Electricity – to privatise or not

After the blackout again today, there has been discussion on whether privatisation of electricity is a good or bad thing.

Can we bring the discussion into this thread as I think we will all learn a lot if we have a dedicated thread for this?


58 Responses

  1. For those of you who have read my previous link. I provide the qualifications of the author.


  2. Would someone suggest the location(s) of millions of acres of solar panels? Because it will require millions and millions to replace one power station.

    Solar and wind power simply aren’t ready to replace base load power, so proponents will have to put up with blackouts for a generation or 2, until the technology improves.

  3. I thought the base load argument had been put to pasture?

  4. Tom

    How about the simpson desert.

    After all the Wikipedia article you provided stated 4% of the worlds deserts would power the whole world requirement of electricity.

    Only thing stopping it is vision. Our politicians are far too short sighted these days. If the current lot of both sides of politics were in when the Snowy Mountains Scheme was proposed it would never have come to fruition.

  5. I thought the base load argument had been put to pasture?

    Is the science settled on that one too?

  6. Tony…lol!

  7. I know about 4% of deserts Shane, I quoted that in my original post.

    How much of the Simpson will you cover to have the generation capacity of one base load power station?

    Will the greens support all the poles and wires, and infrastructure, housing etc that will go with it?

  8. At least if it is built in the desert they will not have to chop down trees or destroy rainforest to make way for the power cables. The poles themselves could be concrete the way they are in South Australia.

    Do power lines run from Adelaide to Perth ?

    I have no idea if the greens will support it, would you like to ask them ?

    I would support it.

  9. Tony

    I thought that if we started to use solar, wind etc at the place that we use electricity (homes, businesses) then we would reduce the overall need for power stations – thereby reducing the need for more, as well as reducing the reliance on the current power stations. Thereby reducing the net carbon emissions?

    The existing (or reduced) power stations could then be used to supply base load.

    We just need to start thinking differently.

  10. In reality, we have blackouts now.

    This is because existing power stations aren’t operating as effectively as they could. The government has no money to build a new one.

    Solar power is not yet ready to provide the massive amounts of base load power we need. It is an evolving technology, and will be tested in remote regions for 20 or 30 years. Wind power is at the same stage of development.

    So if we need additional power, who will fund it? And what type of generation will be used? Coal or nuclear?

    These are entirely legitimate questions for those preferring not to have blackouts.

  11. Just a thought, but a good start might be to reduce energy consumption. Just thinking..but what about insulation???

  12. Joni (12:52 pm)

    Fair enough, Joni, that’s a nice theory, but hardly one everybody would agree with.

  13. Privatisation of the power grid in the US led to blackouts because private operators have a financial interest in shaving maintenance costs and lowering the reliability of the grid. Unless you’re entirely confident your regulators can hold them to suitable reliability standards, this seems like an inevitable outcome.

  14. Your 20 or 30 years may be a gross exaggeration Tom – things move rapidly in this area…. From last week’s Catalyst:

    Every hour, there’s more energy from the Sun hitting the Earth than all of the energy consumed on our planet in a year. But our use of solar technology to capture and store that energy is still just a drop in the ocean. One problem is that the silicon solar cells we’re used to are expensive and difficult to make. Now many labs around the world are making polymer solar cells out of plastics that don’t need silicon.


    Dr Gerry Wilson:
    If the world had about six one hundred kilometre by one hundred kilometre grids of ten percent efficient solar cells scattered around the world, we would be able to satisfy the world’s current energy needs. These plastic solar cells, we’re not restricted necessarily to put them on land. We could use them to cover our dams to stop evaporation. We could use them in the ocean.

  15. Min

    Exactly – if we reduce consumption thru renewables we might aleviate the need for additional power stations – which can still produce the base load.

  16. Joni, I certainly support a greater sense of being frugal, in energy consumption and elsewhere.

    We ought to provide tax breaks for installation of solar energy, and strongly support it’s continued R&D.

    It is simply a long way from replacing base load power. I believe storage is inefficient, supply can be unreliable. Base load generation can’t be effectively turned on and off when there is sufficient generation from other sources.

    Gas turbine generation is cleaner than coal, and can be run more intermittently to meet peaks in demand. But I think it is also more expensive than coal.

  17. Fair enough, Joni, that’s a nice theory, but hardly one everybody would agree with.

    Which I might suggest is not the standard that should be applied (otherwise nothing ever would change – there’s always someone who disagrees with any proposal).

    Will it work?

    Given that a significant chunk of peak daytime load is due to air-conditioning, which is only needed when it’s hot (and therefore usually sunny), there may be quite a bit of merit in it.

  18. Baccus, dams are supposed to be built in areas with lots of rain. Solar panels are supposed to be built where is sunny most of the time. Better to just get a big tarp for the dams.

