Technologically advanced, prosperous and mineral-rich, Australia shouldn’t be having an energy crisis. Shifting to renewable electricity and closing traditional power plants is to blame.
Nationally about 14.5 per cent of Australia’s electricity comes from renewables, about 7.5 per cent from wind and solar. But several state governments are targeting 40 to 50 per cent. Labor wants 50 per cent. Federal schemes also force conventional power stations to buy renewable energy certificates, effectively redistributing funds from traditional power plants to wind farm operators.
Using the expression “renewables” is misleading. Hydroelectricity (dams) accounts for three-quarters of renewable electricity globally. But new Australian hydro projects are near impossible to get approved. The Greens want hydro excluded from our renewables target altogether.
Biomass (burning wood and agricultural byproducts) is the largest source of renewable energy globally but accounts for only 2 per cent of electricity generation. Most is burned directly for cooking and heating in the developing world. Many countries, including China and India, will rely on biomass to meet renewables targets. Yet biomass produces carbon emissions and other pollution.
Geothermal is a tiny electricity source except in Iceland. Marine power barely registers. All three Australian marine energy trials failed.
Australian renewable targets of 40 to 50 per cent really mean generating 30 to 40 per cent from solar and wind.
This is without precedent. According to the latest US Energy Information Administration statistics, the only First World country generating more than 35 per cent of its electricity from non-hydro renewables is Denmark.
Denmark is two-thirds the size of Tasmania with a population of 5.7 million. Australia generates almost 10 times more electricity. Denmark is also in the European electricity market. When wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining it has ready access to electricity from one of the largest markets in the world. France and Germany alone produce 35 times more electricity than Denmark.
Denmark also has the highest electricity prices in the EU.
Denmark is an outlier. I counted only 18 countries generating more than 20 per cent of their electricity from non-hydro renewables; 14 of them generate less than 25 per cent of Australia’s electricity and the other four are in the European market.
South Australia’s move to 50 per cent renewables was a great big experiment. It delivered skyrocketing prices and plummeting reliability.
We’re being conned. Instead of talking about reducing emissions we’re talking about increasing renewables. Governments are picking winners.
If the goal is emissions reduction all solutions should be in the mix, including nuclear, hydro, clean coal and gas. But they are discouraged or banned. Australia’s Clean Energy Finance Corp can’t invest in nuclear or carbon capture. Gas extraction is hampered by moratoriums on new projects and organised opposition.
Demonised by ideology, attitudes to nuclear power are, frankly, superstitious. Nuclear generates 10 per cent of the world’s electricity, including in Europe and North America. China and India are building more plants. Australia has plentiful supply of the required resources (uranium and seawater). It’s non-emitting, highly efficient and reliable. And science and experience show nuclear power is safe.
We’re told to listen to scientists on climate change. Why not on nuclear?
Narrow focus on wind and solar drives up power bills and sends jobs offshore. Subsidies and targets make it uneconomical to lend to or invest in coal plants or upgrade them with new technologies. One coal station is likely to close every year. High prices and unreliable supply also force industry closures and send business and jobs offshore. This just exports emissions.
Politicians should also focus on adapting to climate change. Australia produces a small fraction of global emissions, but we’re stuck with the consequences of other countries’ emissions. And global energy use will only increase, with more than a billion people yet to be connected to electricity.
The Paris targets won’t prevent climate change. They’re acknowledged to be just a start. Meaningful temperature reductions are long-term goals, to be achieved through ambitious targets yet to be agreed in the future, by other people.
Reversing or halting climate change requires deep emissions cuts at enormous economic cost. Even the more ambitious targets yet to come will only delay climate change. This means incurring economic costs but still experiencing the negative consequences of climate change. Yet the economic growth forgone could do a lot to mitigate those consequences.
Energy abundance and economic growth are inextricably linked. Affordable, plentiful energy is what built nations such as Australia and it is essential for eliminating poverty in developing countries and reducing global inequality.
Recently an academic from the Institute for Sustainable Futures suggested giving companies incentives to power down in peak times. If those with “more discretionary needs” switch off electricity, supply cuts to needier businesses might be avoided. Only an academic would suggest governments pay businesses to do less business.
Paying more for inferior electricity is stupid. Yes we should identify and adopt new energy technologies with low or no emissions. We should also prepare for inevitable climate change. Economic strength is key to both.
This article was first published in The Australian on 16 February 2017.
Economic strength the key to energy solutions
17 February 2017
By Nyunggai Warren Mundine