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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Scrutiny of energy transitions: is our media up to the job?

Updated: Jul 2

Antipasto - a spicy first course

Who the hell is the Smart Energy Council? My partner Suzanne asked me this recently. She’d just seen ABC Journalist Nicole Hegarty say how the Dutton nuclear plan would only provide 3.7% of Australia’s energy by 2050.


3.7%? That doesn’t sound right” she said.


Suzanne doesn’t claim to know anything about energy and, frankly, doesn’t know her gigawatts from terawatts.


It isn’t.”, I said; confident enough to pontificate before even checking the data.


Before long, this claim was all over the place.


It got into the ABC News website in a piece by Tom Crowley.


“Estimates from experts have put the amount of power able to be generated by seven nuclear sites at about 10 gigawatts, or less than 4 per cent of Australia’s energy needs.”

Note how Crowley uses of the plural “experts” makes it sound like multiple people have done the maths, making it even more reliable. He could have written “One organisation [Name] set up to advance the cause of renewables claimed …”; but he didn’t.


The claim featured prominently in the ABC Insiders program on Sunday 23rd; complete with a nice little graphic highlighting the numbers; although they said 11 gigawatt (GW) and not 10 GW.


So I figured I’d better check.


A little googling found the SEC press release from Saturday 22nd June, which claimed:

“John Grimes, Chief Executive of the Smart Energy Council, said: “At best, Peter Dutton’s nuclear proposal would deliver 3.7% of the energy required at the same cost as the Government’s comprehensive strategy.”

Okay, so how does he get 3.7%? That’s obvious from the preceding paragraph.

“Under the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) detailed forecast, the private sector will invest the vast bulk of the $121 billion between now and 2050, and will deliver around 300 gigawatts of capacity by 2050, compared to just 11 gigawatts of nuclear capacity, funded by the taxpayer in the Opposition’s proposal.”

There’s plenty wrong here, but it’ll have to wait.


Divide 11 by 300 and what do you get 3.666%. There it is! Can you see the mistake? 


It’s a long time since I was at school, so I went looking for high school science text books on-line, like “National Science Year 8”. I checked the table of contents, and energy looks to be covered in Year 8. So if you’ve forgotten Year 8 Science or didn’t think you’d ever need it, then ask your kids or your neighbours kids, because you should know this stuff. Ask ‘em if you can divide 11 by 300 in this context.


Obviously, ABC’s Tom Crawley and David Speers have forgotten their Year 8 science. And Years 9, 10, 11 and 12. Because they repeat this kind of basic stuff ad-nauseum at school.

That’s the thing with stuff you ignore at school because you think you won’t need it. Not knowing it will make you canon fodder for any propagandist peddling misinformation.

While you think about that, let me continue with the fallout (ok, bad pun!).


The claim also got onto AAP in a story which originally claimed:


“A report released by the Smart Energy Council reveals it could cost up to $600 billion to build the seven plants, which would deliver just 3.7 per cent of Australia’s energy mix in 2050.”

If AAP ran it, a million little “news” services would have recycled it without thinking. It’s not much use everybody doing Year 8 Science if nobody remembers it.


I then complained to both the ABC, and AAP. I haven’t heard back from the ABC, but AAP did respond and did change their story. As I write this, their new paragraph reads:


“The Smart Energy Council – a body set up to promote renewable energy – said a breakdown of figures from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Australian Energy Market Operator indicated that it could cost up to $600 billion to build seven nuclear plants, which it said would deliver just 3.7 per cent of Australia’s energy mix in 2050.”

The offending mistake is still there.


The AAP reply to me basically ran what I call the Andrew Bolt defence. To be clear, many journalists use this trick, it’s just that I first noticed it being used by Bolt during the climate wars of the naughties. The trick is that whenever you want to persuade people of an opinion that is contrary to well established science, you quote somebody else saying what you want to say. Journalists have a code of ethics and aren’t supposed to tell lies, or promote misinformation, but they are very much allowed to quote liars. How else could they cover politics?


