Saturday, October 31, 2015

Southland Sun Supplies Solar Success

MP Gareth Hughes visited Invercargill on Friday and he spent the time visiting a business and a number of homes that rely on solar energy as their main power source. He has been seeking support for his private members' bill that is only one vote away (Peter Dunne) from going on to a select committee.

Gareth's Bill involves a small amendment to the Electricity Industry Act that will empower the Electricity Authority to independently set a fair price for electricity buyback for small scale electricity generation connected to the grid. The cost of installing a solar system has dropped about by about 33% over the last two years while electricity prices have increased by around 25%. As the the support for photovoltaic homes and businesses increases dramatically (World Solar alone has installed solar systems on 200 Southland homes over the past 17 months) electricity companies have been cutting buyback rates and deliberately holding up paper work and meter installation.

If electricity companies make it so difficult for homes and businesses to be connected then there is the potential for many to leave the grid altogether, especially as battery technology improves. Obviously as more disconnect from the grid the burden of maintaining and servicing it will be placed on a diminishing number of people. This will force up the cost of power yet again and push even more people into solar. Some deep breaths and clear thinking is needed now.

There probably needs to be a total re-evaluation of our business structure for our electricity supply. Our hydro electricity allows New Zealand to have one of the cheapest and sustainable sources of energy in the world. However, Max Bradford's competitive model has never worked as intended and now the cost for the consumer is far beyond the cost of production and transmission. Ever-increasing profits and dividends have turned our electricity system into a form of taxation. In 2013 Contact Energy alone paid a $114 million dividend to the Government.

Other countries (Australia/UK/Germany) that are reliant on coal for a major part of their electricity supply have used subsidies to encourage the uptake of grid connected domestic solar systems. Solar capacity in Germany is steadily increasing, largely through grid connected private systems and on one day last year almost 20% of the production came from solar. Power companies in Germany have had to evolve from purely managing supply to becoming energy service companies and this is what our New Zealand companies may need to do rather than trying to fight the growth of solar.

In the near future it would make sense for New Zealanders to have solar homes and electric cars. The cost of installation will be quickly recovered if both the house and the car can be run on free energy. The Tesla electric car can do 0-60 mph in 2.8 seconds and drives over 400 km on one charge. Savings of around $5,000 in electricity and fuel costs a year could easily be achieved by installing a $7,000 domestic solar system and buying an electric car like the Nissan Leaf (around 16,000 2nd hand).

Gareth's private members bill makes sense and it would be helpful to contact Peter Dunne and tell him so. By fighting against the the global growth of solar energy the Government and our power companies are just trying to stop the inevitable and making life more difficult for forward thinking businesspeople and home owners.

Gareth also took the time to talk to Venture Southland about their wood energy initiatives and the research being undertaken for the best electricity model to replace Stewart Island's expensive diesel generator. He also took the opportunity to get behind the wheel of Venture's electric Mitsubishi car.

The following are some images to from Gareth's Invercargill trip:

 Two views of the same Invercargill home that had panels on the east and west to take advantage of morning and evening sun when the home demand would be greatest.

Home owner John Dasson with Gareth Hughes and Doone Morrell (Managing Director of World Solar) looking at the performance of John's system on his inverters. 

 Sue McNeill and Gareth after looking at Sue's grid connected specially designed eco home

 Gareth sitting beside the little battery shed of my younger sister's home that is off grid. 

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Government of Water Down and Trickle Up

It has been revealed that the Government rejected official advice to set tougher targets to deal with child obesity. The decision to take a soft approach to deal with rising child obesity should be no surprise to those concerned with public health and welfare as this has occurred numerous times in the past. This Government clearly puts private profit and unrestricted markets ahead of the general welfare of New Zealanders with the resulting burden being placed on our health and welfare systems and even our environment.

The Law Commission provided the Government with a number of recommendations about the sale and advertising of alcohol and the most potentially influential elements were left out of the final bill because of the lobbying of the powerful liquor industry. The Government weakened the work of the Problem Gambling Foundation in their deal with Sky City and even tried to shut down the Foundation's work by shifting their funding to the Salvation Army. Labour's Emission Trading Scheme (while not the Green Party's preferred way of managing emissions) actually had a substantial positive impact in its first year of operation, but since National watered it down our emissions have actually increased by 13%. Watering down the effectiveness of important legislation is what this Government does well.

