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Australia’s right wing media declares new war on wind and solar

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Having attacked the science of climate change and lost, Australia’s right wing media has responded to the Paris Agreement on climate action sealed last week by sharpening their pencils against another of their favourite targets – wind energy and solar power.

The Paris Agreement reached last Saturday went further than almost anyone hoped or expected, largely because of the plunging cost of renewable energy – solar in particular and wind energy as well – that has made the task of decarbonisation much simpler and cheaper than had been thought.

Snowtown64The last throw of the dice for the fossil fuel industry, however, is to beat the drum about the unreliability of wind and solar, warning of blackouts, economic catastrophe, health impacts, jobs losses and soaring costs if the world or individual nations were to go down that path.

And it has an enthusiastic participant in the right wing media. This is true of the US, UK and Australia – and Australia has now become a focal point because it has the most heavily carbonised grid in the developed world, and the among the best resources of wind and solar.

Australia is ripe for transition, but seems certain to become a battleground where ideology and myth-making trump real life experience and technological change. The Abbott-era campaign against wind energy, based on the appearance and assumed health impacts of wind turbines, was just the start.

The Australian Financial Review this week has targeted the situation in South Australia, where it has warned of economic disaster from its push for more wind and solar, apparently on the basis of a single outage that the grid operator blamed on a technical problem on the link to Victoria, but which the AFR has blamed on wind energy.

“If activists have their way and renewables take over the whole market, the result will be brownouts, energy poverty and job losses all in the name of saving the planet,” wrote Mark Lawson, an AFR columnist in an opinion piece.

Lawson has been one of the newspaper’s staunchest critics of climate science and is now turning his craft to wind and solar (climate denialism and a dislike of renewable energy often go hand in hand).

He suggested that electricity engineers do not believe that high levels of wind and solar can be absorbed into grids. He should read what the Australian Energy Market Operator, which actually runs the grid, said about a 100 per cent renewable energy scenario.

It can be done, not that anyone would necessarily want to do it for the sake of it, because there will be a lot of electrification of transport to happen first.

Lawson’s article, and others written in the newspaper, as well as in The Australian, focus on South Australia’s reliance on the interconnector to Victoria. Somehow, if the inter-connector falls out now, it is the fault of wind and solar.

south australia aemo

But South Australia has always relied on the interconnector with Victoria, and never more heavily than when there was no wind and solar in the market (see above). AEMO has made clear that losing the last coal-fired power station poses no additional risk to system reliability. AEMO has simply to make sure its systems are in place.

To be sure, as South Australia pushes towards 50 per cent wind and solar – which it expects to reach in 2016, and then beyond – Premier Jay Weatherill says he is aiming to get as close as he can to 100 per cent renewables, a lot of focus on integration will be needed.

But this is known and seen as an opportunity, rather than a potential disaster, by most. As the head of German network operator 50Hertz told RenewEconomy in Paris, just a few years ago it was never thought possible that more than 10 per cent variable wind and solar could be absorbed, even into Europe’s large grid. Now he says 70 per cent can be absorbed without storage.

Now it is. Work done on King Island by Hydro Tasmania, and in Alice Springs by CAT Projects and ARENA show that high levels of variable renewables can be easily absorbed into a local grid, and these lessons are important for a state like South Australia.

Indeed, battery storage is ready to turn most assumptions about grid operations on its head. Solar City, the US solar company now expanding into storage, says the case for storage in place of upgrading grids is overwhelming, because they can substitute for transformer upgrades at a fraction of the cost. Ergon Energy is discovering this is the case in Queensland too.

Weatherill, along with Adelaide lord mayor Martin Haese, is pushing for wind and solar and storage technologies because it is an economic imperative. Old industries are dying, ageing technologies are being swept aside. They want South Australia to seize the opportunity to become a market leader.

But their push does risk being held to ransom, or to higher costs, by the quasi-cartel control over ancillary services and other generation in the local grid. This has been the focal point of discussions with the electricity industry this week.

As the AFR’s Ben Potter wrote this week:

The volatility in wholesale prices – caused mostly by the state’s reliance on wind power and the ability of coal and gas power stations to charge high prices when the wind drops  – is creating havoc for industry in the state, which is one of the country’s most economically depressed.

So, where is the problem? With wind, or the ability of a small group of coal and gas producers to extract high prices (with supposedly cheap generation) at certain times? One might have thought the leading economic daily might have stopped to ask the question.

As one industry analyst told RenewEconomy: “With such an over supply of capacity, and in a truly competitive market, the ability of coal and gas power stations to charge high prices when the wind drops should be very small.”

But it’s not. Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton this week said careful strategic planning and reform was crucial to facilitate the higher levels of renewable energy the state has committed to.

