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Big talk, big cost, big battery but small result

By Russell Grenning - posted Thursday, 25 January 2018


On 1 December last, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill flipped the on switch for the giant lithium-ion battery at Jamestown and this facility went online.

It was a huge celebration all round for the South Australian Government which is facing what promises to be a very difficult election and the US company Tesla which constructed and installed the battery – well, actually, lots of smaller batteries – known as the Hornsdale Power Reserve.

The Reserve is designed to store 129 megawatt hours of power for use at times of acute shortage and is supposed to provide 30,000 South Australian homes power for more than an hour in the event of a failure. For the record, the 2016 Census reported that South Australia had 767,267 dwellings. Even the battery facility’s loudest champions can’t escape the unfortunate fact that a very small number of homes could only be supplied for a very short time if the facility was working at peak efficiency.

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Premier Weatherill must be hoping that these lucky 30,000 homes are strategically scattered among Labor’s marginal seats.

The facility is linked to a wind farm owned and operated by French firm Neoen. Power produced there is sent to the battery facility and stored for future use.

Australia generally and South Australia in particular have been treated to a masterful public relations blitz by Tesla’s US boss Elon Musk who has long shown a remarkable ability to con money from governments and the public when both have been dazzled by his non-stop self promotion.

Typical of his behaviour was the extravagant bet that he would have the battery facility up and running within one hundred days of the contracts being signed or, he solemnly promised, it would be free. Other companies who tender for projects and then sign contracts for fixed-price projects within a required time do so quietly as a matter of course and don’t feel the need to shout about bets and gambles. They know what their contract requires and they do it or suffer penalties – just like Mr Musk’s contractual obligation. But the “bet” was good PR and everybody – including the South Australian Government lapped it up. And guess what? Mr Musk won his bet. What a surprise!

However, when very hot weather struck southern Australia in January, the battery facility proved to be seriously wanting.

On the two January days of highest temperatures, the wind was blowing so little in South Australia that it was only producing about 6.5 per cent of its capacity. South Australia was relying on Victoria for 31 per cent of its power, 23 per cent of which was provided by hydro-electricity.

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According an Institute of Public Affairs analysis, wind contributed only 3.5 per cent of national energy generation on the second day of highest temperatures.

The South Australian Government has refused to say what this battery facility cost although it is generally accepted to be at least $50 million. The mere matter of taxpayers’ money is nothing compared to what Premier Weatherill calls “history in the making”.

Meanwhile in the USA, Mr Musk and his company are having a terrible time.

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About the Author

Russell Grenning is a retired political adviser and journalist who began his career at the ABC in 1968 and subsequently worked for the then Brisbane afternoon daily, The Telegraph and later as a columnist for The Courier Mail and The Australian.

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