Paved with good Intentions

Minister Bowen addressing the National Press Club

I was shocked recently when our new Federal Minister for Energy baldly stated on national TV that the recent unreliability of the NSW electricity supply was entirely due to the presence of coal-fired power stations in the supply mix and that once the system was completely converted to renewables all would be well.

Who would have thought? Intermittent renewables are more reliable than base-load generation. Wow! What an insight! Later I viewed Bowen’s address to the National Press Club where he said the same thing again but in shiny-eyed, True Believer mode. Not just a sound-bite this time. The physicist in me was, well, repulsed would be the best description. I have to get to the bottom of this, I thought. This requires a public refutation. Rarely do federal ministers, Labor or otherwise commit such astounding public gaffes.

Not so easy. Bowen’s Press Club statement is based on something called the ISP which I found after some digging around. It came over as an impressive document at first sight but closer examination reveals a masterpiece of obfuscation and legerdemain. Even the title, ISP, for Integrated System Plan, makes it difficult to find via a search engine because of the confusion with Internet Service Provider.

What puzzled me was why I could find no supply-side modelling among the numerous appendices. Surely if, as they claim, Energy resources provide sufficient supply to match demand from consumers at least 99.998% of the time (Table 2 Page 23), then how can they know that without modelling intermittent cloud cover and wind speed? It seems the devil is in the detail of how various acronyms and buzz-words are defined. For example Firm Renewables means solar panels that are 100 percent backed up by gas generators which kick in whenever the sun goes out.  This sleight-of-hand in redefining Renewables as “Firm” allows the system to be modelled using old-fashioned engineering methods  under which short term variations in local weather conditions are ignored and replaced by seasonal averages while still retaining the carbon-free cache of “Renewables“.

Another handy acronym was VRE defined as “variable renewable energy (at utility scale)”. No further definition was given.

This stuff has all come from inside the AEMO not from the ALP. The new minister is clearly a convert and will move hell and high water to get it implemented. It will be an unmitigated disaster for Australia’s economy, even an existential threat. No-one talks of economic tipping points but this will surely be one. Once we are committed there is no turning back. It will be exorbitantly expensive and insufficiently reliable to support a manufacturing industry. No doubt Labor gurus will spend the next few decades looking for suitable kulaks to blame for its failures.

Even if this plan is successfully implemented, it will have no measurable effect on global climate nor on the climate of Australia. Any small  savings in carbon emissions (if any) from “firmed renewables” will be completely swamped by new coal-fired power stations under construction in India (31,000 MW) and China (92,000 MW compared with Australia’s present installed capacity of 25,000 MW) . Its purpose is entirely short-term and political, i.e. to show that the present government “really cares”. It has no practical benefit whatsoever, even if you believe the IPCC’s hype about global warming.

At issue is whether this proposed irreversible switch to renewables is a viable engineering option for this country.

It isn’t!