One day I expect to pick up a Murdoch newspaper and see a prominent and strident opinion piece proclaiming that the world is actually flat, not round. Or that gravity is actually just a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government to make sure that people feel grounded.
In the interim, we pick up the Murdoch media and have to wade through scientific bollocks of another type: that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the United Nations to keep everyone poor and subdued. Or that wind energy and solar energy are not really things at all. They don’t even work.
The latest came this week – and not for the first time – from Keith De Lacy, a former Queensland Labor state treasurer. His article is entitled :”Solar and wind simply don’t work, not here, not anywhere”. It proves that you don’t have to be a member of the conservative parties to believe and spread such tosh. But it does help if, like the 76-year-old De Lacy, you are in the right wing of your party and want to defend the fossil fuel industry.
De Lacy’s piece, like so many others published by the Murdoch media on renewables and climate change, works on a single principle. The more lies you tell about the subject, and the more “facts” you turn, the more impressive it might sound. It is a strategy nicknamed FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt. It is certainly designed to take a long time to repudiate.
But that is what we have done. With the help of Craig Morris from Renewables International, who pitches in on some of the nonsense that De Lacy has written about Europe and elsewhere, we have gone through the article piece by piece, myth by myth, fossil fuel fantasy by fossil fuel fantasy.
Before we give Morris the floor, there is one particular element of his article that draws interest: “Have you ever seen an industry that so believed its propaganda?” de Lacy asks, in reference to renewables.
Yes, the fossil fuel industry.
Remember the “clean coal” meme, and the line that coal is the only way to solve global poverty? Of course you do, because it is still parroted by the federal government, and even the NSW Coalition government, which is investing yet more into the CCS boondoggole.
De Lacy is a former chairman of what was Australia’s biggest independent coal miner, Macarthur Coal, which was sold for a fortune to the world’s largest coal miner, Peabody Coal. It was a great deal for Macarthur shareholders and a lousy one for Peabody. But at Peabody, they didn’t just not believe in the science, they acted against it. And they didn’t read the signs.
Just last year, de Lacy was still proclaiming that the industry would turn around, that Peabody had a great future. A few months later and Peabody filed for bankruptcy. There is a general admission that the coal industry is in structural decline, never to recover. Hence the screaming and railing of coal industry refugees, and climate change skeptics, and their new attachment to the nuclear bandwagon.
De Lacy reproduces the same myths that are constantly circulated in the Murdoch and other conservative media – as well as among coal and nuclear advocates about renewables.
There is this: “Every kilowatt has to be backed up by conventional power, dreaded fossil fuels …. So we have two capital spends for the same output — one for the renewable and one for the conventional back-up.”
Um, no. Every power system needs back-up, whether it is coal, nuclear, gas or renewables. If a big nuclear power plant is built, say the Hinkley C reactor in UK, it needs a significant amount of new back-up in case it goes suddenly off-line. The UK’s National Grid estimates this cost at about $12 billion. South Australia has reached nearly 50 per cent wind and solar without the need for extra back-up, because it had already been built to back up existing fossil fuels.
“When they eulogise the future of renewables they point to targets, or to costly investments, never to the real contribution to supply.”
That’s not right, either. Most policies framed by governments have a specific contribution in mind. The 50 per cent targets by various state Labor governments, the 100 per cent targets by the ACT, the 90 per cent target by the Greens. And there are the 100 per cent scenarios canvassed by many, including the Australian Energy Market Operator. Yes, the AEMO, wind and solar do work.
We’ll hand over to Morris for the next installment, to address some of De Lacy’s ridiculous claims on the international markets.
Australia, Morris notes, is in the midst of an extended discussion about the country’s energy future. “The timing is bad for critics of renewables, who increasingly have to pick their stats carefully. But not every number from the past applies to the future.
“An opinion piece entitled “Solar and wind power simply don’t work — not here, not anywhere” in The Australian shows the hopelessness of fighting wind and solar. Before we get to specifics, one general comment: we should be wary of articles that jump around from “country A pays too much for Y” to “people can’t pay their bills in country B” to something else in country C. That’s a clear sign of cherry-picking. What does Y cost in A, B, and C? How many people are behind on their utility bills in all three countries? Now we can begin to make assessments, not before.
“Below are some of the statements followed by… facts, supported with sources!
Germany has spent $US100bn on solar technology and it represents less than 1 per cent of their electricity supply.
Skeptics said Germany’s switch to renewables would make the country reliant upon power imports, but the opposite has happened – because wind and solar can grow really, really quickly.
