Data games

Propaganda by the warriors of the “clean energy revolution” – by which they don’t mean nuclear – continues to rely rather too heavily for my taste on pea and thimble word and data games.

A case in point is a current bid to impress on us that, in 2017, more electricity was made from selected renewables than from coal for the first time in the European Union. (Described by some in the media as “the continent as a whole;” take that pesky Russians, the Swiss and a few others like Serbia.)

This, declares boosters, is the tipping point (defined as a threshold for “abrupt and irreversible change”) in European power supply,

But let’s read the fine print.

What is being promoted is that power produced from wind, solar and biomass in the EU last year exceeded that from brown and black coal by 679 terawatt hours to 669 TWh.

However, this outcome includes 196 TWh of biomass-based production, still considered a renewable energy source in Europe despite rising concern in green circles that burning wood pellets is not really a good idea for the environment. In Britain in particular there is a barrage of criticism from green groups, who charge that use of wood-based biomass drives deforestation internationally. Europe is now consuming about 20 million tonnes a year of wood pellets in power generation, importing them from the US, Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus.

In other words, this latest triumph of renewables over coal in the EU is rather a contrivance.

You can break down the union data to 44.4 per cent fossil fueled generation and 30 per cent renewables, as some of the boosters do, but it needs to be appreciated that the latter also includes 9.1 per cent from hydro-power (in a rather poor year for European rain and snow).

Another way of describing the 2017 European situation is that the long-established conventional sources of power (coal, gas, oil, nuclear and hydro) last year contributed just over 79 per cent of electricity – versus 11.2 per cent for wind power (at 364 TWh double what it supplied in 2011) and 3.7 per cent for photovoltaic solar (119 TWh). Oh, and six per cent for biomass.

The 184 TWh rise in production from wind farms this decade has involved a massive outlay since 2011 – construction of 85.3 gigawatts of capacity in seven years, taking the total for this technology to 153 GW.

Nonetheless, the largest single contributor to electricity generation across the EU last year was nuclear – 25.6 per cent, more than double the output of wind farms from 119 GW of reactors. The second-largest was gas (19.7 per cent). Together, they provided almost half the union’s power from non-emitting and low-emitting sources.

For many casual Australian readers of the media (which means those who skim the headline and the first 2-3 paragraphs of a story if they still read newspapers and don’t rely on social media for their “news”), this claimed European triumph of renewables over coal is likely to be reinforcement of the argument by green advocates (including the Labor party as it sweats on outrunning the Greens in the Batman by-election and the upcoming Tasmanian and South Australian polls) that there is no impediment to pursuit of 40-50 per cent renewable power here in the relatively near future.

Now the European Commission, the policymaking energy room of the union, also has a new proposal before the EU parliament and member states: to chase a target for 2030 of 27 per cent of non-hydro renewables (up from 17 per cent in 2016). Sure, the European parliament had earlier voted to pursue 35 per cent – but, to quote a German report, “many national governments are opposed to pursuing a more ambitious binding target.” Put less politely, the EU parliament is a windbags’ castle and the decisions are really made by the EC working with national governments.

From the vantage point of Australia, this is relevant to the local push for a much-increased RET because carefully-massaged EU “news” is used quite frequently to bolster the local greens’ argument. And our alternative federal government – which could be in office by next summer if you take heed of the weekend’s media suggestions that, no matter what he might say, Turnbull is planning a spring election – is committed to the 50-by-30 target.

Here is what Bill Shorten said to the National Press Club last week: “We have all the sun and wind you could want and with it we can make an endless supply of the energy the whole world is moving towards. No serious energy plan, anywhere in the world, is built on the assumption of a decline in renewables investment. It’s like releasing a roads policy based on the resurgence of the horse and cart…or a national broadband network based upon copper. Labor’s objectives are clear, achievable and responsible: 50 per cent renewables by 2030, a 45 per cent cut in pollution by 2030 and zero net pollution by 2050.”  By “pollution” Shorten means carbon emissions.

Not a syllable, you will note, about the cost of going down this path. Not a word about the headline-hogging debate over the past year about the stability of the NEM and the need to balance pursuit of abatement with system reliability.

Malcolm Turnbull had the opportunity to challenge Shorten on this at Toowoomba when he subsequently delivered an opening speech for the new year’s political debate. What he chose to say was this: “We’ve also taken action to make energy more reliable and affordable. Now, 12 months ago, I said that pumped hydro needed to be a vital part of our energy plan; the storage that makes renewables reliable. The feasibility study for Snowy 2.0 proves the project is technically and financially viable. Work is on track to start later this year. This, again, is nation-building infrastructure that will bring thousands of jobs to regional Australia.

“Now, we’ve already reduced wholesale energy prices. With the help of the competition regulator, those savings will be passed on to customers. Longer term, the national energy guarantee will lock in those gains. Independent analysis commissioned by the Energy Security Board predicts that wholesale electricity costs will fall by 23 per cent over the decade. Those actions, along with Snowy 2.0 and others, will cut the average household energy bill by $400.”

Neither of these energy comments got any coverage at all in the mainstream media.

This is not so much a debate as two leaders talking past each other to what they hope is their corner in voter land. Which is what their predecessors (Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott) spent their time from 2007 doing, too, collectively delivering us in to the “energy crisis” we have today.


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