Chief Scientist says big batteries are not ready to fast-track energy transition

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As the debate about a gas-fired recovery from Covid-19 rages on in Australia, the nation’s chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel has said using gas in the short- and medium-term was Australia’s most efficient pathway to net zero emissions. Describing gas as an enabler in the energy transition, Finkel said that battery storage is still decades away from being able to support a renewables-dominated grid.

Appearing as a guest on ABC’s Q&A program on Monday, Finkel said that gas is a perfect complement to solar and wind – a statement lately often heard from Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor – adding that gas is “much, much more scale than batteries”. “If we just try and bring on a lot of solar and a lot of wind electricity … there will be a limited rate given the availability and cost of batteries,” the Chief Scientist said. “Maybe 20 or 30 years from now we’ll have new kinds of batteries, vastly powerful, more extensive batteries and we can do it with batteries.”

However, battery storage has already shown its potential in Australia and proved its worth across a vast array of applications. For instance, the world’s biggest operating battery, the 100MW/129MWh Hornsdale Power Reserve, or Tesla big battery, in South Australia, has repeatedly demonstrated its immense value for the grid, largely through grid stabilization services and savings, while it also assumed a critical role in keeping the light on in SA this summer. But the project, which is being expanded by 50%, through the addition of 50MW/64.5 MWh of Tesla batteries, is set to become an even more valuable asset to the National Electricity Market (NEM) through the addition of digital inertia services.

Notwithstanding, Finkel went on to say that “the quickest way to develop our renewable electricity system is to support it with gas”. When asked about this “short-term” dependence on gas, Finkel said: “The reality is we’re going to have to rely on it for 10-20 perhaps 30 years. Up to three decades.”

But Finkel’s view was challenged by fellow panelist and former Sydney Lord Mayor Lucy Turnbull, who said that giving gas such a prominent role in the transition to zero emissions was “a little troubling”. “We have to have a national and a global goal of having net zero carbon by 2050,” she said. “The way to get there is to have renewables, plus storage. Not just batteries – you can have pumped hydro, and the battery technology revolution is really amongst us.”

She argued that over-investment in gas is the wrong path to take in the post-Covid-19 world, which should be reconceived as “a post-carbon world“. The nation should aim high, she said, and “have the goal of having the emissions profile and aspirations of say, Denmark, with the energy costs of Saudi Arabia”. “If you have that goal, what is your pathway to get there? It probably isn’t gas,” she said.

The ABC panel came close on the heels of the last week’s release of a discussion paper on the Morrison government’s Technology Roadmap, which featured gas as a key fuel of the future, and the news about a Covid-19 commission push for Australian taxpayers to underwrite gas industry expansion. The leaked draft report by a manufacturing taskforce advising the National Covid-19 Coordination Commission recommended the Morrison government help open new fields and build hundreds of kilometers of pipelines, without considering the risk of investing in fossil fuel as emissions are cut.