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Despite neglect at the top, we’re muddling towards low-carbon electricity

Without that degree of certainty – ideally, a plan both sides of politics are committed to – businesses are reluctant to invest. The Turnbull government had such a plan – the national energy guarantee – but its minority of climate-change deniers refused to accept it. The plan was abandoned and, pretty soon, so was Malcolm Turnbull.

Of the three key objectives – security, reliability and affordability – the report rates the status of the first two as “critical” (bureaucratspeak for “a real worry”) and only the last as “moderate-critical” (“not as bad as it was”).

Australians are installing solar panels at an increasing rate.

Australians are installing solar panels at an increasing rate.Credit:

To be fair, coal-fired power and renewable energy are so different in their nature that moving the power system from one to the other – and don’t doubt that this is what’s already happening – was always going to be a tricky business. That, of course, is why decent politicians would be doing all they could to minimise the uncertainty.

“Security” is now “the issue of most concern” to the board. It means maintaining a consistent flow of power at the right frequency and voltage. Failure to do so can seriously damage the system and cause significant interruptions to power supply – that is, days or months, not hours.

The problem is caused by the increasing role of “variable renewable energy resources” (aka wind farms and solar farms) and “distributed energy resources” (aka rooftop solar panels and maybe batteries).

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“Reliability” – that is, the avoidance of much shorter blackouts – is now a bigger worry than it was. It has improved since last year, but the balance between demand and supply is still very tight during the summer peak demand in Victoria, NSW and South Australia.

“The increased severity of weather events, especially over summer, coincides with an ageing, and hence less dependable, coal generator fleet,” the report says.

When we come to affordability, it has “improved slightly over the year for retail customers”. Considering that retail prices leapt by 80 per cent between June 2004 and June last year, I suppose you have to regard that as progress.

Why did prices go so high? Well, not for the reason Scott Morrison keeps diverting our attention to: Labor’s evil tax on carbon, which Tony Abbott soon abolished. No, the report explains that the years of soaring prices were “largely driven by overbuilt [transmission] networks in Queensland and NSW, rising wholesale fuel costs, retail market [profit-motivated] inefficiencies and the cost of a range of renewables subsidies”.

Why did affordability (that is, not price per unit of power, but the size of people’s bills) improve slightly last financial year? Mainly because the average amount of energy from the grid fell as people moved to rooftop solar and also used electricity more efficiently – say, by buying appliances with better ratings.

Now the good news: over the three years to 2021-22, prices are expected to fall by 7 per cent, mainly because wholesale prices will fall as more power comes from renewables generation, which is very cheap. Really? That much, eh?

So don’t imagine retail prices will ever fall back to anything like what they were. And even as more and more of our power comes from renewables, there’ll be a lot of new cost coming from the rejig of the transmission network needed to connect to the different locations of the renewables’ generators.

By June last year, the proportion of the national market’s electricity generated by wind and solar had reached 16 per cent. It’s expected to reach 27 per cent by 2022, and be above 40 per cent in 2030.

There is huge variance between the states on their rate of transition. With its hydro and wind, Tasmania is close to 100 per cent renewables. South Australia is up at 53 per cent, leaving the rest of us between 10 and 20 per cent.

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Contrary to Morrison’s claim that we’re a “world leader” in renewables investment, the report says we’re in the same class as Ireland, California, Germany, Spain and Portugal.

All that’s before you take account of rooftop solar. The report says it’s our high prevalence of rooftop that’s uniquely Australian. It’s now equivalent to 5 per cent on top of the national market’s total generation, and expected to be 10 per cent by 2030.

So don’t let anyone tell you we’re not getting on with the shift to renewables. But, by the same token, don’t imagine we’re doing anything like enough. We need to get to carbon-free electricity long before 2050, not just to do our bit in limiting global warming but because, as the report confirms, Australia has a “global comparative advantage in renewable energy”. We’d be mugs not to exploit it.

Ross Gittins is economics editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Twitter: @1RossGittins

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