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Malcolm Turnbull’s Trumpian disregard for energy facts

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Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull knows a thing or two about energy policy and climate change. His commitment to a carbon price cost him his job in 2009, and he spent the next few years advocating and endorsing policies and targets he supposedly believed in, even BZE’s zero emissions target.

He also has is own (very big) solar array and battery storage installation at his own (very big) home, and apparently likes to admire – in real time, with a monitoring device – how much power is being produced from the PV panels, how much is being stored in the batteries, and how much it is saving him on electricity bills.

His embrace and enthusiasm for energy “smarts” extends to electric vehicles, and his gushing praise for the Tesla Model S (wouldn’t that make for a nice addition to the ministerial fleet, powered by the solar array on Parliament House).donald-trump-pointing-at-cnn-anchor-pic-for-teaser-box-data

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Which makes it all the more surprising, and somewhat disturbing, that Turnbull has emerged as prosecutor in chief, along with energy minister Josh Frydenberg, of what even leading business commentator Alan Kohler has described as a giant “hoax” over the Australian people – the push for new coal over wind and solar.

In recent weeks, as the relentless summer heatwave (the hottest summer in Sydney for 157 years of modern record), the campaign against renewables has reached Trumpian levels of false claims, fake news, paranoia and misleading comments.

“Cheap coal”, as former coal lobby chief Ian Dunlop suggests, is about as big a misnomer as “clean coal”, ignoring not only the massive subsidy it gets from having a free pass on pollution, but also the costs of building new plant.

But the Coalition campaign in favour of coal, and against renewables, is relentless, even after study after study is produced highlighting how wind and solar, even with integration costs, are a significantly cheaper option than sticking with a coal-based centralised grid.

Last week, the ANU released an analysis highlighting just that, echoing another detailed study last year from the CSIRO and the network owners lobby that put the savings of a high renewable grid at $100 billion over business as usual.

The main fossil fuel generators admit that building new coal power plants is not just a dumb idea, it is uninvestible.

And the financing secured for the third stage of one Australia’s biggest wind projects illustrates why. Electricity from the 109MW Hornsdale 3 project will deliver electricity to its customer, the ACT government, at a fixed price of $73/MWh for the next 20 years.

To put that in context  – that is cheaper than electricity almost anywhere on the Australian grid at the moment. It is one-third of the cost paid by Queenslanders for electricity in February, one-half the cost paid in NSW, and it’s cheaper than the predicted prices in any state over 2017/18.

Indeed, that fixed price translates into a “today” price of around $60/MWh if you factor in inflation.

And the ACT government that commissioned this? They’re laughing. They know that their cost of electricity is capped for 20 years, but better than that, they get a refund from any excess. So if wholesale prices go above $73/MWh, which is where they are now, then the excess comes back to the ACT and its consumers.

Yet the Coalition continues on, digging themselves deeper into discredited and unfinanceable “clean coal” technologies such as IGCC. The world’s flagship project is at Kemper in the US, where $US7.1 billion has so far been invested and it still hasn’t produced anything.

In fact, just last week the CEO said it was too expensive to burn coal. So now, they are turning it into a gas plant, which they could have done from the outset at around one-tenth of the price.

But there’s no end of chancers who want to repeat such boondoggles, which is why Clive Palmer’s Waratah Coal has its hands out to the CEFC for money to fund a similar project to power the huge Galilee basin coal projects, and why others are promoting “refined coal”, a technology so absurd that even its fossil fuel proponents dumped it in the 1970s.

But where does the government get its information from? Hard to know as this exchange between Labor Senator Jenny McAllister and Treasurer Secretary John Fraser at a Senate Estimates committee reveals:

McAllister:    As part of your energy analysis, have you performed any analysis on the cost of new coal-fired power stations compared to alternatives?

Fraser:           No we haven’t.

McAllister:    Have you formed a view on why so many industry players dismiss new coal plants as a viable option for new generation in Australia?

