Shorten changes the game on electricity

Somewhat lost in the noise surrounding yesterday’s High Court decision on the equal marriage survey was Bill Shorten’s statement that privatisation of the electricity industry in the 1990s was a major contributor to the current disaster. He’s essentially correct, though ‘privatisation’ has to be taken as shorthand for ‘the process of disaggregation and market reform of which privatisation was a central part’. I’ve been over this ground many times, including here and here, and have argued that renationalisation is the only solution.

Unsurprisingly, there’s been pushback from the Oz, which ran a piece headlined ‘Bill Shorten’s power play debunked” with the lead ‘Bill Shorten’s claim that the electricity crisis has been driven by privatisation has been dismissed by business leaders and energy experts,’.

It’s remarkably lame job.

The only business leader quoted is Tony Shepherd, formerly of the BCA, and last seen heading the disastrous Commission of Audit. Next up is Labor deserter, Michael Costa, followed by Jeff Kennett. Both Shepherd and Costa are climate denialists, which instantly destroys their credibility. Costa and Kennett have already had their privatisation policies rejected by voters, so it seems unlikely that their criticism will scare Shorten. In fact, he’s already hit back*

The only serious expert quoted is Tony Wood, but he doesn’t really help the Oz. He’s quoted as saying “Grattan Institute energy director Tony Wood rejected privatisation as the cause of the energy market crisis. He said 15 years of political disagreement on climate change policy and regulated monopolies in the electricity distribution networks were contributors to the current electricity crisis. He also pointed to the fact that in Queensland, the Palaszczuk government in June was forced to order its state-owned power generator Stanwell to pursue lower profits during heatwaves because of spikes in power prices.”

The first point is accurate enough, but the point about Queensland proves the opposite of what the Oz wants us to believe. It’s only because Stanwell is publicly owned that the Palaszczuk government can order it not to exploit the mess that is the National Electricity Market.

Turning to the politics of the issue, Shorten’s recasting of the debate is going to cause Turnbull a lot of problems. He’s made energy a central issue,, and is convinced that it’s a winner for the government. And, having attacked Shorten as wanting to turn Australia into North Korea, they can scarcely leave the privatisation debate.

This is likely to be disastrous for the government. Not only is privatisation politically toxic, but the government has already undermined any possible credibility on the issue with speculation that it will finance a new coal fired power station, along with Snowy 2.0 and other interventions. Once the debate moves on to the real issue of the failure of market reform, the culture war rhetoric on which the government has relied so far will be totally irrelevant.

* We shoudn’t pay too much attention to comments threads but it’s notable that even the Oz commentariat, almost uniformly made up of rightwing climate denialists, is far from united in support of privatisation.

64 thoughts on “Shorten changes the game on electricity

  1. Moz Of course these power plants are old and out of date. So update them. It is like driving around in an EH Holden and saying cars are no good and riding a bike instead,
    Baseload power is critical to our nation and will be for a long time until we possibly transition to Renewable Energy
    Ken Fabian I agree that solar power should be fed into batteries and not to the grid but a good system costs $40,000 and most people haven’t got enough money to last till next Tuesday

  2. @chrisl
    I don’t see how you think you are in agreement with me; excluding solar or wind from the grid would be deliberately holding back the transition to low emissions that has to come and would entrench the fossil fueled status quo indefinitely. Studies seem to show that 40-50% intermittent renewable energy can be accommodated within our existing grid without loss of overall reliability – there is no sound reason to prevent it up to that level and given it’s foreseeable that beyond it and it’s an important goal to take it well beyond that level we need to adapt the grid, the market mechanisms and usage patterns to do so.

  3. Synchronous generation is supplied by generators spinning around at 50 times a second.

    Asynchronous generation is generation that either doesn’t have spinny things, or it has big spinny things but they don’t quite spin in synch with the grid.

    But while generation can be either synchronous or asynchronous, nothing supplies asynchronous power to the grid. That is not something that is at all practical.

    A solar farm will have the DC power its panels produce inverted into AC current, making use of banks of capacitors. Wind turbines will operate at close to synchronization with the grid and it will be tidied up with banks of capacitors on the ground.

    The characteristics of synchronous generators and capacitor banks are different. This is not necessarily a problem.

    But if it is a problem, then big spinny things can be built that just spin and don’t generate electricity. They are really old hat. They used to be more common, but generally banks of capacitors could do their job more cheaply so they became less common.

