The coal lobby is showing increasing signs of desperation, dipping into their bags of increasingly tenuous talking points in an attempt to find an argument to demonise renewables, battery storage, and promote their core commodity.
The latest comes from Australia’s largest coal miner Glencore, the international mining giant, and its most senior executive in Australia, Peter Freyberg, who decided to join the conga-line of conservatives and vested interests seeking to diminish and mock the Tesla big battery in South Australia.
“The much heralded proposed renewable lithium battery storage in South Australia of 129 megawatt-hours would power our aluminium smelter here in New South Wales for a grand total of 7.7 minutes,” Freyberg said, according to the AFR, which made it the lead story on its home page.
If you’ve heard those arguments before, that’s because they are similar to those repeated by conservative commentators on radio and in the Murdoch press, and on the right wing of the Coalition government. Not to mention One Nation.
The Glencore comments came around the same time as a study financed by Australian National Low Emissions Coal Research and Development, which came up with this pearler – arguing that each megawatt of wind needed 23MWh of back-up in South Australia, and 48 hours in Queensland.
“If storage were to be provided to back this up, then in SA it would need to hold at least 23MWh for each MW of wind. SA has about 1600MW of wind so to secure this against a wind drought would need 285 batteries of the size being built by Tesla at time of writing. The economics of this operation would be poor with some of the storage only being used once every 5 years.”
As one energy analyst noted, the idea of proposing to build 285 Tesla big batteries to cover a one-in-five-year event is “completely idiotic”.
First of all, it assumes that the power system will be nothing but wind and battery storage – solar, pumped hydro, biofuels, solar thermal? – and that the huge back-up built to support the inflexible coal generators would suddenly disappear.
But this has traditionally been the fossil fuel industry’s approach to back-up power – such as the 82MW Merredin diesel back-up generator in Western Australia which was paid for by subsidies and has never been switched on since it was built in 2012.
As the new head of the Australian Energy Market Operator, Audrey Zibelman argues, along with most other people not representing the coal lobby, there are smarter ways of dealing with supply shortages – demand management being just one.
The ANLEC report was designed with one idea in mind: to justify spending on coal-fired power stations and carbon capture and storage.
“New coal that is prepared for future CO2 storage delivers immediate near term grid stability services while also securing the path to lowest cost carbon abatement in the long term,” it proclaims.
Likewise, Freyberg didn’t try to hide his intentions. He wants the federal and state-based renewable energy targets to be scrapped; he backtracked on his previous cautious support for a clean energy target, and he argued Australia should slow its commitments to the Paris climate targets.
Given Australia’s recent performance, he probably means Australia should reverse more quickly. Most of all though, he wanted wind and solar farms “to be linked with baseload” so they can be “turned on and off as required”. Presumably so as not to interfere with coal-fired generators, which can’t be turned on and off.
This attachment to the concept of “baseload,” rather than “reliability” (we go into what that means here) and flexibility, is troubling, not least because of the traction that it gains in media and government circles.
Freyberg said that “unless something happens quickly” to Australian electricity prices those businesses will shut. “We’re going nowhere with emissions reductions, we’re just putting the Australian economy at risk.”
But here’s the inconvenient truth about the issue: businesses that are being hit by high energy prices are turning to, and not away from, renewables as a solution, be they zinc refiners, steel works, mining operations or large-scale agriculture producers.
Korea’s Sun Metals decided that building its own 116MW solar plant was the key to expanding its refinery near Townsville, the new owners of the Whyalla steel works say renewables will be the key to its future viability, the owner of what will be Australia’s largest greenhouse for vegetable growing only decided to build it in Australia after realising that the combination of wind energy and battery storage offered the cheapest option.
Freyberg would do well to follow the example of both Sun Metals and Whyalla. He lamented the high energy costs faced by Glencore’s operation in Mt Isa and Townsville, but as we reported before, the situation in Mt Isa was largely self-inflicted.
It was Glencore that pushed the Queensland government to go against its own advice and go for a new gas fired generators rather than a renewables super-highway known as the Copperstring project.
Now it is the victim of high gas prices and a monopoly supplier.
Its Townsville operations could follow the same path as Sun Metals. No need to build its own solar plant, it could contract one of the more than dozen solar plants proposed for the area, as Telstra, which consumes 1 per cent of Australia’s electricity needs, has already done.
Thousands of smaller businesses are doing the same thing, and so are some big consumers on the electricity front: Malcolm Turnbull (solar and battery storage in Sydney) and Corey Bernardi (12kW solar in Adelaide). You can be sure that Bernardi is doing this to save money, not cut emissions.
Another reality is that five of the world’s six biggest companies by market capitalisation – Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and – have all committed to going 100 per cent renewables.
Not so much because they want to save the planet, but because it is cheaper, and to show leadership. The owner of Foster’s and VB, investment bank JP Morgan, retailer IKEA and numerous others have done the same thing, and more will follow.
The one bright aspect of Freyberg’s comments to the press was the sight of fissures within the coal industry. He argued against any subsidies for the Adani coal mine in the Galilee Basin, because of the impacts on coal mines elsewhere highlighted by recent studies.
The fossil fuel’s main strategy against climate polices and renewable energy has been to divide and conquer, but their own unity is rapidly disintegrating.
The first signs of this came in the lead up to the Paris conference, when the oil and gas industry took aim at the coal sector. Now the coal sector, with increasingly tenuous economic prospects and shrinking markets, is fighting amongst itself.