Busted: The Baseload Myth

The restaurant in the Bermagui Hotel is buzzing as I enter at 6pm on Thursday 3 April for the Bermagui Institute Public Dinner. Such is the interest in tonight’s speaker, the Institute has raised its booking limit, and still I meet a couple of ticketless friends hanging hopefully by the door.

Dr Mark Diesendorf is Associate Professor and Deputy Director at the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of NSW, and formerly a principal research scientist at CSIRO. He is the author of Sustainable Energy Solutions (UNSW Press) and an expert in renewable energy.

And just days before, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had released a report predicting with chilling certainty that Earth is on target to overshoot the previously “acceptable” limit of two degrees of warming. With a business-as-usual scenario, this means sea-levels rising, and increasingly frequent droughts, storms, floods and other catastrophic weather events.

Dr Diesendorf started with the bad news. Our current government is intent upon a concerted strategic campaign to halt the growth of renewable energies. He cited the almost certain repealing of the Carbon Tax, the termination of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (a body raising funds for renewable energy projects, which incidentally has been running at a profit), and the abolition of various environmental advisory bodies such as the Climate Commission.

The government is supported in its efforts by some elements of the media propagating misleading claims, including that of unhealthy “infrasound” emitted by windfarms, a phenomenon unheard-of in windfarm-studded Europe. But their main claim is that renewables are too expensive and too intermittent to supply baseload power.

But now the good news. It is exactly this myth that Dr Diesendorf’s research has busted.

Over 12 months, hour by hour, his team at UNSW ran a complex, real-time computer analysis of weather patterns, output of commercially available renewables, and electricity demand across the country. The result? Our renewable technologies can provide the same high reliability as the existing fossil fuel-powered stations.

Overseas research groups have conducted similar analyses, spanning up to ten years of real data, and have come to similar conclusions.

Dr Diesendorf’s team didn’t stop there. Using the most conservative projections (from the Australian Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics), they compared the costs of renewables with those of the old technologies. Renewables were more expensive but when the $10 billion of annual subsidies to the fossil fuel industry was taken into account, the difference was negligible.

The conclusion was that the barriers to 100% renewable electricity in Australia were no longer scientific, technological or economic, but purely political: the political power of the fossil fuel industries of the 19th and 20th centuries, fighting to delay obsolescence in the face of the new, sustainable technologies of the 21st.

I had arrived at the dinner with a number of questions but it seemed that they all had the same answer: follow the money.

The current government is set on a course of head-in-the-sand non-action. But Dr Diesendorf sees power in social movements. Already there is a group called Solar Citizens organising public resistance to government policy. And, of course, the disbanded federally-funded Climate Commission was replaced within days by the crowd-funded Climate Council.

Lois Irwin thanked Dr Diesendorf on our behalf, saying she felt reassured that “the momentum of renewables will outlast our current government.” Worldwide, most serious economists agree that market-based approaches, such as emissions trading schemes, will be effective against climate change and economically viable. Australia was ahead of the pack in this regard; let’s hope we now don’t fall too far behind.

First published in The Triangle community newspaper, May 2014

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