Before I lay out my concerns about the pursuit of net zero I need to reiterate my own position on renewable energy. In my capacity as CEO of an electricity generator, I was a strong advocate for renewable energy and commissioned quite a number of renewable projects. However my vision was for an orderly transition to increasing renewable energy. If the transition was to be achieved without severe impacts on our economy it seemed to me that it would need to take decades. In my mind the best trajectory would have been the use of gas technology to decarbonise electricity generation, gradually supplanting coal whilst providing the firming capacity required as renewable generation increased. It seemed to me that the transition needed to be managed carefully bearing in mind both the technical and economic impacts on our society. It now appears that our climate warriors are trying to accelerate the transition without due regards for the technical and economic constraints.
Science is becoming a much maligned sphere of knowledge.
Firstly our climate change zealots assure us that it is irrefutable that climate change is occurring primarily as a result of human activity. Yet there are still many scientists (some of which I have quoted in previous essays) who are not convinced that this is the case.
Secondly, those self-same zealots maintain that we can save the planet by flooding our electricity systems with renewable generation. Politicians have seized on this simplistic solution and have run off promoting this naïve response to reducing emissions without proper considerations of the impact on the cost of energy, the reliability of supply or the network implications of their ill-informed policies.
No doubt they have been seduced by the earnest, mostly well-meaning renewable energy advocates who peddle the notion that renewable energy is cheaper than fossil-fuel powered generation. If you install solar or wind-powered generation it is doubtlessly true that the price per kilowatt of installed renewable capacity is less than that of conventional generators. But it is not the cost of the kilowatt capacity of this generation that matters but the cost of the energy delivered (kilowatthours) that matters. Unfortunately the majority of renewable energy projects are wind farms and solar panels that only provide intermittent generation into the electricity grid.
Typically a wind turbine might only generate for 15 or 20% of the time. So even if on a capacity basis the installed kilowatts of the turbine come at half the price, say, of a gas turbine, because of the limited opportunity to generate (and hence provide a return on investment) compared with fossil fuel plants, it is still a disproportionately expensive investment and normally can only compete because of government subsidies.
But more than this, because renewable generation is intermittent it must be supplemented with either storage or despatchable base load power if we are going to guarantee security of supply. To put it bluntly no electricity system can provide reliable supply based on renewable energy generation alone. Most of those promoting zero net emissions seem unaware of this dilemma.
Similarly the renewable energy fanatics who insist that renewable energy is cheaper don’t understand that the attendant costs of ensuring security of supply. Hidden in the cost structure of every renewable project is the necessity to factor in the cost of back-up generation when the renewable plant is inactive.
Another cost associated with renewable projects is the cost of connecting them to the electricity grid. Many renewable generation assets are remote from major electricity users. Consequently transmission lines have to be constructed to connect them to the electricity grid.
(The new Labor government is proposing to spend billions of dollars to extend the transmission network to facilitate the connection of renewable generation projects. This will serve to hide some of the costs of renewable projects. It is in effect another government subsidy in favour of renewables.)
The new Labor government in pursuit of the net zero Nirvana has also promised to legislate a 43% cut in CO2 emissions by 2030. At the same time they are promising lower electricity prices ($275 less per household per annum by 2025 and $400 less by the end of the decade). We might reasonably ask how is that to be achieved.
Apparently the government is intending to rely on increasing renewable generation capacity as a large part of achieving this idealistic end. Experience around the world would lead me to believe that this is a pipe dream.
The European country leading the renewable push is Germany. Germany closed down its nuclear power stations and its coal fired power stations increasing its reliance on renewables. Its firming capacity is provided by gas generation. Paradoxically its major gas supplier is Russia. This unfortunate combination of generation sources has seen Germany’s electricity prices double in the last few years putting its manufacturing industry in extreme jeopardy. And despite (or more likely because of) its amazing appetite for renewable energy, Germany has the highest electricity costs in Europe.
(A minority of European countries have prospered through renewable energy and that is because their prime source of renewable energy is hydro-electricity. Unlike solar and wind power, hydro, because of its ability to store the water in dams that ultimately generates the electricity, does not produce intermittently and therefore becomes part of the despatchable energy that the system can rely on to meet demand.)
