This is a guest post from reader Brendon Harre and first appeared here a few weeks ago. 

*Note: Brendon has updated this article based on feedback and the new version can be found here.

The coronavirus is devastating for public health and economic well-being. Yet among the tide of bad news there is an interesting fact that indicates a potentially positive future for New Zealand.
The following quote about New Zealand’s trade surplus.

“NZ is believed to have run a $1.3b trade surplus in March as exports, including agricultural exports, held up impressively, and imports, probably mostly of non-essential items and oil, fell”

This quote was found in the Stuff article titled – Why I am optimistic we can get through Covid-19 without becoming paupers.

The implication of this quote is if our political and business leaders can imagine a different future, then homegrown electricity could replace imported liquid fossil fuels. And then the trade surplus that New Zealand achieved in lock-down could become permanent.

There is obvious great economic well-being, environmental and climate-change reasons for replacing fossil fuels with electricity. But quite apart from these factors the simple long-term national account benefits are 1. Obvious 2. Undeniable 3. Enormous.

In a way it is insanity that New Zealand has not moved earlier on this opportunity. NZ Inc has been very conservative and unimaginative in its outlook. As a country we are well known to be ‘knockers’ of new ideas. Perhaps this pandemic will shake up the nation’s psyche?

Importing oil rather than using our own energy supplies is only part of the missed ‘electrification’ opportunity.

New Zealand imports cars at a world beating per capita rate (especially Canterbury where the author is from). Motor vehicle accidents in New Zealand results in high ACC and insurance premiums -a significant amount going overseas to re-insurers. Motor vehicle death and injuries cause healthcare and social impacts that are an even higher cost. Automobiles release health ruining particulates into the environment… Overall fossil fuel and automobile dependency is a huge cost to NZ Inc.

Gerrard Liddell a Dunedin mathematician explores the real cost of road transport in this piece here. Gerrard says, “the examination of our transport system is not about punishing motorists, of whom I am one, but being able to drive with a clear conscience, knowing that we motorists are paying our way.”

How could New Zealand electrify the economy?

The first task is ensuring security of electricity supply at a low per unit price. New Zealand has a problem that its electricity system only stores five or six weeks of electricity in its hydro lakes (in comparison Norway has over a year). This means periodically when there is insufficient rainfall these lakes run dry, causing electricity output to drop, prices to rise and carbon producing gas peaking plants to come onstream. The uncertainty caused by this ‘dry year’ risk causes New Zealand’s electricity prices to be higher than they could be.

The Interim Climate Change Committee and Transpower have looked at this dry year risk. Their recommendations are that pumped hydro to be further investigated as a potential solution. Transpower indicating that this solution needs a decisive decision to prepare the country for the ‘ramp’ of electricity demand in the coming decades to 2050.

Transpower predicts 68 per cent growth in energy demand between now and 2050 as ‘the ramp’. Figure 3 shows why. The ramp in energy demand is slow in the five years between 2020 and 2025, from 42 to 44 TWh, but materially grows in the 2025–2030 period, in which total energy demand increases by approximately 10 per cent from 44 to 48 TWh. Source: Transpower report Whakamana i Te Mauri Hiko — Empowering our Energy Future P.23

The economics of pumped hydro is examined in a paper titled – A Credit Injection to the Electricity Grid Would Boost New Zealand’s Economy.

The next task would be to use that plentiful supply of low-cost renewable electricity to transform transportation in New Zealand.

Something like the Green Party $9 billion rail proposal that intends to deliver a significant intercity rail investment over ten years to roll out fast, electric passenger services connecting key provincial centres with Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Over time this would see fast electric trains for passenger and freight connecting:

  • Auckland to Hamilton, Tauranga and eventually Whangarei
  • Wellington with Masterton, Palmerston North and eventually Whanganui
  • Christchurch with Rangiora in the North, Ashburton in the south and eventually Timaru.

The proposal being delivered in two stages.

Stage one

  • A major programme of work to electrify the rail lines between these centres
  • Targeted improvements to the existing track to allow travel speeds to increase up to 110km/h.

Stage two

  • Building new higher-speed track to support “tilt-trains” capable of achieving speeds of 160km/h
  • By-passes to create faster, more direct routes (e.g. around Whangamarino wetland north of Hamilton).

Julie Anne Genter the Green Party transport spokesperson and the Associate Transport Minister explains this opportunity in the This Climate Business podcast titled On Bikes, Trains and Automobiles.

