Explainer: power station ‘trips’ are normal, but blackouts are not


Hugh Saddler, Australian National University

Tens of thousands of Victorians were left without power over the long weekend as the distribution network struggled with blistering temperatures, reigniting fears about the stability of our energy system.

It comes on the heels of a summer of “trips”, when power stations temporarily shut down for a variety of reasons. This variability has also been used to attack renewable energy such as wind and solar, which naturally fluctuate depending on weather conditions.

The reality is that blackouts, trips and intermittency are three very different issues, which should not be conflated. As most of Australia returns to school and work in February, and summer temperatures continue to rise, the risk of further blackouts make it essential to understand the cause of the blackouts, what a power station “trip” really is, and how intermittent renewable energy can be integrated into a national system.




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Blackouts

Initial reports indicate recent blackouts in Victoria were caused by multiple small failures in the electricity distribution system across the state, affecting all but one of the five separately owned and managed systems that supply Victorians.

Across the whole of mainland Australia, very hot weather causes peak levels of electricity consumption. Unfortunately, for reasons of basic physics, electricity distribution systems do not work well when it is very hot, so the combination of extreme heat and high demand is very challenging. It appears that significant parts of the Victorian electricity distribution system were unable to meet the challenge, leading to uncontrolled blackouts.

Parenthetically, electricity distribution systems are vulnerable to other types of uncontrollable extreme environmental events, including high winds, lightning, and bushfires. Sometimes blackouts last only a few seconds, sometimes for days, depending on the nature and extent of the damage to the system.




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These blackouts are very different from those caused by power station “trips”, although they have the same effect on consumers. When electricity is insufficient to meet demand, certain sections of the grid have to be startegically blacked out to restore the balance (this is known as “load shedding”).

It is the possibility of blackouts of this second type which has excited so much commentary in recent months, and has been linked to power station “trips”.

What is a ‘trip’ and how significant is it?

“Trip” simply means disconnect; it is used to describe the ultra-fast operation of the circuit breakers used as switching devices in high-voltage electricity transmission systems. When a generator trips, it means that it is suddenly, and usually unexpectedly, disconnected from the transmission network, and thus stops supplying electricity to consumers.

The key words here are suddenly and unexpectedly. Consider what happened in Victoria on January 18 this year. It was a very hot day and all three brown coal power stations in the state were generating at near full capacity, supplying in total about 4,200 megawatts towards the end of the afternoon, as total state demand climbed rapidly past 8,000MW (excluding rooftop solar generation).

Suddenly, at 4:35pm, one of the two 500MW units at Loy Yang B, Victoria’s newest (or, more precisely, least old) coal-fired power station tripped. At the time this unit was supplying 490MW, equal to about 6% of total state demand.

The system, under the operational control of the Australia Energy Market Operator (AEMO), responded just as it was meant to. There was considerable spare gas generation capacity, some of which was immediately made available, as was some of the more limited spare hydro capacity. There was also a large increase in imports from New South Wales, and a smaller reduction in net exports to South Australia.

By the time Loy Yang B Unit 1 was fully back on line, three hours later, Victoria had passed its highest daily peak demand for nearly two years. There was no load shedding: all electricity consumers were supplied with as much electricity as they required. However, spot wholesale prices for electricity reached very high levels during the three hours, and it appears that some large consumers, whose supply contracts exposed them to wholesale prices, made short-term reductions in discretionary demand.




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This (relatively) happy outcome on January 18 was made possible by the application of the system reliability rules and procedures, specified in the National Electricity Rules.

These require AEMO to ensure that at all times, in each of the five state regions of the NEM, available spare generation capacity exceeds the combined capacity of the two largest units operating at any time.

In other words, spare capacity must be sufficient to allow demand to continue to be reliably supplied if both of the two largest units generating should suddenly disconnect.

Forecasting

AEMO forecasts energy demand, and issues market notices alerting generators about reliability, demand and potential supply issues. On a busy day, like January 18, market notices may be issued at a rate of several per hour.

These forecasts allowed generators to respond to the loss of Loy Yang B without causing regional blackouts.

What is not publicly known, and may never be known, is why Loy Yang Unit B1 tripped. AEMO examines and reports in detail on what are called “unusual power system events”, which in practice means major disruptions, such as blackouts. There are usually only a few of these each year, whereas generator trips that don’t cause blackouts are much more frequent (as are similar transmission line trips).

