“In South Australia, the minister’s right, when the wind stops, you get blackouts.”
Well, no. Fact check please. But so said ABC Q&A host Tony Jones on the program last night in the middle of a discussion about renewable energy between energy minister Josh Frydenberg and the former prime minister of Denmark, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.
Apart from being factually wrong, Jones’ statement highlights the depths of ignorance in mainstream media, and the influence within the ABC of senior commentators who simply do not accept, or understand, the potential of renewable energy. It is a view enthusiastically shared by many conservative politicians and encouraged by an ever desperate fossil fuel industry.
But here’s the thing. The energy mix is changing rapidly and large-scale solar is unstoppable, according to numerous presenters at a major solar conference held in Sydney this week.
Solar and wind will beat new coal and gas on price, and on top of that storage is arriving in a big way, as are all the other different technologies that will usher a dramatic change in our energy mix from a fossil fuelled “baseload” to a flexible system based around wind and solar.
“Get used it”. That was the simple but powerful message to the energy incumbents from Leonard Quong, a lead analyst from Bloomberg New energy Finance, in highlighting the rapidly changing “energy paradigm” in Australia and across the world.
“The best advice that we can give to those that would seek to resist the change, or the increased complexity, is just get used to it,” Quong told the conference on Monday. “The economics of large-scale solar make it an unstoppable force,” he said, reinforcing the point that the power system was moving to a new “control paradigm”, underpinned by any amount of new technologies.
It was a theme taken up by a range of speakers at the conference, from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and to developers such as Goldwind (the world’s biggest wind turbine manufacturer), Genex Power and others.
Indeed, in recent weeks the energy debate in Australia has reached something of an inflexion point. The closure of the dirtiest power station in the country, the giant Hazelwood brown coal generator, was the biggest symbol of this transition.
But other events are happening rapidly. In South Australia, a tender for battery storage attracted an astonishing 90 proposals, the former head of Hazelwood conceded that solar and storage was already cheaper than gas, and the biggest player in the South Australian market tore up its business plan in response to the events around it, and the state’s intervention in the market.
Good, said premier Jay Weatherill. “We’ve been screwed for too long by large power companies, it’s as simple as that,” the premier said on Monday.
Finally, the government has now shown it is prepared to take on the energy oligopolies – given that the regulators and rule makers have shown no interest in doing so. And the solution is to be found in storage and smart solutions that reduce the ability of the incumbents to cause huge price spikes and withhold capacity.
And for the first time, the head of one of the country’s main energy institutions, Audrey Zibelman, the new chief of the Australian Energy Market Operator, is talking of a grid that focuses on “distributed generation” – solar and storage – as a cheaper, faster, cleaner and smarter alternative to what we have now.
Even Malcolm Turnbull, in promoting pumped hydro, is talking of “dispatchable generation” and “variable” rather than “intermittent renewables.”
And his government has promised to throw in an extra $110 million to support a solar tower and storage facility in Port Augusta. Once that technology gets established, with its ability to provide 24-7 power, then the game will surely be up for baseload fossil fuels.
Indeed, this was one of the big themes of the Large Scale Solar 2017 conference being co-hosted by RenewEconomy and Informa in Sydney this week. The long expected and sudden boom in large-scale solar is about to change the energy landscape in this country forever, particularly as storage comes on board as well.
Gloria Chan, the head of large-scale solar for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, talked of a “changing paradigm” from baseload and peaking fossil fuel plants, to a “smart grid” based around solar and wind, with the gaps being filled by “dispatchable” renewables and storage.
She used this graph to illustrate the point:
This effectively shows – as many reports have shows previously – that the “baseload” fossil fuels is eventually replaced by a new form of “base”, from variable renewables as cheaper wind and solar replace ageing and exiting coal and gas.
Another way to look at it the transition is this way, with solar becoming the overwhelming energy source in the middle of the day, with a big impact on not just supply needs, but also on price.
With that big lump of solar in the middle of the day deflating prices – to the point where Genex Power’s Kidston suggested that the pumped hydro facility planned for the old Kidston gold mine would likely use cheap solar to pump water up to the higher pond during the day, rather than cheap coal at night.
John Gardner, from Goldwind, the world’s biggest wind turbine maker, talked of “baseload” wind and solar being produced by the planned wind and solar hybrid plants at Gullen Range and White Rock in New South Wales.
“Just as the planning and management of urban transport became orders of magnitude more complicated with the advent of the automobile and necessitated the development of paved roads, traffic lights and highways, new methods, technologies and infrastructure will be needed to support the advent of decarbonised energy.”
The CEFC’s Chan said the CEFC technology roadmap includes pumped hydro and batteries, along with synchronous condensers and other technologies; “dispatchable” renewables such as solar thermal, geothermal hydrogen and biomass.
Other technologies include transmission upgrades and “behind the meter solutions” – the solar and storage and virtual power plants, and demand management highlighted by Zibelman in the past week.
What is so astonishing about the plethora of opportunities is the refusal of the incumbents and other vested interests to see them.
Their regulatory capture of many of the country’s key institutions seems to be complete as well, but could be challenged by the likes of Zibelman and chief scientist Alan Finkel.
Indeed, a survey released this week by Sven Teske, from the Institute of Sustainable Futures in Sydney, found that 71 per cent of international energy experts thought that 100 per cent renewable energy was obtainable and realistic. To be sure, the responses ranged from the “progressive” to the “conservative” – who simply didn’t believe it could be done.
As the head of China’s state grid has noted, this is not a technology issue, but a cultural one.
And perhaps it is that which causes the media to struggle to move forward, and lazily repeat the mischievous myth-making of the fossil fuel incumbents. Jones’s comments on Q&A are a case in point. Perhaps mainstream media is waiting for the right signals from the mainstream parties.
Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of RenewEconomy.com.au, and is also the founder of OneStepOffTheGrid.com.au and founder/editor of www.TheDriven.io. Giles has been a journalist for 35 years and is a former business and deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.