The costs of child obesity to this country will be substantial if we don't intervene in an effective way. Already New Zealanders have obesity levels that make us the third "fattest" country in the world. Almost a third of all New Zealanders are grossly overweight (the definition of obesity) and another 35% are overweight. 1 in 10 of our children are obese and 35% are overweight, meaning that 45% of our children have weight issues and this must have an effect on their general health and ability to participate in physical activities. Issues with weight also impacts on a child's self image and academic engagement.

In his well researched book Stuffed and Starved Raj Patal explains how the commercialisation of the food industry has corrupted the food supply to the extent that human health has become a secondary factor to profit. Cheaply produced processed food and fast food is promoted more heavily in poorer communities around the world and heavily targeted advertising captures children into lifelong addictions to high sugar and artificially flavoured foods. Unregulated food markets have not caused positive outcomes in poor communities and healthy, natural food is now substantially more accessible to the wealthy. As one example, milk is much more expensive in New Zealand than in the UK, Australia, the US and Canada because of the industry monopoly here and a profit driven market culture.

The Government removed the healthy food guideline for schools that dictated that food provided in schools should be healthy. It seemed ludicrous at the time that teachers were expected to teach and promote healthy eating then schools do not have to practice what is preached. The photographs that compare the lunches of children from a high decile school and a low decile school reveal much about the potential effectiveness of education alone and the impacts of poverty when it comes to food choices.

The Government's decision not to intervene in the advertising and sales of unhealthy food to children is essentially pandering to those who profit from producing and promoting highly processed food that has little nutritional value. The Government has decided on an appallingly insensitive strategy of identifying and labeling overweight children as if calling children fat is going to solve the problem. It ignores the fact that what causes children to be overweight could easily be targeted instead rather than naming and shaming. While the private sector will continue to enjoy few market restrictions the public sector and Government coffers will have to deal with the health and self-esteem consequences

Type 2 Diabetes is reaching epidemic proportions and will dominate the work of our health sector at a time when it can barely afford to maintain current services. As of December last year over a quarter of a million New Zealanders were diagnosed with diabetes and thousands more will probably had it but didn't realise. The annual cost to our health system in treating Type 2 Diabetes had increased from $247 million to $600 million in 2008 and is likely to be well over a billion dollars now. No wonder any increases in health funding is being absorbed with little improvements to overall services.

In his valedictory speech Russel Norman said "...a Government can't do everything that's true. A Government can't mend a broken heart but the Government can fill an empty stomach - that is within our capacity." It is also within our capacity to make sure that we fill that hungry stomach with healthy food.

The profits of the already rich are strongly protected through this Government's watering down of important legislation and the wealth of the country continues to trickle upwards.

Friday, October 23, 2015

"The environment can handle more"

The first state of the environment report since 2007, "Environment Aotearoa 2015", has just been released and what it describes is nothing to celebrate. Basically most of New Zealand's environment is far from good, our rivers are pretty much stuffed, our farmland is largely compacted by too many cows and while nasty exhaust fumes from cars have been reduced, we have increasing levels of green house gasses. We have twenty species that have not been seen for over 20 years and pests such as possums and rats are causing devastation in our national parks. Our fish stocks may be reducing at a slower rate but then the acidity levels in the sea are increasing and we have a growing number of marine mammals and seabirds verging on extinction.

John Key's response, "The environment can handle more."

The following statements are reproduced from the report and I'm wondering why it reads differently on Planet Key:

"Land use and population growth have placed increasing pressure on waterways. This is more evident with agricultural land because it surrounds 46 percent of New Zealand’s rivers. Between 1990 and 2012, the estimated amount of nitrogen that leached into soil from agriculture increased 29 percent. This increase was mainly due to increases in dairy cattle numbers (and therefore urine which contains nitrogen) and nitrogen fertiliser use. Once in the soil, excess nitrogen travels through soil and rock layers, ending up in groundwater, rivers, and lakes. Between 1989 and 2013, total nitrogen levels in rivers increased 12 percent, with 60 percent of the 77 monitored sites showing statistically significant increases. The greatest impact of excessive nitrogen levels in New Zealand rivers is nuisance slime and algae (periphyton) growth."