I would suggest in stage one that New Zealand use electric battery trains as pictured at the top of this article to extend services in advance of electrification of the rail lines. These trains have a range of 120 km in battery mode (note I have previously written about New Zealand’s history of electric trains and trams here)

Alstom has been awarded a €100m contract to supply and maintain the first battery-electric version of its Coradia Continental multiple-unit family in Germany

The third task is New Zealand needs to get much better at integrating housing with mass transit and other multi-modal transport options. All of our major urban centres need mass transit spatial plans. And our big capital works government departments NZTA and Kainga Ora – Homes and Communities need to come together to produce great new urban developments.

One of the consequences of economic downturn resulting from the pandemic is Infometrics Chief Forecaster Gareth Kiernan expects residential building to drop from 38,000 homes a year to 18,400 by mid 2022 and is calling for a repeat of the Great Depression government-led house building programme.

There should be cooperation with local authorities, the business community and buildings should be future proofed for energy efficiency, climate change and seismic risk.

Business chambers and forestry leaders across the country are calling on the Government to adopt a ‘wood-first’ policy. The policy would mean homegrown engineered timber products would be the preferred building material for publicly funded residential, commercial and public buildings.

Building scientist Jason Quinn has laid out five ways government can stimulate the economy by setting effective performance standards for housing and public buildings. These measures would also improve public health and help New Zealand reach its zero carbon targets. Jason Quin believes New Zealand can learn from overseas successes and lift outcomes without hiking the cost to build.

A group of us described an integrated housing and transport project for Christchurch which we called MaRTI. There would be other opportunities in Greater Christchurch. Integrating housing with transport would also allow New Zealand to tackle its housing and human rights crisis. Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Napier-Hastings, Dunedin etc also have fantastic opportunities to build housing around mass transit.

The fourth task is the transport implications of electrifying New Zealand is not just about mass transit. Norway for instance has used its low-cost reliable hydropower supply to drive a greater uptake in electric car use. Popular social movements have encouraged Norwegians to have the world’s highest per capita electric vehicle ownership rate.
New Zealand should also be pushing harder to electrify its vehicle fleets (cars, buses, light commercial and heavy commercial if possible).

Example of the NZRB providing direct monetary stimulus to the real economy. Source -Stuff -Housing on the State. The above quote originally sourced from ‘State Housing in New Zealand’ published by the Ministry of Works in 1949

Financing the electrification transition is not a barrier even if Covid-19 causes a major economic downturn.

The funding for government electrifying New Zealand initiatives can come from accessing Reserve Bank credit which could be used to stimulate the real economy. This is explained by a recent article titled – Raf Manji urges the RBNZ not to make the mistake of previous overseas QE programmes by focusing entirely on supporting the financial markets and in a video here. Reserve Bank credit could be extended until inflation becomes more concerning than the costs of the coronavirus economic downturn. Dr Geoff Bertram a Senior Associate in the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University also discusses the issues surrounding Reserve Bank credit here.

On so many different levels now is the time for New Zealand to invest in electrification. Let’s do it!

I would encourage readers to also check out Dr Chris Harris’s insightful comment about the history of economic thought regarding New Zealand replacing liquid fossil fuels with electricity. Back in 1980 for instance, the economist Eric M Ojala pointed out that the cost of petroleum imports equalled the earnings of the entire New Zealand meat industry. Chris is an urban historian and has made several useful contributions to the national debate about the past and future direction of urbanism in New Zealand. Such as, An urbanist looks at what went wrong in Auckland and how we might fix it and Lost City: Forgotten Plans for an Alternative Auckland.

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  1. Great article Brendon!

    A couple of comments. We shouldn’t be sending money from car insurance premiums to overseas re-insurers. The purpose of re-insurance is to cover insurers for large one-off events, earthquakes in large urban areas being an obvious example. Vehicle accidents happen at a relatively consistent and predictable rate, so are generally just covered by the insurers themselves.

    When you talk about pumped hydro storage are you talking about pumping water from say the base of the Roxburgh dam all the way back up to Lake Hawea or just back up to the top of the dam?

    1. Thanks Jezza. The proposal is to pump water up 600 to 700m from Lake Roxborough to Lake Onslow Reservoir. This is a big scheme. It would require a tunnel of over 20 km in length and for the existing Onslow Reservoir Dam would need to be enlarged. The benefits for the country would though be enormous. Stable, reliable, low cost electricity that would transition to 100% renewable.
      There is a full write-up of the scheme here.
      This write-up includes an extended comment from Prof Bardsley who was the originator of the proposed scheme.
      P.S Yes I think I did over-egg the insurance point. Hopefully that doesn’t detract from the overall strategy.

      1. Great article Brendan, with lots of interesting links to other points to explore.

        The other key considerations is what is going to happen with Tiwai? If that shuts down the 14% extra capacity will change the economics quite alot.

        Also would it not be smarter if we are thinking about increased generation to focus it in the NI? Possibly Geothermal as well?

