03/10/2016 - 14:04

In search of energy policy blend

03/10/2016 - 14:04


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If the Western Australian government is seeking a marketing advantage over other states, it has just been handed one in the form of the disastrous energy policy destabilising the rest of the country.

In search of energy policy blend
Renewables should be one part of the overall energy mix.

If the Western Australian government is seeking a marketing advantage over other states, it has just been handed one in the form of the disastrous energy policy destabilising the rest of the country.

South Australia’s big blackout last week made headlines, and triggered a debate about the reliability of renewable electricity generation. However, looked at through a wider-angled lens, the situation is far darker than one windy night.

Last year it was Tasmania’s turn to have an electricity crisis, when a cable connecting it to mainland Australia was severed and the state was forced to adopt emergency measures, including the installation of diesel units, because it could not generate enough power from its preferred source of renewable energy – hydro-electricity.

Gas usage, which should have an expanded role in south-east Australia’s energy supplies, is more likely to reduce than grow over the next decade, thanks to the decline of existing reserves and government policies that discourage exploration.

Coal, which is widely demonised by environmental groups, is being phased out, and nuclear is a no-go zone on political grounds.

The only source of electricity being actively encouraged by government in all states is renewables such as solar and wind, creating a perfect climate for a repeat of the events in SA, but potentially on a grander scale.

WA is not part of what’s happening. The Nullarbor ensures there is no such thing as a truly national electricity market, despite there being a government body called the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

Rarely does distance and remoteness represent a strategic advantage for WA, but when it comes to energy policy there really is a chance to do something better than the rest of the country.

In a way, what has happened in Tasmania and SA – and seems likely to happen in Victoria, as it tries to enforce a policy of having 40 per cent of its power produced by renewable energy sources by 2025, and Queensland with a policy of 50 per cent by 2030 – is a wake-up call for WA.

Developing wind, solar, wave, and other sources of renewable energy is an important aim, not simply on environmental grounds but also because of what renewable actually means – the fuel source is constantly replenished.

The problem in eastern Australia is that the rush into renewables has been too fast, with the SA crisis an example of what happens when you dump traditional sources of power and swing to a source that has not been proved in extreme weather conditions.

The simplest explanation is that renewables have become a case of putting too many eggs in the one basket; and while other states are driving down the same road, WA has an opportunity to demonstrate its difference by developing a broader and more reliable mix of power sources.

Gas and coal might be politically unpopular today, but they will be treasured during the next energy crisis in the east, especially if most of the states connected to a common grid achieve their aim of sourcing more than 40 per cent of their power from weather-dependent renewables, like SA today.

Another reason WA has an opportunity to stand out from the national energy crowd is that the debate about electricity reliability has quickly become a political football, with sides being taken on ideological grounds no matter what the evidence.

True believers in the SA government, and the environmental movement, argue that last week’s blackout should not be blamed on the state’s heavy reliance on renewable electricity.

Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg disagrees, and repeated a warning from AEMO that a full regional blackout was possible because of the intermittent nature of wind and solar power.

Just as Australia’s states could not agree on railway gauges in the 19th century, or uniform school holidays in the 21st century, so they will continue to bicker over energy policy (with common sense dumped in the name of dogma).

WA is not part of what’s happening in the east, except as an interested observer of an experiment in changing one of the fundamental building blocks of a regional economy by investing heavily in a new source of energy, with all the risks that entails.

If ever there was a time to adopt a policy of less haste, this is it. Investment in renewables is an important part of energy policy. Excess reliance is not.

WA has gas. It has coal, and it has plenty of wind, sun and wave power. What it now needs is a blended policy that delivers the balance missing from the eastern states.



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