Jan 15, 2014

Tony Abbott’s half-baked war on renewable energy

The Abbott government seems to hate renewable energy, but the march of progress is unstoppable at this point. The only question is, when will the government get out of the way?

solar panels

Last week it was quietly announced that the Australian Cleantech Competition would henceforth be known as the Australian Technologies Competition. It was another subtle reminder of how the new Australian conservative government is going about the rephrasing of Australia’s energy future. Anything that involves the words climate, clean energy, or cleantech are considered projects or institutions non grata.


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41 thoughts on “Tony Abbott’s half-baked war on renewable energy

  1. Aidan Stanger

    AR – Despite the higher cost and lower maximum temperatures, the Port Augusta solar thermal plant would use NaNO3 and KNO3, as they’re a much better heat storage medium than NaCl.

  2. Mark Duffett

    Jonathan Maddox “All of Australia is below 40 degrees south.”

    No it isn’t. But notwithstanding that, despite better conditions on a million Australian roofs, it still only amounts to, at best, a few percent of electrical energy over a 24 hour period. The yellow on the current Australian version of the graph would look a little bigger, but not that much.

    AR, very droll, but good luck trying to drive enough bulldozers, excavators and scrapers onto a salt lake to collect over 35,000,000 tonnes of the stuff.

    How much material would Beyond Zero Emission's zero carbon plan use for the concentrating solar thermal plants? A lot pic.twitter.com/gIKBio4OKQ— John Morgan (@JohnDPMorgan) January 18, 2014

  3. Aidan Stanger

    Msrk Duffett #22

    Far better to use huge amounts of salt than burn huge amounts of coal!

    Yes, solar PV still only accounts for a few percent of electricity generated. The same could be said for wind a decade ago. At the moment, most Australians still don’t have solar panels on their roofs, and most of those who do have far fewer panels than their roofs could accommodate. Plus there’s plenty of scope for non-rooftop solar PV.

  4. JohnB

    Aidan, oh Aidan.

    Have you tried to do the maths, or do you just want to feel good?

    The east Australian grid was formerly 17% renewables, thanks mainly to the Snowy.

    It is now 7%, because the Snowy has not grown and our population has.

    Look even casually at how many rooftops and how many dollars you are locking us into and you will see that millions more roofs are needed to get back to 17%, where we once were, at a prohibitive cost. But it will be entirely ineffectual.

    Australia’s electrical energy carbon intensity is going backwards fast, and that is only electricity. Count transport fuels and domestic, industrial and commercial gas and you will soon realise that we need to find a way to a gas-free energy future, complete with massive reductions in transport and industrial sources which have nothing at all to do with electricity.

    How do you propose that fertiliser will be produced without gas? Cow poo? We all know the impact of cattle burps on our methane budget. Hint: Currently fertilisers are manufactured from natural gas.

    Contemplating a hydrogen car? Forget it. Hydrogen is commercially derived from natural gas. Splitting water into H2 and O2 is not economic.

    Explosives? Same story, but perhaps we will not need explosives or liquid fuels in a utopian vegan world where even the cars run on carbon monoxide derived from the partial combustion of bean stalks and the remaining million or so Australians grub around in the dirt for their food and give thanks for their low carbon lifestyle… until they light their cooking fire.

    It’s OK to come up with an answer to part of the greenhouse gas problem. The truly difficult part is continuing the analysis to the point where the greenhouse gas budget is balanced.

    But, don’t stop there. Even harder is progressing beyond balance to negative emissions. The world will very soon reach the point where the only way to avoid 2.5 degrees temp rise (or 3, or 4 – it makes little difference: pick your own target).

    From that day onwards, the options are stark:
    1. Remove CO2 and its equivalents from the earth’s atmosphere, worldwide, PDQ; and
    2. Condemn all earthlings, humans included, to a world with temperatures spiralling upwards.

    A whole forest of solar panels on rooftops will do very little to avoid Option 2.

  5. JohnB

    Moderation, again?

    Yes, I know that I mentioned p-o-o and b-u-r-p-s and m-a-t-h-s.

    Must be the latter.