They also don’t have to tell people that the quotes are false, or whether they think the speaker was lying. So AAP was concerned to make it clear that they are quoting a group and have added what the group stands for, but the quote still contains the offending mistake. Having been informed of the error, and not having flagged it as such, AAP are now deliberately spreading false information.


All the engineers and any high school physics kids have already spotted the mistake. They spotted the mistake at the very beginning. We’ve all made it. But you shouldn’t make it more than once and you shouldn’t make it as the head of an organisation called the “Smart Energy Council”.


So let’s finally explain the mistake. It’s time to finish the entree and get onto the main course. 

Let's start with a gentle analogy. Think about pay rates. Jill works at OTR and gets $35/hour. Joe also works at OTR and gets $13/per hour. Can I divide $13 by $35 and say that Joe earns 37% of what Jill earns?


I certainly can; and some journalists might even quote me.


But what if I also tell you that Jill is a casual and only works on Sunday, and only when she isn’t playing for the AFLW, but Joe works every day, rain hail or shine. Now think about the total take home pay!


The lesson is that comparing pay rates doesn’t tell anything about total pay. Similarly comparing power ratings tells you nothing about total energy.


Let’s go through it step by step. Saying a power supply is one gigawatt is like telling you its pay rate. It tells you how fast it can dispense energy. A 1 gigawatt solar farm can dispense energy as fast as a 1 gigawatt nuclear plant; but, over the course of a day or year, for only for a very small fraction of the time.


When a person says a “solar gigawatt”, they might mean one massive solar farm covering 2500 or so hectares, or 200,000 x 5kW rooftop systems. Regardless of the form, solar gigawatts don’t work at night and can slacken off during the day without much warning. Wind gigawatts can simply not show up to work for long periods; day or night.


The 300 GW that SEC is talking about in the AEMO 2050 Integrated System Plan (ISP) is made up of solar, wind, hydro, batteries and gas. The solar gigawatts don’t work at night, the wind gigawatts can reduce to a trickle over vast area of the continent for days or even weeks at a time and the hydro gigawatts can run out of water. The nuclear gigawatts can certainly vanish for refuelling, but that is scheduled, not random. Otherwise, they can be counted on 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Dividing 11 by 300 is pretending that all these gigawatts are the same. That’s not smart; it’s false, it’s either deliberately misleading or just a screw up for which SEC should sheepishly apologise.


The SEC press release is extremely interesting for the various other mistakes it makes. It also claims for example, wrongly


“The large nuclear reactors are likely to have a capacity of around 2 gigawatts each and the ‘small’ reactors are likely to have a capacity of 470 megawatts each.”

Dutton’s press release on the 19th June was pretty clear that the large reactors were either the AP1000 or APR1400. These are 1.1 and 1.4 GW respectively. There are no 2 GW reactors anywhere on the planet and we couldn’t put one on the Australian grid anyway. That would be like driving a B-double in a side street. How did SEC manage to get such basic stuff wrong?


The main course: A big gas switcheroo

The ALP has welcomed Dutton’s nuclear direction as a wonderful way to shift attention from their failing energy plan; they particularly value the shift in focus of the long time anti-nuclear battalion of the ABC. Following a recent report from the Grattan Institute called Keeping the Lights on, you’d expect a few journos to finally twig that something was rotten in the renewable economy. But instead, they can all rush off scribbling stupidities about nuclear waste and other non-events; I’ll bet even Three Mile Island gets a run! Button batteries put about 20 children in hospital in Australia each week, but an accident with zero health consequences still gets a run every time the “n” word is mentioned.


Let’s do a stocktake on the current renewable trainwreck.


We currently have around 21 GW of coal generation. We need to shut that down for obvious reasons. If we had 21 GW of nuclear, then that would be easy, but we don’t. Whose fault is that? Take a bow ACF. Take a bow, the Australia Institute, take a bow Greenpeace. Take a bow all the anti-science members of the ALP. I’ll take a bow also, I was anti-nuclear until the end of 2008. Mea culpa.


We also have 8 GW of what I’ll call dirty gas plants and another 4 GW of cleaner gas plants (OCGT/CCGT for the geeks). 


