What if all the ACT’s electricity actually came from wind?

I mentioned last time that the ACT Government is proposing that ACT electricity will be fossil-free by 2025, This is an ambitious claim and, in practical terms, impossible of realisation, since the various forms of electricity generation are fed into the grid as they are produced and we, the users, get a mixture of generation types when we turn on a light. On average, in 2014, the source of our power everywhere in Australia looked like this:

image.adapt.1280.highWhen commentators talk about renewable energy they often glide over the fact that a small proportion of our power comes from hydro-electric generators, or suggest that since coal makes up 73 per cent of generation, then the rest must be renewable. If only. Natural gas is 13 per cent. If you add that to coal, the fossil fuel contribution is 86 per cent. If you add hydro to that you get 93 per cent, leaving just 7 percent for the fancy renewables, and I’m not sure that bioenergy, strictly speaking, is renewable.

I’ve written about this subject on a number of occasions, and see the quest to somehow ‘escape’ from reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation as delusory. A climate discussion group of which I am a member has played around with what would be required if the ACT really did ‘escape’, and the ACT Government’s announcement was something more than smoke and mirrors. Since the Government talked about getting what it wanted through buying wind-power generation in South Australia, one member decided to work out, entirely gratis, what the Government would need to do to have all ACT electricity coming from wind.  What follows is his argument, slightly edited by me. A piece of explanation in advance: Western Australia is not part of the eastern Australian grid, which is spatially the largest in the world. TW= terawatt hours = a billion kilowatt hours. One kilowatt hour registers the use of a thousand-watt electric radiator for one hour.

Each year 200 TW hours is consumed on the eastern grid. Now Australia’s population is not quite 24 million but since  large numbers of people live away from the grid, such as in Western Australia and the bush, for convenience I’m going to say 20 million. If I divide that into the total usage I get 10 MWh for each person per annum. Canberra’s population is about 390,000 so we need 3,900,000 MWh per annum for the whole city. That is 3900 GW hours. So how can we figure the size of the power station? Pretty easily, really: we just need to know what that is per hour, so we need to divide by the number of hours in the year. The answer is 445 MW, which is around four times bigger than any existing wind farm. Now that is the ‘plate capacity’, so to get anywhere near what is required an estimate of the ‘usable capacity’ is needed. To be generous, let us say that on average you will get about 25% of the plate capacity, so in fact we need a power station of 1.8 GW. In terms of wind turbines that means we need about 890 wind turbines at $4 million each, which means $3.6 billion. This will occupy a bit over 800 km² somewhere in South Australia.

Then, as an afterthought, he remembered that you would lose about 10 per cent of the energy getting it to the ACT, so we need to add 10 per cent to the figures above. And then you need to add intermittency — turbines slow down, go faster or stop, and the generating system has to be able to accommodate such fluctuations. It does so usually by turning on or off gas-powered generators. As one increases the numbers of wind-turbines coming on stream so one has to increase the capacity of the system to deal with intermittency. The paradox is that if one were actually able to have all the power coming from turbines one would also need to have the whole system backed up by gas generators. Why would we be doing this in the first place?

I wasn’t sure about his estimate of the amount of land needed to accommodate a wind-farm, and went off to read about it. Those in favour of wind turbines (and that’s most of the sites you can go to) say that once the turbine is erected then very little land is ‘used’ — cattle and sheep can graze as before. You’ll get figures there suggesting that 20 wind turbines could be placed in one square kilometre, which is much less than than that suggested in the extract above. Fortunately someone else came to the party, in the form of a US government laboratory report, which gives several examples of actual wind-power land-use in Wyoming, Illinois and elsewhere in the USA. The authors say, up-front, There is no uniform definition of the perimeter or boundary surrounding a wind power plant – in fact, the total area of a wind power plant could have a number of definitions.

But they do supply a number of examples of large wind-farms, the way they are set out, and the amount of land used by them. They define layouts as ‘single-string’, ‘multiple-string’, ‘parallel string’ and ‘cluster configuration’.On the face of it, the ‘parallel string’ layout uses the least land, but they all need a lot of land, on average 100 square kilometres for each hundred wind-turbines. Now the imagined ACT wind-farm in South Australia would be about nine times larger, and would need therefore about 900 square kilometres of land. That’s a square 30 kilometres by 30 kilometres, an awful lot of land.

