri-gen scheme nearly failed because of regulatory barriers and what Jones likes to call the "energy dinosaurs". Existing legislation requires all electricity generators to join the national electricity market - a prohibitively expensive exercise.
While Jones has jumped this hurdle - by piggy-backing on the licence already owned by Origin Energy - he says the system has to change. "It's really a barrier to anyone - a community wind farm or a small regional town that wants to supply themselves with electricity. You can do that in other countries, but you can't in Australia." Existing small-scale generators are forced to use one of the major companies to carry the power over local distribution wires.
Sydney is the most power-hungry area in the country. The Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS found the city's localised power generation could remove the need for $1 billion worth of new network infrastructure. This unique private-public co-operative approach to reducing greenhouse emissions holds the key to a smarter, cleaner city.