        1. Pumped hydro shouldn’t be compared to electricity generator. Its role is to be a battery. It stores power when there is a surplus of renewable electricity and releases it when there is a shortage. The Onslow pumped hydro scheme would be one of the largest batteries in the world. It would be many many times larger than lithium battery farm in South Australia for example.
          There may be a possibility for smaller North Island pumped hydro schemes to offset new wind power schemes but Onslow is needed to address the Southern hydro lakes dry year risk problem. Check out the links. The issue is quite complex.

        2. I think Tiwai will be around for a while yet. I expect Rio Tinto’s executives will be on the first flight in once our borders open. They will have a very strong negotiating position now as no government is going to want an employer as significant as them to fall over in the current economic climate just because they played hardball.

        3. I agree Jezza it is unlikely that the smelter will close in the next few years.
          If the Onslw pumped hydro scheme was built though there would likely be upgrades of grid. With new DC links etc. This would make it easier in the future to close the smelter if the government became tired of Rio Tintos hardball tactics as the electricity could be more easily redirected.

        4. That Tiwai energy should be used to make hydrogen which could be used to replace natural gas and power fossil fuel vehicles.
          Transmission lines to the rest of the country aren’t good enough so that we export the electricity. And the process is similar to the existing Aluminium process. We could re-employ the workers from the refinery to work on hydrogen production.
          There have been recent advances in the process to hydrolyse water making it more efficient.

      2. No it definitely doesn’t detract from your overall point, imported oil is the serious cost when it comes to vehicles.

        Thanks for the link, that’s an interesting proposal, I’ll have to have a proper read of it.

        It’s a pretty desolate, infrequently visited area up there, so not a bad place for a storage reservoir. However, it will definitely have it’s detractors as it is very hard to get any dams consented now let alone what (I think) would be the biggest artificial lake in the country.

        1. Yes there will be some local detractors. But despite its isolation it is already a altered by man environment. The existing reservoir flooded the original wetlands. Prof Bardsley has some environment mitigation proposals and there would be benefits for ‘normalising’ river flows and lake levels in other parts of the hydro lake network. It is worthwhile reading Prof Bardsley extended comment. His area of expertise is hydrology.
          Also from an environmental perspective the local effect needs to be considered against the global CO2 effect.

        2. The proposed lake is not as big as you might first think. From memory about 125 sq km. Hydro energy storage is water volume multiplied by the height of the drop (head). Because there is such a large height difference between Lake Roxborough and Lake Onslow the energy storage is huge. It would more than double the storage capacity of the hydro lake network.

        3. It’s not massive, but it’s bigger than Benmore so would certainly be our biggest artificial lake.

      3. Looks like a promising idea that should be investigated further.

        One thing not addressed by that article is that such a scheme, if built now, would be still be young when Roxburgh Dam reaches end of life. This isn’t necessarily a problem, just requires factoring into the design that Lake Roxburgh might not exist forever.

  2. One option I’ve been wondering about a bit lately is about instead of building batteries into the frame of the train directly, why not have it as a separate piece.

    For a freight train this could mean something like having a wagon or two with big banks of them, a bit like an old coal tender. Recently saw a manufacturer or operator paper looking at these but can’t find it now.

    Then I saw these from Stadler for passenger use. It’s an EMU but has a 1/3rd size carriage inserted in the middle that can have batteries and/or a diesel power generator in it (tri-mode). I like it in that gives quite a bit of flexibility, if you need to replace the batteries in a decade you just swap out that part, if you wire up a route and no longer need those batteries, you just take that part out and the train is still the same.

    1. And there is a central corridor through the power car with the diesel engines on the side so all of the train is accessible from any door.

    2. Thanks for finding that Matt L it’s a wonder KR and the Govt haven’t thought about trying ‘purchase for the NIMT . As they could then be brought back into Britomart and used on the unwired sections of the NIMT . And looking at the bogie configuration they seem to be built for extra safety and high speed like the TGV’s in France .

      And would they be able to have extra carriages inserted into the standard configuration ? .

      1. The wiki page I linked to earlier has 3-4 car sets as the most common but there are some bigger ones. Would all depend on order and I can’t see a 4-car set being insufficient in NZ for quite some time. What interests me is not so much this particular train but the general concept of having a standard EMU but with a power module attached, instead of some ideas like putting the batteries on the roof – like the image in the post and what was proposed for Pukekohe

    3. Matt I have seen some similar freight battery locos, I think this was latest study I saw

      I have long thought that a battery freight loco would be well suited to NZ, with one wagons worth of batteries/infrastructure (~60T capacity) as a tender, I believe most trains would be able to span the gaps in the north islands electrification, especially if they get up to speed under catenary. Add some more OHE at passing loops and they can charge when waiting to cross. Then the gaps in coverage could progressively be reduced in size.

