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Mainstream Energy and Climate Reporting Leaves Much to be Desired

David Hone's picture
Chief Climate Change Adviser Shell International Ltd.

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member of the International Emissions Trading Association...

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  • Jul 17, 2017
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A visit home to Australia is always interesting when it comes to energy and climate reporting in the media, simply because of the controversy around these issues in the country. Australia has been trying to implement meaningful carbon emissions energy policy for nearly a decade and has made little progress.

On this visit, my first perusal of a newspaper highlighted the controversy that exists. The Weekend Australian reported on a recent paper in Nature Geoscience that examined the differences in model and satellite measured tropospheric warming rates. The paper focused particularly on the early 21st century when model warming exceeded observed warming, raising the possibility of a pause in the warming trend.The Weekend Australian opened the article with the words “Climate models were wrong . . . ” and continued with the words “The admission . . . . “, as if there was guilt attached to the finding. This approach sets the tone of the discussion as being negative towards and skeptical of climate science, even though this isn’t the direction being taken by the Nature paper itself. Rather, the paper is about the divergence in model output and observational data presenting an opportunity to better understand the variability of the climate system and therefore improve modelling science.

On a similar note, but at the other end of the spectrum, The Guardian almost gleefully reports a few days after the Weekend Australian that “Hopes . . . . have been dashed by new research.” that longer term warming will be less than expected if based on the temperature rises seen in recent decades. Rather, it explains that longer term warming will be much higher and likely closer to model expectations based on the findings of the paper that they chose to select and discuss.

Both the research papers in question represent different but equally valid attempts by the science community to better understand the underlying climate sensitivity and the reasons for variability. Both papers help advance that understanding and both have proposed reasons why there is divergence between models and observations. This is important work, but the reporting of it leaves much to be desired.

Picking and choosing particular pieces of work and then amplifying one aspect of those stories with hyperbole isn’t helping inform the public on the reality of the climate issue and the scale of the job in front of society to tackle global emissions. It adds to the divisions that exist rather than attempting to bring the sides together. In both cases, the more informed reporting would have been to tell the reader that the science community is building a better understanding of climate sensitivity and the reasons for variability.

The story doesn’t end with climate science reporting; in Australia it extends to energy as well, perhaps even more so. The last few days have highlighted this. It is hard to imagine that something as mundane as a battery could make national headlines, but that is what happened recently in Australia. The central 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 reporting of the previous week – 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.

On July 7th 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 some 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 private local source) for what will be the largest Lithium-Ion battery system in the world.

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 17, 2017

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.

David, both you I know that any outcome which relies on fossil fuel is nothing more than a stopgap. More importantly, IPCC knows it. From AR5:

In the majority of low-stabilization scenarios, the share of low-carbon electricity supply (comprising RE, nuclear and CCS) increases from the current share of approximately 30 % to more than 80 % by 2050, and fossil fuel power generation without CCS is phased out almost entirely by 2100.

How can we possibly get to 80% low-carbon electricity by 2050 by builidng new gas plants?

Here’s an idea: how about we outlaw sales of fossil fuel which are unmatched by the molar equivalent of carbon being permanently and verifiably sequestered by the fossil fuel companies that sell it? The price of gasoline would skyrocket, and very little carbon would be sequestered (it wouldn’t happen anyway), but it would force humanity to figure out how to rely on energy that doesn’t destroy its surroundings.

David Hone's picture
David Hone on Jul 18, 2017

Bob, over time I think there is a necessity in matching fossil fuel use with equivalent CCS – if not, you never get to net zero emissions. But the price of gasoline would hardly skyrocket. Very roughly, a dollar in carbon costs translates to a penny a gallon of gasoline. So if we started a program to require an increasing proportion of CO2 to be sequestered (say 1% rising to 15% over the period 2020-2030, so getting to 100% by the 2080s) and CCS cost $100 per tonne to deliver, then the cost in the 2020s would be about 8 cents per gallon sold. In the 2040s as the proportion rose but hopefully the cost of CCS declined, it might be 15-20 cents per gallon. Eventually, with a 100% requirement in place and CCS being delivered at, say, $70 in current dollars, it adds 70 cents to a gallon. But presumably by then gasoline (and other parts of the barrel) is being used in a minority of transport (aviation, shipping, heavy road transport etc.), so the total CCS load in terms of construction plateaus at some point between 2020 and 2080.