    Here’s an article on big spinny things that spin to help provide grid stability:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synchronous_condenser

    The one pictured is in Melbourne and was built in 1966.

  4. Ronald :
    nothing supplies asynchronous power to the grid.

    … except wind, as you said. And anything with a DC stage, as you implied. Countries that have HVDC links often use them to stabilise the section of the grid that they feed into including frequency stabilisation. Viz, the AC stage that feeds the link is asynchronous with respect to the output stage.That’s commonly put forward as one advantage of HVDC transmission, search for “using HVDC for frequency stabilisation” or similar.

    Solar PV does not use “banks of capacitors” for anything, wind doesn’t use them for frequency stabilisation, and I’m really curious as to how you think that would work except used to buffer a DC stage. Capacitors are used for power factor correction or the production of reactive power (the two are nearly synonymous) but these days, especially at high power levels, electronic switching is almost always used instead. I haven’t been able to find reports of any synchronous wind generators, they all use a DC stage (in the technical sense of DC, meaning no zero crossings, they generally have lots of ripple and little capacitance).

    Capacitors store small amounts of electricity for short times. Think about why they call the new shiny ones “super capacitors” – because they have higher capacity and lower leakage that “normal capacitors”. But when you’re dealing with megawatts, even 10% loss in the super-capacitors would be unacceptable. So small capacitors storing small amounts of energy is the limit.

    Synchronous generation is one of those furphies used by fossil plant owners to justify their existence despite it being demonstrably unnecessary.

  5. @chrisl

    “so update them” is more like taking your EH Holden and rebuilding it to meet modern safety standards. Sure, you could do that, but most people would put it in a museum and replace it with a modern car. That would be the quick, cheap option. Turning Liddell into a modern coal plant would mean replacing everything possibly including the foundations.

    But as soon as you consider a new replacement you end up where AGL is… looking at the market for the cheapest generation available and concluding that a new coal plant is not the way to go. In this case the Liberals are kinda like your cranky uncle with a back yard full of old Holdens who keeps saying “yer gotta have a car ya can work on” because to him spending every weekend fixing cars is a feature rather than a defect. The rest of us just want something that works.

  6. @Moz of Yarramulla

    Estimates of the cost to make Liddell functional run cro $0.5bn to $1bn … You can buy a lot more clean capacity with that than the dirty and expensive capacity you get at Liddell. And even that zero rates the company community cost of the refurbished Liddell, which would be a lot higher since presumably, it would be more available.

  7. That seems like a pretty fair price to keep the lights on. If the rest of the world can be building 621 power stations i don’t see why we cant do one refurb.
    AGL are playing the government on a break, Lack of supply means higher prices means higher profits. Of course they want Liddell to close.

  8. @chrisl

    I don’t agree that it is. It’s wrong to treat the commons as an important industrial sewer. Nobody disposes of hospital waste in the drips of patients on life support. That would be wrong even if it helped keep the hospital lights on. You’d find another way.

    If ‘keepng the lights on’ is really so important, then we should pay whatever it costs to meet the required lighting reliablility standard without harming others in the process whether those others are near the belching behemoth or spatially and/or temporally remote.

    Nor is it relevant whether others are acting badly. Let us act well, and advocate that other follow our lead. Let us demonstrate that better options exist, and that the resultant system is manageable. Let us engage our best engineers, or who he best of other countries in getting this done. Let us say in good faith to all who come after us, ‘we did the best with what we had to remedy our mistakes, and those of our forebears that we might give all of you the best life chances possible’.

    That is the appropriate ethical standard rather than self-serving dissonance and misdirection, IMO.

  9. Chrisl – do you accept the validity of science based advice Australia’s government has received on climate change? Do you accept that a global shift to low emissions energy is important? Do you accept that Australia has an ethical obligation to participate fully in that transition?

    As far as I can determine, people like Abbott, Joyce, Abetz, Morrison would answer no, no and no – that is if any journalists could bring themselves to ask and they could bring themselves to give straight answers. I’d be interested in your answers. I think the answers have a significant bearing on questions of energy choices.