Fraser:           No I haven’t. We’re consulting as widely as we can. It’s a very important issue and like everybody, it has crept up on us.

Crept up on us?

Meanwhile, gas power is still touted as the essential transition fuel. But it, too, is being priced out of the game.

The Australian Industry Group produced a report this week that pointed out there is no quick fix to the gas crisis, caused primarily for the huge rush to export Australia’s gas reserves to Asia and beyond. Those investment are not looking so great now, as the likes of Origin, Santos and others take huge write downs. But the impact will be felt in the domestic market for years to come.

The AIG report recognised that even if you did turn NSW and Victoria into a giant pin-cushion, with coal seam gas wells across the countryside, it would unlikely make much difference because it is an expensive way to extract gas. And the catch-22? The gas industry is more prone to the “death spiral”, where users turn to other technologies, leaving remaining customers to foot the bill for the huge infrastructure cost.

Australia’s high wholesale electricity prices this summer have partly been the result of the hefty cost of gas, but also the way that the market is controlled by a handful of gas generation plant owners who can more or less set the price as they please – unless there is competition from wind and solar.

Turnbull’s campaign against high prices ignores this, just as it ignores the soaring cost of networks, which has been responsible for the bulk of the price rises over recent years. This week, in the ACT, he talked of the problems faced by a data centre, whose electricity bill made up 20 per cent of the costs.

He, and they, should look around at what others are doing. The first big rooftop array in Melbourne was installed by data company NextDC, to defray electricity costs. They would do more if they were allowed to install rooftop solar on neighbouring buildings and use it without being lumped by huge network bills.

And what are the companies with the biggest data centres in the world doing? Apple, Google, Amazon are all well down the path to 100 per cent renewable energy – buying output from and commissioning wind and solar plant, because even in the US where electricity is cheap, wind and solar is even cheaper.

That doesn’t stop Coalition ministers just making stuff up. Christopher Pyne got pinged this week when he claimed that the Australian Submarine Corp had been forced to build a $20 million diesel plant to make sure the lights stayed on in case of a blackout in renewables-dominated South Australia. Asked about this, the CEO said “I don’t know anything about that.”

Liberal MP Dan Tehan confected outrage that Australia’s spy agency, and the secretive signals department, had been forced to switch to back-up generators to ensure the power stayed on during the recent heat-wave, when NSW’s electricity supply struggled to meet demand. Personally, I would have been outraged if the spy agency had not turned to back-up power.

Tehan tried to blame this on the dependence on renewables and the ACT 100 per cent renewable energy target. But ACT is part of the NSW grid, and that is nearly 90 per cent reliant on coal and gas, and it was renewables that held the fort on that day, while 1,000MW of coal-fired generation had a breakdown and another 1,000MW plus of gas-generation failed just when it was called upon by the market operator.

The same approach has been taken to the cause of blackouts and “load shedding” in South Australia and NSW. This has little, if anything, to do with the amount of renewable energy, but everything to do with the management of the grid, and unlocking the grip over the system held by incumbent technologies.

What hope is there that Turnbull & Co. will change course? Turnbull is actually deepening his ties with the fossil fuel industry, adding one key advisor from the Minerals Council to his personal staff and appointing the lobby group’s chair to the ABC board, despite her not making an independent short list.

The fossil fuel industry is returning the favour – hiring upended politicians like Sophie Mirabella and Adam Giles (both going Gina Rinehart’s Hancock group), and appointing former energy minister Ian MacFarlane to head the Queensland minerals council.

Even The Economist bought in to the debate this week, but it had one clear message which is just not being received in the toxic nature of Australia’s political debate.

Yes, there are issues, The Economist warned, but it’s in the design of the electricity system, not in the technology. The answer was not less wind or solar, but more.

“Policymakers should be clear they have a problem and that the cause is not renewable energy, but the out-of-date system of electricity pricing. Then they should fix it,” the magazine said.