  19. I believe storage is inefficient, supply can be unreliable.

    In what sense is storage “inefficient”, and what practical problems does that cause? (Burning coal is “inefficient”, as is burning petrol in combustion engines for that matter. We do both today, so obviously that’s no barrier – at least not on its own.)

  20. There once was a noble who built a fine estate complete with a long broad avenue leading up to the mansion. Surveying its aspect as it neared completion, he felt that something was missing. He summoned his chief groundskeeper and ordered that a row of grand trees be planted to line the avenue. The groundskeeper replied “But my Lord, those trees take 50 years to grow to a grand height!”. The noble responded “Yes they do, so you’d better get started right away.”

    Given that our current greenhouse gas emissions will still be circulating in the atmosphere in hundreds of years…

  21. I believe solar will only suffice for domestic applications, a roof system would not be sufficient to run an air conditioner or anything else with an electric motor larger than 1 HP, these require five times the power to start them.

    Base load power is required for industry and solar/wind is not and never will be the answer.

    I believe geothermal is an option, but yet again it will only be a percentage of what is required for today’s needs, little lone future needs.

    So that leaves just fossil fuel or nuclear power generation and the latter is not even on the table and will not be considered.

    If this carbon is going inhibit our survival as the government is speculating then surely there must be a question of their sincerity concerning their dismissal of the lesser evil in their grand scheme of things.

  22. I have no problem with the development of solar and wind power, geo thermal, tidal or any other alternative sources of energy. It is just a long way off for providing mass energy.

    I’m also happy to encourage a more frugal sense of consumption.

    But one of the areas of neglect that really annoys me is that the government has failed to learn a lesson from reduced water consumption.

    Products have no indication of the amount of energy used in production. Consumers have no targets, let alone restrictions.

    The government is simply committed to a price mechanism to drive people to use less.

    Can you imagine the outraged reaction of the public if only price increases were used to restrict water usage?

    This objective of reduction in consumption through price policy is neglectful by the government.

  23. It’s not exactly mainstream, and I doubt it’s going to work, but PG&E (the power company in California) signs up for 200MW of base load solar power. The key is in the fine print – they’ve only signed up to pay for delivered power, not R&D/infrastructure costs.

    A more plausible look at the “alternative energy can’t do base load” argument is in this PDF. The author points out, as do most who delve into the issues, that no single alternative energy source is going to provide the total solution. We need a mix with different characteristics. (I remember seeing the same argument developed from capacity considerations – it was clear from a back-of-the-envelope calculation that no single technology was going to be able to serve the entire US, for example.)

  24. Lotharson, that’s a good start.

    200mw is about ONE THIRTIETH of the base load power of Queensland.

    There would need to be 8 of these just to replace just the smallest power station in Queensland alone.

    To replace base load power in this way is a massive investment, and I don’t think people quite realise the magnitude of it.

    Still, I’m quite willing to support this development, it is simply not a panacea.

  25. For those who might be interested…the Water Transfer Project is expected to be listed as a possible project by Infrastructure Australia.

    It has been a long grind to get there by the people involved with many tears but it will be worth it.

  26. A plug for younger daughter’s research (again).

    From: http://www.imb.uq.edu.au/index.html?id=11700

    The Solar Bio-fuels consortium, co-directed by Ben Hankamer, has brought together an international team of specialists to develop high-efficiency 2nd-generation bio-fuel production systems using microalgae. This represents a rapidly expanding area of biotechnology of global significance.

    At present, to my knowledge it’s our crew at UQ working together with the Germans.

  27. Lotharsson, on April 28th, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    A great link.

  28. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nickel-iron_battery

    Combined with some hefty solar panels and voila! Storage!

    My brother the eco-warrior geek was telling me about these, he seems to think they never got into mainstream production cos what business wants to sell something that lasts ages? Not sure how big they are though, that may be an issue.

  29. Deb

    business wants to sell something that lasts ages

    That is a thought that I have had too. Renewable energy is not good for businesses because there is no residual payments. Once it is in place the business gets no more income – whereas coal, oil etc requires you to keep paying.

    Just like the genetically modified crops where the modification requires that you keep buying the seed from the manufacturer to keep their income stream going.

  30. On the subject of wind farms, does anyone remember when a wind farm in Victoria was cancelled because of the danger the blades posed to some birds?

    Lotharson, from your link – “even base-load power stations break down from time to time and, as a result, can be out of action for weeks.”

    Really? When was the last time a privately operated power station was unexpectedly shut for weeks?

    That is one of the supporting factors for private ownership, they operate at very high levels of reliability. It costs too much revenue to have them shut down.

    And Deb – “The battery enjoyed wide use for railroad signaling, fork lift, and standby power applications.”

    Possibly useful for cars, they don’t replace power stations.

  31. Tom

    That is hilarious the blades being a danger to birds. They turn so slowly I think the only thing in danger would be a turtle.

  32. Shane

    Cars, planes, trains, the windows of buildings etc are more dangerous for birds than a slow turning wind turbine blade.