The ISP, which has been specifically tuned to match our current ALP Government climate goals, intends to increase the total gas GW to 15 by 2038 and replace the cleaner gas plants with dirtier plants; dirtier in this case refers not just to CO2, but also to other pollutants. Why? The dirtier gas plants are cheaper. Some countries call these “peaker” plants. The theory is that they don’t run very often, so cheap and dirty is adequate. Why waste good money on cleaner turbines that are only going to be running for about 5 percent of the time. Did you spot the rate vs aggregate trick? I implied that dirtier turbines (things with a higher rate of emissions) might produce more total pollution. You should have spotted this; the total pollution will depend on the running times; which I’ll get to soon.


So what do we need to do to close our coal plants while keeping the lights on?


Firstly, no amount of solar makes any difference.


Secondly, it’s the lowest yield of our wind farms that matters, not the highest. The last month or so in Australia has been incredibly still. Wind dropped below 10% of its max for long periods. In SA it dropped to below 5%! So if you were only relying on wind to replace coal, you’d need at least 10 GW of wind to close 1 GW of coal; assuming you are a gambler. So our current tally of 12 GW of wind can only allow us to close 1 GW of coal.


Batteries, of course, act as turbochargers for wind and even solar to change these numbers.


Or do they? The ISP has only 6 GW of what it calls “deep” storage; but which I’d call “overnight” storage. It defines “Deep storage” as more than 12 hours. 2 GW of this is Snowy 2.0. That might help you close 2 GW of coal, provided you aren’t worried about droughts.

How much coal can you close with 6 GW of overnight storage? Obviously no more than 6.

All the rest of the batteries in the ISP are irrelevant; they are either 2 to 4 hour utility systems or household systems.


Let’s summarise. Everything in the next paragraph is straight out of the 2024 ISP.


The ISP intends to close 21 GW of coal by 2037-38. At that time the plan is for 53 GW of wind and 15 GW of gas. 53 GW of wind will let us close 5 GW of coal and 15 GW of gas will deal with 15 GW of coal. That’s what the spreadsheet says is required. So the plan is basically a coal phaseout with gas and hydro firming; hence the Government’s rush to approve gas projects to fuel that switch. We are currently getting about 10 TWh per year of electricity from gas, with 8 being the relatively clean stuff and 2 being the dirtier stuff. This gas usage will rise during the 2030s and slowly get dirtier as the expensive turbines are replaced by cheaper peakers. Gas use will peak in 2043-44 at 18 TWh. Now you can see that my trick wasn’t a trick, it was the truth, we will replace 10 lowish pollution TWh with 18 higher pollution (not just carbon dioxide) TWh. 


That’s the plan. How likely is this to happen?


During the past decade we have added 8.4 GW of wind. The ISP assumes we can add 34 GW during the next decade, or 4 times that amount ; along with the transmission required to hook it up to the grid. At this point, somebody will talk about projects in the pipeline. They should familiarise themselves with the concept of “zombie projects” … stuff that gets the go-ahead but never eventuates. 


With 60% of the world’s wind turbines being currently made in China, will geopolitics play a role in supply chains? They already are.


Batteries and electrification

Another set of assumptions in the ISP relates to consumers. Namely the ISP presumes they can be motivated to buy not just solar panels but home batteries. At this point I have to point out that using your electric vehicle (EV) as a home battery may be feasible, provided you don’t want to export power back to the grid; the grid is having a tough time coping with photovoltaic (PV) systems feeding onto it. But having EV batteries feeding into the grid will be a step too far and require serious distribution upgrades. 


That’s the thing about the ISP, it’s very selective about which costs it includes and which ones it ignores. And the ISP specifically doesn’t include the costs of any changes at grid distribution level. So if we do need EVs to be managed as part of any grid augmentation scheme, the costs will be humongous, on account of the distribution part of the grid being the most expensive component in our electrical supply system. At this point I should probably explain that the distribution part of the grid is the street level poles, wires and transformers (usually boxes with cooling fins at the top of the poles). The transmission part is the huge towers carrying power lines across the country. Financially, transmission is cheaper than distribution. Here’s that rate versus aggregate principle at work again. The cost per kilometre of transmission is much higher, but most of the kilometres of wires are at the distribution level.

