FactCheck Q&A: is coal still cheaper than renewables as an energy source?


Ken Baldwin, Australian National University

The Conversation fact-checks claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9.35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email.


Excerpt from Q&A, July 17, 2017.

Q&A AUDIENCE MEMBER: Hi. Renewable energy is more carbon-efficient, and now cheaper, than coal and other fossil fuels …

MATT CANAVAN: Thanks, James. Look, I don’t accept that renewables are, at the moment, cheaper than coal.

– Excerpt from a question posed by Q&A audience member James Newbold to then-Resources Minister Senator Matt Canavan on Q&A, July 17, 2017.

One of the biggest debates underway in Australia (and around the world) is about electricity, and how it should be generated. One of the major pressure points is prices.

During an episode of Q&A, audience member James Newbold said renewable energy is “now cheaper than coal and other fossil fuels”. Senator Matt Canavan (then-Resources Minister) disagreed, saying: “I don’t accept that renewables are, at the moment, cheaper than coal.”

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Let’s look at the numbers.

Checking the sources

The Conversation contacted Matt Canavan’s spokesperson for sources to support his statement but did not hear back before deadline. Nonetheless, we can test his statement against publicly available data.

What do the data show?

Based on the electricity generated now by old coal-fired power stations with sunk costs (meaning money that has already been spent and cannot be recovered), Matt Canavan was right to say: “I don’t accept that renewables are, at the moment, cheaper than coal.”

In 2017, the marginal cost of generating power from an already existing coal station is less than $40/MWh, while wind power is $60-70/MWh (explained below). So why do people say renewables are now cheaper than coal?

Well, they’re often talking about what would be the cheaper option if old coal-fired power stations were replaced today – in other words, the new-build price.

Making the distinction between the cost of existing energy generation, and the cost of new-build energy generation in this debate is very important. Comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges.

Current prices are based on existing installations, while new-build prices compare the costs of different technologies if their operating lives started today. This matters because Australia’s existing coal-fired power stations are ageing and will need to be replaced.

Comparing new-build prices is more complicated than comparing current costs, as I’ll discuss later in this FactCheck.

How do we measure the cost of electrical power?

Let’s cover the basic terminology first.

Electrical energy is measured in kilowatt-hours – the units generally used for metering and charging residential electricity use. One kilowatt-hour represents the amount of energy a device that draws one kilowatt of power (like a household heater, for example) would use in one hour.

A megawatt-hour is 1,000 times larger, and it’s what we typically use to measure large electricity loads or generators. So when we’re comparing the cost of electrical energy generated by different sources, we’ll be talking about Australian dollars per megawatt-hour ($/MWh).

Comparing prices for different sources of electricity

There are a few things we need to take into account when we’re calculating the cost of electricity created by different technologies.

First, we need to factor in how much it costs to establish the source in the first place – whether that’s a coal-fired power station, a wind farm or a hydro-power plant. Then we need to factor in how much it costs to operate, fuel and maintain that facility over its lifetime.

These factors and the cost of capital (like the interest rate) are commonly combined into a metric called the “levelised cost of electricity” (or the LCOE). This provides a measure of the total cost in current dollars per unit of electrical energy generated ($/MWh) over the lifetime of the facility.

We also need to know the time frame in question. A coal-fired power station that’s nearing the end of its operating life may have recovered its original capital investment. So the marginal cost of coal-fired electricity may be low, compared to the levelised cost of a new wind farm that’s yet to recoup its initial capital cost.

Using the levelised costs of electricity created by different technologies does always not provide a perfect comparison. Comparing such different technologies will never be comparing apples with apples. But it’s the best measure we’ve got for a simple “plug-and-play” replacement of a single generating source.

Current prices for coal-fired and wind power

Today, most of Australia’s electricity is sourced from coal-fired power stations. In their discussion on Q&A, Newbold and Canavan referred broadly to “renewables”. Currently, wind power is the cheapest form of renewable energy. So we’ll use that as the basis for comparison with coal-fired energy.

In 2017, the marginal cost of generating power from an already existing black coal-fired station is less than $40/MWh. Brown coal-fired power is even cheaper.

To establish the current price of wind power, we can look at the announcement in May 2017 by Origin Energy, when the company agreed to buy all the power to be generated by the Stockyard Hill Wind Farm in Victoria between 2019 and 2030 for less than $60/MWh.

A similar price was struck in March 2016 when the Australian Capital Territory government conducted its second “wind auction”. The government uses wind auctions to buy contracts for future energy supplies. The lowest price in the 2016 auction yielded around $60/MWh in current prices. This figure is based on a flat rate of $77/MWh for 20 years and assuming around 3% inflation, which is the upper end of Australia’s inflation rate target of 2-3%.

