By John Barker
Put Trump and May aside for 10 minutes. It’s what is happening in the Great Southern Land that’s making me cross.
Twinkle, Finkel – you’re not a star. What to make of the “Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market” (NEM), Chaired by the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel.
I turn to the Bard for guidance:
This is the excellent foppery of the world, that when we are sick in fortune—often the surfeits of our own behavior—we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and stars, as if we were villains on necessity, fools by heavenly compulsion, knaves, thieves, and treachers by spherical predominance… I should have been that I am, had the maidenl’est star in the firmament twinkled on my bastardizing (King Lear).
I have been involved in the “energy futures debate” for almost half a century. Over that time, the four guiding stars of clean, renewable energy have inexorably moved into conjunction: the science, the technology, the markets and community understanding.
But, over that half-century, the incumbent suppliers of energy – the coal-diggers, the oil-drillers, and the electricity supply organisations – have resisted at every step; denying the problem, deriding the technology and besmirching the “renewalists”, who have been depicted, essentially, as enemies of the State … “greenies, hippies, idealists, communists”.
As the science of both solar energy and climate change became irrefutable, the “Carbonistas” shifted their attack to the nature of the emerging technologies – they were “unreliable” – and their role was to “provide reliable energy to the whole community at the lowest cost”.
But as the cost of renewables has inexorably and dramatically declined, the emphasis of resistance has focused on “reliability”. But, consonant with the zeitgeist, the language has shifted from “reliability” to “security”. In these dangerous times, you can never have too much “security”.
“Security” has become a quixotic quest, as though every wind generator were a giant, a monster attacking the “security” of our society’s stable and benign power stations.
But we know that our power stations are neither stable or benign. Indeed, they are fairly stable, but who has not experienced a brown-out or black-out due to a storm or some poor soul ramming him or her self into a suburban power pole, or restrictions due to over-use of air conditioners in a heat wave? Yes, the lights went off and the fridge started to defrost … but we survived it.
Most people in the east of Australia probably don’t know that Western Australia tried to address the “energy (ie electricity) security” problem after a heat wave in 2002 led to electricity restrictions and defrosting of supermarket freezers. A massive over-supply of generating capacity ensued, culminating in a massive subsidy (about $0.5 billion/year) to keep electricity prices at about the national average of 25c/kWh. Un-subsidised, the price would be more like 35c. And the oversupply is reducing the WA Government’s ability to support renewables.
I think that the Finkel Review will lead to a similar situation in the Eastern States’ NEM; higher prices in the name of “security”. And, no doubt, a subdued pursuit of renewables and climate change mitigation.
The simple facts are that solar and wind are cheaper than carbon-power – and getting cheaper – and that their impact on reliability and security at present are minimal; they are at the 5% level, but growing. Of course, we need to plan for change, but change will be in terms of decades, not days. Increasingly, energy-intensive industry is finding that there is greater security and reliability and economy available in renewables, rather than coal, diesel or gas.
Renewable energy technologies are following the same dynamic as most “disruptive” technologies. They start out to solve an existing problem, but, with time, they create new possibilities that re-define the problem. For example, a friend of mine has developed a PV-powered water heater that will deliver hot water at a cost of less than 5c/kWh and last for 30 years. It is about 3-4 years away from large-scale production. Hot water becomes the “battery” for PV electricity. Other examples abound.
The basic problem is that governments – both State and Federal – are forced into being subservient to sectional and private interests, rather than serving the public interest by using the “common-wealth” of public financing and public information. Change is difficult if your “loyalty” (to use a Trumpism) isn’t to the “truth” ( to use a Comeyism).
In summary, the Finkel Review isn’t bad … it’s weak. It’s just that, if, as Turnbull and Shorten hope, it takes the energy debate off the table, it will lock in the status quo, leaving us all poorer and therefore less secure.
We can’t blame Finkel for this. He’s very bright and trying to preserve what little respect there is left for scientific opinion in this dull-witted, lawyer-dominated political environment. Remember, we elected them.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves, that we are underlings …” (Julius Caesar).
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