It has been widely speculated that, as Australia’s coal fired generators age, they are becoming less reliable, but that could only be confirmed by a systematic and detailed examination of all such events.

Managing variable generation

Finally, and most importantly, the events described above bear almost no relationship to the challenges to reliable system operation presented by the growth of wind and solar generation.

With traditional thermal generation, the problems are caused by unpredictability of sudden failures, and the large unit size, especially of coal generators, which means that a single failure can challenge total system reliability. Individual wind generators may fail unpredictably, but each machine is so small that the loss of one or two has a negligible effect on reliability.

The challenge with wind and solar is not reliability but the variability of their output, caused by variations in weather. This challenge is being addressed by continuous improvement of short term wind forecasting. As day-ahead and hour-ahead forecasts get better, the market advice AEMO provides will give a more accurate estimate of how much other generation will be needed to meet demand at all times.




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Of course, AEMO, and the generation industry, do still get caught out by sudden and unexpected drops in wind speed, but even the fastest drop in wind speed takes much longer than the milliseconds needed for a circuit breaker in a power station switchyard to trip out.

The ConversationAt the same time, as the share of variable renewable generation grows, the complementary need for a greater share of fast response generators and energy storage technologies will also grow, while the value to the system of large, inflexible coal-fired generators will shrink.

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

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

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Trust Me I’m An Expert: Why February is the real danger month for power blackouts


Sunanda Creagh, The Conversation

It’s been hot – and it’s going to get hotter. Australia has experienced some record hot days in recent weeks and scientists say Sydney and Melbourne need to prepare for 50℃ days by the end of the century, or sooner.

In today’s episode of Trust Me I’m An Expert, we’re unpacking the research on why some of the most disadvantaged parts of our cities cop the worst of a heatwave.

And Chris Dunstan, an expert on energy policy, explains why February is the month when energy ministers and energy operators really get worried there won’t be enough electricity to go around – and how you can do your bit to curb blackout risk.

Join us as we ask academic experts to explain the issues making news in Australia.

Trust Me, I’m An Expert is out at the start of every month. Find us and subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts or wherever you get your podcasts.


Further reading

Beyond Coal: Alternatives to extending the life of Liddell power station, by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS.

Explainer: power station ‘trips’ are normal, but blackouts are not

Additional music and audio

Kindergarten by Unkle Ho, from Elefant Traks

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Summertime.

YACHT: Summer Song (Instrumental) from Free Music Archive

Broke For Free: Summer Spliffs from Free Music Archive

Unheard Music Concepts: Hot Summer Day from Free Music Archive

Ketsa: Summer from Free Music Archive

RT: Sizzling Up: Australian policeman fries egg on car hood in 46°C weather via YouTube

Lateline: Cities need adapt to deadly heatwaves from ABC News

ABC news report

ABC news

The ConversationSeven News, January 8, 2018

Sunanda Creagh, Head of Digital Storytelling, The Conversation

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

In the economic power struggle for Asia, Trump and Xi Jinping are switching policies


Giovanni Di Lieto, Monash University

Donald Trump is flexing the United States’ economic muscle in East Asia by introducing a web of new-generation bilateral trade deals to contain China’s challenge. But Beijing is fighting back by political means.

A closer look at the US president’s 2017 trade policy agenda and its ensuing initiatives reveals a pattern. Obama’s trade policy favoured multilateral, comprehensive and ultra-regional deals such as the failed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, and the frozen Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA). Whereas Trump pushes for bilateral and more targeted deals.

Obama used trade deals, such as one with South Korea, to confront China on the regional status quo. But Trump is reshuffling the cards.

Under Trump, the US Trade Representative (USTR) office prioritises the strict enforcement of US trade laws to counter foreign government subsidies – even if that means undermining the World Trade Organisation and risking trade retaliations.

Trump’s deals in Asia

Beside the deal with Australia, the US has only two bilateral free trade agreements (FTA) in force with Asian countries, namely South Korea and Singapore. In comparison, China has nine FTAs in force in Asia, another four under negotiation, and five more under consideration.

The US boasts it has more than ten Trade and Investment Framework Agreements (TIFAs) with Asian economies. Essentially, these agreements may form the basis for future FTAs or Bilateral Investment Treaties.

