This week marked another clear set of signs that when it comes to energy production and energy security, there is no such things as business as usual. Dinosaur coal stations are set to close and no there is little political stomach to set limits on the gas export market that will almost inevitably send domestic gas bills through the roof.
By contrast to the South Australian acrimonious name calling, many may have been surprised by the Prime Minister harking back to the Snowy Mountains scheme. The post war project initiated by Prime Minister Chifley is famous for the 100,000 immigrants who worked in harsh conditions for what was then seen as a visionary project. The massive project never quite delivered on its many expectations for power and irrigation, not least of its problems in destroying the river it was named after.
Several years ago hydro power was considered the only renewable electricity generation flexible enough to provide both peak and base load electricity and cost comparable to cheap but dirty coal-produced electricity. But even since that time advances in battery technology have made massive leaps in closing this gap. Moreover for all its nation building rhetoric of the fifties, hydro power has a number of key problems in Australia.
Apart from the large tracts of land required for dams and the displacement of communities and ecosystems, water power doesn’t have the ideal abundance on the driest continent on earth. While pumped hydro is less rainfall dependant than largely impractical river run hydro (our rivers aren’t voluminous enough), large surface areas on hydro dams increase water loss through evaporation; around 35kg per kWh. The commodity cost is then in water which in a drying climate scenario is a bad fit.
Furthermore the electricity generated from these systems is renewable, but not greenhouse gas neutral, producing methane from decaying organic matter,in dams a gas 25 times more greenhouse potent than carbon dioxide. The efficiency of other renewables which do not require hydro’s power input shows if the peak storage issue was overcome where the potential lies. A Rokewood windfarm proposal, for instance, is even more beneficial than Turnbull’s hydro expansion, producing 2500 gigawatts to the Snowy’s added 2000.
Wherever your preference lies or the market follows, the energy conversation has started and won’t be the same.