  33. When was the last time a privately operated power station was unexpectedly shut for weeks?

    I seem to recall this happening a few months ago, but I don’t know for sure. You’re arguing that it doesn’t/can’t based on apparent motivations. Your analysis at that level fails to include factors such as the short-term savings that can be made from being less reliable, which improves short-term profits, which leads to better bonuses for executives…

    BTW, the same happens in the oil refining industry – for which you’d imagine the motivations of the private owners are exactly the same. Short-term cost savings slowly lower reliability, and (typically) a few years later the large costs are felt. And this is basically the same as the model used to explain what happened in the US when the grid was privatised.

  34. joni

    agree completely

  35. On the subject of privatisation. There are a number of examples where privatisation of something which is essentially a monopoly of a service has resulted in no good result for anyone. Naturally the word Telstra suddenly appears in one’s mind’s eye.

    If Country Energy provides lousy service, is there an alternative?

  36. I should have added, should a public instrumentality provide lousy service then one can contact one’s local MP and if it gets ‘that bad’ then vote the government out at the next election. See NSW government vs public transport.

    But if privatised where to??

    Which brings a thought to mind, a side benefit of privatising means that a state government no longer has the responsibility for inefficient services. Whooo me? Sorry, not us.

  37. joni & Shane, You’d be amazed at the level of public debate over the number of white bellied sea eagles that may have perished by being chopped by a wind turbine blade.

    Like so much of this debate – sounds good but NIMBY

  38. Tom

    Evidence please.

  39. Privatisation doesn’t reduce the price electricity, gas or water. It’s dearer and no more reliable. Power cuts in our neck of the woods are just as frequent and long-lasting as they were when ETSA ran the show, and I haven’t heard anyone marveling at how cheap their gas and water rates are since privatisation.

  40. And what about the country windmills? And what about windmills in The Low Countries?

  41. Joni – Have a look at this report that was commissioned by the government.


  42. Or both.

  43. Jane, the Power went out on Friday night.

  44. From your report Tony:

    Results for the range of avoidance rates modelled, predict an average of between slightly less than one and slightly more than two sea-eagles may be killed due to wind turbine collisions every year.

    Slightly less than the “perishing” that you presented.

    How many get killed by cars?

  45. The question is – will there be any surviving birds with all the wind farms that we will have to build to replace our power stations???

    They’ll all be chopped.

  46. Slightly less than the “perishing” that you presented.

    Moi? Perish the thought.

  47. Let’s get some different facts on the table here re bird deaths:

    The report emphasizes that even if 1 million wind turbines were installed, the number of birds that would then be killed by the blades — an estimated 2.2 million — would still only a fraction of the damage that other man-made structures already cause. Buildings (windows) kill an estimated 500 million birds every year, cars and trucks 70 million, and telecommunication antennas about 27million.


    A recent study for a new wind farm in Ontario, Canada estimates that the power from coal-fired plants that wind power would replace would reduce pollution so much that 1710 birds per turbine would be saved annually. Take away the 2.2 birds killed by the rotors, and the balance for wind energy, +1707.8 birds per turbine a year, is not bad. No wonder bird protection groups are in favor of wind power.

  48. Tony
    sorry sorry sorry sorry – should have been Tom.

    joni has been spanked for his lapse.

  49. A link on wind farms.


    They are not that great according to this.

  50. Joni, the endangered nature of this bird resulted in the debate, even though only 2 were expected to be chopped.

  51. Joni..re spanked, it’s obvious that you were just asking for it!

    Good point joni, windmills have been around for a few hundred years now. Also a comparison with how many birds are killed due to flying full pelt into the reflective windows of highrise buildings.

  52. Min and Joni, are you suggesting that this issue was not the subject of serious political debate here, when the wind farms were being planned?

    You’ve missed a good one it that is the case.

    Expect plenty more, if anyone want to cover the Simpson Desert with solar panels or put up wind turbines around the coast (which is where it is windiest)!!

  53. Tom..my personal preference is algae, see my link @ 1.39pm

  54. Put solar panels in the desert

  55. scaper…, on April 28th, 2009 at 4:01 pm Said

    They are not that great according to this.

    Eric Rosenbloom, the author of the link, is a ‘journalist’ and his ‘views’ have been savaged elsewhere. Try rhis link



  56. I’d be really happy if we build plenty of wind farms. We have lots of open space to build them.

    But I remember the local agitation when the Portland wind farms were being built, and the continuing agitation about their impact on the coast, rural life etc.

    Now, imagine constructing enough of them to replace Loy Yang. Portland was a serious debate when 30 were going up. There would need to be 1000 of them to replace just Loy Yang A. Another 800 for Loy Yang B, 500 for Hazelwood, 500 for Yallourn.

    Wind power has a long way to go, and coastal communities ought to get ready for some major changes to the scene at the beach if we are serious about replacing base load power.

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