Coal, Lies and Renewable Energy, Australian Style

Is the new Tesla mega-battery for South Australia the game changer it’s made out to be? Tim Hollo, Executive Directer of The Green Institute, joins us from Canberra, Australia to separate fact from fiction in what he calls the ‘post-truth world’

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. Elon Musk’s Tesla recently installed the largest grid-scale lithium battery to be paired with the wind farm in South Australia. Somewhat predictably, the coal industry in Australia lobbied against it and in fact, had previously blamed renewable energy for South Australia’s state-wide blackouts that occurred after massive storms. But was renewable energy at fault for power outages? And is this sparking new Tesla mega battery the game-changer for renewable energy that Elon Musk and others would have us believe?

Earlier this week, I spoke with Tim Hollo from Canberra, Australia, who is the executive director of the Green Institute and author of the recent article published in The Guardian titled, “Elon Musk’s Big Battery Brings Reality Crashing Into Post-Truth World.” I thank you so much for joining us, Tim.

TIM HOLLO: Thank you very much for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: So, Tim first, before we discuss the politics of all of this, is the Tesla battery a potential game-changer in terms of energy storage and the viability of renewable energy?

TIM HOLLO: Look, I think it is one of many game-changers that we’re just seeing coming one after the other at the moment around the world in the development of renewable energy. It’s certainly going to make a huge difference to the way renewable energy is perceived, I believe. But it’s really based on the fact that there’s been this solid, solid post-truth, as I put it, critique over renewable energy coming for years, which has never really held a lot of truth to it. In Northern Europe, there’s countries which have not used battery technology, but have had very, very large amounts of renewable energies in their grids, the northern half of Germany, Denmark, and have managed to balance their grids very, very effectively with good computer technology and good management. I think Tesla’s high profile and the way they operate can be a game-changer as much as their technology impact in some ways.

SHARMINI PERIES: What is the political backdrop to all of this coming about, Tim? Is the coal industry floundering in Australia as it is in the US here?

TIM HOLLO: Steps behind the US in terms of the floundering, but yes, absolutely, it is happening. Coal is mounting its last stand in Australia as it is around the world. It’s back as in politics and in the media have been using this opportunity as they use every opportunity they can to try to undermine the growth of renewable energy. They, particularly those in politics, I think those who don’t have a very direct financial stake, the really big problem that they have is that renewable energy lends itself to decentralization, and therefore to democratization of the energy grid. That means that it’s much more difficult for very large corporations to maintain the hugely profitable control that they have. They’re doing everything they can to undermine that, to slow it down, to hold it back but it’s not working.

We’re seeing huge coal mining developments that would have gone ahead a few years ago not happen here in Australia, not because the governments are blocking them because actually the governments want them to go ahead, but because the market for coal is evaporating. Australia’s coal market is primarily more of an export to countries like India and China than it is locally. But local coal-powered stations closing down and with India and China increasingly turning to renewables as a better solution, the market is evaporating and the coal industry is really starting to flounder here.

SHARMINI PERIES: Is there a growing pushback going on in terms of the Tesla battery’s capabilities and the coal being phased out? Is there a pushback from the coal industry?

TIM HOLLO: Since the battery has actually been implemented, there hasn’t been a lot of noise, which is what I was predicting and which is a really positive sign that this battery is going to make a difference. There was a huge, huge outcry at the time and before it. As you said in your introduction, I think the trigger for it was a series of blackouts that happened in the state of South Australia, which were triggered by some really massive storms that we had. What happened was that those storms brought down the high-voltage electricity wires, which tripped the system and the whole state of South Australia essentially was blacked out for a period of time.

Now, what happened then was that the coal companies and their political backers and their media backers immediately jumped on this because South Australia has long been a leader in renewable energy development, particularly wind but also solar power. They blamed renewable energy when in fact it was the high-voltage wires that went down in the storm and it wouldn’t have mattered what the supply was. It wouldn’t have made any difference what the supply was. They used that as an opportunity to attack renewable energy and they did so very, very viciously.

Then when Elon Musk came around through an interesting coincidence of Twitter conversations, they turned on him quite nastily as well and said that this was not the right solution. Well, it’s a solution which has been adopted, which is now in place. Interestingly enough, there’s been radio silence, basically, from the critics since then.

SHARMINI PERIES: Tim, a Yale University report in October of 2017 found that more than 70% of Americans now believe in climate change and over half of the Americans, which are 54% of them, understand that global warming is mostly human-caused. This is the highest-level measured since their surveys began in 2008. Now, do most Australians accept this concept that climate change is being caused by humans? And what has the response by Australians been to the kind of continuing of this government’s efforts to continue to produce fossil fuels?

TIM HOLLO: Absolutely. In fact, a higher proportion of Australians do respect the science, believe that climate change is happening and believe that it is caused by human activities. Australians have, for a very long time, supported when asked in surveys like this transition to renewable energy and a swift transition to renewable energy. What we’ve had is a political duopoly, basically, with our conservative party, known as the Liberal Party, confusingly. But our Conservative Liberal Party very strongly backing the coal industry and led by, over recent years, mostly, climate deniers. Although our current Conservative Prime Minister is not a climate denier but he’s kind leg-roped to the far right of his party. And at the same time, a Labor Party, who’s been very torn as well. They are a reasonably progressive party that on the surface talks about climate change and believing and respecting the signs of climate change but they’re also a union-based party, which is very firmly tied to the union ribbon in Australia, which is and has been historically very close to the coal industry.

We’ve had this problem politically where most Australians want to see action and they want to see action fast but our two biggest political parties don’t. That’s part of the disconnect in politics that’s going on globally. I think that’s one of the key aspects over here in Australia, this increasing disconnection and disenfranchisement, where the political parties simply aren’t doing what the people want them to do.

SHARMINI PERIES: Right. Tim, Reuters recently reported that South Australia is turning to wind power. Has that triggered a shutdown of the coal-fired plants that has led to this outages across Eastern part of the nation and from what I understand is…

TIM HOLLO: The short answer is no, we’re not having power outages very much at all. And we’re certainly not having power outages that are caused by power shortages. We’re having a huge increase in renewable energy growth in Australia led by South Australia, also led by the Australian capital territory, Canberra, where I’m speaking to you from, but also happening a lot in Queensland, in the north of the country. Really big expansion in solar, large-scale solar power, as well as wind. We really don’t have power shortages in this country.

On the occasions when we have blackouts, when we have power cuts, generally, that’s being driven by external factors like big storms or heat waves. The big storms are bringing down power lines. We’re having most of the storms which has been attributed to climate change, and of course the heat waves that we have here in Australia, extreme heat in large parts of this country are obviously attributable to climate change.

What’s interesting there is that the coal-fired power stations, which still form the bulk of Australia’s power system are much more vulnerable to extreme heat than the renewable energy power generation. And also, the centralized nature of a coal-based power system is also much more vulnerable to extreme weather than a decentralized renewable energy and battery-backed power system.

So, yeah, as I said, the short answer is actually our power grid is extremely stable here in Australia. It’s extremely reliable and we don’t have many power outages. This interesting political line that’s been being run that we have what’s called the energy trilemma that we need to balance reliability, cost and emissions of the power system, where conveniently the Conservatives put emissions right down the bottom of the pile and talk about trying to keep power reliable and cheap. Actually, Coal is not serving either of those purposes either. It’s not more reliable than a renewable system and it’s no longer cheaper than a renewable system either.

SHARMINI PERIES: Thank you so much for joining us today and look forward to more reports from Australia. I thank you.

TIM HOLLO: Thank you very much for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.