The battery that made headlines

It is hard to imagine that something as mundane as a battery could make national headlines, but that is what happened last week in Australia. I was there for a family visit and as much as climate science gets debated in the media (see my previous post), it barely rates against the energy debate that has dominated the Australian headlines in recent months. The issue is the cost of electricity and the reliability of supply, both of which continue to be contentious subjects.

The cost of electricity has risen sharply in Australia over the last two years, but this has been coupled with supply problems that have led to blackouts in some parts of the country. This has been most visible in South Australia, which has closed all its coal fired power plants and invested heavily in renewable energy. The result is a wind / solar / natural gas power mix, backed up by an inter-connector with Victoria. For the most part this has been a workable solution, but when particular conditions coincide the result can mean blackouts or load shedding by some industrial customers. This usually involves periods of high load coinciding with low renewable energy availability at a time when some other part of the network is under stress, e.g. supply from the inter-connector. The problem is that this has happened enough times to become a major issue, leading to extensive media coverage, finger pointing and public outcry.

The reporting around this issue can be likened to the climate science debate I discussed in my last post – i.e. overly prone to hyperbole and lacking in basic facts. The solution that has been proposed for South Australia is the rapid construction of battery storage and into this foray stepped Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla). Some months ago, after power supply problems in South Australia hit the headlines yet again, he made the offer to build a major Lithium-Ion storage facility in 100 days, with no payment required if construction was delayed beyond that period. Not surprisingly this galvanized the government and led to a public tender for such a facility.

Last week the South Australia government announced that Tesla had won a tender to build a grid scale battery. The project will incorporate a 100MW peak output battery with 129 megawatt hours of storage alongside an existing windfarm, near Jamestown. Elon Musk flew into Adelaide for the announcement, which added to the fervour. What was interesting was the reaction in the media, ranging from support bordering on adulation to downright condemnation. Contrast the July 9th Sun-Herald, where their social commentator Peter Fitzsimons noted;

Oh, how sweet it is. After all the haters, all the pile-ons, all the craven dinosaur politics which maintains that coal really does have a future, the SA government shimmies, shakes, steps left, steps right, bursts through into clear and announces its lithium battery deal.

. . . with political commentator Tim Blair in the Daily Telegraph on July 10th, who starts a near full page article with the headlines;

Charge of the left brigade – People are falling over themselves to fawn over magic man Elon Musk’s battery absurdity but he is just the latest saviour to get the green light from eco worriers.

Neither are energy commentators of any note, but such is state of the energy transition debate in Australia that this doesn’t seem to matter. The controversy highlights the need for clear policy and thoughtful steps forward in implementing an energy transition, irrespective of the reasons driving such a transition, be they climate change, energy costs, local air quality or some combination of these and other needs.

In the case of South Australia, exuberance and some technology bias led to a rapid shift in the electricity system to a point where stability became a problem, which will now take some time to correct. The battery solution isn’t a full solution at all, but one of several measures that will be required to correct the imbalance that has been created. Alongside the Musk excitement, there was also the recent announcement that the government will build additional gas fired generation capacity at a cost of over A$300 million.

The South Australian electricity system operates at around 2-3 GW, with peaks and troughs depending on the time of day and year. Annual demand is some 14,400 GWh, or about 40,000 MWh per day. The initial battery capacity is 129 MWh. The gas capacity can add over 5,000 MWh per day if it operates continuously, or 13% of the demand. While the battery commanded all the headlines, it is clearly not a solution for extended periods of high demand or reduced supply, given that it can hold only 5 minutes of South Australian demand. However, it is an important step in the quest for a more balanced system that has very high levels (often >70%) of intermittent renewable energy. Further battery systems are likely, but a better balance between natural gas and renewable energy would appear to be the more achievable outcome in the short to medium term. It is also likely to be the more cost efficient outcome, given the ~A$100 million investment required (according to a local private source) for what will be the largest Lithium-Ion battery system in the world.