This isn’t a trade policy U-turn in Asia but actually a strategic convergence between security and trade.

Previous US administrations have often sacrificed domestic industrial manufacturing to prop up international trade, using it as a bargaining tool to exert security influence over geopolitical partners and rivals. Before Trump, the US openly accepted trade deficits and the rorting of international trade laws as the price paid for advancing its defence policy agenda globally.

Imagine it as a strategic pyramid, with defence on top, trade in the middle and industry at the bottom.

Now with Trump we have a strategic triangle. Industry is the top point, with trade and defence interlinked, on the same level, at the bottom. This evolution is nowhere clearer than in the Asia Pacific region.

Curbing China’s power

China’s goal is to use the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations to accelerate its major Asian infrastructure projects. The most notable of these is the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This initiative promises to compete with the Western-centric World Bank and Japan-led Asian Development Bank.

It’s not an arms race, but infrastructure projects, investments and even humanitarian aid are fuelling Xi’s “major-power diplomacy with Chinese characteristics”. This means clusters of Asian countries are becoming more and more embedded in China’s economic and strategic policy.




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Strangely, Trump’s strategic triangle is making US policy look like China’s, after it opened to the global economy in the 1980s. Conversely, Xi Jinping’s more assertive regional politics is moving China where the US was before Trump – with defence on top of trade and industry.

The US’ bilateral trade moves are also targeting new commercial routes. The US is looking at a free trade agreement with India. This would be a great win for the US, as it would further push India away from the China-led RCEP deal.

Indeed, after a promising start, the RCEP negotiations have stalled mainly because of India’s resistance to eliminating tariffs on imported goods from China. India’s trade deficit with China is on the rise and already exceeds US$50 billion.

A balanced US-India FTA would be a win-win solution for both countries in their quest to muscle out China commercially and politically, especially if it precluded finalising the RCEP.

Adding to this is a recent US trade report which urged allied economies to coordinate an anti-dumping action on China’s industries. This is designed to protect trade secrets and intellectual property rights.
The report pointed out that China systematically:

…imposes requirements that US firms develop their IP in China or transfer their IP to Chinese entities as a condition to accessing the Chinese market.

In exchange for all of this, the US offers maritime security for a close range of key partners such as Australia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. This explains why the US administration is wooing India to join Japan and Australia in a revived trade-security alliance against China, the so called Quadrilateral Security Forum.

This recent Trump policy is a remake of Nicholas J Spykman’s “Rimland Theory” that framed the US understanding of Eurasian power politics during the Cold War years. Spykman memorably wrote:

Who controls the rimland rules Eurasia; who rules Eurasia controls the destinies of the world.

The ConversationFor one thing, Trump’s restoration of bilateral trade shows a clear direction for the US strategy in Asia. Beyond that, the convergence of trade and security policies has the potential to effectively reshape the US as an indispensable Asian power.

Giovanni Di Lieto, Lecturer, Bachelor of International Business, Monash Business School, Monash University

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

China’s economic power is actually a lot smaller than you think


Peter Robertson, University of Western Australia

China’s economic presence on world markets is actually much smaller than that of the United States of America and smaller than our key three asia-pacific allies combined.

In recent years, reports by financial institutions like the World Bank have claimed China is the world’s largest economy. China’s annual gross domestic product (GDP), when converted to United States dollars using purchasing power parity exchange rates is estimated to be worth around US$19 trillion, surpassing the USA’s GDP of US$17 trillion.


Read More: As China flexes its muscles in Antarctica, science is the best diplomatic tool on the frozen continent


China’s size is a good indicator of potential economic opportunities for Australia. But China’s rise is also creating a growing discomfort in how China will use its economic power. In both Washington and Canberra questions are being asked about how to our balance economic interests with these growing political and security concerns.

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As a large country China may insist on a greater acceptance of its own ideals and priorities as a condition of economic engagement. As a dictatorship, however, its ambitions are unclear and may not align well with Australia and other democratic countries in the region.

Likewise China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has rekindled interest in security cooperation between the region’s largest democracies, Japan, India and Australia, as well as the United States through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue.

The concerns raised are real, but are in some ways exaggerated. Specifically, the figure of US$19 trillion is an estimate based on a purchasing power parity exchange rate, which overstates China’s impact on world markets.

