At a time when clarity on climate change and energy has never been more important, efforts to muddy the water are escalating in the media.
Just look at the latest episode of Insiders this past weekend, when Energy Minister Angus Taylor claimed that as a result of the Coalition government “there’s less carbon in the atmosphere” while Barry Cassidy countered with carbon emissions “are up over the last five years. Indeed the facts are clear: Australia’s climate pollution is rising.”
Monday’s opinion piece by economist Geoff Carmody in the AFR is another classic attempt to muddy the waters.
While Carmody’s scaremongering piece portrays renewables and storage as a prohibitively expensive, unviable undertaking, the reality is vastly different once you strip away all the flawed assumptions.
Australians shouldn’t need advanced degrees in climate and energy issues to make informed decisions on the issues that will affect virtually every aspect of their lives.
Here are some simple ways to tell whether claims about energy and emissions in the media are credible, or, in the preferred parlance of energy experts, “unmitigated twaddle”.
Is the scenario proposed developed by a credible body?
A scenario is not a prediction, but there is a difference between a well researched scenario and a back-of-the-envelope hypothetical. In his article, Carmody asked us to consider a hypothetical scenario of wind and solar capacity replacing two coal-burning power stations — Hazelwood and Liddell — and then extrapolates the results to 100% renewables. To do this, he had to make a number of assumptions.
The biggest assumption Carmody made was that for every wind turbine you build and every solar panel you install you must back it up 100% by batteries or pumped hydro. The reality works very differently.
While wind and solar generation varies, it does see generation every single day of the year. Over the last 12 months, the average generation of wind and solar combined is 70 GWh per day. The minimum day was 26 GWh, 37% of the average. Even if the answer is to fully back this up with battery storage, it would only require 63% of energy production to be backed up, not 100%. But in the foreseeable future it would be much cheaper to rely on existing generators, particularly hydro and gas power generators, to provide more power on these low renewable days.
The good news is that the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) agrees. In the Integrated System Plan, the AEMO confirmed that the cheapest and smartest replacement for the country’s ageing coal-fired generators will be in solar, wind and storage technologies.
As energy policy expert Tennant Reed from the Australian Industry Group put it: “days-long 100% capacity of lithium battery backup is nobody’s plan,” so the cost of doing this is a moot point.
Does the author reference sources and are they recent?
While Carmody references the AEMO a number of times, nowhere does he actually reference his sources.
For example, Carmody refers to 15% capacity factor of solar systems. The capacity factor tells us a given power station’s electricity generation output compared to its maximum output capacity. This is a critical factor for a power station’s viability. The higher the capacity factor, the more electricity output. Modern solar farms in our sunniest locations now meet over 30% capacity factors, with over 35% on the horizon, more than double Carmody’s assumption. We are also seeing the excellent performance of solar power across the grid in meeting and reducing peak demand on our hottest days. Things are changing quickly. All this new information means all plans must adjust quickly, and energy analysis can often be out of date.
What are the people who work in the electricity system actually doing?
If you want to see what the future of the electricity system looks like, have a look at what the companies, households and market bodies are actually doing.
According to the Climate Council, Australian households and businesses are installing rooftop solar PV at record rates. No bank or energy company is planning on financing or building a new coal-fired power station (unless there are billions of dollars of government funding put on the table). Acting on climate change is a top election issue and even companies like Santos are calling for a price on carbon. And AEMO is putting significant resources into learning how to integrate more wind and solar into the system. The world is changing and not in the way people like Carmody think.
Those who say an electricity system powered by clean energy can’t be done and will be too expensive need to get out of the way of those already doing it and driving down the cost in the process.
Jonathan Prendergast is an energy analyst currently working with the Business Renewables Centre Australia and Nicky Ison is a research associate at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS and founding director of Community Power Agency.