$5 trillion? For a business daily, the AFR has a lousy grip on energy numbers | RenewEconomy

$5 trillion? For a business daily, the AFR has a lousy grip on energy numbers

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What chance is there of a sensible debate when the AFR and The Australian can’t get the numbers right?

Artist's impression of Yandin wind farm. Supplied.
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Five trillion dollars. ($5 trillion). That’s the cost, the Australian Financial Review would have you believe, of decarbonising Australia’s economy if we were to do it through renewables and storage, and saddle every Australian home with a “green loan” of some $100,000.

The bushfires that have savaged large areas of eastern Australia, and shocked the nation and much of the world, have been cited as a potential turning point for the debate around climate change and the potential avenues to slash emissions, including through a clean energy transition.

But what chance is there of a sensible debate when the two national daily newspapers, who take themselves most seriously, the AFR and The Australian, can’t get the numbers right?

With The Australian and the rest of the Murdoch media we shouldn’t expect much. There is a clear ideological bent against climate science, and renewables, and they’d much rather focus on the “one percenters”, the group of cranks and mischief makers who run against the mainstream.

With the AFR, we might have hoped for more, considering its primary function ought to be to inform business, rather than pitch for chosen sectors. But it does have form: Two years ago RenewEconomy took the AFR to task when it repeated some nonsense estimates of the costs of energy storage if Australia was to try to back up a portfolio of wind and solar energy with batteries.

See: The case against Tesla and battery storage just hit peak stupid

Now it’s done it again, blazoned across the front page of its weekend edition – the “$5 trillion” cost to get to zero emissions. The AFR uses the numbers to fret over the switch to wind and solar and to push the barrow for nuclear – an industry and a proposition that relies almost entirely on grossly inflated generation and system costs for renewables.

The main source of the AFR’s inflated numbers is Saul Griffith, an Australian entrepreneur with an MIT doctorate known mostly for working on an “out-there” idea for “high altitude” wind energy, and who now finds himself as an advisor to various Democrat presidential nominees.

That’s a great appointment, because Griffith is smart. This author interviewed Griffith way back in 2011 after a fascinating TedX presentation in Sydney. At the time, he lamented the lack of audacity and vision, and talked of “terrawatt” scale solar farms and his pet project, the high altitude wind energy technology that was later sold to Google.

“There is a collective failure of our imagination if we let ourselves believe that the future is going to suck,” Griffith said then. “We have to inspire our children to do some awesome stuff.”

But how are we going to inspire people if the cost of the transition has all the appearances of being made up on the back of a napkin in a Washington cab? That’s how ridiculous the numbers quoted in the AFR, and attributed to Griffith, look with a little bit of thought.

Griffith rightly points out that one of the keys to full decarbonisation is the “electrification” of the household. Out with petrol and diesel cars, and out with gas appliances and heating. In with electric. The ACT, already with 100 per cent renewables for its electricity supply, is heading down that path by removing the obligation to hook new houses up to gas pipelines.

Griffith, however, scares the pants off the punters, and the AFR editorial writers, by claiming that this electrification would cost $100,000 per household, or a total of $860 billion for the whole country.

Hang on. $100,000? Unless Griffith is proposing that everyone go off-grid, most household can generate the equivalent of their daily demand needs with about 5kW of rooftop solar, or maybe a bit more. That might cost $5,000 to $10,000. And one-third of homes that can have solar in Australia already have it.

Want a battery? You can pay anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 for a single unit, depending on the size and quality. You don’t need more unless you really don’t like utilities or you want to be off grid. Hot water? A solar heat pump will cost less than $5,000 with installation.

Electric cars? Presumably this is where the bulk of Griffith’s $100,000 bill comes from. But think about it. Australians on average own their cars for 11 years. Price parity for EVs – compared to petrol and diesel cars – is expected in the next three to five years. Let’s say price parity happens by 2025, and then everyone replaces their existing car with an electric over the next 10 years.

By 2035, just about the whole fleet is electric. And what’s been the cost? Well, nothing, because everyone was going to buy a car anyway. The savings, however, are likely huge, probably $2,000 to $3,000 per household, or even per car, just on fuel costs.

