Five things we learned this week ….

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Crazy weather in the US, where even the minimums are higher than the maximums; why Palmer is right about CIA and coal; Ted’s brown cow; Obama’s energy flat earthers; and why solar will eat the coal industry’s lunch.

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North Americans are getting a crash-course in the meaning of extreme weather variations. The month of March has produced an extraordinary heat wave across large parts of the US and Canada, with 3,550 record daily highs and 3,109 daily warm low temperature records recorded during the week from March 12-18. Some records have been extraordinary: with many locations recording overnight minimums higher than the previous record daily highs for the date. One location, Marquette in Michigan, recorded an overnight low of 54°F, which compares to its average daily high at this time of the year of 36°F, and a typical low of 15°F. Mt Washington recorded an overnight low 44°F, beating its previous high for the date of 43°F. In Moosonee, Ontario, the temperature reached  70°F, compared to the average of 25°F.

Warm temperature records have been outpacing cold records by a ration of about 11-1, according to Climate Central. What does this mean? Gerald Meehl, the lead author and a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), said “If temperatures were not warming, the number of record daily highs and lows being set each year would be approximately even.” Meteorologist Jeff Masters, who noted that the waters of Lake Michigan this month have been at 6°C, compared to the monthly average below 6°C, said  it “is highly unlikely the warmth of the current ‘Summer in March’ heat wave could have occurred unless the climate was warming.”  Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro described the heat wave as “surreal”.

Clive might be right

Clive Palmer might be on to something. If climate change represents a significant security threat, as US Navy Secretary Ray Mabus has said often enough, then it makes sense that the CIA would be investigating its causes, even taking action to counter the threats. So claims this week by Palmer, who with Gina Rinehart and others wants to dig up nearly the entire Galilee Basin in Queensland and stick it on ships to India and China, that the CIA is in cahoots with the Greens and their anti-coal campaign does have an irresistible logic to it.

Fortunately for Palmer, Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu dug up an old army tactic and chose to run decoy by announcing his own plans to dig up several billion tonnes of Victorian mud, dry it and then ship it to those same nations. It seems their combined vision for Australia’s economy is to turn it into a giant quarry and factory where natural gas is transformed into LNG, and brown coal into black coal. Little wonder they oppose a carbon price.

But as Andrew Glikson points out in this piece on The Conversation, mining, coal exports and carbon emissions continue to grow in Australia, overwhelming any mitigation attempted by schemes such as the Australian carbon price. This is despite record global temperatures in 2005 and 2010 (unprecedented in the instrumental record), a recent sharp plunge in volume of the Arctic Sea ice and a spate of extreme weather events, as illustrated in north America and many other places.

Looks like a duck, must be a dog 

Looks like solar, acts like solar, feels like solar, must be a coal-fired power station. That was the conclusion of IPART late last week after spending nearly a year investigating solar PV – analysing it, prodding it, even shutting it into a darkened room for a week without food and water to see how it would react. Anything, it would seem, apart from actually sticking it on the roof and seeing what it could do. Frustrated, IPART turned to the utilities for advice, and they said that solar PV was indeed just like  coal-fired power station and should be treated as such, but only if they felt like it, because some times they would actually like to pretend that it didn’t exist, because they can’t work out where on the spreadsheet to put its inputs and outputs.

Or, maybe it is a duck.

One man not pretending that solar doesn’t exist is NRG CEO David Crane. NRG is one of the biggest utilities in the US, with nuclear, coal, gas, wind and solar in its portfolio. But it’s solar that has got him really excited, describing it as the biggest game changer in his 25 years in the industry, which also includes a stint as head of International Power (the owners of Hazelwood power station) in the UK.

His comments about solar – “I can’t see any scenario I can’t imagine a situation where we would walk away from solar power” – have particular resonance in Australia, where people are trying to do exactly that. The federal government, in its draft energy white paper, even tried to pretend it doesn’t exist, a feat also attempted by Queensland. Australia, of course, has the biggest “hub and spoke” energy system in the world (something that Crane thinks will soon be redundant), and, according to the Energy Users Association, some of the highest retail prices in the world.

The biggest contributor  is the cost of the networks, which is why distributed energy offers as much of an opportunity to customers as it does a threat to utilities and network providers. The report last year from Institute of Sustainable Futures said one third of the planned $45 billion expenditure  could easily be avoided. But solar is a threat to existing business models, which is already being witnessed in Germany, with the world’s largest deployment of rooftop solar.

For most of last week, according to reports, hard coal power stations in Germany ran at between 20 and 40 per cent of their installed capacity during peak-load hours, gas power stations operated at about 7 to 18 per cent of their installed capacity, while solar provided up to 16GW of power during the day, compared to a combined 10GW from coal and gas. Needless to say, this is causing major damage to the earnings of the companies that run these fossil fuel businesses, and may explain why utilities in Germany and elsewhere are launching a campaign to limit the deployment of solar. Presumably, Australian utilities and generators have similar worries.

Flat-earth societies

Crane’s biggest beef was the politics of green energy, which he said had now become partisan in the US and represented the biggest setback to wind, solar and other renewables in the past year. This was a theme eagerly picked by President Obama last week, commenting on moves by Republicans in Congress to prevent public investment in solar energy.  “If these guys were around when Columbus set sail, they’d be charter members of the Flat Earth Society,” Obama said. A comment that is sadly applicable to Tories across the English-speaking world, particularly in Australia.

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8 Comments
  1. Steve Phillips 7 years ago

    One of your best columns yet, Giles!

  2. Nick James 7 years ago

    …The sixth thing we learned was how essential this sort of informed and smart journalism is to renewable energy development in this country.

    Renew Economy is great. Thanks for another week of quality output Giles.

  3. keith williams 7 years ago

    Giles,

    What can be done about the Draft Energy White Paper? Seems like it is urgent to get a campaign going to at least have the facts presented about solar both here in Australia as well as making clear what is happening internationally. If the final report includes the facts, then it will be very hard to sustain the way the report is structured.

    • Giles Parkinson 7 years ago

      Keith, submissions have been sent in by a range of people and organisations pointing out the errors, and I know that a few people in DRET read this website, so there is hope. The minister was even at a solar research facility this morning to announce solar research funding.

  4. D. John Hunwick 7 years ago

    I very much support the comment by Nick James – this sort of information source is essential for those who care to find out that there is so much actually going on – just disappointing that more of it is not happening here in Australia

  5. Ron Horgan 7 years ago

    Giles , your column should be required breakfast reading for all politicians and decision makers in Australia.
    How can we get your messages out into general circulation?
    Great work , thank you.

  6. David Rossiter 7 years ago

    With reference to the comments from Obama and Tories around the world…..

    Credit where credit is due Cameron of the UK is not against solar – or did your article mean that he is not part of the English speaking world – reflecting his insular location???

  7. Michael 7 years ago

    “hard coal power stations in Germany ran at between 20 and 40 per cent of their installed capacity during peak-load hours”

    What happens in this situation ?
    Are the coal fired generators spilling the excess during peak-load hours or are they able to follow the reduced load ?

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