Tag Archives: coal power

Heatwave: Australia’s new weather demands a new politics

By George Monbiot – originally published in The Guardian

Climate change clashes with the myth of a land where progress is limited only by the rate at which resources can be extracted.

Five of Australia’s six states are still suffering fires after the counrty’s fiercest heatwave in more than 80 years. Photograph: Kim Foale/EPA

I wonder what Tony Abbott will say about the record heatwave now ravaging his country. The Australian opposition leader has repeatedly questioned the science and impacts of climate change. He has insisted that “the science is highly contentious, to say the least” and asked – demonstrating what looks like a wilful ignorance – “If man-made CO2 was quite the villain that many of these people say it is, why hasn’t there just been a steady increase starting in 1750, and moving in a linear way up the graph?” He has argued against Australian participation in serious attempts to cut emissions.

Climate change denial is almost a national pastime in Australia. People such as Andrew Bolt and Ian Plimer have made a career out of it. The Australian – owned by Rupert Murdoch – takes such extreme anti-science positions that it sometimes makes the Sunday Telegraph look like the voice of reason.

Perhaps this is unsurprising. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal – the most carbon intensive fossil fuel. It’s also a profligate consumer. Australians now burn, on average, slightly more carbon per capita than the citizens of the United States, and more than twice as much as the people of the United Kingdom. Taking meaningful action on climate change would require a serious reassessment of the way life is lived there.

Events have not been kind to the likes of Abbott, Bolt and Plimer. The current heatwave – so severe that the Bureau of Meteorology has been forced to add a new colour to its temperature maps – is just the latest event in a decade of extraordinary weather: weather of the kind that scientists have long warned is a likely consequence of man-made global warming.

As James Hansen and colleagues showed in a paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the occurrence of extremely hot events has risen by a factor of around 50 by comparison to the decades before 1980. Extreme summer heat, which afflicted between 0.1% and 0.2% of the world 40 years ago, now affects 10%. They warned that “an important change is the emergence of a category of summertime extremely hot outliers, more than three standard deviations (3?) warmer than the climatology of the 1951–1980 base period”. An extremely hot outlier is a good description of what is roasting Australia at the moment.

So far Abbott has commented, as far as I can tell, only on the fires: “Our thoughts are with the people and the communities across the country who are impacted by the bushfires,” he says. Quite right too, but it’s time his thoughts also extended to the question of why this is happening and how Australian politicians should respond. He says he’s currently on standby with his local fire brigade, but as his opposition to effective action on climate change is likely to contribute to even more extreme events in the future, this looks like the most cynical kind of stunt politics.

To ask him and others to change their view of the problem could be to demand the impossible. It requires that they confront some of the most powerful interests in Australia: from Rupert Murdoch to Gina Rinehart. It requires that they confront some of the powerful narratives that have shaped Australians’ view of themselves, just as we in the United Kingdom must challenge our own founding myths. In Australia’s case, climate change clashes with a story of great cultural power: of a land of opportunity, in which progress is limited only by the rate at which natural resources can be extracted; in which this accelerating extraction leads to the inexorable improvement of the lives of its people. What is happening in Australia today looks like anything but improvement.

This, I think, is too much for Abbott to take on: as a result he has nothing to offer a nation for which this terrible weather is a warning of much worse to come. Australia’s new weather demands a new politics; a politics capable of responding to an existential threat.

When is GreenEnergy not Green Energy?

So it’s taken me awhile to get on this blog thingy which makes this study about a year old but still as relevant as when it was first published:


Many big power companies have been extolling us with their green credentials but now we have an independent study into which ones are willing to get their energy from new coal-fired power stations and which are putting in policies refusing to do so. So if your energy provider is on there and hasn’t ruled out burning new dirty coal you can send them an email or change to a cleaner provider! With combined consumer pressure we can force the big corporations to act faster than any government legislation!




Renewable Energy: how it reduces the cost of power

From 100percent.org.au. To get a printable pdf version of this fact sheet click here.

For years the prevailing public view has been that renewable energy will make electricity more expensive. Now, as more countries move towards a renewable energy future, evidence is showing that more renewable energy in the mix actually results in cheaper power, and offers to do the same for Australia.

