Who is to Blame For Our Energy Bills?

I watched Julia Gillard denounce the wicked States and their energy suppliers with mixed feelings. On the one hand, she needs to do something to shift the blame, and there is something in what she says. On the other hand, the escalation in energy prices has been coming for years. It is her government that has added the carbon tax to raise them further, and she can’t duck responsibility for that.

Apportioning blame is not easy. Let’s start with something that no one in office is saying very loudly: cheap energy is the underpinning of our relatively comfortable existence in Australia. It is cheap energy that allows us to light and heat our houses, add machine after machine to assist and entertain us, drive cars and fly almost at will, and leave most things plugged in or on standby when we go to bed — without our noticing the bill much unless petrol goes way up, or the winter has been very cold or the summer very hot. We are used to cheap energy, and later this year there are going to be even angrier noises than the ones you can hear right now. Expensive energy will affect everyone, badly.

How did this 40 per cent increase over four years happen? Well, the key to cheap energy is abundant supply and plenty of alternatives. But that simple statement has been forgotten by those who are worried about the environment. Nuclear power has been available to us for fifty years. But my guess is that the body politic is still apprehensive about the nuclear alternative. And if one is proposed, it has to be somewhere close to the grid, and at once people will tell us that there are earth tremors there, or that it’s in their backyard, or that we should remember Fukushima. I am old enough to remember Hiroshima, and I worry sometimes about nuclear waste’s being turned into weapons. Nuclear is not my favourite option, though I could live with it.

And at the moment nuclear is an alternative we don’t have. But remember that France generates 70 per cent of its electricity from nuclear power stations, and I’ve had lunch across the road from one. People live right there, and have done so for a long time. When I was deeply involved in research funding, we identified solar energy as an important strategic area for Australia, and funded a few able people to work on it. They did well too, and you can see the results on rooftops. But until we can store the energy produced during the day efficiently, solar power is not really suitable for the grid, where the need is for  regular, predictable, reliable supply. Solar can’t provide that, though it’s useful where people are nowhere near the grid, and can depend on tomorrow’s being sunny. You can store power for a household, but not for a city.

Wind power suffers from the same problem, and is worse in other respects. Wind turbines are often described in terms of their nominal capacity — what would happen if the wind blew all the time, and at exactly the right speed. Their real contribution is a fifth to a third of the claimed capacity. And they are capricious in when they run. But again, if you are a long way from anywhere, and need power, then wind and solar might be useful for you and your  family. I quite like the look of the turbines, but I’m not sure I would if I lived a few  hundred metres away from a set of them, or if there were hundreds of them, as I’ve seen in California.

Hydro-electric power is great, but there’s not much useful undammed water left. In any case, the proposal that another idyllic river valley be dammed brings the Greens out in force, and they are joined by those who actually live in the valley, and you can understand their position. Drive along Highway 1 near the Great Divide and you’ll see  signs telling governments where they can put a proposed dam.

Geothermal? Still a fine idea that is just an idea. Waves? Salt corrosion is a problem, and it’s not much chop away from the sea. BIomass and landfill gas? Too small. So what are we left with? Coal, oil and gas.

But these are the three big NO NOs, because they use fossil fuels. There have been no big new coal-fired power stations in Australia for quite a while, and many of the major stations are forty to fifty years old. They are big, too. Hazelwood in Victoria can supply a quarter of Victoria’s base load with its 1500 megawatt (MW) capacity. But we are approaching the point at which growing demand will intersect with available supply. What have we in planning?

Well, the good news (according to Wikipedia) is that there are 14 proposed coal or gas power stations in various stages of preparation, and if all were approved they would add 9000 MW to the grid.  Compare that to the one proposed hydro power station, which would produce about 37MW, one Biomass proposal : 180MW, one Landfill proposal: 10MW, and five Wind turbine proposals: 1458 MW (but 300 to 450 MW would be  a more accurate figure, I think).

The bad news is that each coal or gas plant is being or will be opposed vehemently. Responding to political pressure from lobby groups and the environmental movement, State governments have made it really difficult for any new power station to get up unless it is solar or wind, and wind now is getting criticism. Setting Green ideology aside, power is a classic NIMBY problem. We all want it, and we want it cheaply, but we don’t want it here. Some don’t want it at all.

Oh, and over the last twenty years the State governments have sold off most of their generating and supply utilities to private interests, either to deal with the budget bottom line or to fund desired pieces of infrastructure. Those who bought the stations want to recoup the billions they paid out. Who are they recouping the money from? Us, of course. They are the PM’s current targets.

But where do you start in levelling blame at people? All we can be sure of is that when people start not being able to pay their energy bills the political backlash will be sudden and fierce.

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