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Five things we learned this week … about politics of green energy

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Barnett spoils his own solar party

How to spoil a solar party. On the very day that Western Australia could lay claim to being a leader in solar energy, with the opening of the country’s first utility scale solar farm at Geraldton, Premier Colin Barnett declared his opposition to the renewable energy target, a theme enthusiastically taken up at the opening by the nominal energy minister Peter Collier.

Barnett urged the government to “drop” the LRET, and then claimed such a move would not mean less renewable energy. Absolute bollocks. WA has the opportunity to establish its lead as the nation’s solar state, it has better solar resources and higher electricity prices – and solar PV could soon be deployed without the need for additional subsidies. First Solar, which built the 10MW Greenough River plant, says this could happen by 2016 as the balance of system costs come down. Others that RenewEconomy has spoken to during its visit to WA say it could happen even earlier. But, take away the renewable energy target, and those metrics don’t work any more. It will mean less renewable energy – less solar, and less wind.

So, what is it with coalition state governments? Well, that’s easily explained because WA has some things in common with Queensland and NSW – it owns the utilities whose business models are threatened by renewables. But how to explain the regional media? Barnett’s rant against the RET, including some doomsday predictions from Alinta and Horizon Energy, earned a prominent position in the local daily, The West Australian. The opening of the country’s first large scale solar farm on its home soil earned a brief.

Don’t count on bipartisan support for the LRET

Now that the conservative premiers of Queensland, NSW, Victoria and WA have lined up against the LRET, the question really has to be asked about whether this is bipartisan policy or not. The federal coalition says it is, and it is widely assumed to be the case. But some industry executives who have discussed the policy in private, particularly with energy spokesman Ian Macfarlane, are not so sure about the Coalition’s commitment to the 41,000GWh fixed target, the subject of the debate in the current LRET review.

Consider this: the common theme among the Coalition state and federal parties is that they do not support both carbon price and an LRET. Which begs the question of what happens if an elected Abbott government was unable to repeal the carbon tax, as many predict. The answer should be obvious – they will seek to dilute the LRET. Macfarlane has form on this matter because he refused to extend the original MRET when he was energy minister, bringing a sudden halt to the wind energy industry in Australia. And he still doesn’t think much of wind and solar. This must be why the renewables industry is so keen for the Climate Change Authority to recommend the LRET review occur every four years rather than every two years.

Don’t worry about the facts

One thing is certain, facts are not allowed to get in the way of Coalition policy makers. Tony Abbott’s latest intervention in the power price debate was made to look absurd this week when a pensioner’s power bill he brandished as proof of the impact of the carbon price revealed instead a doubling of consumption. Even The West Australian wrote about that story, and Abbott’s embarrassment.  Well, the pensioner did come from WA.

Renewable targets should go up, not down

But what does one of the world’s leading economies do when it looks like it will overshoot a renewable energy target? Why, it increases the target,  of course. Germany’s environment minister Peter Altmaier, appointed a few months ago because his predecessor was considered too “green”, signalled this week that Germany will lift its renewable target to 40 per cent by 2020, up from its previous target of 35 per cent, because it is clear that the lower target will be easily met.  California, as we have reported, took a similar step. China is constantly revising upwards its solar and wind energy targets.

In the case of Germany, the government is now very confident that renewables will fill the gap created by its decision to shut all nuclear plants by 2022. Altmaier, also appointed because he can take a more “practical” approach, now has to implement policies that enables this transition to occur in a seamless manner. That means winding back subsidies for renewables as their costs fall, focusing on storage capacity, and introducing other measures to ensure that enough gas generation remains online to support the grid.

The wind

An example of how the face of the renewables industry can be transformed (for the worse) by a change in government is in Victoria. One revealing statistic that came across our desk this week was the amount of wind energy approved in the state, firstly by the Labor state government: 3,431MW. The amount of electricity approved by the current coalition government (elected late 2010). 6 MW.

Little wonder that wind energy advocates have sought to counter-act the tactics of the vocal anti-wind coalition, and begun to form their own public alliances. The Victorian Wind Alliance that was created this week already boasts more members than the anti-wind groups.

