ABC’s political editor Chris Uhlmann continues with his ill-informed campaign against wind and solar, warning in an article on Sunday of the risk of widespread blackouts and claiming there is a limit of 20 per cent renewables before problems arise.
“Once wind energy passes about 20 per cent of generation it creates a series of well-documented challenges for electricity grids in both managing intermittency and stabilising the system’s frequency,” Uhlmann writes, without citing any such documents.
That, indeed, is what the fossil fuel industry would have you believe. It was what many engineers believed back in the 1980s and 1990s. And some still may do. But it is not true.
Just a few weeks ago, these claims were were put into perspective by the CSIRO, which said that anything up to 30 per cent wind and solar should be considered “trivial”.
“We could probably add that introducing renewables at a share of 10, 20 or 30 per cent is fairly trivial on the basis that the existing generation capacity has a lot of flexibility to deal with the variability,” CSIRO energy division’s principal research scientist Paul Graham told the Senate committee into the resilience of the grid.
The CSIRO is not the only one to say this. 50 Hertz, one of the biggest network companies in Germany, says more than 60 per cent can be absorbed without the need for storage.
“It’s about the mind-set,” Schucht said at the Re-energising the Future conference in Paris, and later to RenewEconomy, on the sidelines of the Paris climate conference in 2015.
“Ten to 15 years ago when I was young engineer, nobody believed that integrating more than 5 per cent variable renewable energy in an industrial state such as Germany was possible.” In the region 50 Hertz operates, the share of wind and solar was 42 per cent in 2015.
“No other region in the world has a similar amount of volatile renewable energy ….. yet we have not had a customer outage. Not for 35 or 40 years.”
That comes down, not to the particularities of wind and solar, but to management of the grid, or what the head of the world’s biggest grid has called a “cultural issue.”
China State Grid, the world’s largest, and the part owner of three Australian networks, has a vision for powering the world 80 per cent with wind and solar. High levels of renewable energy, CEO Lio Zhenha told a Texas conference last year, “is not a technical issue but a cultural one.”
The CSIRO’s Graham noted that existing back-up and redundancy for the current coal-dominated grid was already in place. Challenges may start to emerge around 40 per cent, Graham noted, but these could be addressed with a range of already available technology options.
As the CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia – which represents grid owners – said in last year’s the Network Transformation Map, very high levels of wind and solar can be accommodated: 86 per cent in South Australia by 2036, it suggests. Overall, a decarbonised grid could save $100 billion over business as usual.
They underlined the need for changes in market rules, that would make it easier for new technologies such as battery storage – or concepts such as demand management and energy efficiency. But these have been fought furiously by the fossil fuel industry and incumbents protecting their vested interests.
Uhlmann further states, likes his co-conspirator Andrew Probyn, that battery storage is not yet ready to compete with gas – another favourite fossil fuel line.
“Battery technology was advancing rapidly and the cost was falling but it was still not an economic solution for Australia. What made sense for households did not, yet, add up for business.”
This appears amid a series of quotes from the CEO of Alinta, Jeff Dimery. It is not entirely clear whether they are Dimery’s point of view, or Uhlmann’s. But Uhlmann might have asked himself why Alinta is now installing a large battery storage array in WA.
As Dimery told RenewEconomy last year, providing a spinning reserve – which is needed even in a grid with no large scale renewables, because even fossil fuel plants need back-up – is consuming gas and costing money.
He said the battery system will pay for itself through gas displacement, in the same way that solar makes sense as diesel replacement, and because of its ability to respond quickly to outages.
This is what has been said by numerous other people. Battery storage is competitive – but not yet fully competitive in a large grid, because the rules that favour the incumbent fossil fuel interests make it impossible for storage to unlock all its value streams.
The 30-minute rule – which even the market operator has conceded is having a grossly distorting effect on prices – is chief among them.
And battery storage has other uses, particularly as a cheaper alternative to grid upgrades. Ergon Energy has been rolling battery storage out in Queensland, and says it saves around one-third from the cost of upgrades, with no subsidies. That was two years ago.
Readers will know that this is not the first time we have taken Uhlmann to task, or his college Andrew Probyn. We took issue with Uhlmann’s reporting on the September blackout, and his warning of a “national blackout” if we built too much wind and solar.
He then sought to portray himself as the messenger of inconvenient truths, who had been treated like a heretic by the “pitch-fork brigade”. We presume he mean us.
No, the renewable energy industry and other energy experts have been working on these issues for years, but have been frustrated at every turn by the incumbent fossil fuel industry, who have been desperate to reject any energy market progress, and to continue to peddle nonsense. Some of which is swallowed whole.
That may soon – and hopefully – change with the arrival today of Audrey Zibelman, the new head of the Australian Energy Market Operator, who was previously in charge of New York’s remarkable Reform the Energy Vision program and its target of 50 per cent renewables by 2030.
Probyn has also been guilty, like Uhlmann, of repeating fossil fuel marketing lines that gas is the only commercial solution to grid integration issues, and of accusing Labor of being a “slave” to renewable energy targets.