And the turbines need to be sited where they will have the maximum exposure to wind (which is why they can’t all be grouped together closely). All in all, it is likely that there would have to be a number of wind-farms to make up the desired ACT electricity generation by wind, and that would seem to increase, not reduce, the amount of land needed for their construction. And we haven’t factored in, as we should, the size and cost of the back-up needed; fortunately the cost of gas-turbine generation is about two-thirds of wind, on a levelised basis (that is, taking into account capital, construction, operation, fuel and maintenance). But unless there is reserve capacity in the system (and why should the ACT be able to use it?), you need to add in a few more hundred million for back-up.

All in all, it’s just a nonsense, and what the ACT Government is saying, and doing, is completely disingenuous. And for the money involved, we could probably get small nuclear power reactors for half the price. They could be placed in the Australian Capital Territory, as well, behind a hill and out of sight. There’d be no power lost in transmission, either. It’s a thought, but I doubt that the ACT Government has ever considered it.


Join the discussion 47 Comments

  • Alan Gould says:

    Sock it to ’em, Bro.

    Good, clear scenario, Don, Mike

  • Doug says:

    Thanks Mike and Don – very clear explanation of how gullible so many in Oz are.

    Another conclusion is that as roof-top solar provides only 2% of total power, we could shut it down entirely and still power the nation. When you consider the vast sums devoted to subsidising it, you can only be appalled at the waste.

    But what to do? The PR battle so far strongly favours the Renewables crowd and a majority in Oz favour more nonsense, not less. There are votes at stake, and even the hard heads in the government aren’t game to assert the facts.

  • John says:


    There was an article in The Scotsman (2 September) that covers the quantity of non-renewable resources (rare earths, concrete, steel) that are needed to establish a wind farm. It also mentions the bat/bird kill effects.

    Sorry, my IT skills are not adequate to provide a link.

  • Dasher says:

    Did anyone read the simple letter in the Canberra Times recently complimenting the ACT government on moving to 100% renewables but asking (rhetorically) if the coal fired power stations were turned off would Canberrans still be able to turn on their lights 24/7. The response? crickets chirping!

  • Colin Davidson says:

    The best reference for actual numbers involved is “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air” by David Mackay FRS. It is available free as an e-book at http://www.withouthotair.com/ .
    David is a Cambridge professor of engineering. He is a warmist, but also a realist – he has done the hard calculations, and presented them in a very easy to understand format.
    The numbers presented by Don above roughly agree with David’s.

  • David says:

    Am I allowed to ask; where would you store your nuclear waste, Braddon.? 🙂

    • David says:

      … maybe Fyshwick or under Mt Taylor ?

      Lets face it Canberra cant even build a light rail from Civic to Woden, or decommission a few Govies with asbestos, much less build, run and eventually decommission a nuclear power plant.

      While Don, Doug and Alan will be huddled around a fire in the middle of the Canberra winter waiting for the nuclear power in Weston to be built, I will living large watching my flat screen and leaving the lights on, just because I can, all powered by renewable energy. 🙂

    • Dasher says:

      Actually I have long agreed with Bob Hawke..we should set up a world nuclear waste dump in say SA ..make a mint (including ACT waste if it came to that) and one day it would probably be much more useful than waste. Oh and if the world is about to disintegrate as some would have you believe (David?) I would think nuclear power was a very low risk if it made the difference.

  • JimboR says:

    “so we need 3,900,000 MWh per annum for the whole city”

    Closer to 2,900,000 according to the data offered here:


    Industry is a big user of electricity, and I suspect the ACT has less of that per capita than the rest of the country.

    “Pretty easily, really: we just need to know what that is per hour, so we need to divide by the number of hours in the year.”

    If only that were true! Your correspondent has completely disregarded peak demand and assumed you ACT folk present a constant load to the grid 24×7. That error is so gross as to make the rest of his analysis meaningless. You will need a much much larger power station than he predicts, unless you’re willing to endure blackouts every evening at about 7pm.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Not really, though thanks for the reference. The point of the calculation is to show how many wind turbines would be needed and how much land they would require, if all the ACT electricity were to be produced by wind. In 2025 we don’t know how many people will be in the ACT. Treasury projections put it at about 450,000. 2013 was a warm-winter year (hence the decline from more than 3 MWh earlier). Let’s say that it might be 3.5m MWh in 2025. Much difference?

