Climate change, power and coal


You may have noticed it’s been a bit hot lately. In fact, if you were born after 1985, you have never experienced a cooler than average month. Let’s just read that again so it really sinks in – if you were born after 1985, you have never experienced a cooler than average month.

The UK Government (amongst a lot of other experts in the field) states that Climate Change is happening, noting that
3 of the 14 warmest years on record have occurred in the 21st century and in the last 30 years each decade has been hotter than the previous one. This change in temperature hasn’t been the same everywhere; the increase has been greater over land than over the oceans and has been particularly fast in the Arctic.
It’s probably stating the obvious to suggest the UK Government is by nature conservative, as the Conservative Party is the ruling party at present. The same UK Government website goes on to list a number of detrimental effects of life (as they know it) changing in the UK as a result of climate change.

Regardless of the date you choose to start to measure from, and the scale of the graph you choose to draw, there is an upward line going to the right. Great if you’re looking at a company’s sales or share price, not so good if you are looking at the health of the world we want to leave for our descendants.

A number of scientists explain climate change as similar to pouring water into a bath. There is a lot of water in the bath and the water level is continually moving upwards. Dependent on where the spout you are using to pump water into the bath is located, there is a reasonable chance that the waves created by the water entering the bath will appear to reduce the height of the water in the bath on a momentary basis at points along the waveform; your brain will see though that the level is still rising. Climate change is where we are continually pumping chemicals into the atmosphere, which changes the way heat is dissipated. Let’s look at the UK Government’s website again:
Rising levels of carbon dioxide and other gases, such as methane, in the atmosphere create a ‘greenhouse effect’, trapping the Sun’s energy and causing the Earth, and in particular the oceans, to warm. Heating of the oceans accounts for over nine tenths of the trapped energy. Scientists have known about this greenhouse effect since the 19th Century.

The higher the amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the warmer the Earth becomes. Recent climate change is happening largely as a result of this warming, with smaller contributions from natural influences like variations in the Sun’s output.

Carbon dioxide levels have increased by more than 40% since before the industrial revolution. Other greenhouse gases have increased by similarly large amounts. All the evidence shows that this increase in greenhouse gases is almost entirely due to human activity. The increase is mainly caused by:
  • burning of fossil fuels for energy
  • agriculture and deforestation
  • the manufacture of cement, chemicals and metals
About 43% of the carbon dioxide produced goes into the atmosphere; the rest is absorbed by plants and the oceans. Deforestation reduces the number of trees absorbing carbon dioxide and releases the carbon contained in those trees.
So what does our ‘adult’ and ‘mature’ government do when South Australia again suffers electricity shortages? It claims that the fault for the outages is solely due to the state’s high (by Australian standards) use of renewable generation capacity. To emphasise the fact, Treasurer Morrison acts like a 5 year old taking his new toy to show and tell by bringing a lump of coal into Parliament.

Turnbull started this crusade when the entire South Australia power supply went down in September 2016. Turnbull claimed that the network was not secure:
Today, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said several state Labor governments — not just in SA — had set “extremely aggressive, extremely unrealistic” targets for renewable energy use.

“If you are stuck in an elevator, if the lights won’t go on, if your fridge is thawing out, everything in the kitchen is thawing out because the power is gone, you are not going to be concerned about the particular source of that power,” he told reporters in Launceston.

“You want to know that the energy is secure.”
While Energy Minister Frydenberg did acknowledge that the September 2016 power failure was caused by a significant weather event, ‘home town hero’ Senator Xenophon claimed that South Australia had become the laughing stock of the nation.

The reality is that the weather caused significant damage to not only the interconnector from Victoria and the national grid, it also caused significant damage to high voltage towers that took power from the base load generation equipment in South Australia around the state, as well as local cables that feed power into people homes. To make it even better, Turnbull knew that the September 2016 blackout had nothing to do with renewable energy.
Turnbull said: “What we know so far is that there was an extreme weather event that damaged a number of transmission line assets knocking over towers and lines and that was the immediate cause of the blackout.”

However, Turnbull also linked the blackout to South Australia’s use of renewable energy, calling it a “wake-up call” for state leaders who were trying to hit “completely unrealistic” renewable targets.

He said state governments needed to stop the “political gamesmanship” that had seen a state like Queensland set a 50% renewable target when renewables accounted for only 4.5% of its current energy mix.

