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SA the lightning rod for renewable energy myths


South Australia’s energy system has become an unfair target for myths and alarmist claims about renewables, argues Ketan Joshi.

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We are all closely connected – through our powerpoints. Each day, from the moment we switch on the kettle in the morning to the moment we turn out the lights at night we rely heavily on electrons. Never more so than in summer, when it’s fiercely hot and we need electricity to power our fans, air-conditioners and fridges.

It’s at these times, when people are consciously reliant on power, that we keep reading alarmist headlines and hear “doom and gloom” claims that our energy system is about to collapse. Who is the unlikely villain? New energy sources like the sun and wind.

The fact is integrating renewable energy created on rooftops and farms, and via large-scale solar and wind projects, into our system poses no threat to grid supply. That’s not my opinion, but the finding of a report put out last week by South Australia’s electricity transmission company, Electranet, and the national energy regulator, the Australian Energy Market Operator. This report is a relatively earnest call to come up with solutions to the challenges that accompany a new mix of energy – but it’s already being re-framed as the warning bell of an impending grid apocalypse.

It’s no surprise that upgrading the hulking, enormous machines that power society is a tricky process, but we’re up to the task. We ought to be looking to the opportunities of change and tackling decarbonisation of our energy system with a spirit of ingenuity and scientific endeavour.

Instead, myths, exaggerations, spurious correlations and downright falsehoods are spread with the aim of stopping change. With 40% of its energy mix already in renewables, South Australia has become the lightning rod for such chatter.

Consider the case of a piece published by InDaily, which claimed: “The reason for the high (and extremely variable) price of electricity in South Australia is our very high dependence on solar and wind generation compared with the other states.” The statistics used in that piece are taken from a single day, rather than looking the long-term trend. That might be because a 2014 Australian Energy Markets Commission report into price trends has already debunked such assertions by looking at how your power bill is calculated. That report shows that renewable energy costs incorporated into South Australian bills are smaller than those in bills sent out in states with no wind power, such as Queensland.

More recently, the 2015 Australian Energy Regulator’s ‘State of the Energy Market’ report shows that Queensland’s volatility (the ups and downs in wholesale prices) was higher than in SA – despite Queensland having essentially no wind power.

None of this, however, has stopped the wild attacks on renewable power. Another AEMO report was leapt on as proof that wind power was reducing grid reliability in Australia. The AEMO report calculated that the withdrawal of coal in South Australia would increase the estimated duration of supply shortfalls from two hours of the 8,760 hours in a year to six hours. Or, to put it in percentage terms, from 0.022% of the time to 0.068%. Media reports that followed presented this tiny 0.046% increase as “proof” of an impending catastrophe. They failed to point out that Australian reliability standards allow for up to 20 hours of shortfall and that’s why removing coal-fired power in South Australia is forecast to have no impact on the network’s ability to meet this standard.

There’s little doubt that upgrading our energy system to incorporate more modern, clean and efficient technologies is a big task – one riddled with political, social and technical challenges. My own experience is that scientists, engineers and technicians are trained to face such challenges head on, and use logic, ingenuity and critical thinking to resolve them.

It’s perplexing that so many commentators seem averse to taking this problem-solving approach and instead seem to work feverishly to jam a stick in the spokes of the work to find solutions. It’s hard to see how they have the best interests of householders at heart who want clean, cheap and reliable energy. Fingers crossed that at some point they have a lightbulb moment, and allow everyone else to get on with upgrading our energy system to a modern, safe and vastly improved network for the 21st century.

Ketan Joshi works at renewable energy company Infigen Energy, as a Research and Communications Officer. He helped set up an operations and control centre to monitor and analyse wind energy in the national electricity market. He blogs here, and tweets here.

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