"In catchments dominated by agriculture, nitrogen in rivers comes mainly from livestock urine, and from nitrogen-based fertiliser. Between 1990 and 2012, the estimated amount of nitrogen that leached into soil from agriculture increased 29 percent (about 1.5 million kilograms a year). This increase was mainly due to increases in dairy cattle numbers (and therefore urine which contains nitrogen) and nitrogen fertiliser use. Once in the soil, excess nitrogen travels through soil and rock layers, and eventually ends up in groundwater, rivers, and lakes."

"Irrigation is the biggest consumptive user of water in New Zealand (consumptive use is when water is taken from a waterway but not returned). Based on resource consent information (which governs the amount of water a user is allowed to take), irrigation accounts for about three-quarters of consumptive water use."

"Compacted soils also affect land productivity. Soil compaction is evident on land used for farming animals for dairy, meat, wool, and velvet, and is made worse by higher stocking rates and heavier stock. Over half of the land used for dry stock and nearly 80 percent of soils under dairy farming are affected by compaction. This can adversely affect productivity because compacted soils can impede pasture growth and the capacity of the soil to hold water, resulting in greater run-off."

"The leaching of nutrients from farmland is an issue affecting our rivers, lakes, and estuaries. This happens when we apply more nutrients to the land than grass and other plants can use. When an excess of nutrients flow into waterways, they cause unwanted plants to grow, affecting water quality. Nitrate leaching has been an issue for some decades, but has grown in significance as farming intensified in many parts of the country."

"Many species face an ongoing threat of extinction. The extinction of one species can detrimentally affect other species or even entire ecosystems. Since humans arrived, hunting, habitat destruction, and introduced animals and plants have resulted in at least 40 species being confirmed extinct. However, the actual number of extinctions is likely to be substantially greater. For example, at least 70 New Zealand species or subspecies have not been seen for more than 20 years, but are still classified as ‘data deficient’ or ‘nationally critical (data poor)’, rather than ‘extinct’."

"The most serious long-term pressures on our marine environment are likely to be caused by climate change. Coastal sea levels and long-term sea-surface temperatures around New Zealand have risen over the last century, and our oceans are more acidic than when measurements were first taken in 1998."

"More than one-quarter of our indigenous marine mammal species are threatened with extinction, and the extinction risk of one mammal species, the New Zealand sea lion, has increased since 2005. Māui’s dolphin is now one of the rarest marine mammals in the world, with an estimated 55 individuals more than a year old remaining. Ninety percent of indigenous seabird species and subspecies that breed in New Zealand are threatened or at risk of extinction. The risk of extinction has increased for seven of the 92 seabird species since 2005."

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Exploitation and Corruption Encouraged by National Government

Two stories struck me today that provided proof that this Government's existence within Planet Key is one totally removed from reality and morality.

Paula Bennett made the outrageous demand that community housing providers needed to be sustainable businesses. In making this claim she demonstrates her total ignorance of what social housing does and what the benefits are.

The people who live in social housing are our most vulnerable and desperate families and individuals. The reason they need housing support is because their financial, emotional or physical circumstances exclude them from being able to afford or manage the acquisition of a home from the private sector. They are not going to be able to cover the true costs of their accommodation and many will need support to live in them. A percentage of families and individuals in social housing will not be able to care for the properties well and many will damage them over the course of their tenancy for a variety of reasons. Providing social housing provides more headaches than easy profits and the fact that businesses and NGOs are not queuing up to buy them is proof of that.

Social housing will never be a sound business proposition, the value that comes from providing them is the social good and the savings in health and welfare costs. Social housing should ensure that all New Zealanders live in dignity, despite their circumstances, and could provide around 20% of our children the opportunity of a good start in life. With growing numbers of children presenting to hospitals with illnesses caused by poor housing, the need for more high quality social housing is obvious.

The Government clearly wants to wash its hands of social housing and after they sell them off Bennett has explained that the organisations buying them should not expect government grants to support them, "organisations needed to be commercial to be sustainable". There is obviously little income that can be sucked from social housing tenants who can't afford commercial rents. Those on very low wages or who have disabilities, health and addiction problems are not going to be reliable income sources. If social housing providers are to be able to maintain the houses under such constrained income streams then the quality of what they provide will be limited.

