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More wind and solar – the answer to all Turnbull’s energy problems

28 September, 2017

FJ Holden Business Sedan Brochure Image. (AUSTRALIA)

FJ Holden Business Sedan Brochure Image. (AUSTRALIA)

AGL on Wednesday unveiled what it proposes as a substitute for the ageing, clapped out Liddell coal generator it plans to close in 2022: it suggests mostly a mix of wind and solar, topped with its own big battery, demand management and some gas power to help meet demand peaks.

The response of deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce? He decided to compare Liddell and Bayswater with old cars and embraced the idea that Liddell was just like an old FJ Holden.

“If you don’t like it Leigh, sell it to me,” Joyce told Leigh Sales, the host of ABC TV’s 7.30 Report. “Because I’ll take it and put stripes down the side and hang some dice off the rear vision mirror and do laps.”

Funny, maybe – particularly if you’re nearly passed out on the floor of a Tamworth pub staring up at the disco ball thinking you’ve discovered the Goddess Venus.

But it’s a tragic indictment of the state of Australia’s energy policy. It finds itself in an appalling state of stupid, driven there by a triumph of incompetence and ideology over economics and engineering, and of folksy nostalgia over modern technology.

One year on from the state-wide blackout in South Australia that sparked the Coalition’s extraordinary jihad against wind and solar, it is clear that the answer to the trumped up energy crisis is exactly what the Coalition doesn’t want it to be: yet more wind and solar.

The message coming from the market operator, from the networks, from the CSIRO, from industry, and from the energy sector itself is that the best way to address the anticipated shortage of electricity, the soaring cost of gas, surging retail prices and cutting emissions is the same: more wind and solar.

What’s the best way to replace Hazelwood? More wind and solar.

How should we address the potential supply shortfalls in Victoria and South Australia this year and next? More wind and solar.

How to make up for the closure of Liddell? More wind and solar.

How to find an alternative to expensive gas? More wind and solar.

How to counter soaring energy costs for big business? More wind and solar.

How to introduce more competition in the market? More wind and solar.

Yes, it will be accompanied by better grid management, smarter software, battery storage, pumped hydro and a lot more focus on demand-side responses and energy efficiency that can deliver smart, flexible and dispatchable resources. Burning more fossil fuels is no longer the answer to everything. It’s not the answer to much at all.

The September blackout, seized upon by conservatives and vested interests as “proof” of the failure of renewables, has told us only that the grid was badly managed and dependent on increasingly fragile and ageing assets.

Some are still openly hoping for a repeat of the blackout itself, and the response to the South Australia event, to the subsequent closure of Hazelwood, to the soaring gas price, to the proposed Tesla big battery, the South Australia solar tower, and the push to keep Liddell open and build new coal generators in Queensland, suggests something more sinister afoot.

South Australia’s energy minister Tom Koutsantonis is in little doubt there is more to this than folksy nostalgia for past technologies. He points to the power of the fossil fuel lobby, and the stranglehold that the Far Right has over Coalition’s energy policy.

“(Prime minister Malcolm) Turnbull needs to stand up to the coal lobby and the right wing of his party and implement a Clean Energy Target, now, for the sake of households and businesses across the country,” Koutsantonis said on the anniversary of the state’s “system black.”

Koutsantonis also wants an apology from the Coalition, but the chances of that are beyond remote. Each day, the politics of energy become more absurd. As the role of wind and solar becomes increasingly clear, the Coalition becomes even more blind to the obvious.

Tristan Edis, writing in the Guardian, explains the absurdity of the push for the new coal-fired generator in north Queensland, proposed by Joyce and former resources minister Matt Canavan, and supported by Turnbull.

Angela Macdonald Smith, writing in the Australian Financial Review, points out that Turnbull’s “deal” with the LNG giants this week changes nothing, apart from a few headlines. There is no increased supply, and certainly no reduction in prices.

And there won’t be, either. Gas is expensive, and the gas industry suffers the same problems as the electricity sector: a shortage of competition. The best way to address that is not to reinforce the power of the incumbents, but to open the market up to new players and new technologies.

As AEMO’s own studies have shown, one of the best ways of reducing demand for gas is not by closing manufacturing, but by building more renewables. The revived Whyalla steel works, the proposed Nectar Farms complex in Victoria, and the zinc refiner Sun Metals in Queensland tell the same story.

AEMO also came to a similar conclusion about renewables when looking at the shortages facing Victoria and South Australia in coming years, and NSW in the middle distance.

The bulk of the shortfalls could be addressed by new wind and solar, helped hopefully by a meaningful national policy, and smarter management and those dispatchable resources – battery storage, demand response, smart software.

AGL’s message on Wednesday was the same. And the government will be hearing it again from Tesla founder and CEO Elon Musk when he visits the Hornsdale wind farm north of Adelaide and the site of what will be – for a brief time at least – the world’s biggest lithium-ion battery storage plant.

Some day Turnbull is going to have to face up to the fact that his party will never allow him to acknowledge: the answer to nearly all his energy problems is quite simple – it doesn’t lie in either coal or gas, but in renewables, and even more wind and solar farms.  

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