Australians, as of the latest 2024 ISP, currently have about 222 MWh of home batteries. The ISP assumes that we can increase that number 40 fold during the next decade; up to 8.3GW.

Remember, this is the same decade we need to install 8.4 GW of wind.


Can you see the problem?


Suppose you want to invest in some buses. You could take your money to India where there are relatively few cars. Or you could schmooze up to some politician to get access to a very high patronage CBD based bus route. But what you definitely wouldn’t do is try to run your buses in suburbs where everybody has a car. Similarly, who’d build a wind farm with so many home batteries reducing the market for the product?


If the market for a product is shrinking, why would you expect anybody to invest? A whacking big subsidy would help. 


Does the ISP cover the subsidies required to sell stuff to people who don’t need it? Good question.


But back to those batteries.


At the cost given in the CSIRO GenCost 2024 report, the ISP projections mean that Australians will need to spend about $12 billion on batteries in the next 10 years. What will batteries cost in the decade after that? Between 2034 and 2044? They may drop considerably, but any price decrease in batteries won’t be delivered in full because the cost of household batteries has a hefty installation fee that won’t benefit in the same way that big utility scale battery installations do. The ISP could have planned to put those batteries on the grid where they’d be a shared resource. That would have roughly halved the cost, but added it to the total advertised cost of the transition.


Here’s the thing. The Government and AEMO both think consumers are morons. The latest ISP overview contains the following sucker punch:


“Many households and businesses are taking steps to shape their own energy futures by investing in solar, batteries and electric vehicles. If consumer batteries are coordinated effectively, they have the potential to help lower costs for all consumers by offsetting the need for an additional $4.1 billion of grid-scale investment.”

How’s that for a bargain, you spend $12 billion on batteries (and more on panels that I’ve ignored) and you can save businesses $4.1 billion. 


Resource efficiency matters

Can we replace our cars with EVs and electrify everything? Don’t ask AEMO, they won’t have a clue. Why should they? Their job in preparing the ISP was to service the Government of the day. The ISP admits this clearly in its Executive Summary.


Who should you ask? For starters, ask the miners. Everything in our transitioning grid starts off in the ground; except the considerable amount of complex brand new software.


A 2024 report of the International Energy Forum has estimated that, globally, we’ll need to open six new large copper mines every year between now and 2050.


What do they mean by “large”? They mean something producing 470,000 tonnes of copper per year; about twice the size of Australia’s biggest copper mine, Olympic Dam. The Olympic Dam deposit was discovered in 1975 and it took 13 years for the mine to open. In developing countries, opening mines can be slower still, held up by a lack of infrastructure like ports and railways. In the period between 2010 and 2022, the annual global copper production increase was equivalent to one such mine each year.


According to the International Energy Forum (IEF) report, another 1.2 large mines per year would enable a global switch to hybrid vehicles. Another 1.7 (on top of the 1.2) would be required for EVs plus grid storage. The total for a full electrification and net-zero transformation by 2050 is, as mentioned, about 6 new large copper mines per year, every year. In addition to the substantial problems opening new mines, there are problems with falling ore-grades in existing mines. This means we need more explosives and crushing for each tonne of output. Explosives are particularly emissions intensive.


And then there is Plakalnitsa (Bulgaria), Mufulira (Zambia) or El Cobre (Chile). Globally we only produce about 22 million tonnes of copper each year, but copper mining generates about 50% of the world’s tailings. And those three names you’ve never heard of? They are all copper tailings dam collapses with a bigger death toll than Chernobyl. The only reason you’ve heard of Chernobyl is close on 40 years of slick marketing which have turned it into a trigger word. I accept we will need more copper, as well as more lithium batteries, but these are not an end in themselves, they are things we should be minimising. But vast grid expansions and using batteries we don’t need for any other reason but to avoid nuclear power? That’s just irrational shallow slogan-based thinking.


So much for copper. Depending on which battery chemistries are deployed, there will be a mix of other new (large) mines required as well.


