Features Australia

Translating Energyspeak

12 May 2018

9:00 AM

12 May 2018

9:00 AM

A little over a decade ago former Labor speechwriter Don Watson wrote a series of books bemoaning the decay of public language. I have a set of them which he signed for me in 2010. At the time he told me a story about when he was invited to speak to senior management of a  major Australian company about communication. He talked about the importance of clear language and the problem of vacuous management speak in corporate communications. A few days later he received a letter of thanks from the organisation littered with the very language he’d derided.

I was reminded of this anecdote recently when reading the Advice to Commonwealth Government on Dispatchable Capability issued by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) last year.

Language-wise, electricity is complicated. There’s the unavoidable physics and engineering terms. Then there’s the economic jargon: vertical integration anyone? At least that enables complex concepts to be summarised in a few words. It’s ugly but efficient. Not to be outdone, energy bureaucrats have invented their own Energyspeak which we must grapple with if we want discuss one of the biggest problems facing Australia – the growing lack of reliable, affordable electricity.

Delve into the AEMO advice and you’ll be reaching for the Roget’s in no time. Don’t bother. Energyspeak doesn’t exist in any credible book on English language. It’s been invented to make simple things sound complicated. It’s ugly and inefficient.

In the old world the energy industry talked about ‘baseload power’, which operates all of the time, and ‘peak power’, which operates when extra electricity is needed. For the new world, Energyspeak has a whole suite of new expressions to explain power generation:

dispatchable: able to supply electricity on call, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; a 24/7 power plant. From English dispatch (v) to send off in a hurry.

variable: able to supply unpredictable amounts of electricity at times and for durations unknown; e.g. wind or solar PV. From English variable (adj.) apt to change, fickle.

firming capacity: capacity to provide guaranteed available energy; e.g. ‘dispatchable generation can provide firming capacity for variable power sources’.

limited dispatchability: an oxymoron, see variable.

traditional generation: see dispatchable.

behind the meter: power generators and storage located on the site they service, installed and maintained by the site owner and which can supply excess power to other sites via the main power grid; a component of distributed generation.


distributed generation: electricity system comprising many small electricity generators and storage devices, especially ones located behind the meter; also known as on-site generation which was once known as traditional generation.

market design: electricity policy.

In the new world, it will be variable power, instead of baseload, operating all the time. Except when it doesn’t (see limited dispatchability).

However, there’s Energyspeak for those situations too:

unserved energy (USE):  when more electricity is required than power companies can supply. Formerly known as a power shortage.

load shedding: when there is unserved energy and power companies cut off electricity supply to hapless customers. Formerly known as a blackout.

supply reliability, system reliability: 1. low unserved energy. 2. characterising Australia’s electricity system before undergoing transition.

strategic reserve: If government pays generators to be on standby to supply electricity when variable resources can’t, or pays large power users not to use electricity to free up power for others, the standby capacity or unused electricity is a strategic reserve. Latter is also known as demand response.

Reliability and Emergency Reserve 

Trader mechanism (RERT): demand response operated by the AEMC. Used on short notice and therefore not strategic. What’s the point of all this? Energyspeak explains:

transition: the process where large, centralised dispatchable generators are closed and their capacity is replaced (or alternatively not replaced) with variable resources, distributed generation and demand response.

orderly transition: a transition without too many blackouts.

Knowing Energyspeak will unlock any energy bureaucrat’s tome. For example, AEMO says:

without extensions to the current market design, it cannot provide adequate and sustainable price signals to either maintain dispatchable capability or incentivise new development at the level necessary to maintain system reliability

This means that because of government policy there’s no economic incentive to maintain or build enough 24/7 power plants to avoid power shortages.

And this mouthful:

For the next 10 years … reserve margins are forecast to continue to decrease, as dispatchable generation retires and predominantly variable generation is installed. Based on current projections, the reserve margin will reach less than 10 per cent from 2022–23. 

…the above charts reinforce the heightened risks of load shedding in 2017–18, and confirm that these risks will continue to remain high if only variable generation continues to be installed in the NEM without any firming capacity from generation or demand response.

This means if 24/7 power plants keep closing and being replaced with, say, wind there’s a high risk of blackouts, unless the replacement plants also include, say, a gas plant or governments pay us to use less electricity. Un-coding Energyspeak can deliver interesting insights. For example, AEMO’s advice says:

The NEM is not delivering enough investment in flexible dispatchable resources to maintain the defined target level of supply reliability, as the transition from traditional generation to variable energy resources proceeds.

In other words, there’s not enough 24/7 power plants to supply electricity while we close down 24/7 power plants… Who would have guessed? Un-code Energyspeak and a complex problem becomes quite clear. The solution even more so.

Which brings me back to Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words which opens with a quote from the master of English language, George Orwell: ‘Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’

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