Pumped hydro isn’t our energy future, it’s our past


Bruce Mountain, Victoria University and Steven Percy, Victoria University

It’s now beyond dispute that — for new electricity generation — solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy are cheaper than anything else: cheaper than new coal fired power stations, cheaper than new gas-fired stations and cheaper than new nuclear power plants.

The International Energy Association says so. Its latest World Energy Outlook describes solar as the cheapest electricity in history.

Solar costs 20% to 50% less than it thought it would two years ago.

Attention has turned instead to the ways to best meet demand when renewable resources are not available.

The government is a big supporter of gas, and as importantly, pumped hydro.

It has backed the $6 billion-plus Snowy Hydro 2.0 pumped hydro project (the world’s biggest) and Tasmania’s proposed $7 billion “battery of the nation”.

Pumped hydro is an old technology, as old as the electricity industry itself.

Pumped hydro is old technology

It became fashionable from the 1960s to 1980s as a complement to inflexible coal and nuclear generators.

When their output wasn’t needed (mainly at night) it was used to pump water to higher ground so that it could be released and used to run hydro generators when demand was high.

Australia’s three pumped hydro plants are old, built at least 40 years ago, and they operate infrequently, and sometimes not at all for years.




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Gas fired electricity generation, whether by turbines (essentially a bigger version of those found on aeroplanes) or by conventional reciprocating engines, has several advantages over pumped hydro including much smaller local environmental impacts and in many cases smaller greenhouse gas impacts.

They can be built quickly and, most importantly, if there is a gas supply they can be built close to electrical loads. There are 17 gas-fired peaking generators in the National Electricity Market, but none have been built over the past decade.

Batteries are cheaper

Batteries have advantages over both.

In 2017, Australia built the world’s biggest battery, but it since been overtaken by a Californian battery more than twice its size and may soon be overtaken by one 150 times the size as part of the Sun Cable project in the Northern Territory which will send solar and stored electricity to Singapore.

Part of Tasmania’s proposed Battery of the Nation project.

In a study commissioned by the Bob Brown Foundation, we have compared the pumped hydro “battery of the nation” project to actual batteries and to gas turbines.

The battery of the nation (BoTN) is a proposal instigated by the Australian and Tasmanian governments to add more pumped hydro to Tasmania’s hydro power system and used enhanced interconnectors to provide electricity on demand to Victoria.

We sought to determine what could most cost-effectively provide Victoria with 1,500 megawatts — the BoTN, gas turbines or batteries.

Partly this depends on how long peak demand for dispatchable power last. BoTN would be able to provide sustained power for 12 hours, but we found that in practice, even when our system becomes much more reliant on renewables, it would be unusual for anything longer than four hours to be needed.

Less than half the cost

We could easily dismiss gas turbines — the Australian Energy Market Operator’s costings have batteries much cheaper than gas turbines to build and operate now and cheaper still by the time the Battery of the Nation would be built.

And batteries are able to respond to instructions in fractions of a second, making them useful in ways gas and pumped hydro aren’t.

They are also able to be placed where they are needed, rather than where there’s a gas connection or an abandoned mine, cliff or hill big enough to be used for pumped hydro.




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We found batteries could supply 1,500 megawatts of instantly-available power for less than half of the cost of the enhanced Tasmania to Victoria cable alone, meaning that even if the rest of the BoTN cost little, batteries would still be cheaper.

Pumped hydro projects are being pulled

Origin Energy recently gave up on expanding the Shoalhaven pumped hydro scheme in NSW after finding it would cost more than twice as much to build as first thought.

Similarly, investor-owned Genex has repeatedly deferred its final investment decision on one of the cheapest pumped hydro options in Australia — using depleted gold mine pits in Queensland — despite being offered concessional loans from the Australian Government to cover the entire build cost.




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The final barrier seems to be obtaining subsidies from the Queensland Government to fund the necessary transmission lines.

Snowy 2.0 is proceeding, for now

Snowy 2.0 seems to be proceeding after the Australian Government pumped in $1.4 billion to get it going, and paid a king’s ransom to New South Wales and Victoria for their shares in Snowy Hydro.

Yet even before the main works are to start, credit rating agency S&P has down-graded Snowy Hydro’s stand-alone debt to “junk” and suggested the government will need to pump more money into Snowy Hydro to protect its debt.

Prime Minister Morrison has said recently that batteries can’t compete with gas generators , yet a couple of days later, his government announced support for a 100 megawatt battery in Western Australia, where gas is less than half the price it is on the east coast.




