• Geoff Russell

Blackout tales

Once upon a time, a fat red-faced businessman called Bill Watts built a power station. It cost him a billion dollars and was soon generating electricity twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. Bill sold his electricity to the grid and was soon paying off his loan. Life was good, Bill's belly grew bigger and his face grew redder as he dined on the finest Wagyu beef.

And then life changed.

He started noticing strange shining structures on local roofs. First, it was just a few, but they seemed to breed like rabits. Solar panels became cheaper. Hand crushed quartz from the coal powered 3,000 degree electric arc furnaces of Xinjiang was rapidly transformed into gleaming shining photovoltaic miracles.

Pretty soon, Bill started losing weight.

It started slowly. He couldn't sell his electricity in the middle of the day and switched from Wagyu to Angas. But he could still pay off his loan.

The second hit was bigger. Balsa wood from Equador, mixed with carbon fibre made from polypropylene, ammonia and oxygen in the US and Japan was molded into exquisite aerofoil shapes that caught the wind as it passed. As they turned, copper coils cut through fields from neodymium magnets to induce flows of electrons; electricity.

Soon Bill could only sell his electricity when the sun wasn't shining and the wind wasn't blowing. But Bill didn't mind. As he lost weight and switched from Angas to Tofu, he became a vegan climate change evangelist; whipping his naked flesh of an evening as he regretted his former life.

But Bill was locked in. The banks didn't really care about his shrunken belly or change of heart. They just wanted their regular payments.

The electricity market saved Bill in the early days. On still dark nights he was the only game in town and could charge what he liked for his electricity. But then Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine and everything changed. He could still charge what he liked for his electricity, but his fuel costs rose.

And then came the blackouts.

They started slowly. More as threats than promises.

The Government told Bill he had to keep running; but that he couldn't charge what he liked. Like the banks, they didn't care about his loans and payments. It soon became clear that no matter how many gleaming and polished panels and turbines people built, there were always times when Bill was expected to generate electricity. He wanted to get out, but couldn't. It made no difference to the Government or the Banks. He thought about switching. Buying his own turbines. But there were already enough turbines to supply 100 percent of electricity when the wind was blowing. So who'd buy the extra from more wind farms?

Soon Bill found himself on a high cliff overlooking a storming sea.

But Bill wasn't a quitter. Perhaps he'd take out another loan and buy a battery. A huge battery. A battery bigger than anybody had ever seen before. A battery they'd sing songs about. A battery that would get him invited to dinner with Mike Cannon-Brookes.

Bill's battery would keep Australia's grid (the NEM) running for 12 hours at peak demand on the stillest darkest night!

As he stood staring out at the sea, he was hardly conscious of the calculator app on his phone and his thumbs dancing through the calculations. His head was whirling with a business case. Peak demand on Australia's NEM was about 35 gigawatts. A Tesla powerpack is 232 kWh. Divide the two and you get the required 150,000 batteries. Multiply by 12 to get 12 hours of storage; that's 1.8 million 4 tonne batteries. At $172,000 per battery he'd need a loan of $300 billion. At which point, Bill's dream ambitions shifted from Cannon-Brookes to Musk.

And then Bill had a second idea; one of pure genius. As he peered into the foaming waves it suddenly dawned on him; "wave power"! An inexhaustible source of energy and easy to change into electricity. "Bugger batteries" he said; waves are the future.

So Bill returned to his caravan, cooked up some noodles, and started to google and calculate. The world's most powerful wave turbine was unveiled in 2021. At 680 tonnes and 2 MW, he'd only need 11 million tonnes of turbines; 17,500 in all. He didn't know the cost, but really, what would it matter? Bill was already on first name terms with Elon in his imagination.

At 2am in the morning Bill awoke in a sweat. His brain was buzzing and his feet were hot. Something was wrong, but he didn't know what. Slowly his waking brain realised what his sleeping brain had discovered.

It didn't actually matter how big a battery he built, or how many wave turbines he built. He still couldn't sell more than a few hours of electricity per day. Some days, he'd sell nothing.

It wouldn't matter if his wave generators worked perfectly. It wouldn't matter if they could supply electricity on demand 24 hours a day 365 days per year. He would still only be able to sell it when the sun wasn't shining and the wind wasn't blowing.

He ran through his list of dispatchable energy technologies. It was the same answer for each. None could ever be profitable.

Bill's Chinese mate Train Vi Qik understood the problem. Train had made squillions of dollars building very fast trains in China. That had happened "just in time" he said. The low rate of car ownership made it easy to fill his trains and pay the banks. He knew that fast trains could never happen in Australia because too many people had cars. It was a similar problem to Bill's, just in a different context. If anything the private motor car created even more problems than solar panels on roofs; precisely because it was dispatchable transport. People want it all. They want panels and batteries but they still want a grid; just like they want cars but still also want trains and buses and planes.

The blackouts will continue. It isn't just because of Putin. The system is broken. We broke it.

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