This is because the purchasing power parity exchange rate tells us how much money you need in China to be as well off as you are in the US. It is a measure of how big China’s GDP would be if costs of living were the same as the US.

This can be useful, but it is not an indicator of China’s footprint in the world economy.


Read more: Australia is hedging its bets on China with the latest Foreign Policy White Paper


A reasonable measure of a country’s economic footprint on the world economy is how much it could potentially change demand or supply on world markets.

When countries export they have to accept payment based on market exchange rates. Likewise when countries import they must pay in foreign currency based on market exchange rates. This means that to compare China’s market size with the US, we need to convert China’s GDP, measured through China’s currency renminbi, to US dollars, using market exchange rates.

China’s GDP measured at market exchange rates, however, is only US$9 trillion – almost half that of the US.

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This means that the impact China’s economy can potentially have on the world economy is really only about half as much as the US.

The difference in values arises for the same reason that tourists find that their money often goes much further in developing countries. That is if you convert your US dollars to renminbi, you will find that you can purchase a lot more in China than the US, especially in non traded goods and services such as haircuts or street food.

The purchasing power parity exchange rate is the rate that tells you how much you need in China to be just as well off – for example to buy the same basket of goods. It’s very useful rate for tourists and is great way to compare standards of living across countries.


Read More: China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world


But it’s not a measure of how much you can actually buy. In order to measure the potential influence of China’s economy, it is buying and selling power that matters.

The same line of reasoning also effects how we should think about the asia-pacific partnership of regional democracies. The combined GDP of India, Japan and Australia, measured at purchasing power parity rates is smaller than China.

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But at market exchange rates their combined market size exceeds that of China. This is because just as purchasing power parity exchange rates make China seem too big, they make Japan seem small relative to its real buying and selling power on world markets.

The collective GDP of Japan, Australia, India and the United States represents a market that is around three times larger than China.

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These differences are quite significant and they are important because they affect the way we think about the value of economic opportunities and our security alliances. When interpreted appropriately China is a large country. But it still has a long way to go before it can match the sheer economic weight of the US.

The ConversationSo while China is very important, the market size of regional democracies should not be underestimated.

Peter Robertson, Professor, University of Western Australia

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

Foreign Policy White Paper finally acknowledges world power is shifting



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China’s rise in power has changed Australia’s foreign policy outlook.
Reuters/pool

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper released today cannot be accused of understatement.

Navigating the decade ahead will be hard, because as China’s power grows, our region is changing in ways without precedent in Australia’s modern history.

That’s the point. What we are witnessing is “without precedent” in Australian post-second world war history, during the various tremors that have unsettled the region from Korea to Vietnam and beyond.

Despite all of that, there has been nothing in our experience like China’s rise in all its dimensions.

The changing of the guard?

The much-used word “disruption” hardly does justice to the impact a modern China is having on age-old assumptions about a regional power balance in which US military superiority would prevail, come what may.

Starting with the above declaration, the white paper – a year in the making and more than a decade since the last such effort – does a reasonable job in laying out Australia’s choices in a new and challenging environment.

In this regard, we are spared an impression that policymakers are seeking to cling to the old order in which the US was paramount and suggestions to the contrary smacked of agnosticism about American power and influence – even an incipient anti-Americanism.

Those days – described in a 2003 white paper that underestimated the velocity of China’s rise and sought to adhere to age-old certainties about US paramountcy – are over.

Here’s the 2017 white paper on the end of the age of certainty for Australian foreign policy:

Powerful drivers are converging in a way that is reshaping the international order and challenging Australia’s interests. The United States has been the dominant power in our region throughout Australia’s post-World War II history. Today, China is challenging America’s position.

There is nothing profound in the above observation. It’s simply a statement of fact.

What is clear is that policymakers in Canberra are hedging their bets. They cannot be sure the US will remain invested in a wider security role in the Indo-Pacific, and one that will be long-lasting.

This prompts observations like the following:

The government recognises there is great debate and uncertainty in the United States about the costs and benefits of its leadership of the international system.

US alliance remains strong

However, for the foreseeable future the US will remain the “bedrock” of Australia’s security.

Interestingly, Labor’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, addressed alliance issues on the eve of the white paper’s release.

