Where’s the ABC Fact Check department when you need it? Ah, that’s right, it’s closed. And that’s a pity, because it would be kept mighty busy by some of the recent editorialising by Andrew Probyn, the 7.30 Report’s new political editor.
Probyn, like his predecessor, Chris Uhlmann, has got into the nasty habit of parroting fossil fuel myths as if they are fact. They’ve become obsessed with concepts such as “synchronous” generation and “baseload”, using them to slap down wind and solar without really understanding why or how.
This is a problem for ABC viewers because they are not getting a clear and unbiased picture of energy issues. A complex subject is being poorly served. Labor is accused by Probyn of being a “slave” to wind and solar ideology, while Uhlmann thinks more wind and solar will lead to a national blackout.
Last night, Probyn tried to wrap up the gas talks, led by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, and the push into battery storage into one big omnibus piece. But then he got diverted by his own prejudice, or misconceptions.
The report started promisingly. Michael Ottaviano, the CEO of Perth-based Carnegie Clean Energy, was explaining how a local company could do exactly what Tesla’s Elon Musk could do – provide battery storage, make wind and solar dispatchable, and provide grid security.
And, he said, they could do it at the same competitive prices, and in the same time frame. They could match Tesla and Musk on every front, with the exception of tweeting.
But in an instant after Ottaviano had explained how wind and solar and storage were a current reality, Probyn had decided it was something only for the future. (Full transcript here).
“Wave, solar and wind power may be key to the future energy mix, but the intermittent nature of renewables means they can’t yet guarantee baseload generation.”
Er, yes they can. Ottaviano just told you they can – not baseload, that is a redundant term invented by the fossil fuel lobby to justify coal generation, but dispatchable generation, which is what really counts.
When South Australia announced its new energy plan on Tuesday, it didn’t announce a baseload plant, it sought instead battery storage and a peaking gas plant. This is about dispatchability, not baseload.
It’s a crucial point. The energy market is in a massive technological transition. Running such lines about baseload is like arguing a car can’t do what a horse and cart can do because it doesn’t eat straw.
Mind you, it’s not just mainstream media that is slow to pick up on this, or being downright antagonistic, as is the case with much of the Murdoch media. The regulators have been slow too.
As Clean Energy Finance Corp chief Oliver Yates said on Thursday: “Today’s power systems are being digitised, with rapid and sophisticated control systems applying across the network. Regulatory systems need to keep up with the rapid pace of technology developments, supporting the adoption of new solutions that solve the new challenges.”
Probyn then dived into the CSG issue, and we will get to that in a moment. But to continue on the theme about misplaced understanding, and fossil fuel marketing, Probyn finished with this belter.
“Australia’s energy policy is sandwiched between two extremes. On the right we have those who are ideologically and politically allergic to a carbon price – when the industry has already factored one in. And on the left we have people who want the promised land now: one that’s entirely powered by solar, wind and batteries.
“To move away from coal, we’ll need more gas. And if we’re to get this from new onshore projects, rather than through extraordinary Commonwealth intervention that the PM is threatening, the political class will have to step up.”
First paragraph is roughly right, although it won’t be just batteries, but other forms of storage as well.
But more gas? Another Furphy propagated by the fossil fuel lobbies. That idea was already wrong when he said it – priced out of competition – and was dead and buried in less than 12 hours when it was revealed that Turnbull would put $2 billion into extending the pumped hydro scheme in the Snowy Mountains.
That signals the death-knell for any new gas generation. The idea that more gas is needed is one that the gas industry has been desperate to put before it got run over by battery storage. Instead, in one week, it has been run over by both battery storage and pumped hydro. Who would build a new gas generator now?
On his way to this conclusion, Probyn made an extraordinary assessment of the Metgasco project in NSW, where he accused the NSW government of going “wobbly in the face of a fierce protest, an eloquent opinion-maker and political pressure points.”
“All too often there’s a lack of political will to stare down community opposition and the shock jocks and defend even conventional gas projects. It’s happening in Victoria and the Northern Territory too.”
Hang on a moment. Metgasco was operating in fields deemed coal seam gas, because the licences were allocated, and then taken away, by the Office of Coal Seam Gas.
Yes, the initial drill well they planned near Bentley was “conventional” because it was an exploration well to see what was down there. It was also looking for what is known as “tight gas”, and fracking was the next thing on the agenda.
“We did not plan to frack the well in the current program,” the company said in an explanation to shareholders in 2015. “We had made it clear that if fracking proved to be necessary, it would require more engineering, more approvals, more consultation and time before a fracking operation could proceed.”
What those protests were about was stopping a Trojan Horse. And they succeeded. It’s just all too cute – and wrong – to suggest that this was a conventional project, let alone that somehow Australia’s energy needs cannot be met without more gas.