Combining the total price range for that auction with this inflation range gives around $60-$70/MWh in current prices, with wind farms currently operating in that adjusted range.

So, based on the marginal cost of energy generated by existing coal-fired power stations with sunk costs, Canavan is correct in saying that renewables are not “at the moment, cheaper than coal”.

However, the story is different if we are talking about new-build electricity prices. And this is often where conversations and debates become confused.

Why new-build electricity prices matter

Coal-fired power stations in Australia have operating lives of around 50 years. As can be seen from the table below, nine of Australia’s 12 biggest operating coal-fired power stations are more than 30 years old.

In preparation for the retirement of those older coal-fired stations, policymakers, energy companies and other investors are debating whether to replace them with new coal-fired power stations, or other types of energy generation. This is where the comparison of new-build costs comes into play.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/ayv8w/3/

New-build prices for coal-fired and wind power

FactChecks rely on data from events that have already occurred. So we can’t say with factual certainty whether or not renewables would be cheaper than coal as a new-build energy source, because no coal-fired power stations have been built recently.

But we do have recent prices for the cheapest form of new-build renewable energy, which is newly-installed wind power.

And we do have recent levelised price projections for the cheapest new-build fossil fuel energy, which is supercritical coal power.

The projected price for new supercritical coal power comes in at around $75/MWh from the recent Finkel review of the National Electricity Market, based on data produced by Jacobs Consultancy. That is consistent with the price of $80/MWh from the 2016 report from the CO2 Cooperative Research Centre, and less than the $84-94/MWh from the 2012/3 Australian Energy Technology Assessment .

These projections for new supercritical coal power are higher than the recent prices for newly-installed wind power (outlined earlier in the FactCheck) at around $60-70/MWh in current prices over the 20-year contract period (which is similar to a levelised cost).

So, if we look at recent wind power prices and recent price projections for new supercritical coal power, it’s reasonable to say that – as things stand today – wind power would be the cheaper new-build source of electricity.

Future prices

There are important additional factors that need to be taken into account when considering the costs of new-build coal-fired electricity and new-build renewable electricity as we look further into the future. Three of the main considerations are:

  • upgrades to the energy grid (including energy storage) to balance the use of intermittent renewables, especially once renewable energy exceeds around 50% of all energy supply (this would increase the price of renewables)
  • the introduction of a price on carbon emissions (this would increase the price of coal), and
  • improvements in technology (this is expected to reduce the price of renewables more so than coal).

It is possible to make educated assumptions about how these factors would affect prices in the future. But I won’t include those projections in this FactCheck, for two reasons:

  • firstly, we are yet to see the outcomes, and
  • secondly, the Q&A audience member and Canavan were discussing prices as they are “now” and “at the moment”.

So that’s what I’ve addressed in this FactCheck.

Verdict

Based on the electricity generated now by old coal-fired power stations with sunk costs, Matt Canavan was right to say: “I don’t accept that renewables are, at the moment, cheaper than coal”. In 2017, the marginal cost of generating power from an already existing coal station is less than $40/MWh, while wind power is $60-70/MWh.

The Q&A audience member may have been talking about new-build prices.

Based on recent prices for newly-installed wind power of around $60-70/MWh, and recent price projections for new supercritical coal power at around $75/MWh, it is reasonable to say that – as things stand today – wind power would be cheaper than coal as a new-build source of electricity. – Ken Baldwin

Review

The author has provided a sound FactCheck that covers a lot of the complexities around a challenging issue. I would add one remark which doesn’t detract from the author’s verdict.

The cost of new-build coal is likely to be higher than reported in the FactCheck.

The author was correct to point out that the introduction of a price on carbon emissions would increase the cost of new-build coal-fired electricity.

The mere possibility of the introduction of a price on carbon or carbon regulation in the future actually affects the costs of new-build coal-fired electricity today. The risk of increased costs or regulation for emission intensive generators manifests itself as a higher “risk premium” applied to current financing costs. The overall effect is a higher weighted average cost of capital (basically, a higher average interest rate) for emission intensive generation.

In the Finkel review, the weighted average cost of capital for coal is projected to be 14.9%, compared to 7.1% for renewables. Risk adjusted financing costs would result in the levelised cost of new coal being higher than the figures presented in the FactCheck. – Dylan McConnell

Review

The cost of electricity produced from a new wind farm is competitive with the best estimates for the cost of electricity produced from a new coal station, and cheaper than the cost of new coal quoted in very reputable analyses (CO2CRC 2015 and CSIRO 2017).