  10. Ken To say that scientists have convinced the government(or the opposition) of a particular point of view says nothing. There is not a single scientist or engineer in parliament who could understand what they were saying. They are always looking at the political angle to the decisions they make.
    Lower emissions are important which is why old coal power plants should be replaced by more efficient modern ones
    Australia should pull it’s weight but if the rest of the world is building 621 coal-fired power stations and we are supplying many of those stations but cant build our own, then something is terribly wrong
    Even if I answered yes to all 3 questions it does not follow that renewable energy is the answer. I think it is unreliable inefficient and probably dead-end technology, For instance it is not how cheap solar panels have become but how little they have progressed in technologically.
    Whatever happens if the lights go out or power becomes unaffordable there will be pitch forks in the streets

  11. Chrisl, not answers then, which does not surprise me. I would say that when people in positions of responsibility receive clear and consistent expert advice on very serious matters they don’t personally understand it then it becomes even more important that they defer to experts who do. Although I have not found it that difficult to understand.

    Lower emissions – well, I believe I’ve heard even Tony Abbott say that would be good, but not say how much lower or that failing to do so might be bad. It seems clear that modern coal plants will not reduce emissions enough – and would entrench those continuing too high emissions when chosen over other options. Yes there is something wrong with Australia encouraging global expansion of use of coal and supplying that coal as well – given what is known about the likely long term climate consequences

    Failure to choose coal does not mean the lights will go out or power will be unaffordable even if not choosing coal but failing to commit to alternatives at the same time is untenable and does raise the risks of that. It will not be the lack of investment in coal but the lack of investment in the alternatives that leave the energy network vulnerable.

    Replacing coal plants that emit far too much CO2 with plants that emit far too much CO2 is wholly inadequate to our future needs and whilst a renewables dominated transition comes with uncertainties, global failure to adequately constrain emissions has near certainty of delivering dangerous climate change. Australia’s example of willingness to blithely disregard those consequences encourages other nations to do likewise and it’s difficult enough without enshrining shortsighed selfishness as the basis of international actions on significant global issues.

  12. Moz of Yaramulla

    Nothing supplies asynchronous generation to the grid. Asynchronous generators do not supply asynchronous power to the grid, they provide synchronous power. Supplying asynchronous power to a grid is a bad thing.

    Draw a nice rounded squiggly line with 5 crests and 5 troughs of equal size. That represents one tenth of a second of electrical power produced by a generator spinning at 50 times a second. This is the frequency the grid operates at.

    Now right below that draw a squiggly line with three peaks and troughs of the same length. That is power that is out of phase with the grid at 30 hertz. It is asynchronous.

    If you added the first line to itself, you would double the height of the peaks and double the depths of the troughs. You would have twice as much power.

    But if you add the second line to the first you will see that in some places it will increase the size of the waves, whether up or down, but in other places it will make them smaller. The waves interfere with each other and power is lost. The waves are no longer neat an tidy.

    This is why no one supplies asynchronous power to the grid. It results in a bad outcome.

    Moz, if you open up your solar inverter, after it is shutdown of course, you will see electrolytic capacitors inside it. When the DC power from the solar panels is inverted it forms a very crude wave. The capacitors tidy it up and make it a nice neat waveform.

    Not much energy is lost due to the capacitors doing their job. You can tell this by putting your hand on the case of your solar inverter when it is working. It may be warm, but it doesn’t get very hot as it would if a lot of energy was being wasted. Modern solar inverters average efficiency is over 95%.

  13. Ronald, that’s a retreat into pedantry if ever I saw one. With a dose of changing the subject to go with it.

    You’re right that nothing directly feeds asynchronous power to the grid, that’s why there are converters. But put that way your original point is tautological (viz, meaningless). Still, power somehow gets from asynchronous sources into the grid… that was my point. Your original point was that big capacitors are needed in DC-AC converters to provide frequency control and stability. You still haven’t explained how that works. I have an ME(elec), feel free to use technical language or references.

    Likewise there are capacitors in any inverter. There are also resistors, wires, and printing on the components. But those things are not doing the conversion, nor are they controlling the frequency.

  14. Moz of Yarramulla, I am so sorry.

    Fool that I was, I thought I could see a way I could be of help.

    I now see how I was wrong.

    I was under the impression that some people might be thinking that asynchronous generation fed asynchronous power into the grid. So I decided to make a comment where I said that it didn’t.

    But I see now I’ve just added to the confusion.

    I shouldn’t have written “banks of capacitors” I should have written “power conditioning equipment”. I am so, so sorry, and most dreadfully embarrassed.

    If I could travel back in time I would change those words. Make it so they never were.

    But it’s too late for that…

    I hope that, perhaps not today, but maybe tomorrow, or in six months, or perhaps a year, you can forgive me for what I have done.

    But if you need more time… I understand.

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