When the Rudd government greatly expanded the Renewable Energy Target in 2009, turning an innocuous Howard government initiative into the raging, grid-destabilising monster that we know today, there was little opposition.
Eight years down the track, with the problems of loading a lot of wind power on a grid not designed for it and unable to adapt quickly to change painfully apparent, state and federal governments are now labouring hard to make things worse, with a range of weird and wonderful policy announcements. In the process they have highlighted just how few policy options Australia now has.
The Labor opposition and the Labor governments of NSW and Queensland are proposing boosting the RET and setting renewable energy state targets, without any of the other policy changes that might make those targets possible without serious disruption. The Labor government in Victoria has capped this by reintroducing favourable feed-in tariffs for roof-top solar, which had been mostly curtailed in all states after causing an explosion in solar panel installations. These panels are collectively a bit player in the power supply game. Their main use is to win votes.
Not to be left behind in policy lunacy by their Labor cousins, the South Australian government has announced a battery farm which will keep the SA grid supplied for several minutes, at best, to no clear purpose, and a gas plant (think big jet engine) which might be of some use in emergencies but mostly is just a big expense for SA taxpayers.
In quick succession, the Turnbull government proposed a new coal plant which won’t do much to stabilise a grid that still has to accept a lot of wind energy thanks to the RET, and then a largely uncosted ‘thought bubble’ about expanding the Snowy Mountains scheme so that it is a pumped hydro project.
Pumped hydro projects, which are basically dams at different heights, are in fact a favourite standby of the wind lobby. Excess electricity generated when the wind is blowing strongly can be used to pump water from one dam up to the other. That water is then allowed to run back to the lower dam to create hydro power. The problem with this is that it is not possible to build more than a fraction of the necessary capacity to tide the system over windless periods. At best, such projects may keep the system ticking over until conventional plants kick in.
An illustration of this problem is the pumped hydro system installed on El Hierro, the western-most of the Spanish Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, at a cost of 80 million euros to service a population of around 8,000. El Hierro is a volcanic cone sticking out of the ocean with a big height difference and is well out into the trade winds, so it should be a poster-island for renewable energy. A detailed technical review in the newsletter Energy Matters concludes that the installation is grossly undersized for the job it has to do and is largely a waste of money. In any case, the authors note, why use fresh water on this application? Why not use it for irrigation? This is a question that has already been asked, and not answered, about the Snowy proposal.
A check around the world shows that if there is plenty of hydropower to begin with, then going 100 per cent renewable by building a few wind farms is no real problem, particularly as hydropower is easy to turn on and off to accommodate wind. More than half of New Zealand’s electricity, for example, comes from hydro and another 13 per cent from clean and green geothermal energy (hot springs). Activists cite the high penetration of renewables in NZ, without troubling to mention that only a few per cent comes from wind and solar.
Other activists have pointed to the undoubted rapid strides in batteries and spoken wistfully of Australia building clean and green regional or even neighbourhood networks. Perhaps the SA battery farm will be the start of a new world order in energy?
Then some killjoy points to real examples such as that of King Island out in Bass Strait, which uses a gigantic lead acid battery (a more advanced battery was found not to be suitable) capable of storing 90 minutes of power for the island’s 2,000 or so residents. It also has photovoltaic arrays, and a wind farm well placed to take advantage of the strait’s trade winds, plus a diesel generator. The result is renewable penetration of perhaps more than 40 per cent, all for a project headline cost of just $18 million. A snap.
Activists will often mention Denmark and perhaps Germany as countries which have developed high levels of renewables penetration, but both countries are part of a much larger European network. When Denmark has an excess of wind energy it exports it across the Baltic for storage in the plentiful dams of Norway and Sweden, which both have much larger grids. The Danes re-import electricity from those grids when the wind stops blowing.
Germany’s approach is close to cheating. When the country’s many photovoltaic panels are not buried under snow, and the winds start to blow, the grid managers do not shut down the country’s network of brown coal plants. Those plants can take a whole day to restart, and have to keep working in the South because the necessary interconnectors with the wind-rich North have not been built. Instead, the excess electricity is dumped on its neighbours, with both Poland and the Czech Republic complaining to the EU about this new form of German aggression.
Australia doesn’t have neighbours to dump electricity on, and pending an expansion to the Snowy scheme, which will take years, has few hydro-electricity resources. One group of academics at the University of Melbourne has suggested building a salt water pumped hydro project in a hilly area on the SA coast, using the waters of the Spencer Gulf as the lower dam. There is nothing technically wrong with the idea, but community reaction to drowning a lot of bush in salt water may be substantial.
Unless the RET is dumped as a policy, which seems unlikely, the state and Federal governments may have to build a couple more gas plants as proposed for South Australia, but use them more often to keep the grid stable while wind energy gyrates, and bite the bullet on gas prices. Consumers will get even larger electricity bills, but given that they voted for the governments that created this mess, it serves them right.
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