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The impossible claim

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 20 July 2020

A few years ago the ACT Government declared that it would so organise things that the ACT would be carbon-neutral before very long. It was going to achieve this outcome by providing more alternative energy sources. At the time I wrote that this was a most misleading claim. You can see the most recent version of the claim here. No matter what the ACT Government does, ACT consumers are part of the eastern electricity grid, which is supported overwhelmingly by fossil fuels, mostly coal and gas. What the government and the media should have said was that the addition of alternative energy sources would in time offset the ACT's use of fossil fuels. I also pointed out that alternative energy sources are erratic, intermittent and sometimes absent altogether, as is frequently the case in Canberra's cold, still winter nights. They need back-up, and the back-up is usually gas, a fossil fuel. The more alternative energy you have in your grid, the more back-up you will need. It seemed to me a case of the snake chasing its tail.

Who would benefit from all this? Certainly not the consumers of the ACT, who would be paying more for something they already had. The turbines and solar arrays that would not be built in the ACT (most of them) would benefit the States where they were being built, but again, at the expense of the poor old ACT consumers. Why on earth were we doing this? Well, it seems to have been part of the Green bargain with Labor, though I have no direct evidence of a pact of that kind. Every time the issue is mentioned I fulminate, though mostly privately. I don't like misleading claims and wasteful expenditures, and wish that the Opposition in the Legislative Assembly were prepared to have a go at the Government over it. Alas, they've decided against that. Too many Canberra citizens seem to think the claim is real, and that they are doing something virtuous. For a population said to be the most intelligent in Australia, that would be funny if it weren't so serious.

Well, Rowjay, a commenter on Jo Nova's website did the sort of homework that I probably should have done myself. Rowjay took the core of the claim - With 640MW of renewable energy already contracted, 100% renewable energy is now secure - and subjected it to critical analysis. He (forgive me, Rowjay, if you are a woman) starts with name-plate capacity, that is the intended full-load sustained output of the generating facility, whether wind or solar. 'Rated capacity' is another frequently used term. What was the actual performance of the alternative energy suppliers for the month of June? Name-plate capacity and actual performance are different things. Did the suppliers of alternative energy meet the peak and base-load requirements of the ACT?


It seems not. In the month of June, where the ACT electrical demand was about 290,000 MWh (megawatt hours), the alternative energy suppliers could only come up with about 90,000 MWh. That's about 31 per cent of what was needed. Alternative energy sources failed to cover 59 of the 60 peak consumption periods for the month, unsurprisingly, given that 31 per cent only was available, and could not maintain a consistent stable minimum base load of 250MWh. How does Rowjay know all this? The suppliers, well nearly all of them, are registered with the AEMO (the Australian Energy Market Operator) so we know what they provided.

Okay, says Rowjay, if that's the best the suppliers can do, what sort of performance would we get if we just tripled the ACT renewables portfolio to cover peak demand? That would require 1839 MWh in nameplate capacity, and something like 400,000 solar panels and 558 wind turbines (just multiplying by three the generators already contracted).

That would give you about 270,000 MWh, about 93 per cent of the target. But in terms of meeting base-load and peak demands it would still be insufficient. In thirty days the morning peak would still only be covered nineteen times and the evening peak fourteen times. And we still haven't factored in the need for back-up. Nor did the ACT Government, which seems not to have provided any. Rowjay contrasts this unimpressive performance with that of the Bayswater Power Station's Unit 1, which has 660Mwh nameplate capacity. Unit 1 generated not quite 400,000 MWh, which is 134 per cent of the target, and would have covered both morning and evening peaks with plenty to spare. Bayswater, near Muswellbrook in New South Wales, has four of these units, and any one of them would easily cover the ACT's electricity needs.

My thanks to Rowjay, whose work has more than justified my scepticism, indeed, my intense irritation with the impossible claim that somehow that ACT is running on renewable energy. I didn't have the numbers; now I do. It just isn't true that in 2020 the ACT is running of renewable energy. To say so in official publications is akin to a fraud, I think.

What can and should be done about this? It depends on how important you think the issue is. Ordinarily you would expect the media to find the flaws in official statements and expose them. To the best of my knowledge that hasn't happened in the ACT, or anywhere else for that matter. Why not? It may be that the journalists who would do the work are already convinced that alternative energy is the way to go, and are uninterested in finding out anything to the contrary. Or maybe The Canberra Times has a position on the issue which is supportive of the ACT Government.

Ordinarily, again, you'd expect the Liberals in the Assembly to point all this out, and keep hammering at it. After all, an election is coming later this year, and the Liberals need an issue or two. However, my understanding is that the Liberals have already done some private polling that has convinced them they'd be on a hiding to nothing if they went on the attack here. I shake my head, and wish for one or two lone independently-minded MPs like the late Bert Kelly, a voice for free trade when his Government was for protection. Someone has to point out the absence of clothes on the Emperor.


Altogether, this whole alternative-energy issue has become a fantasy. Not only is there no sign that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been other than beneficial to nearly all living things, because of the role of CO2 in the life of plants, but the frenzy about our apparently desperate need to transfer to alternative energy, to 'decarbonise' the Earth, is causing idiotic decisions that affect us all. I keep waiting for a voice of sanity somewhere in government and politics. If it's about, it's really quiet.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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