As noted by the author, the comparison in this FactCheck does not include the cost of intermittency for renewables. Recognising that no technology runs 100% of the time, there is a backup cost to be added to wind to make it as firm (or stable) as a fuel-based plant. Available costs for such backup, such as large scale battery or pumped storage, are based on estimates and are the subject of much current study.

New wind with backup could very well be very competitive with new coal, particularly if the cost of emissions is recognised. However, at present, the contention either way is unproven. – Tony Wood


The Conversation FactCheck is accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network.

The Conversation’s FactCheck unit is the first fact-checking team in Australia and one of the first worldwide to be accredited by the International Fact-Checking Network, an alliance of fact-checkers hosted at the Poynter Institute in the US. Read more here.

The ConversationHave you seen a “fact” worth checking? The Conversation’s FactCheck asks academic experts to test claims and see how true they are. We then ask a second academic to review an anonymous copy of the article. You can request a check at checkit@theconversation.edu.au. Please include the statement you would like us to check, the date it was made, and a link if possible.

Ken Baldwin, Director, Energy Change Institute, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Politicians: please ease off on ‘announceables’ until after the electricity market review



File 20170519 12254 c3w5l8
Current political intervention in the energy market is haphazard and disconnected.
chriscrowder_4/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

David Blowers, Grattan Institute and Kate Griffiths, Grattan Institute

A series of dramatic events over the past year, most notably the September statewide blackout in South Australia, have revealed an electricity system under strain, and left many Australians worried about the reliability of their power supply. The Conversation

In response, state and federal politicians have announced a series of uncoordinated and potentially expensive interventions, most notably the Turnbull government’s Snowy Hydro 2.0 proposal and the South Australian government’s go-it-alone power plan.

Yet all of these plans pre-empt the Finkel Review, to be released early next month. Commissioned by state and federal governments and led by Australia’s chief scientist Alan Finkel, the review is expected to provide a new blueprint for the National Electricity Market (NEM).

Clearly, Australia is struggling to manage the transition to a zero- or low-emission electricity grid, and some commentators have concluded that the NEM is broken.

In our report Powering Through, released today, we argue that it is too early to give up on the market. But what we really need is substantial market reforms, rather than piecemeal government investments in various energy projects.

Australia’s troubled transition

The problems are everywhere. Consumers have been hit with a 70% hike in real-terms electricity bills over the past decade, and there is more to come. Wholesale prices for electricity in most eastern states were twice as high last summer as the one before.

New vulnerabilities continue to emerge. The headline-grabber was South Australia’s blackout – the first statewide blackout since the NEM was formed in 1998 – but there have been other smaller blackouts and incidents too.

Poisonous politics means Australia is also failing to stay on track to hit its 2030 climate targets. The mixed messages on climate policy; the seemingly ad hoc public investment announcements; the threat of direct intervention in the activities of the market operator – all of this has created enormous uncertainty for private investors.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: Australia has enough electricity generation capacity for now, but more will be needed in the decade ahead.

The energy market is in a difficult transition.
georg_neu/Flickr, CC BY-NC

First, do no harm

There is currently an acute danger of politicians panicking and rushing into decisions that will only push electricity prices higher, and make the task of reducing Australia’s emissions harder.

Already, federal and state governments are committing taxpayers’ money to new energy investments. This is premature, with the Finkel Review’s recommendations not yet released. Stampeding white elephants loom ominously on the horizon.

Given the current uncertainties, it is vital not to grasp for expensive “solutions” or to lock in plans too soon. We do not yet know what technology mix will be needed in the future. Maintaining flexibility through the transition will ensure we can take advantage of the best solutions as they emerge.

‘No regrets’ short-term reforms

There are some “no regrets” moves that can and should be made, to address the short-term risks to the electricity system and buy time to resolve the longer-term ones. Australia should build on existing low-cost mechanisms before making major capital investments or redesigning the market.

The immediate challenge is to reduce the risk of blackouts next summer, in South Australia and Victoria especially. Most blackouts happen because something in the system breaks. Some simple changes to the market rules, like the recent AEMO and ARENA announcement to pay consumers to cut their electricity use, would make a big difference to managing equipment failures when they inevitably arise.

To ensure reserves are on hand, some mothballed generators should be recalled to service. Pleasingly, Origin Energy and Engie have already struck a deal to enable the restart of the second turbine of the Pelican Point generator in South Australia.

The longer-term task

The cheapest and most effective way to reduce long-term risks is to rebuild investor confidence. That requires Australia to agree, finally, on a credible climate policy. A carbon price is the best such policy, but any bipartisan policy that works with the electricity market and is capable of hitting Australia’s emissions targets will be a vast improvement on what we have now.

The transition to a zero-emissions electricity sector will be difficult. Even given a credible climate policy, there are still questions as to whether the current electricity market will be able to meet our future needs. And that’s without even mentioning the gas market, which is frankly a mess.

