Grattan on Friday: King Coal is wearing big boots in the Turnbull government



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Labor mentioned Scott Morrison’s ‘pet rock’ during Question Time on Tuesday.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

It took quite a while, but the Turnbull government this week finally “landed” its package for the biggest shake-up of media rules in decades.

The Senate deal was done thanks to a sprinkling of sugar for crossbenchers. Handouts for Nick Xenophon to help regional and small publishers, so he could say he was promoting “diversity”. Promises to Pauline Hanson to put some burdens on the ABC, so One Nation could brag it was chasing “the elephant in the room”.

The concessions don’t mean as much as the crossbenchers will claim, while the rule changes potentially mean a great deal. It might have seemed a tortuous process, but from the government’s point of view it has been a significant win at little cost.

If only the nation’s long-term energy policy could be “landed” as readily.

With the media changes, the industry stakeholders were united, in contrast to the vastly more complicated area of energy, as it transitions from fossil fuels to renewables, via a mixed system.

In another major difference with media policy, the most difficult negotiations on energy, at least imminently, are not with crossbenchers but within the government’s own ranks.

Just as it did in the dying days of his leadership in 2009, the coal cloud hangs darkly over Malcolm Turnbull. And once again, the Nationals are big players in the debate – and so is Tony Abbott.

But Turnbull’s own positions then and now are poles apart. In 2009, he famously championed the move to renewables, via a carbon price, which triggered his downfall. This time, bowing to the power of coal, he has increasingly become its vociferous public advocate.

When the government released the Finkel report on energy security in June, Turnbull made it clear he saw its centrepiece, a clean energy target (CET), as a torch to light the path to the future.

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s CET, with its particular focus on reducing emissions, was never going to be implemented in a pure form. Coal was always set for a larger role than Finkel would want, as Turnbull quickly made clear.

The CET debate should be seen as choosing a place on a spectrum rather than accepting or rejecting a single point. But at the start, even Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce was (sort of) on board for a CET, provided it allowed coal in.

Progressively, however, the Finkel blueprint has been pushed further and further on to the defensive.

The sharpest setback for it came last week, with the release of the report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) warning of electricity shortages in coming years. The government had commissioned the report when it became panicky about so-called “dispatchable” power – power available whenever needed to meet demand – as the consequences of the closure of Hazelwood in Victoria sank in.

Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said the AEMO report “reset the debate”. Joyce invoked John Maynard Keynes’ observation about changing his mind when he got new information – the report contained “new information”, Joyce said.

In fact the “resetting” had been creeping up well before the AEMO report. Abbott, especially, had been hard at work prosecuting the case against renewables.

Abbott – who was deposed two years ago this week – currently has two campaigns running: against the CET, and in opposition to same-sex marriage. He is highly energised and said to be enjoying himself.

On Thursday he was unequivocal. “We need to get right away from talking about renewable energy targets and clean energy targets and start talking about a 100% reliable energy target, ‘cause nothing else will do,” he said on 2GB.

“I welcome these signs that we are moving away from a clean energy target to a reliable energy target,” he said. Renewables always had to have a back-up “and if there’s got to be back-up you’ve got to ask the question, what useful purpose do they serve?

“Now there may well be some circumstances in which renewables in conjunction with back-up measures are economic, and if they’re economic and dependable, fair enough, but at the moment, they’re neither.”

The Nationals’ Matt Canavan, former resources minister who is on the backbench awaiting the citizenship case, has been a very loud voice for coal. The Nationals had the megaphone out at their weekend federal conference, calling for subsidies for renewables to be phased out.

As coal has muscled its way to the centre of the stage, we’ve seen the showdown between the government and AGL over the future of its Liddell coal-fired power station. This battle has a way to go.

At a trivial but symbolic level, there’s been the suggestion that whatever policy the government finally produces will avoid the sensitive “clean energy target” label. Maybe the focus groups are already at work on that one.

Despite the apparent mess, the government believes it can turn the energy debate to its political advantage. This is certainly the view among Nationals.

The strategy involves being seen to do a lot of things – Turnbull rehearses the check list of interventions on gas, power bills and the like – and demonising Labor’s attachment to renewables, with derision against “Blackout Bill”, “Brownout Butler” and “No Coal Joel [Fitzgibbon]”.

The government accuses Labor of selling out working-class people in favour of leftist, inner-city followers concerned about climate change. Turnbull is now emphasising the cost and reliability of power, with emissions reduction referred to sotto voce.

The Nationals are convinced their priority for coal will work well for them in the regions. They say it fits with the two issues that come at the top in their polling – jobs and cost of living.

When Abbott was fighting the Labor government, the carbon tax’s impact on the cost of living was an obvious plus for him. The question is whether power prices and cost of living can play for the Coalition when it is in office. The government and some observers suggest it will.

It does seem counterintuitive. Unless the voters are very gullible, you’d think they’d judge on results not rhetoric – that is, what their power bills are looking like when they get to the ballot box.

On the other hand, the government argues that if it can assert Labor’s policies would bring even higher bills, it can gain a tactical advantage.

Regardless of what the public are thinking, it’s clear that business – the constituency critical for future investment – remains deeply unimpressed with the politicking.

