Electrification tussle

The more I observe the energy transition in Australia, the more I realise that its attempts at balancing many different principles and ideas are at odds with achieving an orderly transition. Too often, we cast the energy transition as a technical or economics problem but more often, it’s a policy and political science problem. At the heart of the debate, is the age-old welfare economics issue around winners and losers. And with lobbying, power plays, risk of job losses, and a mix of various different studies, academic and commercial contributing to various perspectives, it can be incredibly confusing for policymakers.

Having worked on the side of government and alongside policy makers when I first started my career in Singapore, I thought that the volume of noise that exists in Australia around the energy transition is startling. I recalled that there were a lot more ‘no-brainer’ type of policy directions and being in the government was a lot more about trying to steer a large, heavy ship towards the destination that we can more or less agree on. In Australia, it almost feels like the policymakers are simultaneously being pulled in a hundred different directions at the same time and trying to achieve it all.

If, at this point, we are seeing that the policy direction is towards electrification, then the actual effort will have to be looking at what can green the grid and focus on that. So there’s been funding towards more solar and wind, as well as batteries to help balance the load in the system. The next big challenge is grid stability and network capacity. This will require extremely large investments and infrastructure build-up that will take time. This means we cannot electrify everyone at the same time, and this phase-in of various functions being electrified will have to be determined and planned carefully. The risk of not working this out is high – the greatest being continually being held hostage by the coal-fired power capacities and unable to shut them down to green the grid because power demand is climbing faster than we can build the grid and renewable capacities.

Gas is a transition fuel for precisely this reason; and it can play its role in the transition in two ways. First, it continues to supply energy to industries that need heat, delaying their need to electrify and hence keeping power demand at bay. Second, it can provide peaking power and supplement or displace coal-fired power in baseload, playing a critical role in taking the most carbon-intensive power source off the grid. Yet this brilliant idea keeps getting drowned out by the fear that once the gas industry is entrenched, it won’t go away. The economic lifespan of combined cycle gas-fired power plants or open cycle ones is about 25 years though their operational life can be extended. This means that they can be introduced immediately and fired up to replace coal-fired power plants and the tail end of their economic life can be more for peaking uses to stabilize the variable renewable energy, deferring investment in batteries that have significant lifecycle carbon emissions themselves.

The earlier we cut coal, the better; by allowing gas-fired power generation, we also defer the need to scale up our network capacity quickly when the electrification drive advances. These actions can mutually reinforce each other and allow battery, wind, and solar capacities to enter the system gradually alongside network upgrades. We observe how energy cost on consumers have increased while trying to green the grid (levellised cost of electricity from solar and wind is not a strong measure given that they are not produced when needed); trying to force the electrification is not going to make things better. Coupled with the strong anti-gas sentiments would only mean costs will keep going up.

Part II of this article continues tomorrow.