  3. Really good piece. I still think high speed regional rail is an unrealistic folly, though.
    I’d like to see much more emphasis on intra-urban PT, and electric cars.

    1. Higher, zen, not High. Up to 160kph, not 250+kph.

      Basically it’s what can be run if we upgrade core parts of the network to a good standard along with extending the overhead. Not whole new lines.

      Benefits freight and urban services too. win win win.

      1. “Benefits freight and urban services too”

        How does it benefit freight? Mixing freight trains with 160 km/h, “multiple trains per hour” passenger services will invariably result in freight being sidelined and hence delayed. No amount of electrification is going to result in freight being run at 160 km/h.

        1. Not to sure why the trains need to go 160 km per hour I would have thought 140 would be good enough. I have heard the Silver Ferm railcar did travel at 140 kph on suitable track. Some kind of battery diesel hybrid with regenerative breaking might be the way to go. Also if they can run off the wire in electrified sections. And they should be multiple units.

        2. You sound like a KR staffer! Hands off our crap network; if you improve it we’ll have to put up with all sorts of things, no thank-you, I will see out retirement trundling a few old locos about. That’s how we like it.

          Sorry. Seriously: Because the Network will be have to be upgraded to meet this standard including capacity improvements to accomodate them around existing services.

          Things like flying Westfield, more track, 4th main, a 3rd say from Panmure to GI, eased curves, more crossovers, bypassing Whangamarino… Doubling etc etc

        3. Fast freight is very common in Europe. Benefits everyone (passengers, business, consumers).

        4. “Fast freight is very common in Europe”

          EU railfreight mode share in 2018: 18.7%

          US railfreight mode share: 43%

          The US model involves diesel traction, relatively slow speeds and low costs. It also involves lower GHG emissions overall due to the lower proportion of road freight…and we want to follow the European model? Why?

  4. I have wondered if electric battery trains could have removable battery container units? For long distance regional trains there could be battery recharging stops where the depleted battery container units are exchanged for fully charged units?

  5. I think part of the problem is that every time we start to make progress the cost of oil plummets and the newer technologies get wiped out in a round of bankruptcies. In 1981 when I was a kid I went the Field Days at Mystery Creek. They had ethanol displays and the Forest Service had a methanol research project. There were effluent digesters connected to generators as well as numerous LPG and CNG systems. Then cheap oil came back and all that NZ made stuff died.
    Maybe we need a minimum price on fossil fuels like they want on alcohol so that people use less of it and so that alternative methods get a chance to establish.

    1. Miffy taxes on petrol and diesel are much higher now (NZ’s road network is expensive).
      Yes global oil prices are low at the moment because the pandemic has been a massive negative shock to transport and the movement of people. It has destroyed the travel industry, airlines, the cruise liner industry… Billions of people are restricted by various forms of lockdowns and social distancing rules.
      Eventually one way or the other these restrictions will pass and demand for oil will rise again.
      Regardless of that though. For climate change reasons we need to electrify and stop using fossil fuels.
      NZ needs to think through a strategy for achieving that. Hopefully my guest post helps that process.

    2. The sort of glut in fuel production we’re currently seeing will eventually end in the oil companies lowering production and the price stabilising.

      If the drop in production is high enough; the stabilised price will be higher.

    3. Your right Miffy maybe we should be looking at Hybrids wether for car bus train truck or plane. That way we have a Bob each way. And there is always the possibility that fully or semi renewable liquid fuels could be developed. For instance green hydrogen used in the refinery process or biofuels enhanced with green hydrogen blended with fossil fuels. Bill Gates is financing research into reacting green hydrogen with carbon dioxide extracted from the air to make synthetic fuels. We might have a battle between the electrical and chemical engineers.

      1. I don’t know what the answer will be but if we want to move away from oil then we need to accept that the oil market is broken. We can’t rely on petrol prices increasing steadily. The price is determined by whether or not the cartel holds volumes steady, the price drops quickly when they decide to compete with each other and those drops create problems for the alternatives which need to be able to compete. A price floor based on a factor times the long run Singapore terminal price might allow alternatives to develop and compete.

  6. Possibly the better link for Jason Quinn’s building science thoughts about passive housing is the Stuff opinion piece by him titled -Address climate change through better housing.
    I like this part.
    “Building better new buildings and fixing those that already exist is an essential part of meeting New Zealand’s carbon emission targets. It’s also one of the few pathways that is actually profitable. It’s not difficult and it doesn’t rely on fixes that doesn’t yet exist (unlike cows that don’t burp methane).”
    “It is often cheaper to achieve higher performance levels in larger buildings, whether apartment or office blocks or other commercial or public buildings, compared to single-family homes.”
    There is a natural fit between passive housing, higher density housing (needed for TOD) and electrified rail investment.