Politicians should begin by adopting pragmatic market reforms and giving clear direction on climate and energy policy. At the very least, they should wait until Finkel delivers his recommendations.

Hopefully the Finkel Review will define Australia’s energy security and emissions reduction needs, and provide a strong platform for politicians to work from. If so, a competitive market will find the cheapest path to a reliable and low-emissions electricity future.

The danger is that partisan politics will make the best policies untenable. If that happens, we can expect the blame to be shifted onto the market, which will be described as having “failed” – but the truth is that it will have been systematically (if not quite intentionally) destroyed.

More likely still is that governments give up on the market without giving it a chance. Scott Morrison’s budget promise of new federally owned power generation set a worrying precedent. If recent announcements deter private investors, still more government investment will be needed, which will shift yet more risk and cost onto taxpayers.

There’s a real danger of politicians focusing on “announceables” and shying away from the market reforms that will make the biggest difference to the affordability, reliability and sustainability of our electricity supply.

David Blowers, Energy Fellow, Grattan Institute and Kate Griffiths, Associate, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Budget 2017: government goes hard on gas and hydro in bid for energy security


File 20170509 11008 rrdcn2
Gas infrastructure and exploration attracted the lion’s share of new energy announcements in the 2017 federal budget.
Sean Heatley/Shutterstock.com

Hugh Saddler, Australian National University; Alan Pears, RMIT University; Roger Dargaville, University of Melbourne, and Tony Wood, Grattan Institute

The budget contains several measures designed to boost energy security, including: The Conversation

  • A$90 million to expand gas supplies, partly through increased unconventional gas exploration

  • a potential Commonwealth buyout of an expanded Snowy Hydro scheme

  • up to A$110 million for a solar thermal plant at Port Augusta

  • monitoring of gas and electricity prices by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

Below, our experts react to the measures.

Gas price problem far from solved

Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne

The budget contains a broad range of funding in energy-related areas, with a significant focus on gas resources, making A$78 million available for onshore unconventional gas exploration and reform in the gas markets, and A$7 million for studies into new gas pipelines to South Australia, from both Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Interestingly, there is A$110 million in equity available (but not guaranteed) for a solar thermal plant in Port Augusta. And most notably, the government has proposed purchasing the Snowy Hydro Scheme from the New South Wales and Victorian governments, ensuring that the scheme stays in public hands.

The budget also includes A$13 million for CSIRO to improve energy forecasting tools, and A$8 million for the ACCC to investigate consumer energy pricing issues.

Overall, the budget highlights the government’s desire to do something about gas prices, but offers little to make a significant difference to a very difficult problem. Gas market reform and new pipelines are unlikely to reduce the exposure of the domestic market to price rises driven by international exports.

Importantly, there is little new funding in the budget directly relating to reducing carbon emissions and meeting the pledges made in the Paris Agreement (a 26-28% emission reduction relative to 2005 levels by 2030). Also noteworthy is the fact that funding for the carbon capture and storage flagship ceases in 2018-19.

‘On energy this budget is small fry’

Tony Wood, Energy Program Director, Grattan Institute

The budget does little more on energy than endorse the government’s deal with Senator Nick Xenophon on corporate tax cuts, complemented by modest commitments to energy security, more gas and better regulation.

Government facilitation of gas development and beefing up the energy capability of the Australian Energy Regulator and the ACCC are simple logic, and the one- off payment to pensioners to help with electricity bills will be welcomed by them.

Major public funding for further feasibility studies is a little more questionable. If the gas crisis can’t galvanise support from pipeline companies and gas consumers for pipelines, why would governments reach a different conclusion?

And finally, one can only speculate as to why the federal government is contemplating buying out the NSW and Victorian governments’ share of Snowy Hydro. Presumably it is because the feds are concerned about securing support for the proposed expansion.

In summary, on energy this budget is small fry ahead of major policy decisions that rest on the forthcoming Finkel Review of the National Electricity Market next month, and the climate change policy review later in the year.

A step towards radical energy reform?

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

Few announcements in the budget speech are more emblematic of complete policy reversal than the announcement that the Commonwealth would buy the shareholdings in Snowy Hydro Limited of the governments of NSW (58%) and Victoria (29%), to add to the 13% currently owned by the Commonwealth. This comes almost exactly 11 years after Prime Minister John Howard, responding to vociferous public opposition, pulled the plug on plans by all three governments for a public float of their entire shareholdings. What is more, Treasurer Scott Morrison has now announced that, once owned by the Commonwealth, Snowy Hydro would remain in public ownership.

