30 June 2022
It turns out that South Australia’s miracle battery solution to the instability of renewable energy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The Hornsdale Power Reserve, famous for being Australia’s world-first so-called ‘big battery’ (or battery farm), has been fined $900,000 and promised to repay some of the money it received after it fell short on its energy promises.
It was sued when the company failed to provide enough power when the Queensland Kogan Creek coal-fired power station failed in 2019 despite being paid as a standby energy provider.
‘It is vital that generators do what they say they can do if we’re going to keep the lights on through the market’s transition to viable renewable generation,’ said Australian Energy Regulator Chair, Clare Savage in 2021.
Bizarrely, the battery farm is the result of a Twitter bet (yes, really) between the world’s richest man, Tesla’s Elon Musk, and Australian billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes (founder of Atlassian and famous for buying up reliable coal-fired energy with the intention of shutting it down early). Cannon-Brookes gave Musk 100 days to build the battery and Tesla agreed on the proviso that if it wasn’t completed, it would be free.
Cannon-Brookes eventually conceded saying that he has ‘never been more happy to lose a bet’.
Battery farms like Hornsdale are essential parts of the renewable energy grid, smoothing off the wild fluctuations in power provided by wind and solar. Without something stabilising the power, renewables are virtually useless to the requirements of a national grid.
Hornsdale is run by a subsidiary of the French renewable energy company Neoen, which is building some of Australia’s largest solar and wind farms. Earlier, they made promises to the Australian Energy Market Operator about Hornsdale’s ability which they failed to fulfil causing the Australian Energy Regulator to drag them off to the Federal Court.
The failure has been blamed on a software update issued by Tesla to the battery farm.
With energy margins thinner than ever, broken promises can cause serious disruption to energy planning – especially as more reliable coal-fired base-load energy is scheduled to come offline permanently.
‘Hornsdale admitted it would have been unable to comply with its offers and provide those services during that period, despite being paid to do so,’ said a spokesperson from the AER.
Lithium-ion battery farms have a long way to go before they come anywhere near to being the sole backup provider of energy. They also have a worrying habit of bursting into flames, with several giant fires in other Tesla-made mega batteries causing havoc (and spewing a lot of toxic smoke into the atmosphere it’s meant to be saving).
If a battery like this catches fire, its smoke may contain mercury, lead, selenium, manganese, chromium, arsenic, cadmium, and aluminium – and it can burn for days, with one incident in Victoria persisting for 76 hours despite 150 firefighters trying to put it out.
Neoen’s Big Battery at Geelong demonstrated just how noxious this technology can be when during a thermal runway that puts surrounding batteries in danger.
There have been fires at battery farms in Arizona, South Korea, and Europe which triggered safety investigations and hasty updates.
The same problem is found in electric vehicles, raising concerns about what will happen when thousands of eCars are packed together in shopping centre car parks or beneath apartment blocks.
Because the fires do not require oxygen, take a stupid amount of water to extinguish, and burn hot enough to melt aluminium, they pose a unique safety a risk – particularly with the explosion of residential batteries.
There is very little firefighters can do about these sorts of fires except contain them and hope for the best.
Across the UK, regulations are being relaxed leading to a surge in battery farm installations, particularly in rural areas. Not everyone is happy, with the value of their land dropping if they live next door to a potentially dangerous power storage device that is nowhere near as quiet nor as ‘green’ as advertised. Will the same fate befall Australia’s once-pristine rural communities?
‘I’m not up for a situation in which there’s a fire burning for 11 hours behind my house or the glass side of my house blows in while my children are watching television. That concerns me a great deal. Nobody really knows the risks, and that’s shocking,’ said Riemsdijk in 2021.
The UK government seems prepared to turn a blind eye to the risks of battery farms, saying:
‘The government today announced it will relax planning legislation to make it easier to construct large batteries to store renewable energy from solar and wind farms across the UK.
Removing barriers for energy storage projects, which are discouraging bolder investment decisions in larger battery facilities, could treble the number of batteries serving the electricity grid. It will help bring about storage cells that are 5 times bigger than those currently available.’
It’s all part of the Net Zero, low-Carbon, let’s pretend we’re not still using coal initiative by Western governments to look virtuous in front of United Nations climate panels.
But how ‘green’ is a runaway toxic fire coating the surrounding area in heavy metals? How environmentally friendly is the mining-intense rare earths industry that threatens to destroy the ocean floor or enslave third-world children? Do we really believe that short-lived technology headed for landfill after a few decades is really ‘renewable’?
Former Prime Minister Scott Morrison thought so. He threw $100 million taxpayer dollars at the Australian Renewable Energy Agency to build even more batteries.
Tim Wilson said at the time, ‘Our plan to be carbon neutral by 2050 is coming to life through large-scale batteries that harness the potential of renewables while offsetting their intermittency.’
…if only there was a technology with billions of years of Australian-owned fuel that provided reliable base-load energy and next to no carbon emissions… Nah. If that existed, the government would probably ban it.