For reasons that are not entirely clear, renewable energy sources such as wind and solar appear to have gotten the better of mainstream media.
For years now, many in mainstream media have been propagating myths about renewable energy in general, and wind and solar in particular. It’s unclear why this is so – whether it is simply about ideology, politics, the protection of vested interests or simply the fear of new technologies and new ideas.
Since the big price spike in South Australia and then the blackout, however, the myth making has reached plague proportions and has spread to some surprising corners.
From the arch conservative Andrew Bolt of News Limited to Chris Uhlmann at the ABC, and via so much of the Murdoch media, the Fairfax Press, commercial TV and radio and rather too many in ABC radio and TV, the myths have been perpetuated, egged along by conservative politicians.
The instances are so many that it is impossible to count, let alone list, and for this article we will ignore the cheap sloganeering such as “renewables are a fraud”, “wind energy doesn’t work,” and “wind energy is a boondoggle.”
The problem we identify in the following examples is that there still seems an inherent bias against wind energy, and it appears to be based either on a lack of understanding of how energy systems work, or how they are changing.
They seem convinced that renewables are the primary cause of high electricity prices, that fossil fuel plants don’t need back up, that transmission lines were only built to link remote and unreliable wind farms.
They fail to understand – and appear to have no interest in asking – that new technologies can make the grid cheaper and more stable, and that we should be accelerating the transition rather than slowing it down and turning to old and expensive alternatives.
The public are not easily fooled. Most don’t go into the details of the blackout, and maybe it’s the images of fallen transmission towers that have been enough to convince them that renewable energy was not at fault.
Still, the media debate, which informs and influences policy, is still being derailed by assumptions that are wrong or misleading, sometimes with the support, and often at the behest, of those in power.
Here is just a taster:
“Isn’t it an inconvenient truth … that we can get to renewable energy (including the Coaliton’s 23.5 per cent target by 2030) … but it is going to be more expensive?” – ABC political editor Chris Uhlmann in ABC interview with energy minister Josh Frydenberg.
Er, no. The Abbott government’s review of the RET, which was looking for a different answer, found that the RET would lower prices. The expert panel into Queensland’s proposed 50% RET suggests it will be cost neutral at worst. That’s because the reduction in wholesale prices offsets the cost of any subsidy.
Coal might be cheap to mine and shovel, but in Victoria coal produced for less than $20/MWh is being sold to consumers for more than $340/MWh, which is why millions of households are finding that using their own solar makes their bills a lot cheaper. Australian utilities will find wind and solar will offer savings when they are required to replace ageing coal and gas plants.
Along similar lines, columnist Des Houghton wrote in Brisbane’s Courier Mail about the Queensland RET: “Along the way the rush to renewables will destroy the cheap power advantage provided by Queensland’s coal fired power stations.”
Again, Queensland does not have cheap power. The cost to regions beyond Brisbane and the South-East corner has to be subsidised by some $600 million a year. The cost to households even in the Brisbane area is more than $350/MWh, inflated by gold-plated network costs and wholesale, network and retailer margins. Worse, if you don’t actually use much electricity, high fixed charges mean that you will be billed $720/MWh for your supply.
Uhlmann had another go in that same interview: Isn’t the truth, that people will find out, that the transition actually is expensive, we’ve already seen the wholesale prices go up and that will be reflected in retail prices.”
To which Frydenberg eagerly responded: “You’ve seen that in July this year when the wholesale price of electricity went in one day from $100/MWh to $14,000/MWh.”
As the minister well knows, these high price events used to happen regularly years ago, but have declined significantly since wind and solar have provide competition to coal and gas, and removed or contracted many of the demand peaks. What happened on July 8 was that the gas generators simply exploited a moment when there was little wind generation, no solar, and no interconnector. They – the gas generators – ruthlessly exploited their market power.
That would happen rarely, if ever, if the minister urged the market policy maker to change rules that currently make it difficult for battery storage to compete with those gas generators. And most wholesale price rises passed on to consumers are the result of rising gas prices, which was the situation across Australia in June when gas prices hit record highs, some times four times their historic cost.
