18 December 2015
by Giles Parkinson

Australia’s right wing media declares new war on wind and solar

Having attacked the science of climate change and lost, Australia’s right wing media has responded to the Paris Agreement on climate action sealed last week by sharpening their pencils against another of their favourite targets – wind energy and solar power.

The Paris Agreement reached last Saturday went further than almost anyone hoped or expected, largely because of the plunging cost of renewable energy – solar in particular and wind energy as well – that has made the task of decarbonisation much simpler and cheaper than had been thought.

The last throw of the dice for the fossil fuel industry, however, is to beat the drum about the unreliability of wind and solar, warning of blackouts, economic catastrophe, health impacts, jobs losses and soaring costs if the world or individual nations were to go down that path.

And it has an enthusiastic participant in the right wing media. This is true of the US, UK and Australia – and Australia has now become a focal point because it has the most heavily carbonised grid in the developed world, and the among the best resources of wind and solar.

Australia is ripe for transition, but seems certain to become a battleground where ideology and myth-making trump real life experience and technological change. The Abbott-era campaign against wind energy, based on the appearance and assumed health impacts of wind turbines, was just the start.

The Australian Financial Review this week has targeted the situation in South Australia, where it has warned of economic disaster from its push for more wind and solar, apparently on the basis of a single outage that the grid operator blamed on a technical problem on the link to Victoria, but which the AFR has blamed on wind energy.

“If activists have their way and renewables take over the whole market, the result will be brownouts, energy poverty and job losses all in the name of saving the planet,” wrote Mark Lawson, an AFR columnist in an opinion piece.

Lawson has been one of the newspaper’s staunchest critics of climate science and is now turning his craft to wind and solar (climate denialism and a dislike of renewable energy often go hand in hand).

He suggested that electricity engineers do not believe that high levels of wind and solar can be absorbed into grids. He should read what the Australian Energy Market Operator, which actually runs the grid, said about a 100 per cent renewable energy scenario.

It can be done, not that anyone would necessarily want to do it for the sake of it, because there will be a lot of electrification of transport to happen first.

Lawson’s article, and others written in the newspaper, as well as in The Australian, focus on South Australia’s reliance on the interconnector to Victoria. Somehow, if the inter-connector falls out now, it is the fault of wind and solar.

But South Australia has always relied on the interconnector with Victoria, and never more heavily than when there was no wind and solar in the market (see above). AEMO has made clear that losing the last coal-fired power station poses no additional risk to system reliability. AEMO has simply to make sure its systems are in place.

To be sure, as South Australia pushes towards 50 per cent wind and solar – which it expects to reach in 2016, and then beyond – Premier Jay Weatherill says he is aiming to get as close as he can to 100 per cent renewables, a lot of focus on integration will be needed.

But this is known and seen as an opportunity, rather than a potential disaster, by most. As the head of German network operator 50Hertz told RenewEconomy in Paris, just a few years ago it was never thought possible that more than 10 per cent variable wind and solar could be absorbed, even into Europe’s large grid. Now he says 70 per cent can be absorbed without storage.

Now it is. Work done on King Island by Hydro Tasmania, and in Alice Springs by CAT Projects and ARENA show that high levels of variable renewables can be easily absorbed into a local grid, and these lessons are important for a state like South Australia.

Indeed, battery storage is ready to turn most assumptions about grid operations on its head. Solar City, the US solar company now expanding into storage, says the case for storage in place of upgrading grids is overwhelming, because they can substitute for transformer upgrades at a fraction of the cost. Ergon Energy is discovering this is the case in Queensland too.

Weatherill, along with Adelaide lord mayor Martin Haese, is pushing for wind and solar and storage technologies because it is an economic imperative. Old industries are dying, ageing technologies are being swept aside. They want South Australia to seize the opportunity to become a market leader.

But their push does risk being held to ransom, or to higher costs, by the quasi-cartel control over ancillary services and other generation in the local grid. This has been the focal point of discussions with the electricity industry this week.
As the AFR’s Ben Potter wrote this week:

The volatility in wholesale prices – caused mostly by the state’s reliance on wind power and the ability of coal and gas power stations to charge high prices when the wind drops – is creating havoc for industry in the state, which is one of the country’s most economically depressed.

So, where is the problem? With wind, or the ability of a small group of coal and gas producers to extract high prices (with supposedly cheap generation) at certain times? One might have thought the leading economic daily might have stopped to ask the question.

As one industry analyst told RenewEconomy: “With such an over supply of capacity, and in a truly competitive market, the ability of coal and gas power stations to charge high prices when the wind drops should be very small.” But it’s not. Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton this week said careful strategic planning and reform was crucial to facilitate the higher levels of renewable energy the state has committed to.

“South Australia’s power prices were historically higher than the rest of the country, dating back to before a single wind turbine was built in the state,” Thornton said in a statement issued in response to the AFR series and TV commentary of a similar ilk.

“The state has a relatively small number of power users spread out across a large area. Its power system uses a lot of gas power and there is only a handful of power providers, and these factors combine to make electricity more expensive.

“A diverse group including energy retailers, users, generators and the state government met in Adelaide yesterday to discuss emerging issues in the market. What was of the most concern was the availability and competitiveness of long-term contracts for large power users and the ongoing high price of gas,” Thornton said.

“Australia is gradually making the switch to a much cleaner, smarter energy system. Most credible estimates predict renewable energy such as solar and wind will be the cheapest available power within 5-15 years. And with around 40 per cent of its power already coming from renewable energy, South Australia is leading the way in making that transition.

“This is an overwhelmingly positive change, and there are solutions to address all the challenges along the way as we use higher proportions of renewable energy. South Australia has never shied away from progress and the energy transition is another example of that leadership,” Thornton said.