Batteries not included: Coalition’s stunning hatred of new technology

Victoria big battery Neoen Tesla
An artist’s impression of Neoen’s Victorian big battery.

It really is getting beyond a joke. It was bad enough when Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey were railing against wind farms because they – and many of the Coalition donors – didn’t like the look of them.

It was pretty depressing when then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull chose to run with the conservative pack after the South Australian blackout and amplified the “when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine” mantra that has convinced a generation of Coalition politicians that coal is a must-have to keep the lights on.

And it might have been funny when Scott Morrison compared the Hornsdale big battery in South Australia to the Big Banana when treasurer, and then as PM tried to scare voters off electric vehicles by claiming Labor’s EV strategy would steal their utes and ruin the weekend.

But Keith Pitt, the current resources minister, has blown away the facade about the current conservative line of “all of the above” energy choices in that extraordinary interview on Sky News on Monday. These guys really do hate new technologies – be it wind, solar, battery storage or electric vehicles. It seems that if it’s got an inverter, it’s probably a threat to the democratic process. Maybe that’s what happened to Trump!

Best be seen, then, to act like the troglodytes they claim not to be. And to hell with the government’s own studies about the catastrophic impacts of climate change, the near 2,000 deaths a year in Australia blamed on petrol and diesel emissions (thanks to non-existent fuel standards), the health and environmental risks of gas, or the increased costs and sheer idiocy of betting the country’s future on fossil fuels.

Anyone knows that batteries are dispatchable. Whether they are lined up in rows upon rows at utility scale next to wind or solar farms, or at key points in the grid, or powering the smallest devices likes watches, torches and toys, they store energy and dispatch it when needed.

The fact that Pitt, a former electrical engineer, couldn’t bring himself to say as much in the interview with Sky News on Monday highlights to what extent this government intends to turn itself into a giant bollard that is trying to halt, or at least slow down, the transition to a cleaner grid and greener economy.

Just about everyone, barring Coalition ministers and parts of the Murdoch media, recognises the opportunities of the renewable energy transition – cheap wind and solar backed by various forms of storage. Much of this will be battery storage, including utility-scale installations like the Hornsdale Power Reserve, smaller community batteries on the street, household batteries in the garage, and batteries on wheels in electric vehicles.

Around the same time Pitt was making an idiot of himself and the federal government on Sky News (comparisons with Clarke and Dawe were rather too kind), the Australian Energy Market Operator was putting out a press release noting that new additions to the grid, and the growing pipeline of wind, solar and storage projects (mostly batteries), would likely mean that Australia will get to the 90 per cent share of renewables it identified in its Integrated System Plan well before the assumed date of 2040.

That’s great news, because climate scientists insist we must move quickly, because our trading partners are already doing so, and because of the huge economic opportunities it presents – in energy and manufacturing. But so long as this government pays lip service to the transition, and refuses to embrace these new technologies, then that task will get harder and more expensive.

That is the main frustration of so many people in Australia’s energy market. They consider the federal government to be largely irrelevant, and if you look at the remarkable progress in South Australia, and the various state based climate and renewable energy policies, that is true, but only to a certain extent.

The progress that could be made, driven by electrical engineers that had actually opened a textbook in recent decades, is extraordinary. Batteries have proven to be a wondrous addition to the grid. They have shown they can keep the lights on, deliver savings to consumers, and – if the market rules can keep up – deliver yet more services that will allow coal and gas generators to be withdrawn as the grid heads towards 100 per cent renewables.

The Coalition ministers should know this. They might have been better informed if just one of them had made the effort to attend any one of the more than 100 wind and solar farms that have been opened under their watch, albeit under the renewable energy target they were so desperate to kill.

As it is, only Morrison has visited one, when he was walked past a solar farm by iron ore billionaire Andrew Forrest while visiting his iron ore operations in the Pilbara just a few weeks ago. Morrison then talked to the press and didn’t even utter the word solar. What is it that the Coalition is scared of? Or is it just a stunning submission to stupidity.

Note 1: Pitt, an advocate for both coal and nuclear, normally posts his media transcripts on his website. Strangely, the latest one with Sky didn’t make it.

Note 2: I recorded this video below late last week, before Pitt’s remarkable intervention. What a shame. But it goes some way to explaining why batteries are more reliable, if less tasty, than bananas.

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