Power station vs big battery

Why Craig Kelly is wrong about renewable energy

A recent Craig Kelly comment about renewable energy shows he has a poor understanding. (Unfortunately it seems many of his followers also misunderstand.)

Claim

In a post on 12 March titled “India’s coal use set to boom”, Mr Kelly commented “we are so stupid, we think we can close down our coal-fired power stations and replace them with big batteries.”

Verdict

Mr Kelly’s statement about India’s coal use is misleading. Coal use is going to grow slowly (43% over 17 years), but India’s use of renewable electricity generation will rise much faster (about 600% over the same period).

Mr Kelly appears not to understand electricity generation. Batteries do not replace power stations, because batteries don’t generate power, they store it. Power stations are already being replaced by solar and wind generation in Australia.


Analysis

1. India’s power generation

India is the second most populous country in the world with 1.34 billion people. It generates a relatively low amount of electricity per capita, 935 kWh per person per year. This compares with 3081 kWh average for the world and 9,502 kWh for Australia.

As India develops, it naturally wants to increase its generation of electricity. The bulk of new power in India will come from renewables. While there will be some growth in coal-fired generation, many older coal-fired power stations will be retired.

I’ve seen several estimates of its future power generation (here, here and here) and all show that the growth in renewable sources will be many times that of coal-fired power (estimates vary from 3 to 12 times, over different time periods). This will lead to renewables overtaking coal as the main source of India’s power in the next 10-20 years

Even with growth in coal-fired generation, India will contribute far less per capita to greenhouse gases than does Australia.

A fairer headline for this matter would be: “India’s renewable energy set to boom while coal grows slowly.” Mr Kelly’s headline gives the wrong impression and is misleading.

2. Replacing power stations with batteries?

An electrical grid must have the capacity to efficiently meet the base load demands placed on it. But it must also be flexible enough to be able to provide additional power at peak times, and to continue to meet demand if a power source fails or goes offline for any reason.

It is inefficient to have large power stations generating power that isn’t required, so efficient operation requires that the base load can be supplemented quickly by new generation capacity coming online very quickly.

Australia’s main power network is the National Energy Market (NEM), which covers all states except Western Australia and Northern Territory. 19 coal-fired power stations, which cannot be switched on and off quickly) provide most of the base load. Renewable sources such as hydro, solar and wind contribute to base load. But, because they are able to be turned on and off quickly, they can also provide supplementary power when demand threatens to temporarily exceed supply.

In the future the NEM will be dominated by renewable sources. Perhaps up to 40% will be generated by customer-owned small solar installations. More than half the remainder will likely be large scale wind generation, with large scale solar and hydropower supplying most of the rest.

These renewable sources can provide both base load and peak load, but there will be times when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing over all the network, and so extra supply will be required for shorter periods. Pumped hydro will provide some of this, and large batteries will probably provide the rest.

Batteries don’t replace power stations

Power stations will be replaced by solar and wind installations over time. Batteries will be included in the network as storage to even out fluctuations in supply from solar and wind. Batteries don’t replace power stations, which provide a steady supply. Supply and storage are different things.

But the system will be reliable

Both the present coal-based grid and the future renewable-based grid have to deal with fluctuations in demand and supply. The new renewable-based grid will achieve this using pumped hydro, batteries and (perhaps) tidal or geothermal power. There is no reason why this future system should be any less reliable than a coal-based network.

But don’t believe me, believe the experts, like CSIRO, University of NSW, Australian National University, UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures and Professor Ross Garnaut.

Conclusion

Craig Kelly’s comments reflect a poor understanding of renewable electricity generation and a misunderstanding of the future possibilities and probabilities. His comments about both India and Australia are misleading and obscure the facts.

References

Graphic: Loy Yang Power Station, Victoria (Wikipedia) and Hornsdale (Tesla) Big Battery, South Australia (David Clarke on Flickr).

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