Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday 17 October 2021

 Reporters find it hard to tell truth about renewables

Many environment writers today are in the business of hiding the truth about the costs of renewable energy.

Few are smart enough to work out the risk to modern democratic capitalism posed by the financial markets’ short-selling of fossil fuels.

It’s all coming home to roost ahead of the Glasgow COP26 climate conference starting on October 31. Yet many local media outlets are not reporting much about the northern hemisphere energy crisis, and the spiking prices for coal, oil and gas. The media absurdity peaked last week when the bible of climate panic, the Guardian, was forced to concede: “China’s plans to build more coal-fired plants deal a blow to UK’s COP26 ambitions.” This column has been reporting China’s coal expansion since 2016.

Climate writers should know intermittent energy from wind and solar cannot support grid-scale power 100 per cent of the time. It needs to be backed up with energy storage. This is why former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull launched the Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro scheme, the cost of which has blown out from less than $3bn to more than $6bn, according to Giles Parkinson at the RenewEconomy website.

Turnbull, in a piece for the Japanese English language website NikkeiAsia, wrote on August 22 about the need for more renewables. “But what is often forgotten is that we also need long-term, large capacity energy storage for when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. Unless we address that challenge now, we will either fall back on fossil fuels or face blackouts. This need for energy storage is the ignored crisis within the crisis.”

That’s the patron saint of renewables Turnbull speaking, not a Murdoch conspiracist. But it gets better: “While lithium batteries can play an important role in storing electricity for a few hours, the only proven technology for storing electricity for longer periods is hydropower.” That is, pumped hydro.

Reporters here keep telling readers wind and solar are now cheaper than coal. Except the price of back-up will make total power costs much more expensive. Evidence around the world shows power prices faced by consumers rise as the percentage of renewables lifts.

Reporters often mistake the Tesla batteries – used here since South Australia installed one after the collapse of the state’s power system in September 2016 – for large-scale storage. But such batteries are designed to harmonise and firm the system rather than provide enough power to run the grid.

A study by the superannuation industry two years ago suggested a national grid-scale battery that could power the nation for 36 hours would cost $6.5 trillion, “or the cost of building 1000 nuclear reactors”, according to a report on ABC Online on June 26, 2019. This newspaper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd, reporting the same study, wrote that between 100 and 150 Snowy 2.0 projects would be needed to do the same job.

Admittedly, battery storage is becoming cheaper, but even last week a study from three UK academics suggested the cost of enough battery storage to run the UK’s power system for a fortnight, assuming 100 per cent renewables, would be £3 trillion – about 150 per cent of the UK’s annual GDP. Assuming 50 per cent renewables, the cost would be £1.5 trillion.

This column on September 13 discussed the flight of manufacturing from Europe to China in the 20 years since Europe began actively phasing out fossil fuels. It quoted the Guardian from 2019 saying: “Britain has contributed to the global climate emergency by outsourcing its carbon emissions to the developing world.”

The planet does not benefit from simply transferring emissions-intensive industries from one region to another. This is why some on the right of politics see UN climate action as a sly way to transfer power and money from the West to the developing world. In fact, the UN has always been upfront about demanding cash payments from the West, and the flow of industry to the developing world is driven more by labour costs than electricity prices.

Yet people who fear that democracy is losing out to totalitarian systems have a point. The positions of Russia and China ahead of COP26 makes clear why.

Russia is cashing in on Europe’s energy problems by ramping up the price of gas from its Gazprom state monopoly, probably with an eye to more than just short-term profits. It wants to pressure Germany, which has been silly enough to phase out nuclear power and most of its coal, to back a second gas pipeline, Nord Stream 2, under the Baltic Sea.

China was always permitted under its Paris Accord commitments to keep lifting CO2 output until 2030. That is why this column has argued COP26 is likely to fail. China’s CO2 rises between now and 2030 could exceed all the cuts made by the rest of the world.

Another Turnbull clean energy advocate, Malcolm’s son Alex, made the point in a piece on Substack on October 8: “China in a crisis tends to represent a command economy and … the commands are coming thick and fast.” Coal outputs domestically in China are ramping up fast, and “steel production is down 10 per cent year on year”, Turnbull wrote.

China signalled last week it might need to modify its emissions targets. The Guardian quoted a statement from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang: “It is important to build advanced coal fired power plants … in line with development needs. Domestic oil and gas exploration will be intensified.”

The big concern for the West is whether modern capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction. As Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has admitted, Australia will face increased cost of global capital if it does not sign on to net zero by 2050. Reporters should not imagine bankers are doing this for ethical reasons.

Investors are short-selling the fossil fuel industry because they can make more money on taxpayer-guaranteed renewables. China, India, Russia and much of east Asia will not be following. While the West’s hedge funds will make a motza, hard power will continue to seep from Western Europe and the US. The West’s poorest consumers will pay more.

There’s also the issue of green hydrogen. The downside, at least with green hydrogen, is the need for more wind and solar to power the process that separates hydrogen and oxygen from water. Why downside? Wind and solar are low-intensity, inefficient ways to generate electricity. They require enormous amounts of land. The life spans of solar cells and wind turbines are limited: when rolled out across the planet they will present a mammoth recycling task when they need replacing.

Some environmentalists dislike the idea of covering tens of millions of hectares worldwide with this technology. Former Greens leader Bob Brown has criticised wind turbines for killing birds and affecting Tasmania’s natural beauty. He has likened a plan for Tasmania to be the new “battery of the nation” to the discredited Gordon-below-Franklin dam project.

Yet Australia, with about a third of the world’s uranium deposits, could be a real energy super power using nuclear technology that is not land-use intensive but is energy intensive and nonpolluting.

1 comment: