Opinion | Ideology and hope won’t supply reliable electricity

ELECTRIC CARS: How will Australia meet the increase in power demand?
ELECTRIC CARS: How will Australia meet the increase in power demand?

Our existence relies on electricity. We flick a switch and a light, stove, TV, computer and other appliances are turned on. We can use domestic solar cells to generate the electricity to turn on appliances. There is great merit in the domestic generation of electricity, and 1.7 million Australian homes have rooftop solar cells that provide power.

It is encouraging that 7 per cent of Australia's electricity is generated by renewables. But it is only 7 per cent. Currently 83 per cent of our electricity comes from coal or gas with the remaining 10 per cent from hydro-generation. In the year 2000, renewables produced 1 per cent of our electricity. It has taken 17 years to get from 1 to 7 per cent.

One of our major political parties claims that in 13 years, 50 per cent of Australia’s electricity will be generated by renewables. Is this realistic? Australia cannot rely on hope, ideology and future innovations for its reliable electricity supply.

A compelling example of our reliance on electricity is the supply of drinking water. Hunter Water pumps 68 million tonnes of water a year through 5000 kilometres of pipes so that we can ‘turn the tap on’.

Daily, 185,000 tonnes of water are pumped from Chichester and Grahamstown dams to all over the Lower Hunter. The reliability of the source of electricity so Hunter Water's 98 electric pumping stations can deliver water to homes and businesses every day cannot be compromised. Currently renewable sources of energy do not have the necessary level of reliability to do this.

What of the future? Australia's demand for electricity could easily spiral upwards. Why? Electric cars. By the end of the year, Tesla will launch a five-seater electric car and environmentally conscious Australians will buy it. The car will have a range of 350kilometres on a 75 kilowatt hour battery. After travelling that distance, the battery will need to be recharged, which will be the same as turning on 25 kitchen ovens for an hour.

Based on average Australian car usage, every electric car will consume 3300 kilowatts of electricity a year. If over the next 10 years most of our cars become electric, then our annual per capita consumption of electricity will increase by 25 per cent to 12,500 kilowatt hours. This increase in demand is equivalent to the electricity produced by four Bayswater power stations. How are we going meet this demand? It's taken renewables 17 years to go from 1-7per cent of generation and they produce 700 kilowatt hours a year for each of us. They will not be able to service this massive increase.

We need a bipartisan approach to resolve the issue of electricity generation. Political leaders need to determine a strategy that ensures our current supply of electricity while encouraging and supporting the long transition to renewable sources.

NSW's youngest coal-fired power station is 30 years old and was designed using outdated technology. Modern coal-fired power stations are significantly cleaner and more efficient. Some sections of society think it is abhorrent for Australia to consider building new coal-fired power stations. Other countries do not share this view. As a consequence of the Fukushima nuclear power station disaster, Japan is building 45 coal-fired power stations. India, which has 400 million people without access to electricity, is building 250 coal-fired stations. Australia has 24 coal-fired power stations.

It will be a long time before Australia won't have to rely on coal and gas for its electricity.

Robert Monteath is a registered surveyor and certified practising planner