This announcement of course accompanies the government’s Snowy 2.0 proposal, for a fivefold increase in the Snowy scheme’s current 500 megawatt pumped storage capacity (at Talbingo). This was used, after commissioning in 1974, to allow inflexible coal fired power stations to operate with constant output levels day and night, but is now almost never used. This presumably reflects commercial decisions by Snowy Hydro, as it trades in the National Electricity Market.

The rationale for Snowy Hydro 2.0 is to facilitate operation of a grid with a high share of renewable generation, by smoothing out variations in wind and solar supply. Does this announcement mean that the government envisages moving away from a strictly commercial approach to using the assets of the Snowy scheme? Is this a first step towards radical restructuring, or even dismantling, of the National Electricity Market?

Stronger legislation needed

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

The detailed A$265 million energy package includes a number of useful measures to strengthen the weak regulatory culture of the energy sector that has allowed our energy crisis to evolve. But it is still limited: strong legislative reform and active support of emerging competitors will also be needed. It is a modest investment compared with recent multibillion-dollar energy cost increases. If it is successful, it will deliver vary large net benefits to the economy by limiting energy price increases. Unfortunately, past efforts to fix the energy situation have largely failed to deliver real outcomes: we need clear objectives for outcomes, and a mechanism to implement contingency strategies if they are not achieved.

In a context of increasing urgency for stronger action on climate, and the reality that the global “burnable carbon” budget is very limited, investment to encourage more gas development seems misplaced. More emphasis on energy efficiency, renewables and smart energy systems would make much more sense. Energy efficiency already saves billions on energy costs and could save much more, while renewable energy is becoming cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives. They also help to achieve our climate targets. And fossil fuels are responsible for almost three-quarters of Australian emissions, so we need strong action to meet our international obligations.

The extension of the A$20,000 tax write-off for small business spending on equipment is a measure that, at least for small businesses, offsets a significant barrier to investment in energy efficiency. Firms will also be able to continue to claim the write-off to improve the economics of investments in on-site renewable energy and storage. Of course, the problem still remains for spending over A$20,000 by small businesses, and for larger businesses.

The energy security plan, which includes funding for ACCC to police energy industry behaviour is only a small step towards fixing the disastrous failures of energy policy and a transition to a 21st century energy policy framework. Much more will need to be done.

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University; Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University; Roger Dargaville, Deputy Director, Melbourne Energy Institute, University of Melbourne, and Tony Wood, Program Director, Energy, Grattan Institute

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Why we need an ‘energy Landcare’ to tackle rising power prices

Image 20170224 32692 1tle6t8
This array in Indiana is one of a growing number of “community solar gardens” in the US.
Robford15/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Nicky Ison, University of Technology Sydney

Rising electricity prices have become a fact of life in Australia – and are likely to be so for a few years to come. The Conversation

However, while the cost of generating electricity will rise as cheap but ageing coal power stations go offline, that doesn’t mean your electricity bills need to follow suit.

Households and businesses can take greater control of their energy future and slash their power bills in a range of cost-effective ways. Solar panels and battery storage are among the most obvious strategies. But not everyone can afford them, which is why we are seeing the rise of community projects that aim to give more people access to clean energy.

Australia now has more than 1.6 million solar roofs. Last year 6,750 battery storage systems were installed, up from just 500 in 2015.

Yet many households and businesses are still effectively “locked out” of this energy revolution. Many renters, apartment-dwellers and lower-income households face a series of market barriers that make these options hard to access.

Renters often find that their landlord does not want to invest in solar. Those living in apartments can have the same problem with their strata or body corporate, with the added problem of not always having access to their own roof.

Poorer households typically can’t afford solar panels or batteries, even if they would save money over the longer term. On top of the expense, buying solar panels and other clean energy products can be complicated and confusing.

Club together

The good news is that there are several initiatives around Australia that aim to get around these barriers. One example is Darebin Solar $avers, a collaboration between local government, community and industry that has installed solar panels on 300 low-income households in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. There was no upfront cost to these households, ensuring they were financially better off from day one.

Another example is the community solar gardens model, which has become popular in the United States. Solar gardens work by installing a central solar array, generally near a population centre. Energy customers are invited to buy (or subscribe to) a share in a handful of the array’s solar panels. The electricity generated is then credited on the customer’s electricity bill. Often, poorer households are offered discounts to be able to participate.

One issue with these kinds of schemes, however, is that they are complicated to set up. They usually involve many partner organisations – at least one of which has to have an interest in ensuring that users are better off. It is hard to see how the market can deliver these schemes on its own.

Where markets fail, it is typically governments’ job to step in and help. So how can governments go about helping people get access to affordable clean energy?

