Finkel vs Turnbull, gas vs big batteries: Are we really decades away from transition? | RenewEconomy

Finkel vs Turnbull, gas vs big batteries: Are we really decades away from transition?

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Chief scientist says Australia will remain dependent on gas power for up to 30 more years because batteries not yet capable of supporting a majority solar and wind grid.

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Australia's chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel on Q&A
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Australia’s chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel has claimed Australia’s electricity supply would remain dependent on “complementary” gas power for up to another 30 years, as the nation’s grids made the transition to zero-emissions renewable energy.

Appearing as a guest on ABC TV’s Q&A program on Monday night, Finkel explained that this “near-term” dependence on gas stemmed mainly from the fact that battery storage technology was still decades away from being able to support a majority renewables grid.

“Maybe 20 or 30 years from now we’ll have new kinds of batteries, vastly powerful more extensive batteries and we can do it with batteries,” Finkel said.

“But gosh, the quickest way to develop our renewable electricity system is to support it with gas.

“Gas has much much more scale than batteries and gas is effectively the perfect complement to solar and wind. We can build a lot of solar and a lot of wind and use gas for times when we don’t have the sun shining and the wind blowing to deliver the energy we need,” he said.

“The reality is we’re going to have to rely on it for 10-20 perhaps 30 years. Up to three decades.”

Finkel’s claims – posited in response to a question about the gas-industry focus of the federal government’s controversial COVID Commission – were taken to task by fellow panelist and former Sydney Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull.

Turnbull, whose partner is the former Coalition leader and prime minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull, said putting gas at the centre of a plan to transition to zero emissions was “a little troubling.”

“I think we have to have a national and a global goal of having net zero carbon by 2050 at the latest, ideally 2040, and the way to get there is to have renewables plus storage,” Turnbull said.

“Now storage is not just batteries, you can have pumped hydro, and the battery technology revolution is really amongst us,” she added.

Other storage solutions aside, Australia has led the world in the adoption of grid-scale battery storage, with the installation of the 100MW/129MWh Hornsdale Power Reserve, or Tesla big battery, in South Australia in December of 2017.

Since then the battery – which remains, for now, the biggest in the world – has doubled the amount of money it saved consumers in its second full year of operation, and its rapid response to massive network faults helped to keep the lights on.

As RenewEconomy editor Giles Parkinson reported here, almost all of the savings delivered by the Hornsdale Power Reserve came from its role in frequency and ancillary control markets, a key part of network security that had previously been the domain of fossil fuel generators.

And new batteries to be added at Hornsdale – amounting to an extra 50MW and 65MWh to the installation – will have the potential to supply half of the state’s inertia needs, and help slow down the rate of change of frequency – a crucial tool in helping the market operator manage the grid.

And there are many more like it – and bigger – to come, both in Australia and around the world.

But current technical abilities of batteries aside – and there are many, many more to be fully realised yet – it could be argued (and Lucy Turnbull did argue) that setting course to a post-carbon world but using gas to get there is fundamentally wrong-headed. Particularly as the world scrambles to cut emissions in keeping with a trajectory that will keep global warming below 2°C.

“We have to re-conceive our world, the post-Covid world, as a post-carbon world, and we do that by not just doing the transitional stuff, you do that to the bare minimum that you need, but actually to look forward, and that’s the opportunity that we have now,” she said on Q&A.

“I think you have to build a very clear argument for why it’s a sensible idea to be doing this massive investment in gas if there other pathways to get to a lower emissions standard.

“I think our goal should be, if we’re going to be aspirational and visionary about the future after this crisis, is to have … the emissions profile and aspirations of, say, Denmark, with the energy costs of Saudi Arabia,” Turnbull added.

“So if you have that goal, then what is your pathway to get there? And it probably isn’t gas.”

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