Bennett also seems to have ignored the fact that the Government will be spending almost $2 billion on the accommodation supplement this financial year (page 20 in the link). This is effectively a subsidy to landlords and ensures that market rental rates are kept at a level above what the population is able to pay. If the same amount was poured into building state houses then private landlords would have to lower rents as the housing supply increases and then everyone would win (apart from the slum landlords).

The Government is also determined to drop our ranking as the least corrupt country in the world by accepting that paying bribes overseas to progress business interests is acceptable. If it isn't acceptable in New Zealand it shouldn't be acceptable overseas and calling such transactions "small facilitation payments" is disingenuous as Green MP David Clendon explained:

"Any payment that is legitimate to a government is invoiced, if you get an official document in exchange for it, it is legitimate. We're talking about bribes essentially, call them facilitation payments if you will, but actually they're bribes."

Amy Adams explanations were a great example of hole digging and supporting a trip down a very slippery slope for our country. There is nothing "innocent" about paying unofficial payments to officials. It is clear this Government has no concerns about such "facilitation payments" and some of them could not be called small by any means as the $11.5 million facilitation payment to a Saudi businessman demonstrated. This was the mother of all bribes and I bet we have no official receipt. What is truly embarrassing for the Government, in this expensive instance, is that the payment didn't facilitate anything in the end because we got no trade deal. I wonder if we can get our money back so we can spend it on state housing?


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why Invercargill Should be a City of Cyclists

I spoke at Invercargill's monthly Pecha kucha evening (a talk involving 20 slides and 20 seconds on each). I spoke about Invercargill's cycling past and what it could become in the future. Here are the slides and generally what I said:

I was a disappointment to my father who has had a lifetime of passion for the Internal combustion engine and anything that has motor. At 86 he still drives and owns four cars. While I have always appreciated technology, and had a small part in writing our National Curriculum document for this learning area, I preferred modes of transport where I was more physically involved. I enjoy walking, kayaking and cycling because of the health benefits and the greater ability to connect with the natural environment. Cycling has been my main form of transport when exploring New Zealand and overseas. In 1989 a more youthful version of myself cycled the length of the European Alps and across Scandinavia.

Some families talk about being a two car or four car family my family have a shed crammed full of bicycles and unicycles, my son is the unicyclist. My wife despairs when she sees another new bicycle appear (she is happy with her one) but my folding bike is no good off road, my town bike tows my bike trailer, my mountain bike is necessary for my “middle aged” off road adventures and my road racing bike helps me remember the glories of younger and fitter times. I am still on the lookout for a suitable tandem.

I have followed the heated debates between car owners and cyclists regarding who has most right to use the road and I think it is good to remember how and why our roads developed. Invercargill streets were never designed for cars, they didn’t exist when surveyor John Turnbull Thompson created the first street plans. By the 1920s the roads were shared by horses, cars, trams and bicycles. Because of its flat terrain in those days only Christchurch had more cyclists using their roads.

Even in the 1950s more people cycled to work than took their car (this is an image of Esk Street around 1953). Since the fifties we have experienced an evolution in our transport culture where cars now dominate, few children cycle to school and few secondary school students cycle any more. Around 9am and 3pm are two of the most congested times on our streets with school traffic and we now recognise that too many of our young people have weight and health issues and diabetes is a growing crisis.

Even though bicycles have largely disappeared from our streets Invercargill is incredibly strong in competitive cycling and we have a number of world-class athletes. Cycling is now associated as something that is accompanied by lycra clothing and sweat. The Tour of Southland is New Zealand’s most prestigious road race, our covered velodrome was the first in New Zealand and we have great mountain biking tracks. But I think we have lost something when we stopped regarding bicycles as everyday transport.

Not all countries followed our traffic evolution and are now reaping the benefits. In the 1950s Holland understood the conflict between increasing car numbers and the safety of cyclists. Rather than excluding cyclists completely they just developed their transport infrastructure to accommodate both. Although some expense and planning was needed initially it has helped enormously in removing congestion in town centres, kept retail areas compact (with fewer car parks needed) their people are healthier (New Zealand has the 3rd worst obesity rates in the OECD).