“South Australia now gets 40 per cent of its power from renewable energy. That’s on a good day. On a bad day — when the wind doesn’t blow or blows too hard — it relies on energy imported from the brown coal power stations of Victoria.” Peta Credlin, former chief of staff to ex prime minister Tony Abbott and now Sky News and Murdoch tabloid commentator.
South Australia gets 40 per cent of its power from renewable energy over the full year. On a “good” day, it will get 100 per cent or more, and it will export that to Victoria. On a “bad” day, it will do what the state has been doing for decades, importing power from Victoria. Imports are little changed from a decade ago and actually fell sharply before the last coal generator in South Australia was closed.
“And that’s the problem with renewables — you’ve got to have a backup for when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.” Credlin again.
That’s the problem with any source of energy, you need back-up. South Australia has gone from zero wind and solar to 40 per cent without the need for any additional back-up to be built- it was already there to provide support for the existing fossil fuel generators and to meet the changes in demand and demand peaks. On that front, nothing has changed. In the future, smarter and newer technologies such as molten salt storage, battery storage and pumped hydro will replace the slow and clunky (and dirty and expensive) peaking power plants, and will reduce the need for grid upgrades.
“It would probably have been much easier to limit both the duration and the extent of the blackout if the state had alternative sources of energy in operation that could be quickly ‘dialled up’ to fill the gap.” Jennifer Hewett, AFR.
As the head of Siemens Energy told the same paper, even gas plants attached to the lines that collapsed would have tripped, suggesting the blackout was unavoidable. As AGL Energy said, if you want better security, add more renewables, not less, and create a series of micro-grids. And what alternatives is Hewett suggesting?
South Australia was not short of energy during the blackout, it had more than 2,000MW of fossil fuel capacity sitting idle, too slow to respond to the events unfolding around them. And when called upon to restart the grid, they didn’t work. One emergency “back-up” generator in Port Lincoln, laughably, apparently ran out of diesel. A coal-fired plant will have taken much longer to restart. Again, the solution is not old technology, but new technology. See battery storage.
“Most of the transmission towers fell after the power was cut.” Chris Kenny in The Australian, the main editorial in The Australian, Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun and other Murdoch writers.
So it must have been wind energy then! Give me a break. Enough towers had fallen to bring the three main transmission lines down and to stop them carrying electricity. It wouldn’t matter whether 3 or 300 towers fell after the event.
“Even worse, wind energy was next to useless when it came to restarting the system.” Kenny, and the Australian editorial pages, again.
And so were the fossil fuel generators paid millions to restart the system. They failed. And power was not regained until the extension cord from Victoria was re-established. It is something of a scandal that AEMO won’t identify the generators which failed to deliver on their highly paid contract to deliver an essential service.
“We’ll put aside the rather important question of whether the (transmission towers) were blown down because they weren’t built robustly enough, because the scattered nature of wind turbines requires so many of them that it would cost too much to ‘gold plate them.” Terry McCrann, Herald Sun
That’s not the worst or dumbest thing that MCrann has said about renewable energy. Not by a long shot. But it does illustrate the extent he will go to demonise the technology, and won’t allow any fact to derail that pursuit. The transmission lines were built well before the wind farms were even envisaged.
And so it goes on. What is worrying is that this media commentary seems in lock-step with the Coalition’s take on renewables.
As Labor’s Mark Butler pointed out after the AEMO report was released on Monday, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Frydenberg all suggested “intermittent renewables” played a role in the blackout. AEMO made clear that was wrong.
Joyce also suggested the wind blew too hard for wind power to operate, something that both Senator Nick Xenophon and Uhlmann had been keen to promote. Again, the AEMO report made clear that was wrong.
South Australian Liberal leader Steven Marshall blamed a failure of wind power to re-start the system. Again, the AEMO report made clear that that was wrong.
Finally, as is now clear, the Coalition is using the recent events to launch a scare campaign against renewables. It got The Australian to run several stories about the supposed $41 billion cost of the Queensland and Victoria renewable energy targets.
Queensland produced its own study which showed the cost of its plan would be less than one quarter of what Canberra claimed. Unsurprisingly, the Coalition has refused to release its costings, even before a Senate committee this week.
What it did admit, however, was that it took no account for the cost of replacing the fossil fuel plant that must retire with non-renewable generation. As they are finding in South Africa, the choices are obvious: cheap renewables or expensive coal and gas.
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