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Our analysis suggests neither gas nor pumped hydro can compete with batteries, and if the prime minister wants more of either, he will have to dip his hands deeply into tax payer’s pockets to get it.The Conversation

Bruce Mountain, Director, Victoria Energy Policy Centre, Victoria University and Steven Percy, Senior Research Fellow, Victoria University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New polling shows 79% of Aussies care about climate change. So why doesn’t the government listen?


Rebecca Colvin, Australian National University

We will remember 2020 as a year of crisis. COVID-19 hit Australia just as we were beginning to make sense of the horror bushfires and smoke of last summer, a sinister illustration of global warming’s threats.

Since then, the news media has given centre stage to COVID-19 and its cascading impacts on society, shifting climate change to a relatively minor role in our narrative of this year’s crises. So, have Australians forgotten about the urgency of climate change?

No. Polling released today by The Australia Institute shows climate change and its impacts remain a prominent concern to Australians, even amid the upheaval and uncertainty wrought by COVID-19.

Helicopter dumping water over bushfires
The majority of Australians (57%) experienced some form of direct impact from last summer’s bushfires or smoke.
Shutterstock

82% of Aussies worry about climate-driven bushfires

The Climate of the Nation report has tracked Australian attitudes to climate change for more than a decade.

This year, it polled 1,998 Australians aged 18 and over, and found the vast majority (79%) hold views in line with the best available scientific evidence. That is, four in five Australians agree climate change is occurring. This is the highest result since 2012.

An even greater majority, 82%, is worried climate change will result in more bushfires, up from 76% in last year’s report. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the record-breaking fires of last summer and the threat of longer and more ferocious fire seasons.

The bushfire royal commission is due to release its report today, and will likely highlight climate change as an amplifier of bushfire risk. This was foreshadowed in the commission’s interim observations in August.




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The report also showed Australians believe the post-pandemic economic recovery is not a time to further entrench fossil fuels. Only 12% of Australians want to see Australia’s economic recovery led by investment in gas, a plan the Morrison government is set on carrying out.

In contrast, a majority (59%) would like to see the recovery driven by renewables.

Australia: an international laggard

The level of scientific consensus on climate change is remarkable. Urgent action on climate change is recommended by scientists and desired by the overwhelming majority of the public. Yet, Australia remains an international laggard in this area.

The Climate Change Performance Index evaluates 57 countries plus the European Union, which together are responsible for more than 90% of global emissions. This year, Australia ranked last on climate policy.

The reasons include Australia’s absence from the UN Climate Action Summit in 2019, and withdrawal of contributions to international climate funding programs.

For many years, denial, delay and division over climate change was the norm in Australian politics. This is still the case among some media and political elites, and is no more pronounced than in debates over the future of coal in the domestic energy mix and for export.




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Our energy sources play a big role in our overall contribution to climate change, with electricity generation contributing 32.7% of Australia’s emissions.

For everyday Australians, the solution is clear. The Climate of the Nation report shows the vast majority (83%) want to see coal-fired power stations phased out. Some 65% want the Australian government to stop new coal mines from being developed.

Toxic politics limit constructive conversations

For many, particularly those living in Australia’s coal production regions, the prospect of shifting from coal to renewables raises legitimate concerns about their futures.

However, the ability for people and policy to engage constructively with concerns over jobs and climate is limited by toxic politics.

An important culprit is the pervasive “us versus themnarrative that dominates political and media discourse. The narrative repeatedly – but erroneously – signals to people in coal production regions that the rest of the country doesn’t care about them.




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Coal production is also pitted against climate action in the “climate versus jobs” debate. But the polling shows such binaries are false: most Australians do care what happens in coal production regions. In fact, three-quarters of Australians want governments to plans and manage an orderly shift from coal to renewables.

The Australian people, by a large majority, care for those living in coal production communities and want to secure a safe climate.

68% of Aussies support an ambitious climate target

Australians recognise our country can make a disproportionately large and positive contribution to international efforts to mitigate climate change.

Seventy-one percent want Australia to be a global leader in finding solutions to climate change, while 77% recognise tackling climate change can create opportunities for new jobs and investment in clean energy.

While all Australian states and territories have committed to net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner, the federal government has not. But, once again, a majority of people would like to see otherwise: 68% support a net-zero by 2050 target for Australia. This is four percentage points higher than last year.

If we don’t implement meaningful and ambitious climate policy, Australia risks becoming even more of a climate outlier in the international community than we already are.

The Climate of the Nation results clearly shows this goes against the will of the Australian people. Australia has a voting base that will support and reward ambitious climate action. Now is the time for political leaders to reflect this in the nation’s climate policy.




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The Conversation


Rebecca Colvin, Lecturer, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.