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I am professional energy journalist, writer and editor who has been chronicling the renewables and fossil fuel energy sectors since 2008.  I am passionate about the energy transition, so much so...

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  • Apr 5, 2021
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The impoverished Australasian island of East Timor has pulled a notable U-turn by pursuing imports of liquefied natural gas, drawing a line under years of fruitless efforts to develop the country’s own domestic gas resource – and ignoring cheaper and cleaner alternatives.

Timor wants to convert three power plants from light fuel oil to relatively cheaper and cleaner natural gas. Importing LNG is now seen as the fastest way to achieve this, after a Chinese-backed plan to liquefy gas from East Timor’s Greater Sunrise offshore field hit the skids.

Replacing Timor-Leste’s three thermal power generators – which together are less than 270 MW – with a combination of wind, solar power and battery storage does not seem to have been considered, despite plunging costs and Timor’s abundant renewable resources.

East Timor has woken up to the folly of pursuing highly speculative economic benefits of a domestic LNG project, only to fall back in bed with a problematic non-solution.

Read more in today's edition of Energy Flux - the daily news-and-views-letter dedicated to chronicling the global energy transition.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Apr 5, 2021

How much consideration has also been given to the geopolitical issues of being reliant on imported fuels (not to mention logistical, as we've seen in the U.S. when storms knock out oil refining or imports into the Gulf)?

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Seb Kennedy on Apr 5, 2021

There is a geopolitical angle in there, with potential involvement of US Embassy in the project. From the article: "China’s growing presence in the region spooks the State Department and some Australian politicians too, so an American-funded regasification terminal fed by US LNG could form a bulwark against Beijing’s burgeoning sphere of influence. As things stand that remains a highly distant possibility, but when an infrastructure project acquires a geopolitical dimension this can skew the priorities of host governments."

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Bob Meinetz on Apr 6, 2021

"Replacing Timor-Leste’s three thermal power generators – which together are less than 270 MW – with a combination of wind, solar power and battery storage does not seem to have been considered, despite plunging costs and Timor’s abundant renewable resources."

Seb, no competent electrical engineer would consider a grid powered by wind, solar power, and battery storage as a suitable replacement for natural gas.
That such a grid is even possible is an imagination of those with plenty of reliable gas, coal, or nuclear generation to come to the rescue whenever the sun, the wind, and dead batteries (even the best lithium-ion batteries need to be charged) conspire to rob consumers of their lifeblood in any modern economy.
It happens more often than many think, and it's not a matter of buying more batteries. Batteries could be free, and there could never be enough of them to power an electrical grid. And yet it seems to be the mission of many groups, Greenpeace chief among them, to thrust the burden of cost and unreliability on the people least capable of dealing with it.
"No," say the people of East Timor. "Climate change? That's a problem for the developed world. Our problem is survival, and until you figure out the details of a carbon free grid, please take your plastic solar panels, your microgrids, batteries, good intentions, and go home."

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Seb Kennedy on Apr 6, 2021

Bob, importing LNG to meet a demand anchor of <270MW makes no economic sense. You need a much larger load to justify the capital investment in the terminal and regasification facilities. Locking a small developing island nation into fossil fuel imports for 20+ years and putting it at the mercy of global commodity markets doesn't seem to be a very wise move, climate change or not.

Renewables + storage can and will be viable for small, isolated grids in sunny windy locations such as such as Timor much sooner than many mainstream analysts predict. What's the alternative, leave the plants running on expensive and dirty heavy fuel oil?

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Apr 7, 2021

Seb, there is no grid, municipality, or microgrid in the world that runs on "renewables + batteries". Though the mainstream analysts at battery manufacturers are more than happy to take advantage of that comfortable fantasy, a fantasy it will remain.

Maybe it's necessary to have lived in an area with unreliable electricity to appreciate why. It's not a matter of cost: batteries and solar panels could be free, and it will still never happen. Why? Whether you live in East Timor or Syracuse, allowing all lights, computers and cellphones to go dark - in hospitals, police stations, factories, banks, and businesses, for an indefinite period of time - is not an option.

Last August In California, the lights did go out in several areas of the state, if only for hours, and it was hilarious to see residents of wealthy San Jose so frightened and helpless, like the city had been occupied by an invading force. It weas simply because had taken reliable, dispatchable electricity for granted.

What's the alternative, leave the plants running on expensive and dirty heavy fuel oil?

If fuel oil is the only alternative to unreliable electricity, it's the best alternative for residents of East Timor (ask someone who lives in San Jose). They may have to stock up on fuel oil, but they will never, ever have to worry about all the lights going out.

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