Electricity accounts for half of all greenhouse gas emissions in Australia, according to the WWF, which can be hard to swallow for the more environmentally-conscious customer. So what do you need to consider if ‘protection of the environment’ is high on your list of power plan must-haves?
While some people are in a position to install solar panels on their home and take some direct control of their electricity production, there are other options for reducing reliance on non-renewable energy sources. Read on to find out about the other renewable options that may be available to you.
Popular renewable energy sources include solar, wind, water (hydro) and “bioenergy” generators. The Australian Commonwealth Government initiative GreenPower is an accreditation scheme that makes it easier for you to select an electricity retailer that invests in such renewable energy options.
This can be a great way for ordinary people to support renewable energy producers indirectly while allowing the industry to flourish alongside conventional retailers. These products vary between electricity provider, and between states and territories.
The GreenPower accreditation also takes into account the direct impact on the environment. For example, new hydroelectricity schemes must allow for an adequate flow of water to qualify, avoiding any unnecessary damage to the surrounding habitat. Additionally, Bioenergy from organic materials is only eligible for the program if it’s sourced from land cleared before 1990, from waste products, or from sustainable plantations. Some of the alternative methods of electricity generation that are covered by the scheme are discussed below.
The two main ways of harnessing energy from the sun are thermal energy and photovoltaic cells. Thermal energy is heat and can be used directly to heat water in solar water heaters. This can help reduce power bills for your water heating, or on a larger scale can be used to superheat water into steam which can be used to drive turbines to produce electricity.
Electrical currents can be produced directly from solar energy using photovoltaic cells, more commonly known as solar panels. Electricity produced by photovoltaic cells is initially a direct current but can be converted to alternating current, which most household appliances utilise. The main drawback of solar energy is that the sun must be shining for it to work. On cloudy days and at night, energy must be stored or sourced from other alternatives.
Wind energy has long been used by people to do work – in grinding wheat into flour in old-fashioned windmills, and for pumping water. Twenty-first century wind turbines are more high tech and produce electricity rather than flour. Most wind generators are found in clusters where reliable winds mean they are working most of the time, and these can often be placed on land which is otherwise productive, such as agricultural land. As with solar energy, wind power is somewhat sporadic in supply. While the wind is always blowing somewhere in the world, it’s not always blowing strongly enough to generate electricity at any given wind farm location. This means that storage and alternative energy options are essential in combination with wind.
Water wheels, like windmills, are an old form of renewable energy often used to run machinery directly. Modern hydro power uses the energy of moving water to turn turbines that produce electricity. Probably the most famous Australia hydro scheme is the Snowy Mountains complex that was built in the 1950s in New South Wales. Hydroelectricity is also widely used in Tasmania, where most of the electricity supply comes from water powered generators. The main drawback of hydroelectric electricity generation is the large volumes of water required for continuous operation. Prolonged drought can reduce water supplies below critical levels, and in some circumstances electricity generation may cease in order to preserve supply for drinking and other purposes.
This can include the burning of solid fuels, such as wood, or the harnessing of waste products such as methane gas from sewerage effluent. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas with over 20 times the heat capturing capacity of carbon dioxide. Burning methane as a fuel does release some greenhouse gas in the form of carbon dioxide, but reduces the overall effect of unburned methane. Methane is also extracted from landfill sites where organic material has been buried and is decomposing. Strict regulations cover the sourcing of other biomass used for bioenergy generation, and materials sourced from old growth forests, and other native forests are excluded from the scheme.
Just below the earth’s crust exists a large amount of heat energy which it may be possible to harness to produce electricity. In some areas, water may be injected into the ground, and return to the surface as steam which can be used to drive turbines to generate electricity. In other places, the water may already be present and just needs to be tapped. Geothermal energy is in a very early stage of development compared to other alternative renewable sources, but estimates have shown there is potentially more than enough geothermal energy to supply Australia’s energy requirements.
In most cases, you can simply get in touch with your energy supplier to switch over to green energy options. In all states in Australia, there are retailers and suppliers who can offer customers a fraction of their electricity from renewable sources. There are options with some companies for as little as 10% of electricity to come from renewable, in graduated steps all the way up to 100%. It’s worth checking with electricity suppliers before committing to a change, and reading all the fine print before signing up, as hidden fees and charges may exist for changing from one supplier to another or for ending any contracts for supply before any lock-in period has elapsed.
Electricity retailers use “Large-scale Generation Certificates” to purchase electricity from companies who generate it. When you buy a GreenEnergy accredited electrical product, the retailer buys an appropriate amount of electricity from a renewable energy generator, and it is fed into the national grid. An independent government auditor checks to make sure that the amount of renewable electricity that has been paid for is fed into the grid each year. The money spent on renewable electricity each year ensures that investment in alternative green energy projects continues, which means renewable electricity generation capacity increases over time. This means that your electricity eventually becomes cheaper, and more people will be able to afford renewable options over time.