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. In the public arena, it’s not just a renaming that’s taking place, but a concerted attack on renewables. For the second time in as many weeks, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has criticised renewable energy, its intermittency and its supposed costs -- repeating the force-fed lines from his main business adviser, Maurice Newman, extremist blogs and some mainstream media, and encouraged by the fossil fuel incumbents, whose greatest fear is that their coal- and gas-fired generation is being sidelined and rendered unprofitable by the growing capacity of wind and solar. Abbott’s complaints fail on numerous counts. For a start, the Renewable Energy Target is having little impact on retail prices. The Queensland Competition Authority notes in its latest finding that the large-scale renewable target (the apparent subject of the new government’s attacks) will cost Queensland households $26 a year, or about 1.3% of their bills -- about half the rise in retail bills caused by soaring gas prices. Wind and solar do not need new back-up power. South Australia has got to 31% wind and solar without the need for any new equipment. That’s because most of the peaking plants that respond to changes in demand -- and supply -- already exist to cope when a whole bunch of people switch on air-conditioners at the same time, or when coal- or gas-fired generation has unexpected shutdowns, such as when the Millmerran coal-fired generator shut down last March, or the two major gas generators lost large amounts of capacity in South Australia. The difference with wind and solar is that at least their output is predictable. Abbott’s outburst are cheered, and sometimes inspired from the sidelines, by elements of the mainstream media. The Australian took another bash at Germany last weekend, which it likes to cite as what happens to a country when it moves away from baseload -- coal and nuclear -- and towards renewables. The newspaper’s principal complaints were there were more coal plants, more emissions, and more costs. Germany is the nightmare scenario for the fossil fuel industry because if the biggest manufacturing economy in Europe can wean itself off nuclear, coal and gas, then so can everyone else -- which is why its policies are attacked with such gusto. What The Australian omits to tell its readers is that coal-fired generators coming on line now were planned and construction was begun well before Fukushima, and before the extent of the rapid growth in renewables was acknowledged. The net impact is a lot more coal projects are being abandoned. The country’s big three utilities -- RWE, E.ON and Vattenfall -- have made it clear they intend to build no new fossil fuel plants, because some of them are having to close new plants almost as quickly as they are opened. Investment bank UBS, for instance, predicts that one-third of Germany’s fossil fuel capacity will need to be closed by 2017 because it is no longer economic, and they are no longer needed. Germany industry has not been affected by the renewable energy roll-out because it is only charged the wholesale price of electricity, plus a margin. Its costs have fallen substantially in recent years, not risen. To try and illustrate its lament, The Australian sought to create drama by pointing to a period in early December when renewables contributed just 5% of generation needs on some days.  I presume these charts reflect the issue.