Tell people that nuclear needs far less mining than renewables and they are shocked. I once gave a presentation to a room full of people where I detailed the increases in mining required for renewables compared to nuclear. At the end of the hour or so. The first question/statement was “Nuclear isn’t zero emission because of all that mining!!”. Maybe I’m a really shitty speaker and they went to sleep. Whatever.


Conclusion

One of our Government’s climate jobs is to decarbonise the electricity system. That’s a really tough job and no country is doing it particularly well, hence the renewed global interest in nuclear, because we know it works. With nuclear you don’t need to build a new FOAK (first of a kind) grid and new FOAK grid management system, you just plug it in. Instead of looking for all the slow nuclear builds and using these as excuses for not building nuclear we should be looking at the many rapid builds (e.g., 60 reactors with a median build time of less than 4 years in Japan) and asking how we can replicate it.


But instead of looking honestly at the technology options, the Government has been driven by anti-science ideology and vested interests and outsourced the decarbonisation job to us. It wants us all to be not just rich, but obsessively interested in smart metres, optimising when we put the washing on or when we run our air conditioning. Some of us love this, but most really just want to flick switches and have stuff work without a crippling bill.


The Government has been trying to guilt people into buying panels and batteries because it hasn’t done its job. The salt in the wound is also trying to fool us into believing we are saving money by using the cheapest generation, when generation isn’t the biggest driver of electricity costs. Chilli on the wound is wanting us to spend $12 billion on batteries in the coming decade (with close on $200 billion by 2050) so that it can avoid spending $4.1 billion on grid based public resources.


Imagine a Government pledging to solve a massive public transport mess but instead coming up with a slogan: “Get a better job, buy an SUV and stop whinging!”. That’s the Albanese/Bowen model. The irony is that it’s the ALP doing this. The ALP is supposed to be the party for the battlers. Instead it’s the party for people with enough money to put a big bank of panels on their roof and a big battery in their garage; assuming they have one of each.


Will people buy those batteries? I doubt enough people will read my blog to make any difference but there is one huge problem with batteries that will make the 8.3 GW target really tough to hit.


You can’t see them … can’t see what?… the batteries!


Panels on your roof are a conspicuous badge of climate concern; as is an EV. But a battery in the garage? Not so much. Of course, you could put your new battery on a front facing wall so that everybody can see it. But remember to add a bloody big padlock. Alternatively, you can put glass doors on your garage.


On the other hand, Dutton’s nuclear plan isn’t a plan as much as a direction. I support the direction but I want much more. At a minimum 4 reactors at each of the 7 sites and assurances from the Coalition that they are truly on board with climate ambitions; meaning, among other things, sticking with the Global Methane Pledge. We need to also think very carefully about reactor model(s), and regulatory, and building code choices. We also need to educate journalists and the public. We can start by giving all journalists a Year 8 Science refresher so they don’t get suckered by the likes of the not-so-Smart Energy Council. Our journalists and the public have had decades of green slime washed down their throats and the country needs a double course of nuclear misinformation laxatives. But one thing is for certain, the renewable path has no endgame, the issue isn’t whether it will fail, just when.

3 comments

3 Comments


No Time
Jul 02

Hi Geoff,

Are you familar with Ross Garnaut's two books; "Superpower: Australia's Low Carbon Opportunity", "The Superpower Transformation: Building Australia's Zero-Carbon Future" ?

Have you read about MGA Thermal and their capacity to convert our ancient coal turbines into incredibly effective heat batteries, using Graphite and Aluminium scrap ?

Have you read about Allegro Energy and their Pesticide based electrolyte, used within a Redox Flow battery that doesn't need regular discharging or super-capacitors ?

Are you familiar with the Sun Cable, a project Twiggy managed to sink in favour of exporting Hydrogen ?

(I think we both understand the energy loss on that front)

I have been vegetarian all my life.

In my teenage years I recognised nuclear as a…


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Andrea Leong
Jun 28

Thanks for drawing all these numbers together, Geoff. I think it's important to keep at the front of everyone's minds that what Australia is attempting with wind+solar is, as you say, FOAK... for a much larger system than a nuclear power plant.

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David Wise
Jun 28

Spot on mate. Should be compulsory reading for our political class but I suspect that they cannot read past a grade two childs primer.

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