Turnbull’s own chief scientist, Alan Finkel, has come to the same broad conclusion as the ANU, the CSIRO, the network owners, The Economist, and countless others: namely, that the energy transition is inevitable, that the technologies exist to make it secure and reliable, and that we should be getting on with it by sweeping away the policy and cultural barriers.  

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  • Tim Forcey

    “The gas industry is more prone to the “death spiral”, where users turn to other technologies, leaving remaining customers to foot the bill for the huge infrastructure cost.” I’ll say. Check out what folks are doing at “My Efficient Electric Home”. Free advice available from our experts and DIYers! See: https://www.facebook.com/groups/996387660405677/

  • Chris Fraser

    Mal should stop digging … literally and metaphorically.

  • DevMac

    Standing athwart history yelling “Stop! You’re going to cost me my job again”

  • Peter

    Political dementia

  • Rob

    “Crept up on us” – what from twenty years ago?!

    • Chris Drongers

      Fraser: No I haven’t. We’re consulting as widely as we can. It’s a very important issue and like everybody, it has crept up on us.

      Fails the BBQ laugh test.

      Don’t these people talk to anyone at BBQs, talk to relatives who have solar panel on the roof, wonder what is behind those annoying ads that keep coming up on your browser? Follow some of the submissions to the truckloads of inquiries that have been going on?

  • DJR96

    This is bloody serious. I’m hopping mad. Enough to send a message to my MP including a link to this article. Suggest you all do the same…….

    • stalga

      Freydenberg and the PM while you’re at it. I contacted all three after the stunt with the lump of coal. It doesn’t take much longer than posting here.

      There’s been no talk of CCS being used at steelworks, which I believe is where it possibly has a role to play.

      • Tom

        Freydenberg has been in the news a lot lately. It’s now clear that he’s as thick as pig s**t and as crooked as an old dog’s back leg.

        It actually makes me want to run for parliament – I’ve got no governing experience, but I’d do a better job than these chumps. Seriously.

        • stalga

          It’s contempt, sophistry and outright duplicity. A news article in the Herald last year hinted that Turnbull agreed to a “Faustian pact” to get the gig over Abbott.
          I’ve learned to detach a bit, too much anger is bad for your health. Being proactive helps with the impotent rage.

          If you want to run for Parliament Tom, do it, we need honest people representing us.

  • Les Johnston

    I agree that the “facts” claimed by the COALition are simply hot air. Unfortunately, the “facts” claimed by the fossil fuel industry are not supported by the economic cost data nor the engineering requirements of delivering a reliable electricity supply. The evidence of market failure, misinformation on failure of electricity supply provides no support for the claims made by the fossil fuel industry and our Prime Minister.

  • Macabre

    There is something very strange going on here. The Coalition defines itself as pro-business and pro-economy. Yet they are doing their best to destroy a huge business and economic opportunity in order to spruik something which clearly has no future. Even with all the dollars flowing from coal to the Coalition, I fail to see how this makes sense to them.

    • Tom

      +1. I’ve wanted to vote for a “liberal” party for 20 years, but there’s never been one to vote for.

    • Michel Gormly

      It makes perfect sense when you factor in political donations from fossil fuel corps.

  • Cooma Doug

    The market rules do need to be changed. We do need a 5 minute closure as well as price.
    However, the large price swings are hedged and we dont pay those dollars at our meter. Those prices, if consistantly high and often, eventually arrive at our home bill in the form of an energy cost contract rise at some time down the track.

    If we had a 5 minute settlement time right now, I’m not suře that is a good idea with the type of peaking plant we have. It would decrease the incentive to act on market variance as the payback is reduced. I might be wrong but I believe we need to first change the ancilliary service market rules and have reserve and voltage control bid in a 5 minute market closure and price. I dont believe the incentives are ideal.