In the United States, the Obama administration set a national target of 1 gigawatt of solar panels to be installed on low- to moderate-income homes by 2020 as part of the Clean Energy Savings for All program. The National Community Solar Partnership brought together 68 organisations to help set up community solar gardens and make them easier to access.

This week, Australia’s second national Community Energy Congress in Melbourne will hear from Barack Obama’s climate and energy adviser, Candace Vahlsing, who will outline how these policies can help ensure wider access to green energy.

In Australia, a proposal to establish a network of 50 Regional Energy Hubs is gaining traction. The federal Labor Party, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team all made commitments in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election.

The Regional Energy Hubs proposal is modelled on the Moreland Energy Foundation, a non-profit organisation in inner-north Melbourne set up in 2000 in the wake of Victoria’s energy privatisation. The foundation has a team of energy and engagement experts working with households, businesses, community groups and governments on innovative approaches to implementing sustainable energy supply – the Darebin Solar $avers program being one example. The idea would be to set up dozens more similar organisations, all linked together across the nation.

The program can be thought of as like Landcare but for clean energy. Landcare is a nationwide network of volunteers who care for our land and water, with the aim of boosting both environmental protection and agricultural productivity. Similarly, energy hubs would aim both to make energy more environmentally friendly, and to make clean energy more affordable and accessible.

This is why we have to move past just talking about “costs” and start thinking about investment. Modelling by Marsden Jacobs and Associates shows that every dollar of government investment in community energy can leverage A$10-17 of community investment. At the same time, this delivers many other benefits to communities: closer connections between neighbours; opportunities to learn new skills or access new income streams; easing social inequity; and improving health.

Given the myriad possible solutions to our energy challenges, we need to nut out what works best, and where. The best way to do this is by putting all of our heads together – local government, state government, federal government, private enterprise, innovators in the clean energy sector, and the communities that stand to benefit. That way we can make the clean energy transition fairer and more accessible to all.


The second national Community Energy Congress is taking place in Melbourne on February 27-28.

Nicky Ison, Senior Research Consultant, Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Government crackdown on missionary presence could get worse


The Kazakh government continues to put pressure on foreign missionaries attempting to obtain visas to stay in the country. The Kazakh church is prepared for matters to get worse, reports MNN.

"Foreign involvement for the purpose of missionary work in Kazakhstan becomes increasingly difficult to happen," confirms Eric Mock, vice president of Ministry Operations for Slavic Gospel Association.

Norwegian news network Forum 18 conveys a number of instances in which the Kazakh government has denied visas to foreign missionaries of various minority faiths. A missionary visa, as it is, lasts only 180 days and cannot be renewed.

Mock says there is some fear that the visas will become even more restrictive. According to Forum 18, the Nur Otan Party has even created a document calling for further crackdown on "non-traditional faiths." Forum 18 quotes a report as saying, "The Nur Otan Party should devote special attention to the activity of non-traditional religious movements of destructive character. The destructive impact of such movements is very great."

With clear contempt toward the presence of evangelical Christian missionaries as well as missionaries for other minority faiths, the church as well as ministries like SGA need to prepare for any change. "[We need to] be sure that we do not assume that the world that we minister in today is the same that we minister in tomorrow," says Mock.

Whether or not missionary presence is increasingly restricted does not directly affect SGA, since their ministry mainly focuses on helping nationals. Still, won’t a crackdown harm the church? Mock says not as much as you might think.

"There is one thing that I saw [in Kazakhstan] that mostly encouraged my heart," explains Mock. "I saw a group of ethnic Kazakh young men who God has raised up with a passion to reach their own people. I had not really seen that in the past; it [had been] more of a Russian Baptist influence, but now I’m seeing Kazakh Baptist."

As long as changes don’t happen too abruptly, Mock says he believes the church will be able to handle any blows headed their way. The energy generated by young church leaders could be just what the Kazakh church needs to become self-sustaining. "With this new generation coming up, I think even with law changes, God has raised up this younger generation to make a profound impact for the sake of the Gospel."

If laws are passed too quickly or even just gradually, their effects will still of course be evident in the church. Mock says the best thing that we can do for them now is to pray. "There is nothing more important than praying for the believers in Kazakhstan to be passionate in reaching their own people, and to see more churches planted with that same commitment to advance the Gospel."

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Commentary: Stephen Hawking’s junk science atheism


Commentary by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman

LifeSiteNews.com

World-famous physics professor Stephen Hawking is making waves and headlines by claiming in his new book, The Grand Design, that God is not necessary to explain the existence of the universe because, in his words, "as recent advances in cosmology suggest, the laws of gravity and quantum theory allow universes to appear spontaneously from nothing."

"Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist," he adds. "It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going."