    1. On thing a lot of people in NZ are oblivious to is that most of the housing (and buildings in general) in NZ built since the second world war are rubbish anyway. Badly designed, badly constructed and out of the cheapest nastiest materials. Too many NZ houses have atrocious insulation, ventilation, heating and are often damp and dank. NZ’s higher rate of asthma suffering is no coincidence.

      I would have no qualms with a fair % of NZ’s housing stock being replaced and suburbs being rebuilt altogether.

    2. This would be a fantastic initiative.

      Most of the reason that passive houses are particularly expensive to build here is that the materials (especially high performance windows) generally need to be imported on a house by house basis. The small volumes result in great expense. If they began to be imported in high volumes or made here then the prices would drop right down.

      1. We almost need a government scheme to build 100,000 of these over ten years so that we could set up factories in NZ or import in bulk.

  7. Surely the drop in imported oil can be achieved by simply lessening road freight and automobile dependency? Why does electrification have to be included?

    Realistically; having more people shift to lifestyles less dependent upon automobiles and more upon being a pedestrian, cycling & public transport could maintain this trade surplus. Rail services could be provided with diesel traction with much more ease & convenience and less capital investment and that Diesel fuel consumption would still be far less than the consumption from automobile dependency. Of course: Electrification can happen when the numbers stack up, such as when a corridor sees certain levels of traffic. And that includes reintroducing trolleybuses.

    As for electric automobiles; I’ve never sold on them. Yes; they can fill a niche in the market, particularly for those small urban vehicles. I well remember all the predictions back in 2009 and I expected; they never eventuated. But they’re still not practical for most people and will never be good for roles filled by utility vehicles. I keep hearing how Elon Musk has improved this battery so it can now do this or whatever, but at the end of the day, they’re still batteries, still inherently limited & inefficient and still using scarce rare metals.

  8. I say forget BET and go straight to hydrogen hybrid. Hydrogen refueling stations could also serve to fuel a hydrogen truck and car refueling network that could help pay for it. Kill two birds with one stone.

    1. So are there any rolling stock manufacturers currently offering hydrogen-fueled products, and any automobile manufacturers producing hydrogen-fueled trucks and cars?

    2. Hydrogen is significantly less efficient as a battery than lithium batteries. EV battery trains will be much more energy efficient compared to hydrogen trains (although hydrogen trains do have the longer range).
      Pumped hydro is also much more efficient than hydrogen at storing energy. It would be madness for example to store hydrogen for the once or twice a decade dry year risk. Over half the electricity would go in energy conversion storage losses.
      Pumped hydro is known technology with a 75 to 80% round trip energy efficiency rating wheras hydrogen requires further innovation to make production economically viable. Hydrogen trains and trucks are beginning to be built but they are reliant on subsidised hydrogen production.
      In 20 or 30 years time a hydrogen economy, especially for long distance heavy commercial transport options, might be viable.
      For my electrify the recovery strategy I wanted to use existing technology that is viable today. In my eyes hydrogen is not a strategy that can be actioned with any degree of certainty. So hydrogen cannot be used to assist NZ to recover from this economic downturn.

      1. You have some valid points but I don’t get the correlation pumped hydro and hydrogen or BET. Anyway there is now compact high efficiency electrolysis plants and it would be made as required and not needed to be stored in any great amount. Electrification would be the best solution but is at a great cost when it may not even be needed (which we both agree I think).

        1. Hydrogen is a battery the same as a lithium battery or the Lake Onslw pumped hydro scheme. That is there similarity. But otherwise they are very different in scale and use.
          Hydrogen produced at point of use, as required, might be viable in the near future. This hydrogen production facility could be located alongside transport logistic hubs like ports. Which might make regional hydrogen trains viable if they needed a range over 120km and electrifying the track wasn’t an option. I wouldn’t have a problem.with policy makers pursuing that option.
          But there is talk of over building electricity generation capacity (at a much higher cost than the Onslow scheme) so that the surplus electricity can be used for hydrogen production and this would somehow cover the dry year risk (which atm is cover by coal and gas peaking generators). This doesn’t make much sense to me.

        2. “Hydrogen produced at point of use, as required, might be viable in the near future. This hydrogen production facility could be located alongside transport logistic hubs like ports. ”

          Yes Ports of Auckland etc looking into that currently for it’s own equipment use but also possible trains from what I understand. Trying to transport or pipe it around the country seems a bad option compared to battery power charged from electricity produced at hydro lakes etc.

