Sometimes Barnaby Joyce talks nonsense about renewable energy

My father David Leitch was the Country Party State Member for Armidale in the mid 1970s. Later Mum was Mayor of Armidale. Dad, dux of his year, deferred university to join the Australian commandos in WW2. He did that because like so many Australians he believed in the Australian way of life and the need to protect it for future generations. I don’t have the honour to go war but like all of us I care deeply about the future of the future generations, my grandchildren and hopefully their grandchildren included. That’s why in 2006, as the ranking utilities analyst at UBS Australia, a big investment bank, when my smart boss asked me how seriously to take climate change I did the work. Over the past 18 years I have come to see how significant the reality of climate change is. Every ton of CO2 in the air is like a ton of cancer except it takes 1000s of years to be removed.

So to me an energy analyst consultant and awarding winning cohost of the EnergyInsiders podcast, when I read some of the myths broadcast every day by Barnaby Joyce and his allies I feel compelled to respond.

I will not talk about the opportunities for regional development which i think very significant except to observe that what New England doesn’t want the Riverina does. The biggest proposed wind farm in NSW, Delta Yanco, with its $3-$4 bn of investment, better roads, better health care, better jobs skilled an unskilled, the boost to accomodation, to restaurants better communications infrastructure are welcome in the Riverina it seems. Only two objections and the Councils in favour. Similar benefits I suppose as the coal mines and coal seam gas around Narrabri and Gunnedah that My Joyce favours, except that renewable energy benefits are far more widespread, give more land owners steadier incomes. Incomes that send kids to schools, pay off mortgages, pay off the debt on farms.

Rather than the benefits I want to talk about the three fears of the unknown My Joyce amplifies. They are that renewable energy is unreliable, that renewable energy raises prices and that renewable energy hurts the environment and country folk’s way of life.

Firstly in regard to reliability. Ask Mr Joyce next time you see him if it rains when he turns the tap on? The water we drink comes from unpredictable rain and always has. Humans have always managed that and we do it better and better. AEMO, the electricity market operator, spent years modelling the electricity system half hour by half hour out to 2050 under a variety of weather conditions including wind droughts. They aren’t the only ones. There are several respected alternative private sector models that come to the same conclusion. Modellers in the USA, in Europe and even in China do the same for their systems. We all find that a wind and solar system backed up with moderate firming power, say 1 MW of batteries for every 3 MW of wind and solar, and a little bit of gas for the 10 days of the year when its not enough, keeps the lights on just fine. That’s already been shown in South Australia when it was isolated from the grid and still managed to keep an aluminium smelter going. And that was years ago. Wind and solar already make up more than 30% of our total electricity use and with what’s already under construction that total will go over 50% within 2 years. Consumers don’t even notice that. And why should they? It works just fine.

Second in regard to price. It’s absolutely correct that wholesale prices have risen since the ALP came to power although they are now well down from the highs. Mr Bowen was an idiot to forecast electricity prices. We all know that prices go up and down a bit unpredictably. Prices are a signal, it’s their job in life to go up and down. That is the Australian way of life. In the long run it produces the best outcomes. Price are high consume less, substitute, producers get the signal to invest. Prices are low it’s the reverse. Wheat, cotton, livestock producers deal with volatile prices all their careers. Still we also know that once built, wind and solar cost next to nothing to operate. The capital cost is justified by the saving in coal and gas costs. Even in Winter prices in Qld go negative in the middle of the day from all the solar. In South Australia as the share of renewable energy has increased the State’s consumers have gone from having the highest prices in Australia to the third lowest behind Tasmania and Victoria. Victorian prices are low because there is oversupply. The real key to getting sustainably lower prices is to build more supply and use less gas. The less gas that’s used the lower wholesale prices will be. Building more wind generation, and more batteries (5GW of batteries equal to roughly 25% of average power demand are under construction) will result in less gas being used in the evenings and also make coal generation less economic.

Thirdly in regard to the environment its clear that building wind and solar and some transmission will change the look of the areas where its built. Mr Joyce talks about 28,000 km of transmission but in fact its 6,000 km to 2035 at which time all coal is modelled to have exited. That compares with the 100s of thousands of km of wires and poles already built that each of us benefits from every day. 99% of people are connected by wires and poles to the grid and pleased about it.

Personally as a model plane flyer and admirer of technology as well as nature I actually love the look of wind turbines in the way that some love a fancy car but I know I’m different to most. However I will point out that once something is in place for a while you tend to forget about it. It just fades into the background. I look at the Uralla solar farm and I don’t see anything too terrifying. Increasingly sheep are moved into solar farms, some crops benefit from the shade. More than 15 years ago AGL flew us analysts in helicopters over the wind turbines in South Australia. Residents there weren’t too unhappy then and 15 years later you don’t hear too much about the issue in that region. Country residents rightly value their environment and their way of life. I argue that the best way to sustain that is to welcome some investment, to make sure its in the best places and that we all work together to sustain the Australia way of life for our future generations.