A visit home to Australia is always interesting when it comes to energy and climate reporting in the media, simply because of the controversy around these issues in the country. Australia has been trying to implement meaningful carbon emissions energy policy for nearly a decade and has made little progress.
On this visit, my first perusal of a newspaper highlighted the controversy that exists. The Weekend Australian reported on a recent paper in Nature Geoscience that examined the differences in model and satellite measured tropospheric warming rates. The paper focused particularly on the early 21st century when model warming exceeded observed warming, raising the possibility of a pause in the warming trend.The Weekend Australian opened the article with the words “Climate models were wrong . . . ” and continued with the words “The admission . . . . “, as if there was guilt attached to the finding. This approach sets the tone of the discussion as being negative towards and skeptical of climate science, even though this isn’t the direction being taken by the Nature paper itself. Rather, the paper is about the divergence in model output and observational data presenting an opportunity to better understand the variability of the climate system and therefore improve modelling science.
On a similar note, but at the other end of the spectrum, The Guardian almost gleefully reports a few days after the Weekend Australian that “Hopes . . . . have been dashed by new research.” that longer term warming will be less than expected if based on the temperature rises seen in recent decades. Rather, it explains that longer term warming will be much higher and likely closer to model expectations based on the findings of the paper that they chose to select and discuss.
Both the research papers in question represent different but equally valid attempts by the science community to better understand the underlying climate sensitivity and the reasons for variability. Both papers help advance that understanding and both have proposed reasons why there is divergence between models and observations. This is important work, but the reporting of it leaves much to be desired.
Picking and choosing particular pieces of work and then amplifying one aspect of those stories with hyperbole isn’t helping inform the public on the reality of the climate issue and the scale of the job in front of society to tackle global emissions. It adds to the divisions that exist rather than attempting to bring the sides together. In both cases, the more informed reporting would have been to tell the reader that the science community is building a better understanding of climate sensitivity and the reasons for variability.
The story doesn’t end with climate science reporting; in Australia it extends to energy as well, perhaps even more so. The last few days have highlighted this. It is hard to imagine that something as mundane as a battery could make national headlines, but that is what happened recently in Australia. The central issue is the cost of electricity and the reliability of supply, both of which continue to be contentious subjects.
The cost of electricity has risen sharply in Australia over the last two years, but this has been coupled with supply problems that have led to blackouts in some parts of the country. This has been most visible in South Australia, which has closed all its coal fired power plants and invested heavily in renewable energy. The result is a wind / solar / natural gas power mix, backed up by an inter-connector with Victoria. For the most part this has been a workable solution, but when particular conditions coincide the result can mean blackouts or load shedding by some industrial customers. This usually involves periods of high load coinciding with low renewable energy availability at a time when some other part of the network is under stress, e.g. supply from the inter-connector. The problem is that this has happened enough times to become a major issue, leading to extensive media coverage, finger pointing and public outcry.
The reporting around this issue can be likened to the climate science reporting of the previous week – i.e. overly prone to hyperbole and lacking in basic facts. The solution that has been proposed for South Australia is the rapid construction of battery storage and into this foray stepped Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla). Some months ago, after power supply problems in South Australia hit the headlines yet again, he made the offer to build a major Lithium-Ion storage facility in 100 days, with no payment required if construction was delayed beyond that period. Not surprisingly this galvanized the government and led to a public tender for such a facility.
On July 7th the South Australia government announced that Tesla had won a tender to build a grid scale battery. The project will incorporate a 100MW peak output battery with 129 megawatt hours of storage alongside an existing windfarm, near Jamestown. Elon Musk flew into Adelaide for the announcement, which added to the fervour. What was interesting was the reaction in the media, ranging from support bordering on adulation to downright condemnation. Contrast the July 9th Sun-Herald, where their social commentator Peter Fitzsimons noted;
Oh, how sweet it is. After all the haters, all the pile-ons, all the craven dinosaur politics which maintains that coal really does have a future, the SA government shimmies, shakes, steps left, steps right, bursts through into clear and announces its lithium battery deal.
. . . with political commentator Tim Blair in the Daily Telegraph on July 10th, who starts a near full page article with the headlines;
Charge of the left brigade – People are falling over themselves to fawn over magic man Elon Musk’s battery absurdity but he is just the latest saviour to get the green light from eco worriers.
Neither are energy commentators of any note, but such is state of the energy transition debate in Australia that this doesn’t seem to matter. The controversy highlights the need for clear policy and thoughtful steps forward in implementing an energy transition, irrespective of the reasons driving such a transition, be they climate change, energy costs, local air quality or some combination of these and other needs.
In the case of South Australia, exuberance and some technology bias led to a rapid shift in the electricity system to a point where stability became a problem, which will now take some time to correct. The battery solution isn’t a full solution at all, but one of several measures that will be required to correct the imbalance that has been created. Alongside the Musk excitement, there was also the recent announcement that the government will build additional gas fired generation capacity at a cost of some A$300 million.
The South Australian electricity system operates at around 2-3 GW, with peaks and troughs depending on the time of day and year. Annual demand is some 14,400 GWh, or about 40,000 MWh per day. The initial battery capacity is 129 MWh. The gas capacity can add over 5,000 MWh per day if it operates continuously, or 13% of the demand. While the battery commanded all the headlines, it is clearly not a solution for extended periods of high demand or reduced supply, given that it can hold only 5 minutes of South Australian demand. However, it is an important step in the quest for a more balanced system that has very high levels (often >70%) of intermittent renewable energy. Further battery systems are likely, but a better balance between natural gas and renewable energy would appear to be the more achievable outcome in the short to medium term. It is also likely to be the more cost efficient outcome, given the ~A$100 million investment required (according to a private local source) for what will be the largest Lithium-Ion battery system in the world.