A couple of months ago when I was chatting about my plans for RenewEconomy with a senior journalist friend, he considered the name and turned to me and asked: “You’re pro-renewables, aren’t you?”
It wasn’t the detail of the question that startled me so much as the tone, as though he was seeking my views on gay marriage, or euthanasia. And I wondered how it was that renewable energy had become a morally contestable issue.
The answer, of course, has much to do with the actions of vested interests, who have sought to delay the deployment of renewables – initially through challenging the climate change science, then on demonizing renewables as costly and useless, and then by fighting incentives, and finally through regulation.
They have been able to get away with this because there is a dearth of information. The public who don’t know whether to believe the advocates or the nay-sayers have been ill-served by the mainstream media, and supposedly independent statutory bodies such as the Productivity Commission and the state-based pricing regulators, who have either displayed ignorance, a lack of curiosity, or a blind hatred of green technologies. And given useless advice to the government, as was enshrined in the draft energy white paper.
We got a succinct update to this in this week’s IPART ruling on retail electricity prices, and the media response to it. IPART and the media chose to focus on the cost of green energy incentives, even though it was clear that the single greatest contribution was the costs associated with more poles and wires and keeping track of the surging demand for air conditioners. Both IPART and the PC have been stubbonly short term in their estimation of green energy costs and incentives, and their value, even when most of the literature, and current and past experience with other technologies and other sectors, suggests the long term view is more useful and more valid.
Even so, a series of reports in recent weeks from a range of authoritative sources have served to dispel some of the more egregious myths about green energy. You won’t get to read much of any of the reports in most of the mainstream media, so here’s a recap and summary.
Myth No 1: That renewables cannot deliver on the task at hand.
Yes it can, says the International Energy Agency, and any number of other independent reports. In fact the IEA base case scenario for reaching its 2C temperature rise scenario has non-hydro renewables providing a minimum 44 per cent of global electricity production by 2050, rising to a minimum 57 per cent by 2075, when 99 per cent of electricity generation needs to be emissions free. It sees the share of non-hydro renewables at up to 71 per cent by 2075, depending on how much carbon capture and storage and nuclear is able to be deployed. Germany, which depends heavily on manufacturing and is the largest economy in Europe, aims to have 45 per cent renewables by 2030.
Myth No 2: That renewables are intermittent and cannot be absorbed by the grid.
Yes, they can, says the CSIRO, which this week issued a detailed report that conducted its own analysis, reviewed studies elsewhere and concluded that solar PV has its challenges, but large quantities can easily be accommodated with a little bit of planning and thought, and not much cost. It said fears to the contrary came from people (and grid operators) who hadn’t looked at the issue properly and were blaming solar for other problems. It says many of the same fears were expressed about wind, for the same reasons, but had also been shown to be false.
Myth No 3: That renewables are too expensive.
No, they are not, particularly if you take the long term view. The IEA’s report this week said each dollar invested now in clean energy will save $3 in fossil fuel costs in the future, and that the extra investment made now will be recouped by 2025 at the latest, such is expected decline in renewable technology costs, and the rise in cost of fossil fuels. But it’s not just a case of cutting back the cost of modules, or even turbines, as these make up less than half the ongoing costs – deployment is the key, which is why a similar sized PV plant in California can be built at two thirds of the cost of one in Australia. That’s not just about cheaper labour, it’s the cost of finance and associated infrastructure too.
Australia’s own energy market operator AEMO recognized last week that solar PV is already cheap enough at the socket to make it a compelling case for consumers, and will likely lead to broad uptake at the household level, echoing a series of recent reports by the IEA and private consultancies. At the wholesale level, wind power is cheaper than gas in Brazil and much of Europe, and new coal in the US. The IEA, along with the energy departments in the three biggest consumers of energy – China, India and the US – expect wind and solar to match new build fossil fuels in most countries by the end of the decade. Subsidy free solar plants are now being planned in Spain and Latin America.
Myth No 4: That renewables are not popular
The response to solar PV – and the growing enquiries – should be evidence enough to show that is not true. If the AEMO predictions about the deployment of solar PV are right, then at least $30 billion will be leveraged from Australian households into their own green generation systems. That’s a healthy vote of confidence, and a useful contribution to the clean energy future. Support for large scale renewables is also strong, as various surveys reveal. And a CEC survey among mostly regional respondents last week showed overwhelming support for wind farms, with three quarters supporting both wind power, and the right of farmers to have wind turbines installed on their property.
Myth No 5 : That renewables do not contribute to the local economy.
A couple of reports have been produced this week show the contrary. One, by PwC on behalf of Acciona, the owner of the Waubra and Gunning wind farms – both targets of anti-wind farm lobbies – found that the $226 million Waubra facility will provide a $355 million boost to the state economy and create nearly 1,900 full time jobs. The smaller $52 million Gunning wind farm would boost the state’s economy by $77.5 million and lead to 400 full-time jobs.
A separate report released today by Sinclair Knight Merz, on behalf of the Clean Energy Council, found that for every 50MW of capacity, a wind farm creates direct employment of up to 48 construction jobs, who spend up to $1.2 million in the local area, direct employment of 5 permanent staff, indirect employment during the construction phase of approximately 160 people locally, 504 state jobs and 795 nation-wide jobs, and provides up to $250,000 for farmers in land rental income and $80,000 on community projects each year. The CEC says more than $4 billion has so far been invested in wind power in Australia, with another $17.8 billion in currently proposed and approved wind farm projects.