And going electric will not, as is claimed in the article, double the amount of electricity we need to generate.  With smart controls, most of the EV charging needs will simply soak up excess wind and solar power that was otherwise headed for storage. And then the EVs will become a valuable storage resource for the grid.

And this takes us to Griffith’s next dodgy number – the $1 trillion he says is needed to build all those wind farms, solar farms and batteries. The AFR then compounds this with yet another dodgy figure, the $430 billion needed for new poles and wires cited from the widely discredited (pro nuclear) “study” produced for Industry Super Australia.

Let’s go to the experts here. The Australian Energy Market Operator is preparing a 20 year blue-print, known as the Integrated System Plan, on how the country can transition to a grid dominated by renewables, and keep the lights on.

It includes various scenarios, but apart from the catastrophic “slow change”, they each point to wind and solar providing nearly all the electricity in 20 years time. Even the “central scenario”, based on current state and federal policies gets us to 73 per cent renewables.

The “step change” gets the country to 89 per cent renewables by 2041/42, when the states of NSW, South Australia and Tasmania are already at 100 per cent renewables.

And the cost of this? According to AEMO, on a net present value basis – about $91 billion. That includes generation, storage and power lines. That’s a tiny fraction of the cost cited by the AFR.

See more: Australia has a credible path to a low carbon grid. Why won’t the Coalition embrace it?

The AFR cites a total cost of $5 trillion but doesn’t explain how it gets from $2.3 trillion it details to $5 trillion – but let’s assume it includes industry transformation (green steel) and agriculture and buildings.

AEMO actually provides two figures, $90 billion on an NPV basis (2020 dollars), and about $160 billion on a year by basis over the next two decades for the “Step Change” scenario.  (See below).

Granted, the hardest part of getting to 100 per cent renewables is the last 10 per cent, because you need that much more storage and to cater for those few hours of the year.

But it’s not going to cost anywhere like the numbers quoted by the AFR. And, it should be noted, AEMO says “behind the meter” storage means that less “grid scale storage will be needed.

In its step change scenario suggests half of the storage needs will be provided by households and businesses. (See table above).

More remarkably, if the uptake of distributed energy, such as rooftop solar and battery storage, is as high as Griffiths suggests, the amount of grid scale storage would be minimal (see below). Someone needs to find a new napkin.

And that does not include EVs, which could also be harnessed for extra storage capacity. As economist Ross Garnaut has predicted, Australia could reach 100 per cent renewables by the early 2030s, and have a wholesale cost of electricity lower than what we have now. That timeline, and those low costs, would be impossible if the AFR’s and the Australian’s preferred technology, nuclear, was part of the equation.

What’s the point of this de-bunking?

Well, because it’s hard for Australia to have a sensible conversation about the prospects of a clean energy transition if two of the most “serious” newspapers repeatedly publish rubbish numbers and lousy commentary.

To his credit, the reporter in the AFR story includes a number of caveats, and quotes others who express caution about Griffith’s numbers.

Not the AFR editorial team, however, which used this article, and the fact that the $5 trillion figure had been touted by an advisor to “left wing” presidential candidates, along with the burden of having to provide $100,000 of green loans to every household, and the assumption that wind and solar have “destabilised the grid”, to argue the case for nuclear.

A few days later, it went further, publishing this article tweeted below. Really, how does such ill-informed and lazy commentary get published in a supposedly serious national business daily?

The Australian newspaper, as we all know, publishes this sort of garbage on a regular basis from its growing team of anti-renewable commentators.

Its economics editor was at it again on the same day as the Griffiths story in the AFR. He trumpeted another debunked assumption from economic Geoff Carmody that it would cost $400 billion in “batteries alone” to ensure a reliable supply of electricity from wind and solar.

Why won’t they quote from the AEMO studies, or even previous CSIRO studies, or the report commissioned by chief scientist Alan Finkel from the Australian Council of Learned Academies. All these reports dismiss this sort of scare-mongering costs as arrant nonsense.

Why? Because they have an ideological barrow to push. And in this case it’s nuclear. And while that continues, there is little chance of an informed debate about energy in Australia. The two national dailies simply won’t allow it.

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