I’m not sure where the USD 100 billion comes from, but let’s assume it is correct. Still, comparing the upfront cost of solar to one year’s power production is misleading. Solar panels have 25-year performance warranties, no fuel costs, and very low O&M. So compare, if you want, 25 years of power production, not one, to the upfront cost. Furthermore, the cost of solar has plummeted, so to compare historic PV prices to current ones, you need to divide by 3, say, for 2006 prices vs 2016. Early investments were made to bring prices down. As US clean tech expert Hal Harvey put it, with their early commitment the Germans were “not really buying power — they were buying price decline.”It is reported electricity prices in Germany, Spain and the UK increased by 78 per cent, 111 per cent and 133 per cent between 2005 and 2014 as they forced additional renewable capacity into their electricity markets. Retail prices in Germany are up, wholesale (industry) power prices are down. For Germany, only half of the increase is due to the renewables surcharge, only half of which is in turn directly attributable to the price of green power. We went from 6% green power in 2000 to 33% last year as a share of demand (excluding exports).
China built one new coal-fired power plant every week in 2014, and India’s coal-powered investment in that same year equalled the total electricity capacity of NSW and Queensland.
MW ≠ MWh. The plants were built, but they are running at lower capacity (less gen). China has reportedly reached peak coal. The word from China is that “fossil fuel subsidies” have lead to overcapacity. Analysts say China has 100 GW of excess coal capacity alone.
The good news, it is possible to reduce fossil fuel use in electricity generation — through hydro-electricity and nuclear fuel. Plenty of countries have done it — Canada 60 per cent hydro and 15 per cent nuclear; Sweden 45 per cent hydro and 48 per cent nuclear; Switzerland 54 per cent hydro and 41 per cent nuclear; France 11 per cent hydro and 79 per cent nuclear.
Hydropower and nuclear – now that I think about it, that does sound like the best combination for Australia, especially given its massive untapped hydropower potential!
Otherwise…. ah, the past. Yes, governments threw cash at nuclear for decades and doubted that wind and solar would work. But all of the countries listed above are having trouble adding new nuclear at anywhere near the rate art which they are building solar and wind. France has not added a reactor since 2000. It aimed to build 170 by then but only reached a third of that level. All of these facts are available for free online.
So the real story is that wind and solar grow faster than anyone ever expected, almost uncontrollably, generally surpassing targets, while nuclear has never met any target set anywhere.
And now, some opinions of my own: France now aims to reduce its reliance on nuclear further, though I predict it will fail because its reliance on nuclear is too great – France will remain committed to nuclear until there is a meltdown.
Sweden will likely remove more nuclear than it adds from here on out, despite the recent confusing policy announcements that not even the Swedes understand (let’s just say the country agreed to go 100% renewable and build new nuclear). If the present is any indication of the future, the Swedes will struggle to control the former and fail to build the latter.
Finally, this one:
The Germans are rueing the day they decided to save the world by converting to solar and wind.
We should add something on De Lacy’s claims that “as of 2013 California was the only state to adopt a feed-in tariff for solar power.” Actually, there are 44 states, most of them with what the Americans call “net metering”, which is when households receive the same amount for solar as their retail rate.
As for utility-scale solar plants, recent tenders in the US have shown bids of just US4c/kWh. Even if you back out the tax break, it still comes up to 6c/kWh, locked in for 20 years. That’s cheaper than coal or gas in the US, which is one reason why solar accounts for more than two-thirds of new capacity in the world’s biggest economy.
A couple of other claims. De Lacy says Ohio halved its renewable energy target. No, it froze them, at 12.5%. The 25% De Lacy referred to was for total “advanced energies”, renewables were supposed to be only half that. Sure, challenges to state-based renewables targets have been made in many states, funded by the climate-denying, coal mining Koch Bros, but most have resisted. In California, New York and elsewhere, the targets have been lifted.
De Lacy then goes on to the usual scare campaign about loss of jobs, manufacturing, etc, etc, etc. As if having an energy industry supplied 72 per cent by coal protected the car industry.
“Make no bones about it, a clean green economy has no place for high-vis shirts,” he says.
Sorry, you are wrong about that too. Here is a picture of the “sod-turning” at the White Rock wind farm in Barnaby’s Joyce’s electorate.Hey, look what they’re wearing!
(Editor’s note: Last image was changed because it was not the Nyngan solar farm, but another solar farm).
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.