Playing games

Word and number games to bolster positions in our great energy debate are now common currency and it is hardly surprising that the community at large (which still seems to possess a well-functioning BS meter) mostly just ignores the noise and focuses on what really matters to it: the costs of service. However I see a report today in The Guardian that a group of anti-coal activists have conducted an online poll which purports to show that 60 per cent of Australians want to see coal-fired electricity phased out by 2030.

In reality, I think, most of Them Outdoors (aka Paul Keating’s “the mob”) have a dominant wish for electricity to perform a service when required and not to give them a budget headache down the road.

In this context, The Australian this week has quoted Rod Sims, chairman of the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, as “declaring high energy prices to be the biggest crisis facing the nation” and warning that we should not “overdo the conversation about the reliability of electricity” for fear of replicating in generation the high network costs of the past decade.

It follows, it seems to me, that neither should the conversation on the grid “transition” be overdone in order to promote weather-driven power supply over conventional sources.

On the aspect of the games, one of the things I find highly irritating or just funny, depending on the side of my bed from which I have emerged, is the hocus-pocus of substituting generation capacity for actually electrons produced to bolster propaganda for the “energy revolution.” I find it rather less amusing that our mainstream media don’t seem much inclined to sieve this stuff to provide their readers/viewers/listeners with meaningful information on a consistent basis rather than just regurgitating whatever line activists are spinning on the day.

A case in point is the way capacity at work in the NEM at some selected time of day or season is used to boost the public sense of a “revolution” gathering pace.

What happened in the summer recently ended seems to be providing an opportunity just now for juggling numbers. A reality check can be found in the latest issue of EnergyQuarterly published by consultants EnergyQuest. It shows a NEM generation breakdown for the October to December quarter of 2017, a period including a rather early start to hot weather, from which it can be gleaned that black coal generation delivered 27,398 gigawatt hours, brown coal (sans Hazelwood) 8,388 GWh, gas turbines 5,461 GWh, hydro power 2,809 GWh, wind farms 2,896 GWh and all forms of solar photovoltaics 2,295 GWh.

Renewable energy (excluding hydro, a long-existing conventional power source against which the green movement has been known to rail rather hard) for this quarter was 5,191 GWh versus 29,646 GWh for coal and gas. Including hydro, the renewables tally was 8,000 GWh.

What this data set demonstrates is that, as has long been the case, coal, gas and hydro generation are still the backbone of power supply on the east coast – and especially so in New South Wales and Queensland, which make up two-thirds of the market. Which is not to overlook the fact that households and small businesses in these two States have taken up rooftop solar power with a fair bit of enthusiasm – so long as the relative size of the collective PV’s contribution is understood along with its capacity to serve depending on time and weather. Nor, with the same caveats, should it be overlooked that farming the wind is no longer experimental and will have an increasingly useful role in the NEM as a whole so long as the integration issues are handled efficiently.

Let’s also be clear that there is a lot of genuine information available via the Web and no one side of the debate has a monopoly on presenting facts rather than factoids.

Another useful source is the OpenNEM widget, a product of the Energy Transition Hub, a collaborative academic and research centre initiative. As I started to write this post, it was displaying a seven day report on NEM power production that graphically (sorry) illustrated where we easterners source our power. For the period from 21 to 28 March, the NEM saw output of 3,646 gigawatt hours, leaving aside estimated production from rooftop solar photovoltaics. Black coal generation accounts for 56.4 per cent of this, brown coal plant for 18.2 per cent and gas turbines 8.4 per cent – a fossil-fuelled generation contribution of 83 per cent. Hydro power provides 7.3 per cent and wind power 9.2 per cent.

When we can have a somewhat panicky debate about just closing Liddell power station in 2022, what would be the consequences — in terms of security of supply and affordability —  of pushing out this level of coal-burning generation by 2030 as is promoted in The Guardian today?

I am a regular reader of Hugh Saddler’s electricity analysis published on The Australia Institute’s website. Saddler provides a mine of careful and dispassionate information. His latest (February) offering observes that at present coal and gas generators provide 95 per cent of all electricity produced in Queensland, 90 per cent in New South Wales, 84 per cent in Victoria and 55 per cent in South Australia. In Tasmania, naturally, hydro, wind and a bit of rooftop solar supply 90 per cent of all electricity generated.

That the east coast power system is changing is beyond debate. The pace of this change, its direction and whether reliability and affordability of supply will be enhanced by developments driven by politics as much as technology are another matter.

Stakeholders are entitled to their views but the exchanges of opinion are not enhanced by attempts by ideologists to balance green angels on the heads of pins while juggling numbers. We are collectively better served if we genuinely know where we stand today and options for tomorrow are evaluated by technology-neutral experts, not obscured by emotionally-charged flag-waving.

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