The health benefits of children cycling are huge and making cycling safe to get around encourages independence at an early age. The amount of wasted time, energy and stress involved in getting children to school safely must be substantial if looked at across the country. It seems odd that few transport planners consider children and their modes of transport into their thinking. Children riding bicycles and skateboards on footpaths, because they have no other choice, are considered a nuisance rather than celebrated for doing something physical that doesn’t involve a screen. What messages are we sending to them?

Cycle paths should also be seen as an investment not an extra cost, they reduce the need to build car parks, they reduce the need for road maintenance, they reduce our health costs and in this case solar panels have been fitted and they have produced more energy than expected.

Some may consider cycling as an archaic form of transport and New Zealand is a more advanced country because of our reliance on cars, however I believe that we are culturally and economically backward and short sighted. Zurich is a culturally sophisticated city and is the economic or banking hub for Europe. There is hardly a car in the city centre. Even in the depths of Winter (and it is colder there) bicycles are everywhere.

Zurich doesn’t have high rise car parking buildings they have multiple story bicycle parks. Many new office buildings in many cities are reducing their expensive basement car parking and providing bicycle racks and shower facilities. Why make extra time in your day to accommodate a spin class in a gym when you mode of transport to and from work provides your exercise instead.

Cycling to work doesn’t have to be hard work and sweaty as those in Oxford in the UK have realized for over 100 years, it is just something one does to get around that is faster than walking and finding a park is never an issue.

The old cycle rickshaws are being revamped as pedicabs around the world and are abundant in America, Europe and Asia. New Zealand is well behind the times with this versatile inner city taxi system and what a great potential earner for students and others who want flexible hours or have their own business with lower setup costs. I am currently looking for a business partner to start a similar service in Invercargill.

Pedal powered transport is not dated technology and there is a world of difference between a racing bike of thirty years ago, to one today. With light, strong materials like carbon fibre, more efficient gearing systems and even electric assistance, an old concept has been well and truly brought into the 21 century. My folding bike can easily get me from Wellington Airport in to the city centre in less than 30 minutes and easily beats a taxi over the same distance between 8-9am.

Our current issues with foreign tourists, unaccustomed to our left hand system, could be partially managed in cities if we had cycling as an option. Many cities like Melbourne has seen the sense of getting visitors on bikes and not creating potential hazards in a car.

As a country we seriously underinvest in cycling, we spend billions upon billions on roads in an attempt to deal with the volumes of cars, many with one driver, without thinking of much cheaper and more logical solutions that are already being used successfully elsewhere. Most garages around New Zealand probably contain a bike, or several and yet only 0.6% of the land transport plan goes to cycling. The cycle trails around the country are a great investment, but what do our cycle tourists have to contend with when they arrive in our towns?

Over recent years we have had some tragic cycling deaths in Invercargill because the protections for cyclists are mainly painted white lines. Many lanes end abruptly in interesting places and in our street we have narrowed road configurations and speed bumps that seem to ignore what would happen if a cyclist and car arrived at one at the same time.

I wonder how many parents would feel comfortable cycling around the centre of town with children. Painted lines just don’t seem to provide a secure barrier.

Ride Cycles, an Invercargill bike shop, sell a line of bikes designed for relaxed and comfortable transport and they have started Tweed rides for those interested in social, non lycra cycling that often involves refreshment stops. Any outing is limited to safe routes that take them out of the city centre.

So what are the solutions? Invercargill has more potential to become a city for cyclists than most in New Zealand. We are flat, we have wide streets, we have a long cycling history and we already have seen the benefits of celebrating Burt Munro’s motorcycle. Wellington has made a start by making cycle lanes more visible and creating the illusion of a barrier.

Imagine if you can the potential of a bicycle festival that could accompany the tour of Southland. We could have family tweed rides, parades, unicycle competitions (look up You tube for unicycle stunts and dancing), pennyfarthing rides, pedicabs, a tandom triathlon, sightseeing trips and cargo bikes around the city. Many of these could have an on going presence throughout the year and we could again lead New Zealand as a city of cyclists.  Just to end, if you are a reluctant cyclist and want to experience the joy of cycling in a leisurely way, try riding through our greenbelt and Queenspark.