Crikey. If you thought that the political rhetoric around energy policy could not possibly get any lower, think again. It’s now about the Australian identity, it seems. Jingoism is now a power source, and if you want to have “fair dinkum” power, it’s got to be coal.
That’s the message under new prime minister Scott Morrison, and the right wing and the coal lobby is running with it hard, if the extraordinary interview between radio broadcaster Alan Jones and his conservative acolyte, the new energy minister Angus Taylor, is anything to go by.
Taylor has long enjoyed a special relationship with Jones, having joined the broadcaster in speaking against wind farms at the “Wind Power Fraud Rally” way back in 2013, organised by a web site with anonymous owners known for its incitement to violence, racism and misogyny.
And during his interview with Taylor on 2GB on Tuesday, Jones showed he is as wrong about energy as he has ever been, and Taylor was not about to correct him.
Jones still thinks there are 1600 coal-fired power stations being built around the world; he thinks solar still costs $180/MWh (three times more than it actually does); he thinks that wind and solar are receiving $3.6 billion in subsidies each year; and he even thinks batteries are “intermittent.”
Each of these claims is complete nonsense, but Taylor wasn’t about to correct him. He either shared his views, or dared not correct him.
Instead, Taylor – the energy minister who insists he is not anti-renewables (his farm has solar and his grandad helped build Snowy Hydro) – told Jones that there is already “too much intermittent power” – wind and solar – in the electricity system.
And he intends to do something about it, to make sure that “fair dinkum,” reliable baseload power is kept in the system, and that more is brought in. (So he should be might happy about the new 600MW solar and storage plant proposed for his electorate by CWP Renewables).
He spoke of the government’s planned underwriting of “24-hour, baseload reliable” generation. That would mean new “HELE” coal-fired generators, insisted Jones. That would be a “good candidate”, said Taylor.
“You will see us backing investment in reliable baseload power in a way that has not happened in the last 10 years,” Taylor said. “We’ve had too much intermittent power come into the system … we ‘ve lost a lot of our reliable baseload power. That has to be addressed.”
Taylor also raised the possibility of forced divestment – with the obvious but un-named candidate being AGL and its plans to close the ageing, costly and increasingly unreliable clunker, Liddell coal-fired power station.
“If you are not prepared to keep that fair dinkum power in the system, we will force you to divest,” Taylor said.
It was about “holding coal in” the system, and depending on the circumstances and what’s available, getting new coal in. “Those are the things we have to do if we are to keep the reliable affordable power.”
Jones and Taylor congratulated themselves for having succeeded in slashing the renewable energy target from 41,000GWh to 33,000GWh under the Abbott government, and lamented the fact that they couldn’t achieve further cuts, or kill the scheme altogether and stop what Jones described as “rotten renewable rubbish.”
“The damage has been done,” Taylor said. “We now have to find a way of getting fair dinkum reliable base-load power back at low cost.”
Now, “fair dinkum” power generation may be fuelled by ideological claptrap, but Jones and Taylor and the rest of the right-wing commentariat and the Coalition government are not the only ones peddling the need for more coal and restrictions on renewables.
Opportunists like Trevor St Baker – who owns the Vales Point coal generator – wants the government to limit the amount of renewable energy generation to 50 per cent of any state grid at any one time.
This would be an extraordinary imposition that defies any engineering sense, and even the relatively conservative algorithms devised by AEMO for renewables-dominated South Australia.
But St Baker is attacking AEMO, saying nowhere else in the world has any grid operator allowed wind and solar to displace baseload (which is also nonsense). His attacks were echoed by an article in The Australian, which also challenged AEMO’s judgement.
But Jones and Taylor do not have a mortgage on nonsense.
Laughably, a group of “engineers”, including a former boss of oil refiner Caltex, argued that replacing coal with nuclear would reduce emissions at a cost of $27.50 a tonne, while wind and solar would cost $365 a tonne. That got a run as the front page lead in The Australian, and a big follow-up by their “environment editor”.
Of course, being retired engineers, they pointed to the best solution being nuclear, somehow imaging it could be built and deliver a system levellised cost of $93/MWh. They claim that renewables and storage would cost more than four times as much.
They are kidding, aren’t they? Even the Australian Energy Council, the lobby group that represents all the companies that own coal generators in Australia, admits that it is cheaper to build renewables with firming capacity rather than coal power plants.
But The Australian notes, intriguingly: “The present fascination with a mix of wind, solar, pumped hydro, battery storage, big new grids and complex management systems simply does not fit with a baseload solution.”
Finally, an interesting observation. Baseload has no more place in a modern grid than typewriters do in a world of laptops, or fax machines in a world with internet. But why is it that The Australian, and the rest of the conservatoriat, is so obsessed with past technologies?
The energy industry in Australia is stunned by the comments of the Morrison government and of Taylor. The loudest noises from the incumbents come from the threats of intervention and price watch, but because of their gouging in the last few years, they are getting little sympathy.
What is concerning are the signals for future investment. The emissions component of the National Energy Guarantee has been thrown out, Morrison and his team have made it clear they are not interested in climate policy. Taylor is now talking new coal.
The desperate hope is that this will be over soon enough, at the next election that must be called by May. The fear is the damage done in the meantime, particularly to the appetite of international investors, as Emma Herd tells us in the latest episode of the Energy Insiders podcast.
And she wonders what all the fuss is about. If the clean energy transition wasn’t about emissions and protecting the environment, would the conservatives be standing in its way? A fascinating thought.
Note 1. Jones claims that solar costs $185/MWh, and that Australia is subsidising Chinese panel makers when it could be generating electricity with coal at $35/MWh.
Actually, recent contracts for large scale solar farms have been struck at around $60/MWh, and that includes the value of the renewable energy certificates. Large manufacturers are looking to strike deals with wind and solar farms because it is cheaper than the fossil fuel alternatives.
Note 2: Batteries are no intermittent. As the Tesla big battery has shown, they are faster, more flexible, and more accurate in their response to system issues than any coal, gas or hydro generator. And their costs are coming down fast.
Note 3: Renewables do not receive subsidies of $3.6 billion a year – a myth propagated by Taylor himself, along with the Minerals Council, various other private firms and the Murdoch media. Most renewable projects currently being contracted ascribe a negligible or even zero value on the renewable energy certificates.
Note 4: 1600 new coal generators? This is a myth first spread by extreme web sites such as Jo Nova and WattsUpWithThat, who share Jones’ climate denial and actively promote it, and it was then taken up by the Murdoch media and repeatedly uncritically by the ABC. This story explains the huge number of project cancellations and the drop in coal use.