When I was recently writing a piece for The Conversation with Corey Bradshaw, I included a line in the draft saying that despite our efforts with renewables “the fundamentals of Australia energy have not changed”. The editor very sensibly sent it back and said, in not so many words “prove it”.
It turns out I was wrong. It’s much worse than I thought. It’s not a situation of no change. In terms of clean electricity share Australia has gone backwards in a big way.
This is mind-blowing. In 1960, when climate change wasn’t on the radar, Australia got 19% of its electricity supply from renewable sources (well, source. This was basically all hydro power). Fast forward to 2009 and the share has crashed to 7%. Before anyone quibbles, Energy in Australia 2013 which lags only a year behind in data has renewables at 7.7% of the total share of generation.
To make matters fantastically, stupendously worse, total electricity generation has grown 10-fold over that same period, with coal growing 12-fold and renewables only 4-fold in total electricity generated. This is the picture of energy growth that is being played out all over again in the developing world.
What this woeful history tells us it that we need lots and lots and lots more clean energy. We need it in Australia. We need it in the world. Bring it on. It also tells us that a fixation with a class of technologies we have labelled “renewables” (such as how fast they are growing, what they are doing, the latest breakthrough, the barriers against them) is akin to putting the blinkers on and shutting out reality.
So, perhaps the next time someone presumes I don’t know what is happening in my own state and says “don’t you know South Australia gets 30% of its electricity from wind?” I will point them to the chart above and say “Yes, and it’s in the wee green bit up the top. Does that look like success to you?”. Or perhaps I will muster a less glib response like this: good arguments for renewables are not the same thing as good arguments against nuclear.
South Australia’s experience (to date) with wind generation is primarily a success story that should be learned from. In ten years our small state (about 1.5 million people, with 1 million in Adelaide) has gone from nothing to 27% generation from wind, with a concurrent reduction in emissions. System wise it has not been problem-free, but in the context of a climate crisis, this is entirely acceptable.
The success has also been dependent on our connection to the mega-market of the NEM (covering about 90% of total electricity in Australia), where wind generation sits at a woeful 2% overall. South Australia has had an ability to trade electricity to and from that market when the wind is either blowing madly or not at all. So do all the other states. Two percent NEM-wide is pathetic. So Australia? Use more wind.
The other success stories we must learn from are the high-penetration nuclear markets of France, Sweden and Switzerland. The article at The Conversation attracted some ridiculous number of comments (347 to date…). Plenty of folk were out to tear us down. Strangely, none of our critics referred to this table…
|Nation||Emissions (g CO2-e/kWh)||% nuclear||Residential price (US$/MWh)||Industry price (US$/MWh)|
All data are from the International Energy Agency 2012 except the Australian price, which is from the Australian Energy Market Commission 2013. Prices have been adjusted for purchasing power parity based on OECD August 2013. (Heard and Bradshaw, 2013)
Large scale nuclear programs work. More than that, they remain the only case studies for effective decarbonisation of electricity in developed nations. Look at France. Highest nuclear penetration. Best prices. Emissions 11-fold less than Australia. Second-largest exporter of electricity in the world. It was all done in 22 years and it sucked up every bit of demand growth along the way.
So, blinkers off. We need lots and lots and lots of clean energy, and we are only going to need more. Support for nuclear power is no threat to market-ready renewables in Australia. This concept is the self-flattery of activists with no basis in reality.
Renewable-only dogma is the enemy of climate action. It bring the uniquely dangerous kicker that it specialises in screening information to make failure sound like success.
The message of climate urgency is deservedly dismissed when the messengers themselves clearly don’t believe it.
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