International experience: enjoying the benefits

Some of Europe’s early adopters of wind include Germany, Belguim and Denmark. In April 2010 a study showed how wind power was causing a drop in the overall cost of power in these countries. It found that in 2009, the average wholesale electricity price fell in these countries by between €3 and €23 per MWh ($4.3 – $32.8 per MWh based on an exchange rate of A$1=€0.7). If this reduction in wholesale prices occurred in the Australian market and was fully passed on to the consumer, it would lower household electricity bills by up to 15%.*

Europe is not alone in reaping the economic gain of wind power. Since 2005 in the United States, the average wind project has been producing electricity at less than the national average wholesale price (see Figure 1 below). The only exception to this being 2009 as the global economic downturn lowered the cost of wholesale electricity, which you can see as an anomaly in the last data point. In short, this means that the effect of wind power in the US for the last five years has been to reduce the overall cost of electricity.

Figure 1 – Average Cumulative Wind and Wholesale Power Prices Over Time, from the US DoE Wind Technologies report 2009

What does this mean for Australia?

Studies from some surprising sources show that increasing Australia’s share of renewable energy would produce the same economic benefit here. A study from the Business Council of Australia (BCA) shows that increasing renewable energy in Australia through the Renewable Energy Target (RET) would result in a lower cost of power, compared to without the RET (see Figure 2).

Figure 2 – difference in wholesale electricity price with and without the MRET. From the BCA report: Modelling Success, page 134

A study for the National Generators Forum** backs up this conclusion, finding that the RET would reduce the electricity pool price by 5%. Based on the figures in the National Generators Forum report, electricity retailers would be $10 billion better off in 2015 with the RET than without it.

The Business Council of Australia and National Generators Forum haven’t exactly been the biggest supporters of renewable energy over the years for reasons outlined below. However, even their own reports can’t avoid the fact that renewable energy is a good thing for electricity prices.

How is renewable energy lowering the cost of power?

Renewable energy has a few important advantages over conventional fossil fuel power that produce these economic benefits. Because renewable energy power plants are normally smaller and more distributed through the electricity network, it makes for an electricity grid that is more stable, with numerous points of power supply and more resilient to disruptions to infrastructure or peaks in demand. Further, most renewable energy power plants have zero fuel costs. As they are greenhouse pollution-free, they don’t have to worry about carbon costs. Less moving parts on many power plants also means renewables are easier to maintain and operate. Basically, when a renewable energy power plant gets built, it will run for next to nothing.

Why then is it more expensive to purchase green power?

In complying with renewable energy target policies, electricity retailers need to prove that they have bought enough renewable electricity from the wholesale market. This comes in the form of renewable energy certificates, each one representing a unit of clean energy. The certificates and the energy they represent have a set price, which the retailers pay and then pass on to the consumer.

However, that’s only one side of the story. In buying electricity from a market with lots of renewables contributing, the total cost to retailers will actually drop thanks to the economic benefits of renewable energy. Unfortunately, while retailers are all too happy to pass on the economic costs of buying certified renewable energy, we consumers don’t necessarily see them pass through the savings from renewables.

So if renewable energy makes power cheaper, why are policies to support renewables opposed so much?

For most of us, renewable energy brings only benefits from cleaner, safer and more affordable power. The only real losers are the generators of old, dirty fossil fuel electricity. So competition is a major factor as renewables and fossil fuels are both in the same game of providing electricity.

But the major economic benefit of renewable energy is felt at times of peak electricity demand. When there is a major surge in demand – for example, on a hot summers’ day when lots of air conditioners are on – the wholesale electricity price often skyrockets hundreds or even thousands of times above the normal price. Peaks might not last long, but they are a major earner for the electricity generators. An example of these spikes in electricity cost can be seen in Figure 3.

Figure 3 – Victorian wholesale electricity prices in late January 2009. Peaks are clearly visible during the day on both the 28th and 29th of the month. Graph produced from data accessed from the Australian Electricity Market Operator.

The benefits of renewable energy, outlined above, help to manage the electricity supply and demand, and soften the spikes in wholesale prices during peak times, meaning they are not as profitable for fossil fuel electricity generators. That’s why renewables are met with such strong opposition from the fossil fuel industry: they are threatening the profits of a few companies.

We can’t let the vested interests of a handful of dirty energy companies prevent a future of safe, clean, reliable and affordable power. We need to make the shift to a 100% renewable energy future now!


*Assuming a final delivered electricity price of 20c /kWh is reduced by 3c / kWh).

**CRA International, 2008. Market Modelling to Assess Generator Revenue Impact of Alternative GHG policies, prepared for the National Generators Forum.