In an important speech, at a moment when Labor itself is debating how to frame its adherence to the alliance, Wong was at pains to encourage a sense of realism about what America might – or might not – be prepared to do in the event that Australia’s security was challenged.

She spoke at length about mutual obligations under the ANZUS Treaty that are misinterpreted as a blanket requirement for the US to come to Australia’s assistance in extremis. Put simply, what is required under Articles III and IV of the ANZUS Treaty is a commitment to consult.

In the final analysis, the 2017 white paper cannot be read separately from the 2016 Defence White Paper. This laid down a reinvigorated commitment to Australia’s ability to assert power in the Indo-Pacific via a significant investment in its maritime capabilities.

Leaving aside whether you agree with spending upwards of A$50 billion on 12 new French-sourced submarines rather than less expensive alternatives that could have been bought off the shelf, the defence paper foreshadowed an Australian foreign policy that recognised a more challenging environment, and thus the need for a more robust approach.

In this regard, the foreign policy paper speaks of “shifting power balances” in an era of “greater rivalry”, and calls on the US to remain “strongly engaged in the economic and security affairs of the region to help shape its institutions and norms”.

The paper also acknowledges challenges inherent in Australia’s policy of maintaining a balance between its alliance relationship and its management of relations with China if both the US and China cannot be persuaded their own interests would be served by preserving regional harmony. The paper adds that “this is not assured”.

In the decades ahead we expect further contestation over ideas and influence, directly affecting Australia. It is imperative that Australia prepare for the long term.“

Our place in the region

The white paper’s emphasis on the need to bolster regional friendships and alliances is a clear reference to moves by the Turnbull government to resuscitate a quadrilateral security dialogue with the US, Japan and India. The Rudd government shelved this on the grounds that it would appear to be a grouping whose aim was to contain China.

In its latest incarnation, the “Quad”, as it is known, clearly has a hedging purpose. But whether it develops past an agreement to consult and perhaps conduct joint military-to-military exchanges will depend on circumstance.

In other words, China’s regional assertiveness will dictate the extent to which Australia and its like-minded partners collaborate in seeking to balance China’s inexorable rise.

The Quad’s critics regard it as an unhelpful diversion, unnecessarily antagonistic to China. Its supporters see it as a prudent step to bring together functioning democracies intent on preserving regional security.

What would seem to be more productive would be a consensus involving the US, China, Russia, the ASEAN countries, Australia and New Zealand in an East Asia Summit agreement on regional security arrangements, much like the Helsinki Accords.

An encouraging aspect of the unclassified version of the white paper (a classified version will use starker language) is that within the constraints of bureaucratic language it provides a fairly direct challenge to China to live up to its commitment to a rules-based order.

So it encourages China to “exercise its power in a way that enhances stability, reinforces international law and respects the interests of smaller countries”.

This implies that China’s recent behaviour does not meet this standard.

Finally, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Australia’s policymakers have more or less come to the view – reluctantly – that US leadership in Asia is on a downward trajectory, and there is little point in pretending otherwise. The question is how fast, and to what extent will China continue to assert itself.

In his introduction, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull sets the tone for the next phase of Australian policy in a way that recognises these realities. “Australia,” he writes, “must be sovereign not reliant.”

The ConversationIf that’s not an acknowledgement of a disrupted security environment in which power relationships are shifting, I’m not sure what is. The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper makes progress in coming to terms with that reality.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

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

Power bills can fall – but the main attention must be on affordability: ACCC


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

The chairman of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), Rod Sims, holds out the prospect of an absolute fall in electricity bills over coming years – but says this will require focusing centrally on affordability, not just reliability and sustainability.

In its Retail Electricity Pricing Inquiry preliminary report into the electricity market, released on Monday, the ACCC says residential electricity prices have increased by 63% on top of inflation in the last decade, with network costs being the major contributor.

Household bills rose by nearly 44%, from an average of A$,1177 in 2007-08 to $1,691 in 2016-17.

Household bills have risen less than electricity prices because usage has fallen, mainly due to self-supply by solar panels.

The report comes as cabinet is set to consider on Monday the government’s energy policy, which it hopes to take to the Coalition partyroom on Tuesday. Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg last week signalled the government had moved away from the Finkel inquiry’s recommendation for a clean energy target.

