The push by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition for “baseload dispatchable” power and his enthusiasm for new “state-of-the-art” coal fired power stations has all the hallmarks of the Trump administration’s campaign against renewables.
Turnbull, as we reported on Tuesday, says he will ask the Australian Energy Market Operator to assess the need for something called “continuous power” or “baseload dispatchable” energy to replace Hazelwood and other coal generators that will retire in the next decade.
He even said how pleased he would be to see a “state-of-the-art coal plant being built, and even funded and built by government – which presumably would be the only way it could access the sort of indemnities and cheap finance that could make it competitive with renewables and storage.
His comments are more about political games within his own party, but it highlights the fact that the Coalition cannot progress beyond the old fashioned idea that centralised, baseload fossil fuel generators is the only way to achieve “energy security.”
Even AGL, the largest operator of coal fired generation in Australia has debunked this. “We don’t see anything baseload other than renewables,” said CEO Andy Vesey on Wednesday. “There a lot of misinformation out there.”
In the US, energy secretary Rick Perry has been pursuing a similar line to Turnbull. Perry, who this week again rejected climate science and now heads a department he vowed to dismantle, launched a 60-day study examining the impact of wind and solar on fossil baseload power plants.
Perry has made it clear that he would like to undo all the state-based renewable energy targets, an ambition shared by both Turnbull and his energy minister Josh Frydenberg. The premise is that baseload power is the only way to guarantee energy supply.
This has been called out as complete nonsense by energy market regulators in California, the state with the most renewable energy in the country.
David Hochschild, a commissioner with the California Energy Commission, the state’s primary energy policy and planning agency, and David Olsen, a member of the California Independent System Operator Board of Governors, which runs the state’s electric grid, wrote:
“While a convenient myth for the fossil-fuel industry, this is nonsense. To begin with, in the interest of national security, the military itself has become a national leader in adopting renewable energy. The U.S. Navy, for example, is quickly moving toward its goal of using 50 percent renewable energy by 2020.
“In California, which has installed more clean energy than any other state, there have been no threats to the reliability of the electric grid caused by renewables. Instead, the three biggest threats to our grid over the last 20 years came from market manipulation (Enron et al, during the 2001 energy crisis), a nuclear plant failure (San Onofre, 2012) and the largest natural gas leak in history (Aliso Canyon gas storage facility, 2015). Rather than create these emergencies, renewable energy was part of the solution and continued to operate reliably and prevented these events from becoming worse.
“Almost two-thirds of the new electric generation capacity added to the grid in the United States over the last two years has come from wind and solar. From a reliability perspective, this is a positive development. In August 2011, when a heat wave in Texas shut down 20 natural gas plants, it was wind power that kept the electric grid operator from having to black out areas of the state. In Iowa, wind power now provides 37 percent of the state’s electricity with no reduction in reliability.”
These comments have similarities in Australia. Its recent outages have been caused by storms and network failures, software bungles, and the failure of fossil fuel generators in the middle of a heat wave. They have had nothing to do with the nature of variable wind and solar at all.
Greentech Media published this graph below, from the head of NextTracker, a company that installs tracking equipment on large scale solar farms, including in Australia, that shows that the countries with the highest amounts of wind and solar have much higher reliability than the US.
The point that Greenwich Media underlines is that this is not about the nature of technology, but it is dependent on numerous other factors, such as the resilience of the network, the grid management, and other issues.
Indeed, away from the party room politics of conservatives, and the vested interests of the fossil fuel lobby, few people see a future in centralised baseload coal generators, or “continuous dispatchable power” or however you want to describe it.
The head of UK’s National Grid has said that the era of centralised generation is coming to an end, the head of China’s State Grid holds the same views. Numerous studies have suggested that the key to the future is indeed dispatchable generation, but it does not need to be fossil fuel or even baseload.
Flexibility is the key, and presumably since we are supposed to be serious about climate targets, so are zero emissions.
It’s just as well, then, that Turnbull has passed the assessment of new generation over to the AEMO, whose new CEO Audrey Zibelman has made clear her preference for smarter, cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable technologies – such as storage, demand management, energy efficiency and localised generation – rather than the decades-old practice of stuffing new large scale generation into the grid to try and solve every problem.
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.