The ConversationUnless and until the government gets to grips with the substance of what needs to be done, the lack of a coherent energy policy will remain an indictment of the politicians and a burden on Australian families and enterprises.

https://www.podbean.com/media/player/fr3g9-72ed6d?from=site&skin=1&share=1&fonts=Helvetica&auto=0&download=0

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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We don’t have a gas shortfall worth worrying about


Dylan McConnell, University of Melbourne

Australia was warned earlier this year that a shortage of gas could create an energy crisis. A report from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) suggested a shortfall could occur in 3 of the next 13 years. The Conversation

This report was widely reported in the national media, with sensational headlines like “AEMO warns of blackouts as gas runs out”.

A couple of weeks ago, in a dramatic intervention, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared that there was a shortage of gas supplies for eastern Australia and that certain restrictions may be placed on gas exports.

But do we really need “more gas supply and more gas suppliers”? In a report published today, my colleague Tim Forcey and I review AEMO’s initial report and its results and recommendations. Our work finds there is a shortage of “cheap” gas, but not a gas supply “shortfall”. Moreover, high gas prices combined with falling renewable and storage costs mean that there are cheaper options than developing new gas resources.

What gas shortfall?

AEMO forecast of electricity generated by fuel source, showing AEMO’s forecast supply gap as a thin red line at the top of the stack.
Author

The AEMO report suggests that eastern Australia face a shortfall in 3 of the next 13 financial years – 2018-19, 2020-21 and 2021-22. The largest gap modelled by AEMO is equal to only 0.19% of the annual electricity supply, or 363 gigawatt hours.

In gas supply terms, this is equivalent to only 0.2% of the annual gas supply. But AEMO’s modelling considers a range of possible scenarios, with a variation of roughly plus or minus 5%, far larger than the possible shortfall.

Just 11 days after the report warning of a supply gap, AEMO published updated electricity demand forecasts. In this update, AEMO reduced its forecast electricity demand by roughly 1%. This reduction in demand is more than four times greater than the largest forecast shortfall.

A day later, Shell announced it would proceed with Project Ruby, a gas field with 161 new wells. This was not included in the AEMO modelling process.

Alternatives to gas

Gas has historically been characterised as a transition fuel on the pathway to a zero-emissions power system. The falling costs of renewable energy and storage technologies combined with rising gas costs means this pathway and may indeed be a detour, particularly when taking into account Australia’s climate commitments.

This is also a sentiment increasingly reflected by the industry, with gas producer AGL suggesting that:

the National Electricity Market […] here in Australia could transition
directly from being dominated by coal-fired baseload to being dominated by storable renewables.

Gas generation generally falls into two categories: open cycle gas turbines (OCGT) and combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT). These two technologies effectively play different roles in the energy sector. Open cycle turbines are highly flexible, and are used occasionally over the year to provide peak capacity. Combined cycle turbines, on the other hand, operate continuously and provide large amounts of energy over a year.

Each of these technologies is now under competitive threat from renewable generation and storage. Flexible capacity can also be provided by energy storage technologies, while bulk energy can be provided by renewable energy. These are compared below.

Energy: renewables vs gas

The chart below compares the cost of providing bulk energy with gas and renewable technologies. We’ve represented the price of new CCGT, PV (which stands for photovoltic solar) and wind as the cost of providing energy over the lifetime of the plant.

The other two gas generation costs illustrated, CCGT and Steam, represent the cost of energy from existing plants, at their respective thermal efficiencies. The steam thermal efficiency is similar to that of a highly flexible open cycle gas turbine.

Surprisingly – and depending somewhat on gas price and capital cost assumptions – new renewable energy projects provide cheaper energy than existing gas generators.

Comparison of energy cost from new and existing gas with new renewable energy generation. The range of solar (PV) and wind costs reflect different capital cost assumptions, while the range of gas costs reflects gas price assumptions. CCGT refers to Combined Cycle Gas Turbine.
Author

Flexible capacity: storage vs gas

The next chart compares the cost of providing flexible capacity from gas and storage technologies (again, taking the cost over the lifetime of the plant).

In this analysis we compare the cost of capacity from OCGT with that from diesel and various storage technologies, including battery and Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES). As can be seen, storage technologies can compete with OCGT in providing flexible capacity, depending on technology and capital cost.

Comparison of flexible capacity cost from gas (OCGT), diesel and storage technologies generation, including battery and Pumped Hydro Energy Storage (PHES) . The range of costs reflect different capital cost assumptions.
Author

Another option, not shown here, is demand response. This is the strategy of giving consumers incentives to reduce their energy use during critical times, and is cheaper again.

What is clear is AEMO’s forecast gas shortfall is very small, and that it may have already been made up by revised demand forecasts and new gas field developments. But the question of how Australia should deal with any future shortfall invites a larger debate, including the role of gas in our electricity system, and whether the falling costs of renewable energy and storage technology mean we’ve outgrown gas.


The short-lived gas shortfall: A review of AEMOs warning of gas-supply ‘shortfalls’ was prepared by Tim Forcey and Dylan McConnell.

Dylan McConnell, Researcher at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.