Facing the prospect of a shortage of power in the period ahead, the government is particularly focused on the need to increase dispatchable power.

The clean energy target, even in modified form, is also unpopular in Coalition ranks.

The ACCC report indicates that supporting renewable energy has been a relatively minor driver of the spiking of prices.

Sims – who flagged the ACCC findings when he addressed the National Press Club recently – says affordability should be the “dominant” objective in policy but in recent years it has come after several other objectives – including reliability, dividends and sustainability.

He said different approaches were needed to pursue each of the objectives of affordability, reliability and sustainability. As reliability and sustainability were pursued, it was important to do it in “the least-cost way and to let people know the costs”.

“What’s clear from our report is that price increases over the past ten years are putting Australian businesses and consumers under unacceptable pressure,” he said.

The ACCC found that on average across the national electricity market (which does not include Western Australia or the Northern Territory), a 2015-16 residential bill was $1,524, excluding GST. This was made up of network costs (48%), wholesale costs (22%), environmental costs (7%), retail and other costs (16%) and retail margins (8%).

Sims said the primacy of network costs in rising bills was not widely recognised.

Since July 2016, retail price rises were likely to be driven by higher wholesale prices.

“We estimate that higher wholesale costs during 2016-17 contributed to a $167 increase in bills. The wholesale (generation) market is highly concentrated and this is likely to be contributing to higher wholesale electricity prices.”

The ACCC estimates that in 2016-17 South Australia had the highest residential electricity prices, followed by Queensland, then Victoria and New South Wales. SA prices were roughly double those in Europe.

Sims said measures the government had already taken – notably telling companies to make customers aware of better deals, and its plan to scrap the process allowing companies to appeal against decisions of the Australian Energy Regulator – would help lower prices.

The ACCC is now looking in detail at further measures, ahead of making a final report. In the meantime, its preliminary report puts forward some suggestions. These include the states reviewing concessions policy to ensure consumers know their entitlements and concessions are well targeted to the needy, and a tougher stand against market breaches.

It says increased generation capacity (particularly from non-vertically integrated generators), preventing further consolidation of existing generation assets, and lowering gas prices could help reduce the pressure on bills.

The ACCC will also look at how to mitigate the effect of past investment decisions – but it notes that many are “locked in” and will continue to burden users for many years.

It will as well consider what more can be done to make it easier for consumers to switch suppliers.

The report says that “an increasing number of consumers are reporting difficulties meeting their electricity costs, and some consumers have been forced to minimise their spending on other essential services, including food and health services, to afford electricity bills.

“Businesses across all sectors have faced even higher increases over the past 12 months, following renegotiation of long term contracts. Many of these businesses cannot pass the increased costs on and are considering reducing staff or relocating overseas. Some businesses have even been forced to close.”

The ConversationThe ACCC’s final report will be released in June next year.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

More than ‘slacktivism’: we dismiss the power of politics online at our peril



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Political groups of all stripes recognise the enormous power of online mass persuasion, one meme at a time.
Fibonacci Blue/flickr, CC BY-SA

Joel Penney, Montclair State University

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


Log on to Facebook or Twitter and you’re likely to see a deluge of political posts – a humorous meme or viral video skewering politicians like Donald Trump, the latest hashtag slogan in response to breaking news, maybe even a social movement symbol as an updated profile picture.

The sharing of political opinion on social media is now ubiquitous. But what does it mean for democracy?

For years, debate has raged about the significance of symbolic, expressive political activity at the level of the everyday citizen.

Critics fear it is simply self-satisfying “slacktivism”. It gives people an easy way to feel they’re contributing to a cause while substituting for more intensive political participation.

Conversely, optimists see a flourishing of civic engagement on the internet that gives people an accessible entry point into politics. If it helps them to develop a sense of political identity and agency, that enables more participation down the line.

These contrasting positions both have merit. Yet are those who take them asking the right questions in the first place?

By evaluating online political expression only in terms of possible impacts on traditional political activity, we risk sidestepping a far more crucial set of issues.

Forget ‘slacktivism’

Myriad organisations and institutions see this citizen-level expression on social media as being far from just a private or personal affair. It is increasingly valued for its aggregate promotional power. The marketing professions know this as electronic word of mouth.