Engineer- Poet's picture
Engineer- Poet on Jul 18, 2017

I draw a slightly different lesson than Bob.  I note that, DESPITE:

1.)  NG capacity able to serve 13% of demand, and
2.)  interconnects to neighboring grids, presumably with fossil-fired generation,

the “green” energy is unable to deliver stable, reliable power.

The Tesla battery, at ~2.5% of average demand, only raises the on-demand fraction to 15.5% and only for as much as 77 minutes.  I predict that frequency stability will improve, but the load-shedding and blackouts will continue.

South Australia is doing good work, though.  By proving that “renewables” lead to a grid operating at third-world standards it is serving as a cautionary tale, showing us that the claims of Mark Z. Jacobson and his ilk are fraudulent.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jul 18, 2017

David, coincidently today on TEC’s homepage David Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, is quoted with the flat denunciation “Carbon capture and sequestration does not work”:

http://www.theenergycollective.com/desmog/2408876/clean-coal-ccs-failure...

As the opinion of the man responsible for keeping the largest coal company in the U.S. profitable, that would seem to carry some weight. What do you know that he doesn’t, or vice versa?

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jul 19, 2017

… Annual demand is some 14,400 GWh, or about 40,000 MWh per day. The initial battery capacity is 129 MWh. … 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 …

I agree with the opening critique of hyperbole in media reviews of scientific publications (Guardian, W. Australian). Here though is more hyperbole, labeling a 0.3% of daily load battery system as an “important step”. I don’t follow why the prior clear description of battery limitations doesn’t come to a full stop after “5 minutes” of SA demand. The Tesla system needs a multiplier of 300X to cover the SA day, and likely 3000X to cover worst case 10 day equivalent lulls. The latter is more than ten years of full production from the Tesla ‘Gigafactory’ battery plant, all dedicated just to S. Australia. A 129 MWh battery installation on a major grid is no step at all, but PR.

The article leaves the impression that, for now, a new gas plant or two can cover SA outages, and, later, battery tech might replace fossils altogether. This suggestion is on par with the distortions cited in media publications. Both of these options (gas, high share solar-wind+battery) should be shown to create unacceptable emissions or to be unfeasible, and then nuclear is inevitable. Yet the word does not appear.

Nathaniel Pearre's picture
Nathaniel Pearre on Jul 20, 2017

I also agree with the opening critique of hyperbole, so I was surprised to find you basing your calculation on there being no generation in or electricity imports into SA for 10 days, and planning a battery to supply all the energy needs for roughly 7% of the country.

A $3M investment for ~200 MW of gas and a $1M investment for 100 MW of storage seems like a grand combination. Peaker plants don’t generally have to run that long (at least according to the data I’ve seen), and I would be very surprised if they hadn’t done some feasibility analysis to come up with an energy & power specification for the storage.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Jul 21, 2017

While neither the SA government nor Tesla have released costs of the planned SA-Tesla battery system, Forbes contributor Rod Adams estimates $US150- $US180 million for the 100MW/129MWh system, using $400- $600 per kWh including all ancillary costs (shipping, tarrifs, cooling, site work). At 100MW, run time is probably 80 mins. The planned fast spin up gas plant for SA is 250 MWe for $360 million, which can of course run indefinately.

Reliance on imports via transmission from other states kicks the reliability and emissions problems elsewhere; it does not resolve them in SA. In particular, imports from other Austrailian states very likely means coal power, creating more dependence on coal for electric generation (63% coal, 86% fossil 2015), the highest share of coal use for a country in the developed world. Intermittent reliance on distant fossil plants means expensive power, already a worsening problem in SA.

An intermittent power lull of 10 days at near zero (very rare) creates the same storage demand as 20 days at half power (not so rare for winter, say), and so on.

Lewis Perelman's picture
Lewis Perelman on Jul 24, 2017

It seems all agree with the premise of David’s post: Reporting of energy and climate issues is commonly flawed. He refers to ‘mainstream media’ — begging the question of whether non-mainstream media are more effective. And even if some are more precise and nuanced, how much of an audience do they affect?

Roger PIelke Jr. in his book The Climate Fix and other work showed how the UN’s decision to engage scientists in policy making had a corrosive effect on both, raising legitimate concerns about the politicization of science.

But the problem, even crisis perhaps, of science (or just reason), media and politics cuts across many other issues than just climate. Trust in an array of public institutions, including science, government, and media, has been eroding at least since the 1960s.

As 19th century humorist Josh Billings noted, what gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know but what we know for sure that just ain’t so.

I wish I had a hopeful answer. The closest I can come is the confidence that in the end, reality always wins. Also that after the Dark Ages, there was a Renaissance.

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