Although the book is not yet available to the public and only a few paragraphs have been quoted in the commercial media, it appears that Hawking is playing the same game he played in his celebrated work, A Brief History of Time, which established his fame in the 1980s and has sold millions of copies worldwide. He takes theories that he admits are unproven, then uses verbal sleight of hand to begin treating them subtly as fact. Even worse, however, is his method of spinning ludicrous philosophical conclusions from such theories, implying that they simply follow from the science.

Hawking makes hay out of the theory of the "vacuum fluctuation" to imply that matter can simply spontaneously appear, created out of "nothing." A vacuum fluctuation is an event in which the forces of nature manifest themselves briefly as "virtual particles," so briefly they cannot be directly observed, and then disappear. Such theoretical entities seem to be well supported by experimental evidence. However, physics has not abandoned the principle of the conservation of mass and energy, and the "nothing" that such particles receive their mass from is in fact something very real, known as "vacuum energy," which permeates all of space.

"Quantum cosmologists," such as Hawking, have made a cottage industry out of speculating that events like vacuum fluctuations could result in the creation of entirely new worlds, although they have no direct experimental proof of such events occurring. This is in keeping with Hawking’s general obsession with highly theoretical constructs that have little hard data to support them. He has, for example, spent many years theorizing on the properties of black holes, entities whose very existence remains unproven. This is why, despite his great fame and unquestioned ability, he has never received the Nobel Prize in physics.

In his latest bid for publicity, Hawking appears to be employing his usual shell-game verbiage to imply the "spontaneous" appearance of the physical world, with Nothing itself as a creator. His theory emphasizes vacuum fluctuations, but it apparently slips his mind that the law of conservation of energy remains an axiom of physics. He defines "nothing" in a very peculiar way — apparently the energy of the vacuum is "nothing." Moreover, Hawking cites two particular "nothings" to justify his something-from-nothing theory, which are the laws of gravity and quantum mechanics (the laws governing microphysical particles). He says that these laws make such events possible. Are gravity and quantum-physical laws "nothing"?

Hawking’s current statements are similar to those he made in his Brief History of Time, where he tried to imply that the universe came out of nothing because research suggests that the positive and negative energy of the universe balance each other out. Gravity, which is an attractive force, is understood as "negative energy," and the expansive movement of the universe is seen as "positive energy."

Of course, if you add together a negative number and positive number whose absolute values are equal, you get zero, but so what? Are we to conclude that because these two variables sum to nothing, that they had their origin in nothing, or perhaps that they don’t even exist because they cancel each other out? If so, how could one place them as terms in the equation in the first place? Hawking never bothers to answer basic questions like that, apparently hoping that his naive and sympathetic audience won’t ask them.

 

Selective science?

While making selective use of new and untested theories to make his case, Hawking conveniently forgets to mention that the most commonly-accepted interpretation of quantum physics has a tendency to dramatically undermine his position. That interpretation is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation (CI), popularized by Nobel Prize winning physicist Niels Bohr. The CI postulates that particles don’t really exist until they are observed — they only exist in a potential way, as probabilities. Indeed, if one is to take the ultra-empiricist position that Hawking takes, in which perception and reality are naively equated, this is the most logical conclusion one can draw from modern quantum physics, which uses probabilities to address the trade-off between the precision of our knowledge about the location and momentum of particles.

However, if it is true that particles don’t exist until they are observed, then human beings themselves would not exist, and therefore the whole universe would not exist, unless there were a non-physical observer outside of the universe causing it to exist. This is one reason that some physicists who initially embraced the CI because it dovetailed with their empiricist worldview, have backed away from it. They don’t like the conclusions it tends to lead them to. The non-physical observer outside of the universe, causing it to exist by observing it, sounds too much like God.

Not surprisingly, Hawking has rejected the CI in favor of another, less popular interpretation called the "many worlds" interpretation. According to Hawking’s own review of the book, he applies this interpretation of quantum physics as if it is something that flows out of the science itself, rather than being an unproven (and currently unprovable) supposition that is rejected by large numbers of physicists. He then uses this fanciful theory, which claims that every quantum event spawns new, alternate universes where all possibilities are realized, to reject the strong anthropic principle, which argues that the fine-tuning of the universe suggests the existence of a Creator. Hawking argues that with so many parallel worlds, one is bound to be friendly to life, and so no further explanation is needed.

 

Natural science vs philosophy and religion

However, the errors in Hawking’s thinking run deeper than the inconsistencies and speculations in his use of modern physics. They imply a fundamental misunderstanding about the differences between the natural sciences and the sciences of philosophy and theology. While the natural sciences can give answers to questions about the precise nature of physical objects and their behavior, they cannot answer questions about the origins of the physical world itself, which is an area addressed by metaphysical philosophy, theology, and religion.