“South Australia’s power prices were historically higher than the rest of the country, dating back to before a single wind turbine was built in the state,” Thornton said in a statement issued in response to the AFR series and TV commentary of a similar ilk.

“The state has a relatively small number of power users spread out across a large area. Its power system uses a lot of gas power and there is only a handful of power providers, and these factors combine to make electricity more expensive.

“A diverse group including energy retailers, users, generators and the state government met in Adelaide yesterday to discuss emerging issues in the market. What was of the most concern was the availability and competitiveness of long-term contracts for large power users and the ongoing high price of gas,” Thornton said.

“Australia is gradually making the switch to a much cleaner, smarter energy system. Most credible estimates predict renewable energy such as solar and wind will be the cheapest available power within 5-15 years. And with around 40 per cent of its power already coming from renewable energy, South Australia is leading the way in making that transition.

“This is an overwhelmingly positive change, and there are solutions to address all the challenges along the way as we use higher proportions of renewable energy. South Australia has never shied away from progress and the energy transition is another example of that leadership,” Thornton said.


  

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  • Tim Forcey

    Gee I am glad for the existence of AEMO’s 100% renewable energy scenario (and all the other related studies that preceded and succeeded it). Can you imagine the positions put, if that work had not yet been done…

  • Alan S

    Does Mark Lawson think that interconnectors are a sign of weakness and demonstrate the inability of states to ruggedly stand up for themselves. Sure SA can import a third of its consumption from Vic/NSW when needed – so what? SA is is also closing fossil fuelled stations because of renewable energy and wouldn’t other states like to do that? The wind and solar generation in our small capacity system is simply given a degree of stability by importing and exporting energy via connections with neighbouring states. It’s the same the world over. HV transmission lines cross state and national borders on all continents allowing energy trading and giving voltage and frequency stability. Electrical engineers – though perhaps not climate change denying hacks and those who blindly follow them – call this a ‘grid’

    Extrapolating his logic, anyone with a PV system should install batteries, disconnect from the distribution system and hope for the best.

  • john

    It would appear that the journalist for the AFR has not read the report into what caused the problem with power to SA.
    His thoughts reflect a well trodden path, we still have a senator who stated not that long ago; ” solar panels will never pay for themselves in a million years ”
    The Grid is in place it works if not disrupted.

  • david_fta

    AFR is an interesting member of the Fairfax stable – I think the major reason it’s as Right-wing as it is is to compete with the Oz.

    That said, even the SMH seems fond of publishing Bjorn Lomborg’s emissions.

  • Maurice Oldis

    Peak denial and peak stupid has arrived-the end is nigh for deniers.

  • Chris Fraser

    Never mind the rubbish about wind being variable, the gift of the SA wind resource is that there is high probability of wind somewhere at most times. So if wind turbines increase in number and spread more spatially, concerns about becalmed turbines diminish. Soon Vic and NSW will be pleading for bigger interconnectors.

  • Ian

    If the SA premier and the major of Adelaide want to pursue their goals of increased renewables, then they have to act fast. The tide of opinion changes very quickly as evidenced by this article. Get the wind farm approvals going, once planted, wind turbines will spin regardless of the FF camp’s complaints! Competing with free energy is a hard act for FF to do. If the renewables camp is right, FF will die a very lonely and atrophied death.

  • JohnRD

    It would help SA if some of the renewable energy was coming from solar towers using molten salt to store energy and backed up by emergency molten salt heating. Plants like these are being built worldwide. They can be used for baseload or peaking power. Base load requires more mirrors.

  • Mark

    I’m very proud of my home state these days. Once the butt of jokes from the eastern states, they are now making some very innovative and clever moves and showing the rest of Australia how to do it. As a Liberal voter I really like the actions of the current Labor Govt.

  • Tim Buckley

    The Australian Fossil Fuel Review (AFFR) continues to pedal one-sided, anti-renewables, pro-fossil fuel stories at every opportunity. Is this right wing, or just head in the sand ignorance of the facts? As another reader suggests, an attempt by the AFFR to compete with that other fossil fuel propaganda vehicle, The Australian? Great that Australia’s democracy has allowed its “free press” to be so largely dominated by billionaires. Lucky we have Giles, I say!

  • Michael Brown

    Mark Lawson ignoring (or erroneously reinterpreting) expert opinion on climate and energy is consistent with my interactions with him. A brief discussion of this can be found in the article and comments at https://theconversation.com/what-i-learned-from-debating-science-with-trolls-30514

  • MaxG

    Beat the drum all you want — let’s make this very clear: you can bash Abbott for what he is, but at the same time you have to bash the Australian public who voted for those clowns! Yes, the public is as stupid, otherwise they would never vote for these clowns.
    It never seizes to amaze me… the collective stupidity of the majority of Australians.