With Limited Power Density Comes Unappreciated Responsibility

Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has called an urgent meeting of federal and state energy ministers aimed at stopping a repeat of this month’s power crisis in South Australia.

Mr Frydenberg said the meeting on August 19 would look at how higher shares of wind and solar energy and new technologies such as batteries can be integrated into the energy mix in a way that keeps energy markets stable and secure.

This is welcome news.

To my thinking you can’t do lower emissions future without thinking about affordable, accessible, reliable. And you can’t have affordable, accessible, reliable without being connected to what our international commitments are to reduce our carbon footprint.”

It is my hope that the meeting will critically examine how these issues mesh together – particularly when it comes to the hyperbole and reality around batteries.

We already have demonstrations, such as the 1.1 megawatt hour (MWh) Alkimos project in Perth which delivered around $6.1 million per MWh. Then we have the estimates of ESCRI-SA for 2 hours at 10 megawatts of similar lithium technology, costing $24.88 million (i.e. $1.244 million per MWh). If actually constructed, could a startling cost reduction of 80% really be expected? Maybe it could happen, but this is beyond any storage cost optimism to date and already hints at an erosion of the fringes of reality.


A bigger battery is essentially just more lithium cells, such as the ubiquitous 18650: for batteries, economies of scale are predominantly achieved at the factory.

Over recent times the cost of battery storage has been halving every 18 to 20 months.

from the ALP’s 50% renewable energy summary.

What I’m driving at is that the ministers need to steer clear of the obvious bullshit. The ALP’s policy page is a golden example. “18 to 20 months”? That’s Moore’s Law for transistor density being blatantly misapplied to electrochemical storage technologies – a sadly common transgression. Believing it anyway is only going to dig us in deeper.

A meaningful starting point would be the ESCRI-SA estimate of installation lifespan: 10 years. I’m certain that the National Electricity Market has never relied on such a short-lived piece of infrastructure before. Energy security and climate action demands multigenerational spans for new clean assets, not rollout rates quickly overlapped with replacement rates.

What staggers me is that policy is allowing renewables to connect to the grid without any real, material obligation on them to manage the intermittent and unstable power they dispatch,” said Mr Green, a former government and private sector adviser on energy [and a partner in Lyon Solar who are planning PV/battery projects].

“The real challenge for governments everywhere is ‘how do you manage these aspirational targets to reduce global [greenhouse gas] emissions and not destabilise the grid or have to spend a lot of money upgrading the grid to cope with the intermittent power?’

South Australia is suffering from the closure of coal-fired power stations that can provide baseload power as well as stability and voltage control, he said.

via Visual Capitalist, Battery Series_Part 2_05

How much battery storage? Even the most vocal proponents don’t specify, but hopefully some prudent estimates will emerge from this ministerial meeting. For now, let’s look at what was recently, desperately needed in the state, which was one week’s operation of the Pelican Point combined cycle plant. It supplied at roughly 160 MW in that time: 7 x 24 x 160 = 26,880 MWh. So the temporary service provided by less than 40% of a gas power station’s capacity is clearly beyond the reach of a storage installation. Even a day’s worth would take billions of dollars in batteries. And this – the prospect of the sort of sustained high prices which could eventually justify such investments – may be the most unappreciated risk South Australia now faces.


4 thoughts on “With Limited Power Density Comes Unappreciated Responsibility

  1. AEMO predicts Australia will have 6.6 Gwh in stationary battery storage by 2035. At 233 Twh a year electricity consumption I make that about 15 minutes worth. Off grid homesteads recommended several days worth of battery storage to avoid using the diesel generator. I find it odd that the 100% renewables crowd occupy the high moral ground yet they seem to struggle with simple arithmetic. They then emblazen that with magical thinking about voluntary demand cuts by consumers and cost reductions in their preferred technologies. It’s like a religious cult.

    SA may have to wait until 2030 to get a proven SMR design. Meanwhile things are going backwards fast. ideally the Latrobe and Hunter Valleys would get twin gigawatt light water NPPs to replace ageing coal stations. SA would do reprocessing (mox, dupic or pyro) and re-use via 4th gen or heavy water. I still think a CANDU 6 is a good shovel ready proposition for SA in case the others are slow in arriving.

    • I appreciate all the work AEMO does and all the data it provides, but is the 10 year life-cycle accounted for in that projection? Because it means anything installed before roughly 2025 won’t count towards it. Putting aside the assumptions around how well it actually serves the climate (because everyone does) this will be the equivalent of 330 ESCRI-SA batteries, 33 installed per year (1 every 1.5 weeks) for 10 years straight, costing (by their estimate) $8.2 billion, with the first 33 starting to wear out by the target year.

      You and I both know what that many billions would buy, that could realistically be running by 2035, with way over half a century left of service life, and which would completely replace over a gigawatt of coal capacity, with output measured in TWh.

      • Interesting point about 10 years. Nickel iron may be the only battery type that doesn’t need replacing by then but they may be too clunky for suburban homes. Also when AEMO predicts flat electricity demand to 2035 they seem to assume cheap oil and few EVs. However an oil price rebound and $2.50/L fuel could maybe see millions of EVs charged at night adding greatly to total electricty demand.

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