The inevitable decline of coal in Australia’s electricity supply has begun in South Australia, with news today that Alinta will mothball their old and dirty power stations, Northern and Playford, for 6 months of every year over winter. They are the first scalps of Australia’s incoming carbon price, but they will not be the last, with coal generators lining up nation wide to be compensated out of the picture. This is an outcome I am happy with. The point of pricing greenhouse pollution is to drive the most polluting generators out of the picture to make space for the new and better, and that is what we are seeing here.
But what we are also seeing is half a solution. What will replace these plants when they inevitably close altogether and for good? The news reports did not indicate where SA would be sourcing the generation gap over the winter period. My presumption at this stage is that in the short term we will see increased production from the gas generators in Adelaide, one of which is on the efficient end of the spectrum (Pelican Point), and two of which most decidedly are not (Torrens Island A and B) (Check out The Energy Plan for some more details).
Australia has put itself in a little bind. We are pricing some of our baseload generation out of the market with no genuinely clean alternatives. The only technology to fill the gap is more gas which, as recently discussed here, is close to a non-solution for climate change. Lest we forget the very point of a carbon pricing mechanism is resolving climate change, not promoting fossil fuel uptake.
The most market ready renewable power source is wind power. But no serious commentator contends that this is a baseload-suitable technology at any kind of acceptable cost. Even the incremental increases in South Australia’s considerable stock of wind generation will become more difficult in future, as discussed in detail here.
This leaves certain idealistic parties believing that the door now lies open for solar thermal with energy storage to march in and shine a light to Australia’s zero carbon future, starting with the 760 MW of coal replacement that is up for grabs at Pt Augusta (Just a quick aside. 760 MW of solar thermal would require a solar farm 19 times larger than Torresol’s global flagship for this technology, Gemasolar in Spain, using 50,000 heliostats, over around 3,500 hectares. Mere details, I know, but worth a mention I feel).
This belief demonstrates a monumental failure to grasp the political landscape in Australia.
My most recent intelligence has the solar thermal plan for Pt Augusta being priced at around $8bn by the proponents of this idea. Forgetting about whether this is near the mark, $8bn for 780 MW of baseload is extraordinarily expensive. Commerically speaking, it’s utterly dead in the water. Just watch. Any positive noises by Alinta or any other commercial entity extend right up to the point of committing funds and no further. Everyone knows this idea requires the mother of all handouts, many times greater than that of Solar Flagships (which, in case you missed it, has so far been a terrible failure with no funds committed and no projects confirmed. Place blame wherever you wish).
The very likely incoming Federal Government in Australia could not possibly have a more hostile leadership in relation to climate change, led by Tony “I do a very bad impersonation of someone who is not a climate denier” Abbott. The chance of a renewable energy handout from that crowd while they go about trying to undo the carbon price itself is about as likely as catching Abbott and Bob Brown holding hands.
The best case political scenario from a traditional environmentalist perspective is the very unlikely return of a Labor Government. In this case you would have a Government whose political capital on climate change is completely and utterly exhausted, and most likely a Government that is no longer beholden to the Greens in the House. They would (quite justifiably in my opinion) have no compunction in leaning on the successful delivery of a carbon pricing mechanism as effort enough for the time being, thanks very much, and push their luck no further with the electorate by trying to hand over billions in clean energy funding to one favoured technology.
That leaves us back exactly where we started. Gas. The compromise solution that fails everyone (well, except the fossil fuel industry).
It’s a failure of our own making. We must let our decision makers put all electricity generation technologies on the table. Nuclear power is easily the zero-carbon baseload technology most likely to beat gas in a straight commercial battle, provided we press our decision makers to think just a little way into the future. It also happens to typically find great favour with the political Right because it is tested, reliable technology, and when talking about it they get to hang shit on traditional environmentalism for not supporting it.
The sad truth is, they will be right on that one. Oh well, who actually cares? That’s just one less fight on the path to climate stability. Our sincerity on the climate change issue is very easily tested by our willingness to consider all zero carbon options. Efforts to strongarm Australians into the most expensive zero carbon baseload while ignoring the cheapest will not work. This will breed resentment and further polarisation on dealing with climate change when we badly need unity.
The message for those wanting better climate outcomes than gas can deliver is pretty simple. Show your fellow Australians you are serious. Fight for an outcome, not a technology. Demand a truly open discussion on how we can replace our coal with zero carbon generation, with all options on the table.
One more generation of fossil fuel is one more than we can afford.