Political groups of all stripes promote social media participation to amplify the reach and credibility of their persuasive messages. Although each individual act of posting, linking, commenting and liking may look insignificant up close, at a macro level they add up to nothing less than the networked spread of ideas.

There is enormous power here for mass persuasion, one viral share at a time. We dismiss this power at our peril.

During the 2016 US presidential election cycle social media soared to new heights of prominence in the political media landscape. It appears we are finally starting to recognise this power for what it is.


Further reading: Trump, the wannabe king ruling by twiat


For instance, controversy over fake news on sites like Facebook has drawn attention to how peer-to-peer sharing can influence public opinion and even the course of elections (in this case by spreading false and defamatory messages about Hillary Clinton that consolidated her image problems). New research has highlighted how:

… far-right groups develop techniques of ‘attention hacking’ to increase the visibility of their ideas through the strategic use of social media, memes and bots.

Fake news stories from websites like End The Fed are designed to go viral on social media.
End The Fed

The so-called alt-right celebrates its “meme magic” in propagating white nationalist ideology online in service of Trump. The pro-Clinton “Correct the Record” political action committee admits to paying people to post on social media during her primary battle with Bernie Sanders. We are seeing the persuasive value of citizen-level political media coming into sharp focus.

We need to reflect on how we each use this power. That involves thinking through the consequences of what we share online and how it can both strengthen and harm democratic values.

The citizen marketer

Sharing political opinion on social media must be understood in no small part as participation in political marketing. Its practitioners have long circulated persuasive media messages to shape the public mind and influence political outcomes.

This understanding calls for a new kind of media literacy. It requires individuals to acknowledge their own position in circuits of media influence and take seriously their capacity to help shape the flow of political ideas across networks of peers.

We should no longer think of political marketing — or its conceptual forebear, propaganda — as something only powerful elites do. We must recognise that we are all now complicit in this process every time we spread political messages via media platforms that we personally control.

Many citizens are keenly aware of their capacity to persuade their peers through their online posting. They have embraced the role of social media influencer. Most often, they focus on trying to rally the like-minded or undecided, rather than winning over converts from the other side.

This citizen marketer approach to political action can be seen as an outgrowth of the more established concept of the citizen consumer. A citizen consumer deliberately uses their spending power as another way to influence the political sphere.

They may, for instance, buy only environmentally friendly products, or boycott companies whose CEOs donate to campaigns and causes that the consumer opposes. Similarly, we are seeing citizens use their power as micro-level agents of viral media promotion and word-of-mouth endorsement to advance a wide range of political interests and agendas.

#BlackLivesMatter forced America to confront racism once more using the power of social media.

There is an enormous opportunity to democratise the flow of political media messages and publicise causes that lie outside the mainstream.

Consider recent activist movements, often built around viral hashtags like #occupywallsteet and #blacklivesmatter. Here, citizens are co-opting the tools and logics of social media marketing to advocate for political ideas that are typically poorly represented in the corporate mass media.

By recognising the potential value of our own grassroots political marketing power, we can gain a foothold in a political media landscape that elite interests traditionally dominated.

Perhaps even more importantly, cultivating a sense of responsibility for what we share on social media puts us in a better position to navigate the emerging digital ecosystem in which these elite actors are capitalising upon — at times even exploiting – our electronic word of mouth.


Further reading: Snowflake model is transforming political campaigns


Know what you are posting, and who you are posting for

Nowadays, major election campaigns and large-scale issue advocacy organisations have professional digital marketing teams. One of their tasks is to spur the promotional labour of everyday citizens to maximise the virality of their messages, whether these people are truly aware of their participation in political marketing or not.

In addition, for-profit political news sites like Breitbart and The Daily Kos have become dependent on social media shares to boost clicks and advertising revenue, as well as to advance their proprietors’ often-partisan agendas.

In this environment, it is crucial that we make informed decisions when we lend our promotional labour and word-of-mouth endorsement to institutional actors and the interests and agendas they represent.

At times we may be eager to act as “brand evangelists” for candidates, parties, advocacy groups or news agencies whose political goals align with our own. At other times developing media literacy might cause us to pause and reflect before we amplify the latest trending political message.