    If we had all renewables and fast load side response technology, it is a totally different environment. If we have grid scale storage with millisecond response capabilities,
    the market needs to initiate response in a different way. The rewards will be shared either side of the meter. The stability and security peaking response will be greatly reduced due to the vast and detailed load adjustment as well as input in milli second time.

  • trackdaze

    Southern co have a 582Mw coal powered plant with ccs about to be turned on in the states.

    The time? About 7 years.
    The cost? About 7billion!

    Chances are it will run on gas without ccs as coal is too expensive!

    Perhaps sir would prefer nuclear?

    The last nuclear plant commissioned was the 1200Mw watts bar 2 in 2016.

    The time? About 30 years#
    The cost? 4.7 billion.

    A comparitive Bargain. Cheaper to run too though the garbage collection fees are astronomical.

    #shelved early in initial construction in the 80’s due to depressed energy consumption.

  • john

    Energy and the pub test.
    My experience is that people honestly do not understand the detail.
    When you start to give detail the eyes glass over and they stop listening.
    Turnbull et all only have to continue to push the story that coal/gas is reliable and this will be taken as being reasonable.
    From the very start of the use of solar panels the alternate story that they are too expensive will never pay for themselves on and on has been told.
    The RET inquiry showed that in fact they were net beneficial.
    I am afraid that we now are in an era of newspeak, and it is working with the help of disingenuous news outlets, print, air and internet, where just plain false and misleading information is just made up and the gullible take it as their truth.
    Is it any wonder that 1984 the book is on the best seller lists?
    Poor fellow my county indeed.

    • solarguy

      That’s right. The robots who aren’t programed to enquire, learn and understand can be fooled by the same lie, if told to them often enough. But two can play that game. Except we will be telling the truth.
      Keep telling them and if you have solar show them your power bills before and after. You won’t convince half wits, they can’t be educated, but you will get some to start thinking.

      • john

        Solar Panels my first quote was that long ago it was $54,000 so have followed the ever increasing value of the product.
        At the moment am assisting in a Club setup.
        Unfortunately there are those who are hard to show the benefits to however a few figures showing the outcomes certainly gets their attention. Well figures over 20 plus years do tell a story.
        Yes taking degradation into account and using conservative outcomes.
        I have my figures from installation together with all the ongoing figures in an excel file so that the graphs definitely makes them understand the outcomes so much easier.
        In the domestic situation have helped at least 10 get a much better resolution than they would have had.
        pvwatts is a handy guide to help in this regard.

        As to the energy outcome nationally the ACT situation tells a very easy to understand story and i expect this to be adopted going forward.
        I just do not understand the reasoning of the LNP it is not exactly logical from a business point of view.

        • solarguy

          John, the LNP are crippled by greed and their twisted values and mantra that big business is the only way forward for the economy. Trickle down economics has been proven to be a failure and clearly there is something very wrong with their mentality, when the generators, Finkel and others are saying coal can’t fly.

    • David leitch

      I agree with your pub test conclusion and that is why the coalition can to some extent get away with it. However I don’t think it’s getting that much support from the midstream media and most do understand that south Australia was a pretext.

  • Radbug

    The coal industry is trying to get the Federal government to build, and own, new coal-fired power stations. Matt Canavan, commissar for GOSPLAN.

  • Rob

    Its very frightening to realize that the minerals council and the fossil fuel industry have total control over our Prime Minister and our government. This governement does not work for the Australian people. It works for the fossil fuel industry.

    • solarguy

      Now all we need is for the rest of the gullible fools to switch on to the truth.

  • Roger Brown

    My little 3 kW solar system exported 819 kWh of nice green power into the dirty grid . My daily use is 7.64 kwh (summer A/C). Thanks to the Newman Govt for forcing me to Buy in on the .44c kWh + .06 c from Origin deal to 2028 . My export was $409.50 , charges was – $216.17 and a credit of $193.33 . Hot water is covered by my solar-hart system . NO MORE BILLS !