The Murdoch media has made a big deal about its campaign for net zero emissions by 2050, and so have many others. But the misinformation has continued to flow, and in regard to renewables it has become a torrent.
Barely a story is published without some question about the cost and reliability of renewables. Invariably, nuclear is promoted as an answer, and Murdoch’s Sky News says it is planning a big “documentary” to expose the “big lie” of renewables and push nuclear as the answer next week.
The attack on renewables hit peak strange last Thursday when News Ltd publications across the country featured a two-page spread that had the country’s richest woman, Gina Rinehart, declaring that if she couldn’t make solar and batteries stack up economically, then how could the average farmer or citizen.
“Mission Zero: Gina Rinehart backs renewables, fears farmers and Australians can’t afford it”, was the headline of one article. “Solar a costly exercise: Gina” was the headline of another.
The stories focused on Rinehart’s efforts to install solar and battery storage at her huge pastoral property in the Kimberleys, in Western Australia. The station is called Fossil Downs. No, really, that is its name.
According to the story, Rinehart’s company has installed 136 solar modules, and 135kW (sic) of battery storage, in the form of 45 3kW lithium iron phosphate batteries. And presumably there are also the inverters and control systems to go with it.
According to the News Ltd article, Rinehart paid more than $500,000 for the system at Fossil Downs.
That, according to all the renewable energy experts RenewEconomy talked to, is top dollar, even allowing for a generous premium on the installation in a remote setting like Fossil Downs. Most suggest she should have paid only half that price for the equipment itself.
It’s hard to know the exact economics of the system because we don’t have enough information. Depending on the size of the modules (ranging from 300W or 450W), the solar array could be between 40kW and 60kW. The battery is likely to be 135kWh.
Why that much battery? Is it being used to smooth the output of solar, or to allow the diesel generators to be switched off? We just don’t know. The size and use of battery storage is a big influence on how much money these systems make.
What we are told in the News Ltd article is that Fossil Downs says it is saving up to 130 litres a diesel a day from the solar and battery storage, and the benefits from some solar hot water systems that have also been installed. That translates to about $250 a day, or $91,000 a year.
That represents a six year pay back on the claimed cost of the solar and battery system, even at the prices Rinehart’s company paid.
But if the average daily diesel savings are a lot lower than the 130 litres cited, it still suggests at least a 10-year payback, or an internal rate of return of at least 10 per cent, even on this piece of expensive kit.
That might not sound like much to Rinehart, who didn’t accumulate an estimated $US22 billion ($A30 billion) in wealth on such trivial IRRs of 10 per cent, but it sure means a heck of a lot to most Australians, and to most farmers.
It’s hard for them to get any investments to deliver a guaranteed return at those levels, and it means that once the system is paid off, it’s effectively free electricity. That should be good at least for another seven years for the battery system, and likely more, and at least another 15-20 years for the solar.
There are many questions about the numbers used in the News Ltd story, and no real clarity about the technologies used, the size, and the real costs. We asked Rinehart’s company Hancock Agriculture on Monday if they could clarify the numbers. We followed up with a phone call on Thursday. We didn’t hear back.
But half a dozen different off-grid specialists RenewEconomy talked to couldn’t understand why the Rinehart system cost more than $500,000, even allowing for the remote location.
One W.A. specialist suggested that Rinehart could have gotten a 250kW/250kWh solar and storage system for around $600,000. That’s more than twice the size of the system that Rinehart’s company paid for.
Others noted the rack price of a 100kW solar system from Australian solar start-up 5B would cost around $120,000, minus the solar rebates which would be worth around $50,000.
They pointed out too that the rack price of 10 Tesla Powerwalls, totalling 135kWh, would be around $150,000. That would give you a total price of $220,000, plus installation and control systems.
Glen Morris, a solar and battery expert at Smart Energy Lab, says he has a similar sized system to Rinehart on his off-grid community in Victoria. “It would not have cost anywhere near $300k to install,” he says.
He says that assuming up to 60kW of solar panels (partly covered by rebates), 135kWh of 3kWh GenZ battery modules (about $100,000), solar inverter costs of around $36,000, and 3 x 20kW SP Pro’s at $13,000 each ($39,000), it was hard to work out how it could cost much more than $200,000.
“The BOS (balance of systems) and labour must make up the other $300,000,” he said.
But let’s not quibble. It could be a six year payback, an eight year payback, or it could be a 10-year payback. What is clear is that with off-grid systems, as one expert told us, solar is cheaper than diesel “every day of the week and twice on Sundays”.
Off-grid mines are installing solar, wind, and battery storage systems across the country because it delivers cheaper electricity, and fewer emissions.
That is also true of on-grid mines, such as the massive Olympic Dam project in South Australia, which is going to source at least half of its supply from renewables.
And it’s true too of some of the country’s biggest single electricity consumers, such as the Tomago and Boyne Island aluminium smelters, and the Sun Metals zinc refinery in north Queensland. The aluminium smelters will now survive only because of the availability of cheap wind and solar.
Nevertheless, News Ltd columnists seized on Rinehart’s comments for yet more ammunition to attack renewables.
Piers Akerman, writing in the Daily Telegraph, said Rinehart had shown that the switch to renewables was not possible without billions of dollars in subsidies. “Australians wishing to go the whole hog on net-zero emissions aren’t the full quid,” he said.
Akerman even quoted notorious climate denier Ian Plimer complaining that the green hydrogen promoted by Australia’s second richest person Andrew Forrest (who unlike Rinehart does see the value of solar) is only around 30 per cent efficient. The rest of the energy is dispersed, he laments.
“Unless legislation can change the laws of thermodynamics, you are in a loss, loss, loss situation. Loss because we taxpayers get skinned alive, loss because we redistribute energy and loss because we cannot replace that energy,” Akerman quotes Plimer as saying.
Hmmm, 30 per cent, eh? That would put it on a par with most coal fired power stations and most petrol cars. At least the energy dispersed in renewable hydrogen is not polluting like coal and oil.
On Sky News’ Outsiders program, right wing commentator Rowan Dean also quoted Rinehart’s solar woes and her belief that renewables are not possible without billions of subsidies.
We know this because Rinehart’s agricultural companies Hancock Agriculture and Kidman and Co have posted Dean’s report on their websites, along with the Akerman and the original Fossil Downs solar stories.
Like Rinehart, who published a video recently rubbishing climate science, and Plimer, Dean also denies the science of climate change. He insists that global temperatures have not changed since 2017. So much for Mission Net Zero. Not so much greenwash as hogwash.