        3. The major problem with hydrogen as an energy storage solution is the significant energy loss incurred in the generation of hydrogen. Add to that storage and volatility. It will not be effective unless there is large energy surpluses of which there currently is none. Hydrogen for many uses is a future solution that remain there.

        4. Wouldn’t renewable be a great candidate for producing hydrogen? Then it doesnt matter when the sun shines or the wind blows, the system just keeps producing and storing hydrogen.

          Same with the pumped hydro idea. Couldnt wind/solar be used to power that? So you build solar and wimnd farms nearby and all they do is just pump water AKA charge the hydro battery.

          Pretty much energy for free.

        5. Hydrogen when used as a fuel has a very low energy density. Typically around 25% of petrol. This means even when compressed to make up for this the fuel tanks for equivalent range will take up a larger space. In terms of distribution, a petrol tanker of hydrogen will deliver enough fuel for 10% of the vehicles it would deliver if full of petrol. Fuel cells are a more efficient use for Hydrogen, but it is hard to store or transport due to its molecular size. In fact aside from cleaner reaction products, it is more efficient to run fuel cells on petrol that are 50% more effcient than burning the fuel and produce less CO2. Not to say Hydrogen is not part of the answer, but the applications for it are not always clear cut.

        6. “Wouldn’t renewable be a great candidate for producing hydrogen?”

          No. Hydrogen as a vector or storage medium for electricity is abysmally inefficient, capital intensive, fraught with safety risks and material challenges.

          Pumped storage, topography permitting is, however, very cost-effective, particularly if it is buffering short-term variability such as the output from wind turbines or day/night demand.

  9. We have just put solar panels on our local primary school. Financed through a mix of grants and local investors. Schools are the perfect place to put solar as their main use is 9-3. The economics would even be better if there was peer to peer trading so they could get a reasonable return on exported energy during weekends and school holidays.

    1. Schools solar generators could have a collective contract with the lake Onslow electricity buyer to purchase their weekend and holiday solar generation.
      The scheme is so big it can trade seasonally I.e. buy in summer to pump water up to the lake and in the winter when electricity demand increases it can use that water to generate electricity to sell.

  10. I’m not sure why some people find it so difficult to understand that electric trains are less economic than diesel ones. Electrics require two sets of infrastructure, whereas diesels require just one.

    The first thing KiwiRail did when COVID-19 hit was shut down the main trunk electrification, which went 100% diesel seven weeks ago. By shutting down the duplicate infrastructure they could minimise staff numbers, and lower costs to at least partially offset the loss of revenue from COVID-19.

    Rail in NZ needs more efficiency and lower costs, not decreased flexibility and higher costs in the name of ideology.

    Key to reducing diesel consumption is to move freight from diesel trucks to diesel trains. You can’t do that if the money for more rolling stock is squandered on the ideological pursuit of “feel good” multi-billion dollar projects.

    1. I’ve always understood that electric traction can be more efficient than diesel traction over a certain level of traffic and when factoring in gradients.

      Of course; I doubt that any of the rail NZ network outside of the urban areas will ever see the level of traffic that justifies electrification. For one; it’s well beyond the level that justifies duplication.

      1. I always found it odd that the middle part of the main trunk railway is electrified, but the part between Auckland and Hamilton is not.

        We had weird situation until a few years ago where you could catch a diesel train from Newmarket to the city centre, but you could see electric trains in the middle of nowhere.

        1. It’s not odd when you understand that the electrification was due to the higher fuel consumption of the older Diesel-Electric locomotives over the central North Island, because of Topography & resulting gradients.

          Of course; this section of track saw a lot more traffic in 1975. And Diesel-electric locomotives since have handled gradients a lot better.

      2. The idea behind it was to use the downhill gradients to regenerate the power from one train running “downhill” to power a train climbing up to the plateau. Thus reducing power required. This is accomplished via the SCADA system. Electrification was part of think big whose aim was to reduce reliance on imported fuel during the fuel crisis. I think it required timetable coordination as there is no storage of the regenerated power. Gradient north of Hamilton is too flat, and Wellington urban runs on a different system.