Boris Johnson, a seemingly newly converted climate zealot, committed the UK to a net zero emissions target by 2050 at the recent Glasgow COP. But with underperformance of its wind farms and rising gas prices it is now recommissioning mothballed coal fired plant and even reopening coal mines. On the back of this he has made noises about a pause in the frenetic pursuit of net zero by 2050.
There is growing evidence about how security of supply is compromised by the rush to renewables. Texas recently experienced blackouts when renewable energy generation failed to meet the demand. Several years ago South Australia suffered a similar fate. Large parts of Europe also were rendered vulnerable in the last twelve months due to a so-called “wind drought”.
Another factor influencing security of supply is that increasing levels of renewable generation are causing coal-fired plant that was designed to run as baseload to take on more onerous cycling roles for which they were not designed. Basically, baseload plant was designed to stay on line for long periods of time. They would run at full capacity during peak load and while they reduced generation off-peak they still stayed on line. Because renewable generation is now prioritised, much of this plant which was previously baseload now shuts down outside of peak demand. Without getting too technical, this has two deleterious effects. Firstly running this plant in such a way greatly increases its cost of generation. Secondly this more onerous duty cycle results in maintenance issues that reduce the availability of such plant and increases the costs of having such plant available to back up intermittent renewable generation.
It is not hard to see that there are no substantial price signals to encourage investors to augment base load generation. There are currently talks about instituting a capacity market that would provide incentives for maintaining and enhancing back-up generation. But there are already protests from the champions of renewables generation that this might (horror of horrors) encourage investment in fossil fuel plat.
In many respects the pursuit of net zero is only a luxury permitted wealthy developed countries. Underdeveloped countries are striving to get access to the cheapest energy they can source to lever themselves out of poverty.
I vividly remember my own enlightenment moment on this subject. Twenty odd years ago I flew to Seoul to negotiate a deal with a prominent South Korean company. They had heard of our efforts to promote renewable energy projects. I was asked what our motivation was to pursue such (then) unfashionable projects. I replied that we were concerned about possible climate change. They shook their heads and pronounced that climate change was an artifice being promoted by developed countries to prevent developing countries from attaining the same standard of living as we enjoyed.
And there is no doubt that however you look at it that climate change responses do indeed impact on international wealth distribution. Can you imagine developing countries being concerned about their contribution to global CO2 emissions when their populations are still cooking on dung fires and have no electric light at night? Surely any cost benefit analysis will show that human well-being is more advanced by these people gaining electricity supply than by curtailing their CO2 emissions.
Mark Mills, an energy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, writing in late2020 reported:
The world has collectively deployed more than $US 2 trillion for alternative energy over the past decade and the share of the world’s energy coming from hydrocarbons has declined about 2 percentage points from 86% to 84%.
As I write this essay we are being told that it is probable that those on the Eastern seaboard of Australia could expect load shedding. One of the contributing factors is what I have discussed above ie there is not sufficient price incentive for base load generation to support the renewable energy dominated electricity system. The latest news bulletin reports that the electricity market has been suspended and that moves are afoot for the Australian Energy Market Operator to compel generators to ensure sufficient back-up generation is scheduled. In essence, I would argue, the push for renewables has destroyed an orderly electricity market.
I would like now to finish with a number of conclusions that are likely to be unpopular with the renewable energy zealots.
- The undue support of renewable energy has distorted the electricity market to the extent that optimal supply outcomes have been abandoned. But the Energy Minister, Chris Bowen, assures us that the only solution is to double our efforts to invest in renewable generation.
- The undue costs and supply impacts are such that net zero is probably unattainable in this country and all developed countries. New developments in renewables technology may make it feasible at some stage in the future. Until then any slim hope of attaining net zero is dependent on the proliferation of nuclear generation. But the aforesaid Energy Minister declares that the pursuit of nuclear energy is “a joke”.
- With respect to developing countries, I think it is almost immoral that we should seek to lecture them on zero net emissions from our privileged position whilst they are still struggling to provide essential services that we take for granted.
We will no doubt muddle through the current energy crisis. But the policy objectives of the Labor government are not conducive to either securing our energy supply or ensuring low cost energy outcomes.
And, despite the best efforts of the climate catastrophists, net zero emissions by 2050 is a most unlikely outcome.