In fact, Hawking openly characterizes his new book as a challenge to philosophy itself, claiming that modern physics is capable of answering all of the questions addressed by the philosophic sciences, thus rendering the latter obsolete.

The absurdity and arrogance of such a proposition is immediately obvious when one considers that physics and other physical sciences don’t have non-physical reality as their subject matter. Physics studies physical things. It doesn’t study purely abstract concepts according to their nature, like the formal sciences of logic, mathematics, and geometry – which are ironically sciences on which physics depends. Physics therefore cannot tell us about the origin of all physical things, which would take it to an extra-physical realm outside of its own sphere of competence.

Hawking’s incredible naiveté and ignorance about the nature of philosophy and its relation to the natural sciences becomes evident when reading his Brief History of Time, which makes embarrassing blunders about Aristotle, even claiming that he denied the validity of the senses (he is famous for affirming the opposite). However, Hawking’s seemingly total ignorance about philosophy also leads him to breathtaking errors in reasoning, which would inspire pity in the reader if it weren’t for the fact that he will never be held accountable for them.

Hawking and his fellow-travelers want to attribute the beginning of the universe to physical laws, while ignoring the issue of their source. A law is a concept, a principle, it is not a physical thing. How do such laws exist without a lawgiver? How do concepts exist without a mind to conceive them? If so, where and how do they exist? Are they floating around in the mythical ether?

More problematical is the very existence of things that do not exist by their nature. There is nothing necessary about the laws of physics as we find them, nor the physical objects of our universe and their properties. We can conceive of an infinite number of possible universes, each with their own set of laws, objects, and internal conditions. So why does this universe exist and not others? If others exist, why do they exist instead of not existing? This is known in philosophy as the contingency problem, and it is one that physics cannot begin to answer. The finite things of our world do not exist by any internal necessity. Therefore they must depend on something else for their existence, and ultimately all things must depend on a being that exists by its very nature, that exists per se. Christians, Jews, Muslims and others call that being God.

Other philosophical problems arise with Hawking’s belief in "spontaneous," uncaused events. Although the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which is a fundamental element of quantum physics, requires scientists to use theories of probability and "randomness" when creating mathematical models of the physical world, this does not translate automatically to the conclusion that the world is truly, metaphysically random, and lacking in design.

Randomness is a meaningless concept without a preexisting probability function to define it, along with rules and objects to which it applies. Moreover, randomness itself is only a way of dealing with a lack of complete knowledge about a set of circumstances, much as we deal with a deck of cards that has been shuffled. The idea that the world could be the product of some primordial "randomness" and fundamentally uncaused is absurd on its face, and flies in the nature of science itself, which is the study of causes and principles. If the existence of the universe can be "random" and uncaused, so can any event that takes place within it, which would utterly eliminate science, and the ability to rationally understand the world we live in.

Hawking’s thought is symptomatic of the disciplinary hubris that often overcomes academics, especially physicists and other practitioners of the natural sciences, who forget that their respective fields are, after all, limited. The natural sciences in particular seem to attract large numbers of people who are convinced that only physical reality exists, despite the massive edifice of arguments that have been raised against such a worldview for over 2,300 years by philosophy and theology. They are often laboring under the most primitive kinds of philosophical errors, especially empiricism, a long-refuted doctrine that lives on only in the naive minds of otherwise brilliant scientists, whose myopic vision of the world drives them to great achievements in their own fields, while leading them to utter failure in answering the great questions of life.

Jane Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s ex-wife whom he left to marry his young nurse, probably put it best when she said of her husband, "Stephen has the feeling that because everything is reduced to a rational, mathematical formula, that must be the truth. He is delving into realms that really do matter to thinking people and, in a way, that can have a very disturbing effect on people — and he’s not competent."

Unfortunately, this brilliant physicist and incompetent philosopher is likely to have quite a disturbing effect on our already confused society, unless other, more responsible physicists raise their voices. Let us hope they do.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Pew Research Center: Many Americans mix multiple faiths


The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories. A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions, reports Pew Research Center.

Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination — even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals. Many also blend Christianity with Eastern or New Age beliefs such as reincarnation, astrology and the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects. And sizeable minorities of all major U.S. religious groups say they have experienced supernatural phenomena, such as being in touch with the dead or with ghosts.

One-third of Americans (35%) say they regularly (9%) or occasionally (26%) attend religious services at more than one place, and most of these (24% of the public overall) indicate that they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own. Aside from when they are traveling and special events like weddings and funerals, three-in-ten Protestants attend services outside their own denomination, and one-fifth of Catholics say they sometimes attend non-Catholic services.

To read the full report, click here.

Report from the Christian Telegraph