The real green-black divide

On one side of the suburban fence, Aussies celebrate the growing contribution of renewables. On the other they lament the green effect on power bills. Both are blind to coal's dominance.

One of the phenomena of the east coast electricity debate is how many Australians-in-the-street think a far larger portion of their power supply comes from renewables than it really does.

This, of course, is a product of the media hoopla about clean, green technologies – and it has its counterbalance in a minority street view that all this is adding far too much to power bills.

In the real world, things are a bit different.

The vast majority of electricity account holders (household and business) are located in just three states (plus the ACT) – 8.15 million of them in Victoria, New South Wales (and the territory) and Queensland out of a national total of 10.4 million.

Not surprisingly, generation of power in this trio also dominates – 180.7 terawatt hours out of a national total of 223.6 TWh, or almost 81 per cent.

(My numbers are from the recently-released yearbook of the Energy Supply Association.)

The big hitters in terms of supply share are coal and gas, with little really changing over a decade.

Most Aussies in the street in, say, Sydney are routinely surprised to learn that the largest contributor to renewables production is still little Tasmania with its hydroelectric dams, routinely pushing out up to 10 TWh a year.

“But what about all that wind?” is one of the most common questions I get outside the know-it-all conferences and forums.

All that wind is pushing out just 7 TWh nationally and barely 2 TWh in the trio of main demand-and-supply states.

As for rooftop solar power, about which some politicians and most green energy boosters can’t say enough, its total contribution nationally is just 0.7 TWh, most of it on the east coast.

For Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, the day – whether in the home, in the factory, at the shops, in the hospitals and at our learning institutions – only happens because coal-burning power stations are doing their stuff.

On the latest Energy Supply Association numbers, black coal is contributing 64.5 TWh in NSW and Queensland and brown coal is delivering 53 TWh in Victoria.

That’s 90 per cent of the power production in the three states.

Going back to 2003-04, the two coals were contributing 95 per cent of electricity for these states.

The jolly green giant then and now in this region is the Snowy Hydro scheme, routinely delivering between 4 TWh and 5 TWh, more than double the contribution of wind power there.

Ah yes, say the green boosters, but all this is going to change and quickly.

Really?

I have been frustrated that the federal Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics chose to publish projections for only 2034-35 and 2049-50 when they released new power forecasts (last December) and I have now been able to wheedle from them what their crystal ball shows for the end of this decade.

Not surprisingly (to me), their outlook for 2019-20 is for black coal to still be providing 99 TWh and brown coal 51.2 TWh.

Driven by the RET, the national contribution of wind power is expected to rise six-fold, reaching almost 44 TWh at decade’s end with hydro power adding another 17 TWh.

But even with the controversial RET subsidy in its sails, on BREE’s forecast wind still won’t have caught up with the third player of the fossil fuel fleet: gas.

At 2019-20, according to the agency, the gas contribution nationally will be 56.7 TWh, a large proportion of which will be sent out in Victoria, NSW and Queensland (given a boost by the power needs of the LNG operations at Gladstone).

It’s all very well for the boosters to get excited about bright green energy prospects, but here-and-now Australia – and especially the three-state segment where most consumers are to be found – runs to a very large extent on fossil fuels and will still be doing so when, in all probability, Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott (or that nice Mr Turnbull) have shuffled off the political stage.

As for the ongoing stoush about the cost of the RET, for householders it amounts today to the price of a Mars Bar per week. You can’t buy a decent cup of coffee downtown in Melbourne or Sydney, for the weekly impact of green power on your power bill.

(It hurts a lot more if you are a big manufacturer.)

At a conference about nuclear energy in Sydney last week, Ron Cameron, an Australian senior executive with the OECD’s Nuclear Energy Agency, made the really important point.

“Not enough attention is being given,” Cameron said, “to the longer term costs to the total electricity system of different (zero carbon) technologies.”

On the same platform, consultant John Sligar, once chief scientist of Pacific Power (then the dominant power supplier on the east coast), extrapolated from the here-and-now to Christine Milne’s future where all power supply is renewable (and nasty nuclear stays banned).

Today, Sligar pointed out, the east coast gets most of its electricity from 50 power stations at a wholesale cost of around $55 per megawatt hour.

In the Greens’ nirvana, this will become about 10,000 generating units, the wholesale bill will double and there will need to be about a dozen new high voltage, direct current transmission lines to link all these plants to the load centres.

It will be a different load, as Sligar added, because at that point all the aluminium industry will have departed and so will all the other manufacturers dependent on relatively low cost power.

For nuclear proponents, this is the big, big opportunity.

In their clean green Australia, wind turbines will still be a relative bit player and reactors will take the place of the fossil fuelled turbines, helping us to stay in the factory game in the big three states where, for the foreseeable future, coal will continue to power our lives.

When? Ah, now you’re asking.

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