The Human Rights Campaign logo that made the rounds on Facebook.
The Human Rights Campaign

Back in 2013, Facebook users posted a red equal sign as their profile picture to express their support for same-sex marriage. Some had no idea the symbol was the logo of the Human Rights Campaign. This organisation has had a controversial status in the LGBT movement because of its past treatment of transgender issues.

Would these citizens still have posted the image if they knew they were participating in a viral marketing campaign for an organisation that was not universally supported by the LGBT community, and whose message of equality has drawn criticism for emphasising assimilation over radical structural change?

Or would they have chosen instead to amplify an image and an organisation with a different shade of meaning?

These kinds of important conversations can only be opened up if we start to develop a critical literacy of the citizen marketer approach and how it is transforming what it means to be an active participant in our media-dominated, postmodern political reality.

If we see our online political expressions as mere “slacktivism”, a simple private matter, or just having fun with friends, then we become more vulnerable to manipulation by forces that seek to exploit our citizen marketing power to serve agendas that we may not share.

If we become more aware of our position in these circuits of power, we will be better equipped to resist this manipulation.


The ConversationJoel Penney’s new book, The Citizen Marketer, is available from Oxford University Press.

Joel Penney, Professor of Communication and Media, Montclair State University

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

Manchester, ritual emotion and the healing power of song


Samantha Dieckmann, University of Melbourne and Jane Davidson, University of Melbourne

On Sunday, Ariana Grande played to a packed house of 60,000 fans at Manchester’s Old Trafford Cricket Ground, in tribute to the 22 people killed at Grande’s Dangerous Woman concert in the same city two weeks ago. She was joined on stage by pop stars including Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber and Pharrell Williams.

One Love Manchester aimed to counter the effects of terrorism by spreading messages of unity and love through music, harnessing pop as a personal and collective coping mechanism in the face of tragedy. But in troubled times, can music really heal?

The Manchester bombing is the latest in a line of assaults on entertainment venues, including the attack on the Eagles of Death Metal concert at Paris’s Bataclan Theatre in 2015, and at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, last year. These are seemingly inspired by a desire to curtail Western liberal freedoms, and specifically the freedom of women, the gay community and the young people who are celebrated in pop music.

Given the sentiment of the event, Grande drew some backlash on Twitter for performing her risqué song Side to Side. But as she revealed during the concert, she had changed her set list after talking with the mother of 15-year-old Olivia, who was killed in the bombing. During their emotional meeting, Olivia’s mum said that she “would’ve wanted to hear the hits”.

Evidence shows that bereaved families increasingly choose to commemorate loved ones with contemporary songs with which they, or the deceased, personally identify.
An Australian funeral services provider reported Queen’s The Show Must Go On or Another One Bites the Dust were increasingly popular funeral songs. In the same way, pop concerts are built on a known repertoire of songs, which the audience predicts. This assists in the ritual communication of emotion.

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It was music’s capacity to arouse different emotions that allowed One Love Manchester to achieve Grande’s aim for her concerts to be, “a place for them to escape, to celebrate, to heal, to feel safe and to be themselves.” It is now well established that mechanisms such as rhythm, shared emotions and the memory of specific events make music a powerful tool for connecting with other people.

Pharrell Williams’ upbeat Happy embodied the concert’s defiant stance on terrorism, suggesting that fear can be triumphantly overcome through the enactment of happiness and joy. Coldplay’s touching performance of Fix You allowed for the expression of mourning and collective grief.

Robbie Williams led the audience in a version of his song Strong, changing the lyrics to, “Manchester we’re strong, we’re strong”. Cultural studies theorist Graeme Turner has argued that this sort of sharing brings with it a temporary experience of equality and comradeship between many people.

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Black Eyed Peas’ Where is the Love?, inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, has become an anthem for countering terrorism and related anti-Islamic sentiment. It provided the Manchester audience with an emotional bridge to the larger, global community of those affected by terrorism.

The ConversationWe need to do more research to understand how these shared emotions and experiences can be galvanised to create longer-term resilience and solidarity. But for this night, One Love Manchester demonstrated the power of music to heal an urban community and bring people together.

Samantha Dieckmann, Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music, ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne and Jane Davidson, Deputy Director ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, University of Melbourne

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

Europe: The Rise of Germany


The link below is to an article that looks at the continuing rise of Germany as the power of Europe.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/mar/31/is-germany-too-powerful-for-europe