Solar no easy energy fix

solar-energy-power
Solar-panels-energy Photo by Bob Wilson

Solar energy is great – we’ve got eight panels on the roof, a hot water system and a portable panel in the caravan. Pretty useless on Thursday, though, with ex-cyclone Debbie sending heavy rain our way. It would be great if we’d had a battery bank under the house to store the energy from the sunny weeks we’ve been having.

But battery bank technology is yet to become affordable for the 1.6 million Aussies who have solar PV panels.

I recently wrote about Australia’s troubled National Energy Network. We cited economist Professor John Quiggin, who suggested governments buy back the power grid and give the people what they want: cheap and reliable energy.

This brought a small flurry of emails from readers who agreed/disagreed with this proposition (or had one of their own).

Avid FOMM reader and staunch advocate of solar power Paul Lupton put pen to paper immediately.

“I have a very old-fashioned view of what governments are elected to do – to provide services for the well-being of their constituents. I can remember a time when that was the case!” he said.

“Ever since (Tony) Abbott came to power I’ve written to him and his successor and their energy/environment ministers along the lines of the importance of renewables. Australia has THE most ideal conditions for wind, solar and solar thermal power generation of any country in our rapidly degrading world.

 “I’m yet to get a reply!”

 Lupton has been a student of solar energy since the 1960s when he planned on being an architect.

“I read about how people in North America using solar orientation to (help) keep their homes warm despite the thick blanket of snow outside.”

Former colleague Jeff Sommerfeld, who works as a researcher in Public Energy Policy at Queensland University of Technology, got in touch.

Dr Sommerfeld chided Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and SA Premier Jay Wetherill for peremptorily welcoming a battery bank proposal from energy entrepreneur Elon Musk.

 “There is no quick fix and the people advocating re-nationalising electricity appear to be putting forward such propositions without any form of costing,” he told FOMM.

“We are in turbulent times for electricity. We need well-formed policy, not quick fixes or twitter exchanges with Elon Musk.”

“Emerging technology has the potential to transform the electricity market. Yet this same technology may not be accessible to many consumers who cannot afford to pay for it.

Thus, energy policy needs to be carefully nuanced so adverse policy consequences are not repeated.”

He cited a previous Queensland Government policy that resulted in non-solar homes paying for their neighbours’ $0.44per kWh solar feed-in tariffs.

He said residential battery storage systems together with rooftop solar panels are rapidly becoming cost-effective alternatives.

“In policy terms this means people who can afford to go off-grid may be incentivised by increasing electricity prices.”

The remaining consumers will be left to carry the full costs of the grid, a social cost which has to be addressed by government.

The above quandary is called the death spiral. We may already be in it, as the price of alternatives to grid-supplied power is already highly cost effective.”

Further reading

Since my essay, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has proposed a feasibility study for a $2 billion hydro pump plan to increase the Snowy Mountains power production by 50%. Experts were mostly in favour of the plan to use reservoirs and tunnels to pump and recycle water to supply peak demand. But Griffith University’s Dr Liam Wagner said energy security will be more uncertain as water availability in the Murray-Darling basin dries up.

This week, the Hazelwood Power Station owners suddenly announced its closure, throwing employees (who expected Hazelwood to stay open until 2025), into a spin. There’s a debate about whether this will turn Victoria into a small net importer of energy.

Increasingly, impatience and concerns about grid supply will drive ‘consumers’ to develop their own individual, group or community energy policies.

I was musing about this last week as we hunted for candles and a portable solar lamp amid two unexpected and unexplained power outages in our region. We amused ourselves singing leftie folk songs (hums a few bars of Tom Paxton’s 1966 tune, “Where were you when the lights went out?”)

Later I read a story (with my head-torch), about how China has said it will close its last coal-fired power plant.

In January, the Australian Financial Review reported that China has halted construction and planning for 85 coal-fired power stations across the country. Beijing is not just seeking to limit fossil fuel consumption, it is aiming to curb excess electricity capacity and wind back coal production.

So scratch China as a potential thermal coal customer, although metallurgical coal is still in demand for steel-making. India’s new draft National Electricity Plan concludes that it does not require any new coal-fired power stations in the 10 years to 2027 (apart from those already under construction).

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk and a cheer squad of regional mayors were recently in India trying to persuade Adani to go ahead with a multi-billion dollar coal/rail project. The plan is for the Indian company to build a dedicated rail line to extract massive amounts of coal from the Galilee Basin in western Queensland and transport it to a north Queensland port.

There is much controversy about this project, as it involves exporting coal from a port close to the environmentally fragile Great Barrier Reef. Opponents have challenged Adani’s estimate that the project will create 10,000 jobs through direct and indirect employment.

They cite Adani Consultant Dr Jerome Fahrer, who in 2015 told the Land Court in Brisbane the mine would create 1,464 jobs. An Adani spokesman said Dr Fahrer’s figures did not include the construction and operation of rail and port infrastructure.

To be fair, Premier Palaszczuk, who was confronted in India by Australians opposing the new mine, also talked to Adani about their plans for a (big) solar farm in Queensland.

But our politicians, alas, one of whom infamously brandished a lump of coal in Federal Parliament, are still relying on an endangered energy source. Thermal coal is being shunned by countries finally waking up to climate change and man-made damage to the environment.

By December 2016, investment funds sold off shares in coal, oil and gas companies to the tune of $5 trillion– doubling sales from the previous year.

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said: “It’s clear the transition to a clean energy future is inevitable, beneficial and well underway, and that investors have a key role to play.”

Solar/storage is clearly the emerging alternative. But it is still not universally popular, because no-one has worked out how to make ongoing revenue out of solar or spread the cost evenly among energy customers.

Paul Lupton reminded me how Europe was embracing solar. Germany has progressively closed down its nuclear plants and aims to build its reliance on renewables from 30% to 80% by 2050. Even debt-ridden Spain has harnessed solar power, with 29 solar thermal power plants (producing 2154 Mw of electricity), and seven plants under construction.

“So why isn’t Australia using a similar model for much better distributed power generation?” Lupton asks.

Damn good question. And he still hasn’t had a reply.