  6. Mark Duffett

    Aidan, far better than both would be to utilise comparatively minuscule amounts of uranium, thorium and waste from early-generation nuclear plants.

  7. Jonathan Maddox

    Thanks to new catalysts, water electrolysis is now far more cost-effective than it once was. Yes, fossil-derived hydrogen is still cheaper just as is fossil-derived electricity, but the difference is shrinking : energy efficiency of modern electrolysers approaches 80%.

    But we won’t be making hydrogen to burn it in cars. Battery-electric cars are already a very cost-effective alternative to fossil-fueled ones. Electrolytic hydrogen may come into its own as feedstock for chemical processes including synthesis of fertiliser and liquid fuel for those applications — aviation, shipping and farm machinery — where alternatives are not sufficiently energy dense. It also already plays a minor role in storage of excess electric energy (see power-to-gas).

  8. Aidan Stanger

    JohnB, your post is rather puzzling as I never claimed I wanted the use of natural gas to be eliminated. I’m certainly not looking to a utopian vegan world. I do think we should reduce our reliance on gas, but some will always be needed.

    We seem to have different concepts of what’s economic. You take what I call the accountant’s view (it costs too much so forget it) whereas I take the engineer’s view (it costs too much so why does it cost too much and how can we bring the cost down?). The nice thing about solar PV is that the costs are almost entirely fixed. Whether it is econmic depends mainly on the discount rate used in the calculations. Typically the rate used is significantly higher than the official interest rate (this was the trick the government used to make the NBN look uneconomic) but as the infrastructure will have a productivity enhancing effect, there’s a strong case for using a lower rate than the official RBA rate. I said something similar in my submission to the Productivity Commission’s infrastructure inquiry.

    Your state may have fallen below 7% renewables, but mine’s several times that. Rooftop solar has much more potential than what’s needed to get your figure back up to 17%, but there’s no reason to confine it to rooftops. Thesre’s plenty of arid grazing land where the animals would appreciate the shade of solar panels, and they wouldn’t adversely affect the land’s productivity as that’s limited by water availability.

    Solar thermal does have higher running costs (though still low by fossil fuel standards) but as its objective is to produce a lot of electricity on demand at times when the price is higher, I don’t see that as a big problem.

    Getting back to what you said about gas, the Haber process is now obsolete and I predict its use will have ceased by 2020 (though I’d like to see government intervention to end it sooner). And combined with more economic elecrolysis, we should be able to end our reliance on gas for fertilizer production.

    I agree our net CO2 emissions will need to be cut below zero, and I think biochar is the best way to do that (and is something that can also be used to supply some of our CH4 requirements). But we also need to decarbonize our economy now. And that’s not something that should require big lifestyle changes.

    You seem to bave reached the conclusion it can’t be done so we should give up and make the planet worse for future generations. I look at what can be done and what’s preventing it, and am baffled as to how anyone could even consider that opinion, let alone reach it.

    As for nuclear power, the world will need a lot of it, but Australia is so well suited to solar power that I’m not convinced nuclear would be economic here.

  9. Mark Duffett

    You’re “not convinced nuclear would be economic”? What happened to your ‘engineer’s view’ expressed at the outset?

  10. JohnB

    Since when is there a difference between engineers and accountants regarding economic analyses? As an engineer, I am on good terms with many accountants and I am no stranger to economic evaluation of projects.

    You have an objection to the cost of capital (discount rate) used in calculating comparisons on the basis of NPV or whatever; I don’t. It would be silly to use, say, 4% for solar projects and 8% for the rest. The discount factor must be the same for all proposals. Comparing like with like is a core principle of EA’s.

    Either Project A competes with Proposal B for funds on a level playing field or someone is fudging. If an external benefit exists, it should be costed and included in the evaluation, however I recognise the issue with externalities : the corporation will ignore them, even if the society it operates in is killed in the process. That is a political question, not an issue of discount rates.

    If large scale solar, either PV or thermal, was economic then it would be happening right now, without socialising portion of the costs via subsidies or distorted economic evaluations.

    The final comment, to the effect that nuclear power is OK, but not in Australia should be ignored because it is classic NIMBY-ism. I agree that we “will need a lot of it”; however, that includes in Australia.

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