    2. >I’m not sure why some people find it so difficult to understand that electric trains are less economic than diesel ones.
      > Electrics require two sets of infrastructure, whereas diesels require just one.
      I hate to be blunt,but a more selective and slanted argument would be difficult to imagine. This situation – arguably – only applies because of the partial NIMT electrification for historical reasons. The vast majority of mature rail systems, especially those of similar topography and scale to NZ’s, have been electrified. Perhaps it’s because – once you get past the initial capex hit – the marginal cost of electric is far cheaper than diesel, making electric cheaper overall once you get to a certain usage amount.
      This sort of post is about what is possible in the medium term with investment, not what is possible right now. Imagine if NZ had followed a different path, electrifying TGA – HLZ – AKL as well as the Auckland suburban network, so that freight was already being hauled between Palmerston North, the Port of Tauranga, and Port of Auckland (need I say, some of NZ’s biggest freight corridors) by electric locomotives. No one would make a comment that electric is less economic than diesel. The discussion would instead be about stopping less efficient log and paper product diesel haulage by electrifying Kawerau-TGA and Kinleith-Waharoa.
      Weigh up the cost vs the environmental and balance of trade benefits, and think again about what is possible with vision.

      1. “The vast majority of mature rail systems, especially those of similar topography and scale to NZ’s, have been electrified”

        Very few have been electrified. All across North America, South America, Australia, Africa, the Middle East, the UK and most of Asia, the networks are almost entirely diesel. I’m not sure where you got that from at all!

        “No one would make a comment that electric is less economic than diesel”

        Actually they would, because they would look at the opportunity cost of seeing so much freight on road transport because the scarce funding for rail was wasted on changing from diesel to electric instead of doing the things that actually make a difference, such as growing the rolling stock fleet, increasing axle loads, improving clearances and so forth.

        Diesel trains only use 25% of the diesel that trucks do to move the same amount. That is the environmental benefit delivered right there.

        You will do more for the environment by shifting freight from the comparison 100% consumption of a truck to the 25% consumption of the train, than leaving the freight in trucks because you’ve wasted all the scarce funding on changing the locomotive type.

        Put simply, it’s better for the environment to stick with diesels than go electric.

    3. Geoff

      Maintenance of a reciprocal engine and its associated system is far more expansive then maintenance on an electric only system for one thing and if electric was so expensive, why would the UK be actively putting wires in everywhere (including HS2 right outside my front door).

      1. Martin, you’re only referring to the engine. Electrics also require traction infrastructure maintenance and staff to do it. They also need substations, and right now in particular, diesel is quite a bit cheaper than electricity.

        Here in New Zealand our electric trains have been parked up and replaced by diesels as a response to COVID-19. What does that tell you?

        1. It tell us we need to electrify the busy ends of the trunk lines, and not just the lightly used middle.

        2. @Riccardo; How could that make it more efficient?!
          It means; more kilometers of overhead to keep powered and keep maintained. So… …less efficiency.

        3. Thanks Riccardo, that makes my point in a much more concise way than I could manage!
          Expand the electrified network coverage and run electric locomotives across the whole thing. That’s how you get efficiency.

        4. Daniel, electric locomotives are vastly cheaper to power and maintain than diesel, they are much much more efficient. Meanwhile overhead maintenance is a fixed, well, overhead regardless of how much you run under it. The problem is we currently have a long stretch of electrification with little traffic, and the busiest part of the network is not electrified. So we have the overhead and none of the unit rate savings. Doubling the length of electrification would increase the tonne-kms of freight under wire tenfold. So twice the overhead to gain ten times the unit savings.

          That’s the reason Auckland electrified rather than buying new diesel trains, the savings of electric operation more than cover the cost of installing and maintaining the wires.

        5. “…our electric trains have been parked up and replaced by diesels as a response to COVID-19. What does that tell you?”

          Physical distancing measures at the change over point?

      2. Only HS2, where else are they electrifying? They stopped the project to Cornwall, the Hitachi trains GWR are running there are diesel electric hybrids.

        1. Yes, but the UK is well behind the rest of Europe when it comes to electrification and high speed trains. There are far better models to copy.

        2. In percentage terms, the UK is a long way behind China even though China has a much larger network.

  11. In-road induction charging has just been successfully demonstrated in Sweden. Autonomous trucks are being demonstrated by Kenworth, for nighttime depot-to-depot self transit. EV’s with self-drive capabilities continue to develop and improve.

    The combination of these allows road transport to be zero emission, almost completely safe, low-labour, with very low vehicle costs because of the small battery capacities required. The traditional advantages of rail over road is possibly eroded quite significantly.

    I’d hate to see large scale investment in electrified rail, or any regional transport, without serious analysis of new tech. The in-road induction charging is expensive to install at about $3m-$4m per km, but it is only needed on major transit routes with batteries used for “off-loop” transit. The potential for NZ is enormous.

    Transport was reinvented in the 20th century by the internal combustion engine. If we’re indeed at the start of a second transport revolution, it would be good to get the infrastructure right this time.

    1. The induction system trialed in Sweden was found to be very expensive to implement. what has worked successfully is running trucks under wires, much cheaper to implement, although it’s not visually appealing. IMO the future for trucking is hydrogen, the sheer weight of the batteries reduces the payload significantly, it’s a compromise to far.

