Local Folk - Jonathan Leaver

Unitec associate professor Dr Jonathan Leaver, who lives in Omaha, once studied petroleum engineering at Stanford University, but today says burning fossil fuels must stop if we are to save our planet. He spoke to James Addis about how his environmental concerns grew and the research he has undertaken to help us reach zero carbon emissions.

I was brought up in New Lynn and went to Kelston Boys High School. I played football for the first XI and some cricket. Apart from that, I just had normal teenage interests. I enjoyed mathematics but barely passed School Certificate English. My best friend – who was a lot smarter than me – persuaded me that engineering might be a good career choice, and I successfully applied for a Ministry of Works cadet scheme with a view to becoming a civil engineer.  This meant I studied engineering at Auckland University and worked for the Ministry during the holidays. It was extremely varied. I did stints on a New Plymouth power project, I worked as an electrician’s labourer, and I reconditioned bulldozer tracks at workshops in Otahuhu. In New Plymouth, I was tasked with going four metres down into the foundation of a boiler that we were making. My workmates took great delight in pouring concrete down from a great height nearly on top of me, which I then had to spread. One time – much to their amusement – they got so close my gum boots became completely immersed in concrete and I had to be assisted to extricate myself.

I graduated with an honours degree in civil engineering and worked briefly on Sir Dove-Myer Robinson’s rapid rail system, which was ultimately scrapped. Though interestingly it was, in effect, a 1970s version of what is being built now in downtown Auckland. I was later transferred to the Ministry of Works structural division in Wellington – helping design government buildings that might be 10 storeys high or more. I discovered I had an aptitude for the computer modelling side of structural engineering and within 18 months I was asked to lead a workshop session for other engineers on the subject, though I was only 24.

Back then, the Ministry had a policy of moving young graduates around. I was sent to Rotorua and spent five years in roading and bridging, and then an opportunity came to work at the Ministry’s geothermal section at Wairakei, near Taupo. While there, I started to become more aware of the threats our activities posed to the natural environment. One of these was to the Pohutu Geyser – New Zealand’s biggest, near Rotorua – which was in danger of failing to erupt because of the exploitation of geothermal resources. It was taonga for Maori and it was very important for tourism nationally. I felt it was imperative it be protected and supported the ban on geothermal extraction nearby.

While at Wairakei we hosted a visiting professor, Hank Ramey, from Stanford University. He came around to dinner one night with a bottle of wine and invited me to go to Stanford to further my studies. I went there on a government scholarship studying petroleum engineering – whose principles are similar to geothermal. I learned more about what happens underground – how fluids flow, how you get them out and how to use computer models to determine how much of them are there. I came back to New Zealand and continued to work in geothermal energy for another two years, while at the same time my environmental consciousness was growing. More and more, I was thinking ‘let’s not exploit this resource for as much as we can get out of it, but let’s consider the other impacts’. Some of these other impacts included health and safety. I joined the Ministry of Energy and became the chief geothermal inspector, the chief petroleum inspector and was responsible for the health and safety conditions in all North Island mining operations. It was busy and stressful work. I remember an explosion in a coal mine in Huntly, which certainly would have resulted in fatalities had miners not been successfully evacuated by one of my staff. Unfortunately, there were three deaths in the oil industry on my watch. I assisted in preparing prosecution evidence. In the case of one well blowout, the employer received a record fine under the Health and Safety in Employment Act.

By 1997, health and safety was increasingly being administered by the Department of Labour and I needed to find another job. I applied for the position of head of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Unitec – not believing that I would get it, but much to my surprise, I did. At Unitec, I embarked on research into geothermal systems modelling and in 2000 returned to Stanford to present some of my findings. It was there I had a life changing event. I bumped into an old colleague, Paul Kruger, who said he had dropped out of geothermal. “I’m working on something new and exciting,” he said. “Hydrogen energy.”

I was fascinated and asked him to come to New Zealand to mentor our students, and I got him on national TV news talking about how hydrogen could be used to fuel our vehicle fleet and generate zero greenhouse gas emissions. Climate change was becoming a bigger and bigger focus for me. I think I first used the term with my students in 2001. I remember telling them this could be the biggest challenge mankind would face, and unless we changed our ways in relation to energy the consequences were going to be serious. The TV appearance by Paul Kruger generated a lot of interest and I got some funding to figure out how hydrogen might play a bigger part in New Zealand’s economy.

Around that time, a student at Unitec showed me a simple model he had created of the New Zealand energy generation sector. I immediately realised his basic idea could do so much more. So I, along with my students, started to create another model, called UniSyD – basically lines and lines of computer code. You input into the programme all the energy resources New Zealand has – all its coal, all its hydro, its wind and its solar and you ask the model how to make the best use of those resources to fuel its vehicle fleet and generate electricity at lowest cost. A key driver of the model is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. When a petrol vehicle needs to be replaced, the model will tell you the cheapest option to replace it with – whether that be a hydrogen vehicle, an electric vehicle or a natural gas powered vehicle. After 17 years in development, the basic model is being used in Japan, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand. Australia is evaluating it. The model gives government advisors and investors a clear picture of the consequences of their policies. Though whether they listen to what it tells them is another story.

Why should we be concerned? Well, as temperature rises, the mechanisms that contribute to temperature rise also change. Take just one example – the browning of the ice caps. If the ice caps melt, then they no longer have the same reflective qualities they used to and the earth ends up absorbing even more heat. It’s a vicious cycle. Unless we act, things are just going to get hotter and hotter at an ever-faster rate. In a worst-case scenario, we could have a five-degree temperature rise by the end of the century. That would put the world’s whole ecosystem under severe strain, with a dramatic increase in species extinction. Trillions of dollars would be needed to build defences against rising sea water. Droughts and floods would become ever more frequent and more intense.

Every country in the world needs to have zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That means solar power generation on residential roofs, planting more trees, switching from livestock farming to horticulture. It means much greater use of recyclable materials, and UniSyD would tell you to ban petrol and diesel-powered vehicles. It’s not for our sake, but for the sake of future generations, because these effects will last for hundreds of years.  It’s good that even high school students are pushing for action from our politicians. They are right to be concerned about their future.

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