Why fair dinkum language is crucial in the energy debate

An OpEd spelling out the loaded terms of Fair dinkum, Baseload, Intermittent, Variable, Dispatchable, and Alternative energy. The article is an antidote to the energybabble that is so often used to confound public energy discussions.

Originally published in the SMH https://www.smh.com.au/national/why-fair-dinkum-language-is-crucial-in-the-energy-debate-20181113-p50fug.html

As energy prices and temperatures soar in Australia, so too does the use of confusing words in the energy debate.

The most recent addition to the energy sector’s bulging lexicon is “fair dinkum power”, a term coined by the federal government that has now been reappropriated, and trademarked, by high-profile entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes.

While the adjective “fair dinkum” evokes uncomplicated, simple truths, the reality is that the phrase has no actual meaning when describing the qualities of energy. It is just the latest in a long line of terms used to sway the energy discourse in Australia.

The ongoing heated and high-profile tussles over Australia’s energy future are hardly surprising given the enormity of what’s at stake.

Not only have energy and climate issues had a large influence over political fortunes over the past decade, the energy sector represents quadrillions of dollars of capital, invested mostly in legacy 20th century infrastructure, and as the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it is impossible to ignore the industry’s role in global warming (to use the less ambiguous term than climate change).

With so much at stake, it’s not surprising that the situation is a tinderbox, where a single word or headline can have far-reaching ramifications for voters, investors, and workers.

Unfortunately, rather than using clear, accessible language which empowers audiences with facts, what we have is an overload of energybabble.

As economist Richard Denniss, who coined the term econobabble, notes, this “is a terrible way to encourage a productive public debate. But it’s a great way to stifle one, and to confound and confuse Australians. That’s the reason we hear so much of it.”

So how do we cut through the energybabble and get to the fair dinkum facts? Here’s a look at the implicit and explicit meanings of some of the most commonly used energy terms.

Fair dinkum power: Scott Morrison coined this term in a conversation with Alan Jones in September, and it has become a catchphrase for the government ever since. While the term has never been explicitly defined, it is widely considered to be code for coal power, with claims that this polluting energy source is the reliable and patriotic power source Australians want.

Baseload: This originally referred to the minimum amount of power that should be consumed by the grid at all times in order to prevent coal fired generators from being turned off, as they take many hours to start up again. Today, the term usually refers to generators that are dependent on this baseload because they cannot run at a low output or adjust their output quickly – unlike variable, renewable energy generation. While in the past baseload power was considered essential to avoid time-consuming and costly coal generation shutdowns, it’s far less essential today because variable demand can easily be met with flexible generation.

Intermittent: This term describes things that switch on and off suddenly and without warning. The term is used to undermine wind and solar as unreliable, because they depend on weather effects that can change quickly and unpredictably. It ignores the fact that we have many solar panels and wind turbines connected across the country, whose combined output becomes smoother with every new installation. This strategy of pooling diverse resources is central to how we manage the grid, by combining individuals’ intermittent use of lights, kettles, air-conditioners etc.

Variable: A more apt way to describe the characteristics of solar and wind power, capturing the changing output of these generators while avoiding the inaccurate implication that generation is unreliable. The term was defined by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory to “consist of those forms of power generation that depend on a primary energy source that varies over time and cannot be stored”. Not all renewable generation is variable; geothermal and biomass for example use renewable fuels, but their fuel can be stored, with power produced when needed. The electricity output of variable generators can also be stored, for example in batteries or the pumped hydro power facilities which are being added to wind farms. These storage systems are said to “firm” the output of these generators.

Dispatchable energy: Energy that is available exactly when it is needed. This matches people’s personal expectations of turning on appliances at will, giving the term political traction. The term implies a high level of control, where grid operators can call upon an asset to generate a required amount of energy at precisely the required time. While this is an important characteristic, the reality is that only a small fraction of our generation resources need to be dispatchable, because our demand can almost always be met through a diverse collection of variable generators. Batteries are emblematic of dispatchability because they can respond extremely quickly (with the added benefit of being able to absorb power). Fossil fuel generators are also dispatchable, but are not fast or flexible, which are the crucial characteristics in our future grid.

Alternative: A word to describe non-fossil fuel energy sources such as renewables and nuclear energy. It implies renewables are a non-mainstream minority, but the soaring popularity of renewable energy puts paid to this myth.

The energy system is undergoing a once-in-a-century transformation that is full of opportunities and challenges. The significance of what is at stake is hard to overstate, and changes will benefit some more than others.

If we are to have any hope of achieving an orderly transition that maximises Australia’s fantastic natural resources and benefits all Australians, we need to have clear and honest conversations and sensible and stable policies.

The words we choose to use are important. As an energy industry we have a duty to communicate the inner workings of our sector clearly and simply, and to bust myths and implied falsehoods whenever we spot them.

Politicians, meanwhile, would do well to present their priorities and policies transparently, and act in the best interests of current and future generations of Australians. That’s fair dinkum leadership.

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