Claims and delivery are a gulf apart, when what’s put up by the wind and solar crowd is measured up against the hard cold facts that reside in ‘reality-land’.
With every new wind farm proposal we’re told how this operation would ‘power’ a hundred thousand homes (for ‘free’) – although these days it’s a line that accompanies moaning by wind power outfits about their inability to obtain power purchase agreements with retailers and, therefore, finance from banks to carry out their threats.
This story highlights the fact that talk about a wind and solar powered future is just that: ‘talk’.
The truth about our electricity supply is too hot to handle
The Australian (BusinessSpectator)
26 January 2016
How ordinary Australians are kept informed about arguably their most essential service, electricity supply, is a big issue for companies and competing lobbyists in a game where literally many billions of dollars are at stake.
If it is true that most Australians under 30 get their news from social media rather than newspapers or TV and radio — so claimed by Graham Richardson in a recent op-ed in The Australian — then what appears in the traditional media is no longer the dominant source of public information. (I’m from an era where too many PR types used to present their ‘success’ to their employers via column inches published in newspapers.)
We have had an example of the modern idiom in recent days with a minor hullabaloo about the promise of large-scale solar power based on the official commissioning of the two AGL Energy PV farms near Broken Hill, but not a syllable anywhere about the single biggest issue of the same moment for all electricity consumers: how supply has been sustained as a nasty heatwave baked the east coast.
That our community needs electricity big-time to cope with 40-degree temperatures and high humidity is beyond debate. For day after recent day, the east coast load neared or exceeded 30,000 megawatts, something it hasn’t done often in the past five years as prices (and, in the case of manufacturers, other factors too) pulled down demand.
That the delivery system, so often derided in the recent past as ‘gold-plated’, stood up well to the pressure is obvious. The dozen or so failures of supply (affecting 70,000 homes in one case) were attributable to big storms that ripped down houses and trees as well as poles and wires.
That the network operators have thrown emergency repair crews into the fray to bring back supply as quickly as possible has received little media mention. It’s a given — not that this will stop the networks getting kicked about their charges when the next revenue row arises.
For me, it is particularly notable and regrettable that what is wholly missing from mainstream media coverage is the breakdown of how the much-needed electrons have been generated.
This is not secret engineers’ business. The information is readily available — it’s just not passed on, even briefly, to the hot and sweaty public.
Take New South Wales as an example. It’s home to the largest number of consumers, whether we are talking households (just on three million, or roughly a third of the national total) or business (more than 400,000, also a third of the total).
NSW plus Victoria and Queensland account for roughly 90 per cent of national electricity customers, and on a typical midafternoon in January the trio’s consumers were getting some 73 per cent of their power (by committed capacity) from black and brown coal, with gas turbines accounting for another 11.8 per cent. Hydro-electric capacity (a critical resilience factor on high-demand days for NSW and Victoria) was contributing another 7.5 per cent.
In this situation, the green activists’ love children, wind and solar, accounted for 7.5 per cent of operating capacity, of which rooftop PVs met 5 per cent, a testament to the extra-ordinary emergence of household self-generation in response to public aggravation over retail power bill spikes and over-the-top political largesse (since cut back sharply), demonstrating how fast a fad can become a useful accessory in our affluent society.
Coming back to NSW specifically, at the peak of one of the heatwave days, the state’s generation load pushed past 12,200 megawatts at noon: met by almost 7,500 MW of black coal plant, 1,300 MW of gas plant, almost 2,500 MW of hydro-electric plant, 520 MW of wind power and nearly as much (428 MW) of rooftop solar plus 50 MW of large-scale solar. (The usefulness of rooftop solar, of course, fell away at dusk while, if anything, the heatwave’s grip was being felt more acutely by householders.)
It’s terribly easy to get tendentious about this stuff — you can find the types who do so hard at work all over the media space — but the real bottom line is twofold.
First, the biggest state in the Commonwealth (population, commercially, industrially, economically) would be stuffed without conventional power generation (coal, gas, hydro).
Second, replacing the coal elements of this reliable supply system is a great deal easier to talk about than to do.
Take the two Broken Hill solar farms, officially commissioned with federal and state ministers in attendance and lots of green trumpet blowing. Between them, their 155 megawatts of capacity is expected to produce 259,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually.
By comparison, AGL Energy’s 2,640 MW Bayswater black coal operation sends out 15,000 gigawatt hours a year.
One gigawatt hour is equal to a thousand megawatt hours.
It would take 58 sets of the Broken Hill solar twins to match Bayswater’s output. All the coal plants in the state deliver more than 50,000 GWh a year.
Without doubt, we are in a power transition period where new technology will play an increasing role. To what extent, over what time period and at what cost (in terms of capital outlays, taxpayer subsidies and consumer bills) is a very big question.
An even bigger one, perhaps, is just how much damage can be done to a supply system we take from granted via the posturing of ideologists and rent-seekers, the naivety of politicians and the energy illiteracy of the community?
More than 50 years ago I went to a high school that had as its motto ‘festina lente’ — Latin for “make haste slowly.” Perhaps it should be carved above the entry of our parliament houses and painted on the office walls of ministers (alongside ‘it’s the economy, stupid’).
Keith Orchison, director of consultancy Coolibah Pty Ltd and editor of OnPower, was chief executive of two national energy associations from 1980 to 2003. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the energy industry in 2004.