      I was also struck by this little sentence: ‘solar PV reduced total ACT small customer demand for electricity by 3.8%, or 1.7% of the total ACT network aggregate demand, in 2013.’

  • DeepE says:

    “Closer to 2,900,000 according to the data offered here:” That has been calculated on the per capita usage of electricity on the Eastern Grid. We all gain benefit if it is manufactured in NSW and then used in Canberra that does not make a difference. 3,900,000 MWh is what must be catered for otherwise it is a lie.

    “has completely disregarded peak demand and assumed you ACT folk present a constant load to the grid 24×7” Your quote refers the 445 MW figure did you get as far as the 1.8 MW. Clearly this whole thing was to get an estimate by currently accepted wisdom the size the installation in SA would be.

    “Your correspondent has completely disregarded peak demand” is introduced by you and is another issue. Introducing it to this introduces to much complication to rebut the idea the ACT should not use fossil fuel. Let us say though if the light rail had existed in 2014 (NEM data) most of time it would not have run. That is even if the whole 3800 MW of the current installation was used.

    For me as part of the Deep E wind farms are ideal. They cost huge amounts of money which otherwise could be used to help humanity, delude people into thinking it is worthwhile to save the planet and above all are useless.

    • JimboR says:

      “We all gain benefit if it is manufactured in NSW and then used in Canberra that does not make a difference. ”

      Why stop at NSW? What about that fleet of German made BMWs Tony Abbott gets around in? They’re used in Canberra. Are you seriously suggesting the ACT govt. has a duty to buy energy equivalent to the energy that went into all of the territory’s imports? And if it did, what would it do with that energy? Dump it all into a big resistor and just burn it for the sake of it?

      Sounds like a good argument for a carbon tax to me. By the time that BMW arrives in the Phillip showroom it will hopefully be priced to reflect all the input costs that went into it, whether they be for oil in the diff, or electricity to run the robots that built it. That seems far more efficient than expecting the ACT govt. to keep track of all imports, and buy energy it’s got no use for.

  • G van Rijswijk says:

    Why not just promise to disconnect the ACT from fossil fuel supplied electricity in 2025 – just send only renewable energy down the lines and force them to live with the consequences – regular blackouts and brownouts.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      I trust it’s irony, which I appreciate. As I said, you can’t ‘disconnect … from fossil fuel’. It’s all a great, slightly fluctuating, mixture of electric current from various sources.

      • G van Rijswijk says:

        BThe problem we have is that politicians will promise nonsense and they get away with it because no one calls them out. What I propose is quite simple. All the electricity supply company has to is to supply to the local grid that quantity of power that can be sourced from renewable supply. In other words, if the wind drops and it happens to be a cloudy day the amount of power available to act residents is cut back to match. In this way they can claim to be as pure as the driven snow by taking none of that dirty fossil fuel power.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Fair enough. You might ask ACTEW-AGL whether they have such a contingency in mind…

          • G van Rijswijk says:

            Unless the ACT government is prepared to commit to such an approach, this business about being totally reliant on renewables is just a lot of hot air.

          • David says:

            I don’t know when energy production will be become carbon neutral. But I do know it wont be achieved by a naysayer.

          • G van Rijswijk says:

            Hope it never does. We need all that carbon dioxide to green the planet!!

        • David says:

          FYI, my mother is 79 and lives in Canberra. She doesn’t use hot water or heating through the entire Canberra winter. She walks the walk. She is happy, healthy, leads a good life. If she can do it, so can you.

          • CyrilH says:

            Let me see, My mother does so everybody else should. I suppose over time this turns into everybody else must and then we all head of to the re-education camps just to make sure we know not to use hot water or heating. Why don’t we all stop using houses altogether. Just think of all of the electricity we would save if we did not have to produce building products. We could then move onto doing without all other aspects of modern live and not use any electricity at all, after all, the Aborigines lived in the ACT for many thousands of years without any of these modern conveniences.

            Let us all be serious here please.

          • David says:

            No, my mother does, so everyone else can.

