NZ engineers name 10 climate priorities

New Zealand engineers decided to have their say on making electricity and transport cleaner, as Eloise Gibson reports.

Engineers have pitched their ideas for getting New Zealand to carbon zero, focusing on electricity and transport: the two areas where, they say, good engineering can make a difference. Their wish-list includes user-pricing that drives down demand on urban roads, prioritising mass transit and pursuing alternative fuels like hydrogen for trucks as well as rail electrification. Better storage for home energy also features in the recommendations from the industry group Engineering New Zealand.

Here are 10 of their ideas, in brief.

1. Increase energy storage so we can use more renewable electricity at home in the dark, depths of winter.  When the sun shines, solar panels make power, but households tend to use more electricity on winter evenings. Better and cheaper batteries are one obvious solution, but Engineering NZ has also mooted putting more effort into exploring large-scale pumped storage of water for hydro-power, as well as solar-thermal technology which captures the sun’s heat and stores it for heating or to generate electricity. Unlike the photo-voltaic solar panels some people are already using, these systems come with in-built storage. 

2. Future-proof our physical distribution network so it’s less vulnerable to climate change and storms. This would include creating better incentives for distributed electricity supply and small-scale renewable energy (for example home power generation), says the group, as well as having a grid that works with smart appliances (for example having dishwashers switch on at times of low demand rather than all running just after dinner). Also: "Take a hard look at the benefits of (power line) under-grounding especially in the context of increased storm activity and coastal sea-level threats generated by climate change."

3. Help the national grid cater better for wind so it can supply more of our energy. Unlike the sun, the wind supplies most energy right when people most want it, when it's cold and wintry. Right now it's only about 5 percent of our supply. Ironically, though, adding more wind generation capacity might depress the wholesale spot price during windy times, making wind less attractive to invest in. They suggest looking at storage or perhaps using windy places to generate hydrogen as a clean fuel source instead. The engineers note that likely big increases in electric vehicles, and electrification of some industrial processes, may significantly drive up electricity demand.

4. Train more engineers to have specialist skills like working in solar, tidal and wave energy, and attract engineers with those skills from overseas. For example: "In the future, we could be building windows and roofs from solar-panel material ... and plugging our electric vehicles in to charge in the car park below," yet: "New Zealand currently lacks experienced engineers at the cutting edge of solar technology, so we would need to grow our capability if we’re going to take full advantage of this potential supply," says the group.

5. Price carbon high enough to tilt people towards cleaner energy sources.

6. Integrate public transport with car sharing and, possibly, driverless vehicles so people can have seamless, end-to-end trips. 

7. Use more variable road pricing to lessen traffic. Unfortunately, electric vehicles create traffic as much as fossil-fueled ones. Engineering NZ suggests reducing congestion on city roads using digital, variable road pricing that changes in line with actual demand, and doing the same with parking prices, to encourage people to use ride-sharing and other options at busy times. They also suggest cutting city car parks. "Driving down demand for rush-hour roads and parking means regulators making brave decisions," says the group.

8. Make space for mass transit in cities, including light rail, road trams and heavy rail. Having a clear vision for these projects could help avoid polarising people over the inevitable disruption of actually clearing space for and building this infrastructure, they say.

9. Pursue alternative fuels as well as electrification. These might include biofuel and hydrogen for heavy vehicles as well as other clean technologies we don't know about yet. 

10. Move roads away from rising seas. Take every opportunity to re-route roads and transport route inland and away from king tides, storm surges and tsunami on the coast. 

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