Sustainable Energy NZ #12 – do Kiwis have to be flightless?

Welcome to the twelfth post in the Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air – A New Zealand Perspective series. We’ll be changing gears here from our previous posts on hydro power, geothermal and wind (and a summary on the big three), solarbiofuelsmarine and waste energy. From here on out we’ll be attempting to answer the question:

How can we achieve a BIG reduction in our personal and national energy consumption?

It’s a very important topic – and one prone to greenwashing and hype. Like McKay, we want to have informed discussion about the options available to us here in NZ, so we’ll be going through topic by topic and looking at energy use in each sector of our lives: transport, residential energy, the things we buy, and so on. We hope that you find it interesting and informative.

A few notes before we begin: as before, the units are in kWh/day/person – ie. if you ran a 40W lightbulb for 24 hours, it’d take ~1 kWh over the space of a day. We then divide it by person to give you a sense of the scale of the resource proportionate to the size of the population. Be sure to check out the methodology. For reference – we’re looking to replace around 55 kWh/d/p of energy currently generated by fossil fuels.


The 2.6kWh/d/p spend on aviation fuel, from the Energy Data File, is a very poor indicator of what New Zealanders actually spend on planes, because of airline fuelling regimes. For example, the return flight from London is included in the UK statistics. Data from the UN [o96d7t] and the International Civil Aviation Authority [8cc3859] gives an estimate of NZ passenger kilometres in 2004.  Dividing by 2004 population converts to 18kWh/d/p using MacKay’s estimate for fuel use. This includes energy spent overseas, and is a better indicator of New Zealanders’ actual energy use on air travel.

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Which is the greater crime?

Alice Bows’ testimony evidently wasn’t enough to persuade the Aberdeen jury to acquit the nine Plane Stupid protestors accused of breaching the peace by their brief occupation of Aberdeen airport last year. A majority verdict yesterday declared them guilty, and the Guardian reports that they are likely to face heavy fines or jail terms.

Those undertaking acts of civil disobedience do not normally expect to escape legal consequences. One of the defendants, Don Glass, 25, of Glasgow, said afterwards he was not surprised to be found guilty. However he pointed out that the trial had served a useful purpose:

“ We were in the self-titled oil capital of Europe and to get climate change in front of a jury is an achievement in itself. To get one of the top sheriffs in Aberdeen to say let’s not dispute that climate change is man-made is an achievement.

“Two weeks talking about the important civil disobedience and protest and freedom of expression in the face of runaway climate change is an achievement. We now know the importance of non-violent direct action in the fact of inaction from the courts.”

What he meant by inaction from the courts is probably indicated by the comments of another protestor, Tilly Gifford, 24, from Glasgow:

“We set out to show in court that policies such as the aviation white paper contradict what the science demands. Now that the court has heard expert witnesses testify to the imperative need to cut emissions, they are mandated to prosecute the real criminals, the corporations who are profiting from polluting.”

There appears to be no legal structure to enable charges against corporations and feet-dragging governments with crimes against future generations and probably against existing populations in some parts of the world.  But the claim that acts of non-violent civil disobedience have legal excuse  because they aim to prevent a higher crime against humanity through carbon emissions is an entirely reasonable defence to offer. If Don Glass’s declaration post-trial that climate protesters now have to step up their campaigns of civil disobedience proves to have substance, we will see more such trials and hear more such defences. Even when they fail they will surely keep the question alive in the public mind. I salute those who are prepared to do that. And lament that it should be necessary. In a rational world it would by now be the chief focus of government and business to work furiously to decarbonise our economies.

The answer lies in the… superconducting magnets

Superconducting electrical motors could replace conventional aircraft engines, and if run on hydrogen could offer low-carbon air transport, a team of US researchers claim.

“We could potentially build a superconducting motor and generator smaller than a gas turbine, which would make possible electric propulsion,” says [Phillppe] Masson [of Florida State University]. Electrical propulsion would not only decrease emissions but also reduce to a minimum the needs for maintenance as all hydraulic systems would be eliminated, he adds. The team has designed such systems with high fidelity models and optimization tools. Masson adds that the team is now looking for an industrial partner to build a prototype of the superconducting turbofan. “The technology is there,” he says, “it is a matter of finding a source of funding.”

Meanwhile, the UK Telegraph investigates the rush to green air travel…

GE jet fuel and noisy easyJets

Helen Clark might think that curbing travel to cut carbon is “idiotic