First they disputed the need to even have clean energy. Then they disputed the costs. Now, faced with the growing reality that renewables and storage are going to be cheaper, cleaner, and smarter and more reliable, conservatives are turning to the one mechanism still at their disposal: To shout very loudly.
The announcement of the Tesla big battery storage array to be built in South Australia by December 1 signals a major pivot point for the energy future in this country, as we point out in detail in our explainer here.
Conservatives, however, are not having a bar of it. Acting prime minister Barnaby Joyce came up with a folksy rejoinder that confirmed that his renewable energy target remains 100 per cent ignorance. But should we have expected better from federal energy minister Josh Frydenberg?
Let’s recall that Frydenberg went all the way to Adelaide early this year to sing the praises of the 5MW “virtual power plant” being put together by AGL Energy, only to get a slap down by Premier Jay Weatherill in the process.
Now, when Weatherill and Elon Musk, the world’s most popular and click-baiting tech nerd, announced the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery storage – some 20 times bigger than the one that Frydenberg was willing to fly 1,000kms for – all he could do was reply with a churlish put-down.
But let’s run with the nutty ones first.
Far Right commentator Andrew Bolt titled his post on the story: “The fraud of Weatherill’s battery”, and went on to quote Frydenberg saying the battery capacity amounted to just one per cent of the potential daily wind farm output in the state.
National Party MP George Christensen followed up by wondering: “How many of these 100MW batteries would the state need to meet current maximum demand, which (according to last year’s South Australian Electricity Report) is around 3000MW?”
Our answer. Not many George. South Australia already has more than 3,000MW of gas and diesel fired generators, not to mention 1,650MW of wind and 744MW of rooftop solar, so even if the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow, there should be enough capacity.
The problem arises when, as occurred this year, a big gas plant sits idle while its customers go without power, or when two big gas units trip due to a fault. Or if there are transmission faults which set the frequency and voltage wobbling. That’s what this storage array is designed to address.
Indeed, if the Australian Energy Market Operator is worried about anything this year, it is not the amount of variable renewables, but the performance of the big gas and coal generators in the middle of the heat-wave.
The term “baseload” is being thrown around by conservatives as a proxy for “reliability”, but it is anything but. “Baseload” does, however, go hand in hand with inflexibility. Battery storage, and other forms of storage, are designed to make the system more flexible.
Christensen doubled down, estimating that the battery array was equivalent to power for 45,000 homes: “Maybe Jay (Weatherill, the SA Premier) should just go to Bunnings and place an order for some generators – they could probably deliver in 5 days.”
Well, that would be about as dumb as Christensen’s idea for a new coal fired generator in Queensland. It would be polluting and expensive.
But you know the irony of it all? Using a petrol generator in a household would probably be cheaper than using power from the fossil fuel dominated grid. That’s how “cheap”, Australia’s coal dominated grid has become. Households are paying 40c/kWh, and not just in South Australia, and that’s ridiculous.
Joyce, the acting prime minister, also ran the line that the Tesla battery storage was too small to make much difference.
“It’s a good idea but the capacity is not there,” Joyce told ABC TV on Sunday. “You know, a grain of sugar is an advantage to a teaspoon, but it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference.”
Anyone who has had a flat tire knows that you don’t have to buy a new car to fix the problem. And anyone who knows anything about grid security and the operation of the wholesale markets, and how fossil fuel generators have been rorting it for years, will know that a few megawatts here and there will make a big difference.
After all, the shortfall in the load-shedding in February was not 3,000MW, the capacity of the fossil fuel generators, it was 90MW. Just one more grain of sugar – like this battery – would have kept the lights on.
This storage installation is also just the first of many. The first mobile phones didn’t suddenly enable 10 million people to ring each other on the move, but it did make it clear the direction we were heading.
It seems conservatives don’t want to acknowledge that this is the start of a Really Big Thing, one that requires them to think differently about climate science, coal-fired generators, baseload power, market manipulation and consumer prices.
Joyce was also putting his efforts behind new coal fired generators. He’s the sort of guy that might have bought Kodak shares when digital photography took off, or signed up for a 10 year supply of hay bales when it looked like motor cars would replace the horse and cart.
The strategy now is not jut to shout at climate science, renewable energy and battery storage, but anyone who represents what they see as a dangerous thought process. That was the basis for Murdoch commentator Piers Akerman’s attack on Alan Finkel on Sunday.
“The Finkel report is a blueprint for destruction — of the Australian economy and destruction of the Liberal Party,” he wrote. What followed was a repeat of just about every talking point and myth perpetuated by the fossil fuel industry and the gullible right – and about a curiously unambitious energy blueprint.
“How did we get so stupid?” Akerman concluded. Good question.
Frydenberg’s response to the Tesla announcement was classic male locker room boastfulness: the mine is bigger than yours assertion that never quite clarifies whether it is functional or not.
When he visited Adelaide for AGL’s 5MW battery storage promotion in March, he wrote on his blog: “This battery storage project is a great example of flexible capacity solutions and large-scale storage projects that secure energy supply, integrate renewable energy sources and enhance grid stability.”
But when responding to Tesla’s 100MW/129MWh battery storage installation, Frydenberg said it was “small compared to the scale of the problem the (State) Government created.” In other words, it wasn’t his idea.
“The lithium ion battery is a lot of sizzle for very little sausage, as it will provide only 129 MWh of storage, compared with 1000 MWh of storage at the potential Cultana pumped hydro project in the Upper Spencer Gulf, and the 350,000 MWh of storage from Snowy Hydro 2.0,” he wrote in his blog.
Um, yes, and apart from addressing a completely different energy system need to those big projects, it will be delivered by December 1 this year, about 10 years before Snowy Hydro 2.0 (which will be little or no use to South Australia anyway) and at least 5 years before Cultana.
“On any one day, wind in South Australia can provide about 13,000MWh of generation, of which the new battery project can barely store 1 per cent,” Frydenberg wrote.
Yes, and that compares to the 0.05 per cent that inspired you to fly to Adelaide. But that is not what this new storage facility is designed to do, minister, as you well know. Much of it is there to deal with network failures and large gas plants tripping.
But Frydenberg appears to have another thing on his agenda – to try turn wind and solar farms into “baseload”, and force new wind and solar farms to have an equivalent amount of storage as their capacity.
It is a thinking-process locked in the past, not in the future of flexible generation, or what new AEMO boss Audrey Zibelman describes as smarter, cheaper, cleaner, faster and more reliable generation supply.
We should hope for better from the country’s energy minister than this. At Barnaby and the Murdoch mad-hatters, we can just laugh or cry. With the energy minister, who can’t get excited about the world’s biggest lithium ion battery, we can but shake our head.