“What’s the pathway to achieve that? Very hard to see it. It’s a political or ideological statement,” Turnbull said. “We’ve got to recognise that energy security is the key priority and targeting lower emissions is very important but it must be consistent with energy security.”
Seems that the facts weren’t allowed to spoil a good story, as this event preceded President Trump’s advisor Kellyanne Conway’s invention of the ‘alternative facts’ term by some months.

Fast forward to 8 February 2017 and 40,000 South Australians underwent the torture, euphemistically called ‘load shedding’ – where the electricity supply doesn’t meet the demand. Intelligent Energy Systems have suppled three graphs which explain the problem. The ‘National’ electricity grid (which doesn’t operate in the NT or WA) works on an economic free market system. The economic theory being that if the demand is there, various operators of the (generally) privatised power stations will bid for the ability to supply power. On 9 February, according to the ABC:
South Australian Treasurer and Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis slammed AEMO for choosing not to turn on the second unit at Pelican Point on Wednesday.

"AEMO admitted that they got their demand forecast wrong in SA, and when they realised that, it was easier for them to load shed customers than turn new generators on," he said.

But Mr Koutsantonis also revealed that three generators were out of action due to technical issues.

"There were communication problems on Eyre Peninsula, which meant 75 megawatts of Port Lincoln baseload generation could not be dispatched into the system," he said.
Yes, you read it right, the market regulator chose to ‘load shed’ rather than ask a South Australian power generator to commence generation. In essence, the market regulator chose to withdraw power from 40,000 people rather than generate more power! And Turnbull claims it is because South Australia uses too many renewable energy sources. Isn’t the Liberal Party the party of small business – don’t they understand how the free market works? If they did (and actually wanted to ‘fix’ the problem), surely they would be asking the market regulator A(ustralian) E(nergy) M(arket) O(perator) why it is not allowing the market to operate?

Maybe there is an ulterior motive here. Remember Treasurer Morrison passing a lump of coal around Parliament a couple of weeks ago? Remember Turnbull’s ‘stirring’ speech accusing Opposition Leader Shorten’s apparent desire to live in a waterfront mansion? Remember the brouhaha surrounding the shortage of electricity in a state that does successfully generate a fair proportion of its electricity need from renewables? Perhaps, according to Paula Matthewson, writing on The New Daily’s website they are all related.
Onlookers may have been puzzled to see the coal passed along the government’s frontbench and then among its backbenchers (in direct contravention of the parliamentary rule against the use of props), but the purpose of the Treasurer’s behaviour was clear.

Mr Morrison set out to prove to agitating Liberal conservatives that, if there’s going to be a change of Liberal leader, he is the man to take the fight to Labor on totemic conservative issues such as coal-based electricity.
There are a few points to note here. Apparently Queensland has larger spikes in demand for power than South Australia does. Surely, if there is a reason to question how individual states manage the generation of power, all eyes should be looking at Queensland!
The vast majority of Queensland’s energy is supplied by coal and gas. In 2015, Queensland had just 4% of its supply coming from renewables, compared to South Australia, which had 41%.

“Clearly these figures show that other dynamics like market concentration and gas prices are contributing to these price spikes and volatility, not the penetration of renewable energy,” McConnell [Dylan McConnell from the Climate & Energy College at the University of Melbourne] said.

While the events in Queensland have not raised an eyebrow, the smaller volatility in South Australia last year hit the front page of newspapers around the country, with politicians and rightwing commentators blaming the state’s reliance on renewable energy, calling for a halt to renewable energy expansion.

The push against renewables was supported by the coal lobby too, with the Minerals Council of Australia saying the reliance on renewables “exposed families and businesses to higher prices, supply instability and greater reliance on imported power”.
The right wing of the Liberal Party also genuinely believes that climate change isn’t happening and carbon pollution reduction processes don’t work! Well, no it doesn’t actually:
Peta Credlin admits the climate change policy under Julia Gillard's Labor government was never a carbon tax, but the coalition used that label to stir up brutal retail politics.

Credlin, the former chief of staff to Tony Abbott when he was prime minister and now a political commentator for Sky News, said the coalition made it a "carbon tax" and a fight about the hip pocket rather than the environment.
And finally, Bloomberg New Energy Finance has calculated:
"Clean coal" plants that the Turnbull government has flagged could get clean energy subsidies, are more expensive than solar, wind and gas-fired power and would lead to higher electricity price rises, analysts have warned.

Support for what the government calls "clean coal" stations - ultra-supercritical plants, which still emit greenhouse gas - would also be at odds with a 2015 OECD agreement under which Australia agreed not to fund any type of coal power in developing countries if cleaner options were available.
What do you think?
Let us know in comments below.

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