  12. That pumped hydro scheme looks amazing. I first heard about it I think around a year ago but this is the first in detail description of it I’ve seen and answers several questions (particularly around transmission – to surmise when it is generating the other hydro dams either aren’t or are at low production – so the grid can handle it and get it North). I really do wish Bradford hadn’t ruined ECNZ. Electricity is a standard utility… there is nothing that competition can do to make electricity better (except make it renewable), we had cheap power and now we don’t. There was no need to privatise it a single SOE would have done the job.

    As for electric trains, absolutely. Finish the NIMT between Auckland and Hamilton and extend to Tauranga.
    Palmy onwards can wait (reduced one big stop in Hamilton already and I don’t think freight works with Wellington’s DC network anyway). Track improvements to increase average speeds by 25% or more are sorely needed on most of the network.

    1. That’s 0 from 3, (1 from 4 if I charitably include the Foreign Buyer Ban) for Labour, two of which have been Twyford’s doing.

      I can’t think of a single MP that has managed to dick over their electorate so massively, considering the huge traffic issues in NW Auckland that was waiting for a call on CC2M before a way forward was chosen.

      As always, there are no repercussions, no refunds and no apologies for the two years of feet-dragging and incompetence that got us to this point, only hiding behind the Covid19 outbreak as a reason for a delay now.

      I also the scandalous silence of the Green Party on this as an Auckland matter, compared to the rumoured deal-breaker that was LGWM. I also note there has been no ‘delay’ announced on LGWM yet. Why is that, I wonder.

      1. Agree. Greens have been really disappointing.
        Overall you’d have to give this government a ‘D’ Grade on urban development, housing and infrastructure!
        I think it’s even harder to accept because they promised so much, and said all the right things….

        1. This Government has been disappointing on the transport front, but to be fair there have been successes, however belated.
          The accessible streets law which has just been consulted on is a really nicely thought-through package, which I doubt the NZTA/MOT would have come up with without lots of hard graft behind the scenes to change mindsets.
          The rail funding reform law is also long overdue and welcome.

          However they have been a letdown on the big stuff as you say. The light rail madness is incomprehensible. Now that money is so cheap to borrow and we have seen how PPPs can go wrong (e.g. Transmission Gully and the Maryland Purple Line in the US, where the PPP contractor is planning to walk away), it’s time to bin the Canadian scheme, borrow the money, and build the light rail scheme AT initially planned for. Get it done guys!!!

    2. It was never definite that it was ever going to be built anyway. It’s probably going to give the govt the excuse it needs to kill it off for good.

  13. You’ll note that I used the words
    – mature
    – similar topography and scale
    You cannot claim that the rail networks of North America and Australia are anywhere similar to NZ’s. The distances are massively different.

    The UK is also a poor example because it has under invested for decades. Now it is trying and failing to electrify more lines as it has to reestablish its electrification industry, leading to huge cost overruns.

    Better comparisons are places like East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) and continental Europe, which have continued to systematically invest in rail, with fast, electrified rail now the backbone of their freight networks.

    >than leaving the freight in trucks because you’ve wasted all the scarce funding on changing the locomotive type.
    Let’s make this really clear. You are taking a narrow view of what is, at this point in time. This post, and my view, is of what would have been, had NZ continued to invest in rail electrification post NIMT electrification, and what could still be, with suitable investment from now on.
    There is no reason why we cannot electrify more km of rail, except a reluctance to do things properly and thoroughly. Hopefully some of the budget money will go to the Pukekohe-Hamilton-Tauranga electrification I’ve talked about.

    Oh and FWIW of course there should be ongoing investment in bridge replacement, tunnel expansion etc to increase axle loads and clearances. It is a disgrace that we have not done this over the last few decades. It’s time to fix this problem.

    1. “Better comparisons are places like East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan) and continental Europe, which have continued to systematically invest in rail, with fast, electrified rail now the backbone of their freight networks.”
      How are they “better comparisons” when NZ’s in a situation of underinvestment more like the UK’s (except far worse)?!
      In any case; according to Wikipedia:
      Of France’s 29,273 km of railway network, 15,687 km is electrified.
      Of Germany’s 41,315 km of railway network, 19,857 km is electrified
      Of Japan’s 30,625 km of railway network, 21,600 km is electrified
      Of South Korea’s 5,625 km of railway network, 3,025 km is electrified

      So we can see that all of these networks still have a fair amount that is non-electrified. And it is certain that they all run a fair amount of diesel locomotives on the electrified portions.

  14. None of this is going to fly unless we nationalise the supply. We don’t have enough control over generation anymore. Sad.

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