          • G van Rijswijk says:


          • Margaret says:

            CAN, not should. Why? David’s mother is an example of how to live, by treading lightly on the planet.
            There’s a scene in Storm Boy, that beautiful little film from the seventies, where his father doesn’t believe him when he takes him to the place where Fingerbone (played by David Gulpilil) had set up camp because there’s no trace at all.

            It doesn’t mean we all have to do what David’s mother does but it could help us to take stock of what we all have and why we have it (possessions) and what we all need and why we need it (comforts). Status comes into it. Capitalism and consumerism come into it. Who dies with the biggest toys comes into it.

          • G van Rijswijk says:

            The idea that additional carbon dioxide will lead to dangerous increasing temperature has no scientific basis.
            Why is it that countries with economies based on capitalism have better environmental outcomes?

          • David says:

            I was just about to clarify the difference between “can” and “should” and then I see you have saved me the effort. Thank you 🙂

          • DeepE says:

            David’s mum should be commended and her practices recommended to everyone else. I say this because David is not clear how you do it, first don’t wash. Back in the day when hot water was a luxury most had a bath once a year. I think in England it was in May hence the May bride. In my youth we did not have household heating as was the case for most people in rural areas. What you did and no doubt what David’s mum now does is to go to bed fairly early before sunset. I had about seven blankets living in a fairly cold area. In the morning you get up well after sunrise because it is too damn cold to do otherwise. I have read that in England in the 1700s large numbers of people gathered round a communal fire in the great Hall where everything was done like sleeping et cetera.

            This doesn’t go far enough what we need to do is to lower life expectancy denying us a little bit of electricity won’t achieve that. The amount of medical help people get these days is ridiculous it greatly increases life expectancy and needs to be curtailed somehow. If we can stop the use of fossil fuel particularly in the farming sector the enemy of cheap efficient food production can be curtailed. The population can then be fooled into growing their own food in the backyard. The Greens by having this as a policy are really onto something. Practices that help humanity are just immoral we all need to understand that.

            Die early restore the balance.

            My hero Maurice Strong, author of Agenda21:
            “Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized
            civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?

          • G van Rijswijk says:

            If you and your mother are believers of the climae scam you may be prepared to regress to the dark ages. I just object to being forc ed to do so.

          • David says:

            I know you object. That’s what makes it all, just a little more enjoyable.

          • David says:

            She has not regresses to the Dark Ages, and for the record if wanted to discuss philosophy post The Enlightenment, she would mop the floor with you. 🙂

          • G van Rijswijk says:

            i am not putting your mother down, I am just disappointed that so many people believe the ‘settled science’ of climate change according to the IPCC when the science is far from settled. For example the IPCC declares that natural variation cannot explain late 20th C warming when they are quite happy to accept that in prior times climate changes could be explained by natural factors. The fact that the medieval warm period was warmer than now, without carbon dioxide at current levels is not explained.

          • Margaret says:

            That’s fascinating – how does she stay warm without a hot shower if she doesn’t use heating? I’m used to thinking of Caberra’s citizens being pampered.

          • David says:

            Hi Margaret

            For warmth she wears extra layers of clothes.

            For a shower she swims every day and so showers at the local pool. So true, she uses hot water at public pool, but not home

            I am not advocating, every one has to live like that. But I enjoy pointing out to G van Rijswijk that some people do. And if he gets all indignant, all the better.

          • JMO says:

            Hi David

            I would assume the local pool would have most of its electricity sourced from coal. Therefore, your mum, still requires (indirectly) fossil fuelled energy.

            Your mum certainly walks the walk for her beliefs – I admire her. However, although this could be seen as a personal solution to avoid (mostly) fossil fuelled energy, this would not be a sustainable solution for everyone. For starters Canberra’s few public pools would not handle all 350 000 Canberrans accessing the public pool showers every day!

  • Margaret says:

    The ACT is probably the only place in Australia that would boldly attempt that goal and good for the ACT government. If you like to live in Canberra then accept that it is going to try to lead by example even if the experiment fails. It has utopian ideals and its citizens have to live with the upside and downside of this.

  • G van Rijswijk says:

    Hope it never does. We need all that carbon dioxide plant food to green the planet!!!

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