Frustratingly, such initiatives came too late to save the likes of RPG, the country’s largest maker of wind turbine towers, which collapsed this week, partly because of the void that has been created in the wind industry by uncertainty over the LRET. The company is now in the hands of receivers, Ferrier Hodgson, ironically co-founded by one of the most prominent anti-wind activists, rural land owner Tony Hodgson.

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  • Peter Bysouth

    Giles,

    Question on WA Solar energy, can it ever be “wired” back East into the NEM or are the distances/transmission losses/cost too great to be considered; even when WA peak solar slots into the East Coast evening peak consumption.

    Second question is, if Oz energy consumption rebounds and 41,000GWh becomes less than 20% will you argue to stay at the fixed GWh or stick with the 20%?

    I would imagine the various players would have gamed their requests at the time of establishing the LRET. From the outside I only saw reports of discussion around the percentage and was surprised that the result was a fixed GWh. Being ever the cynic, my guess is the discussion around the Act was in percentage terms but some bureaucrat interpret it as a fixed GWh in the Regulations.

    • Giles Parkinson

      Peter
      There is no connection between east and west, so that can’t happen now. some have canvassed such a move, for the very reason you suggest. Siemens was one of them i think – suggesting that having solar in the west would help out consumption in the east. in the end, storage might be cheaper!
      It was the utilities that insisted on the fixed target – they assumed then that consumption would rise and a fixed target would be less onerous. No one at utility level even dreamed on a fall in demand before 2010. Shows how much solar PV and energy efficiency is changing the game.

    • Frosty

      There has been talk of a future high voltage DC transmission system that can transmit electricity over long distances, so it is possible to link WA to a national grid.

      I can’t remember where I read about it. Try the Beyond Zero Emissions website. It might be part of their Zero Carbon Australia 2020 plan.

      • Alastair Leith

        It is part of the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan. Free download of PDF from website or $15 for offset printed book form contact BZE office for a mail-out.

        beyondzeroemissions,org

        • Alastair Leith

          ZCA Plan includes both DC high voltage interstate transmission links +and+ storage, since 60% of generation is proposed to come from Solar CST with molten salt storage and 40% from wind, and 2% biomass fuel used at CST sites for backup on the few days in some years when there are sustained periods of no wind and no sun.

    • Jonathan Maddox

      This is entirely feasible, though the costs may not ultimately be justified. We’ll see.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-voltage_direct_current

      For many years the record on the length and capacity for an HVDC link was held by the Congo, of all places.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inga%E2%80%93Shaba_HVDC

      The longest existing HVDC link is 800km (in China)

      The longest HVDC link under construction is 2,500km (in Brazil)

      All these schemes connect very large hydroelectric power stations to markets and utilise the full capacity of the link around the clock.

      A link supporting only intermittent generation (thus achieving only a 20% or 30% capacity factor) might not justify the cost, especially if promising low-cost power storage technologies emerge.

  • Ken Fabian

    The Coalition is thoroughly infected with climate science denial and their attitude to renewables reflects that. They tolerate it, they endorse it, they actively promote it – thoroughly irresponsible given the overwhelming science – yet they want everyone to believe it’s the proponents of low-emissions renewables that are irrational and irresponsible! Unfortunately it appears to have yielded some political gains for them so they are more likely to do it some more and harder when things don’t go the way they want, rather than admit our long term prosperity and security depend on facing the problem head on.

  • James R

    I understand the Hydro generation in the South Island of New Zealand (Lake Manapouri) is a DC output and goes under water to near Wellington they use 2 cables and have a 3rd spare.

    • Alastair Leith

      USA has recently begun investing in a Smart Grid high voltage DC interstate link up I believe. Part of President Obamas direct action response to Congress blocking many clean energy initiatives. Not clear on funding details but it seemed to be a Plan B response given the political deadlock in Congress.

    • http://thisnessofathat.blogspot.com.au/ Gillian

      The underwater cable between Tasmania (with lots of hydro) and Victoria is also DC.

      Two new DC cables are under construction in Europe as they work towards the big vision of a single electricity network for EU, North Africa and Middle East outlined in Desertec.

      BZE’s Stationary Energy Plan outlines an enhanced national grid including a DC link joining WA to east coast and other new DC cables, as well as additional AC cables.

  • colin

    Is a DC cable to Asia feasible?