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ABC 'greenwash' world energy report

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has released its latest World Energy Outlook.

The WEO2018 report is 660 pages long and costs $190. It's a great read, analysing what current policy and investment decisions mean for long-term energy trends. It also covers a few 'what if' scenarios. It is important to you when forming views on energy policy.

Unfortunately, reporting on energy has increasingly become biased and sloppy.

And we've caught the ABC 'greenwashing' the report.

Now, 'greenwashing' is the term usually applied to companies that use a 'green' spin to their PR or product marketing to make it look 'greener' than it is.

But the same techniques can apply to journalism.

And it's not just the ABC. Some websites, like 'RenewEconomy', are dedicated to 'greenwashing'. But you expect that from those types of sites. You don't expect it from a publicly funded news organisation like the ABC. You expect balance from the ABC, like this great article on solar power here.

The bias often comes in the form of only identifying the negatives of coal, gas, and nuclear while only identifying the positives of wind and solar.

Sloppiness comes in many forms. We'll touch on a few here shortly.

To avoid being sloppy, we need to be specific and accurate, state positives and negatives, and be transparent about the underlying data, the magnitudes, and the context.

Before we get into the 'greenwashing' of the IEA report by the ABC in the below article, it's helpful to understand why we don’t want to be biased or sloppy regarding energy discussions. Stay with me here; these concepts are essential to identifying 'greenwashing'.

The poor state of energy discussion leads to poor policy decisions

First, policy mistakes are costly.

Mistakes in energy policy have been a bipartisan effort. Decades of poor decisions now plague the left and the right.

The result is skyrocketing gas and electricity prices.

Source: ACCC

As state and federal elections loom, energy policy is a hot topic.

The energy policies put forth by the three main parties, the LNP, Labour, and the Greens, all diverge.

  • The Greens want 100% renewables by 2040
  • Labor wants 50% renewables by 2030 (see below)
  • The LNP has an emissions reduction target of 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2030

Social media provides a window into the impact of bias and sloppiness when discussing energy.

Labor recently posted its energy policy on its Facebook page:

Only Labor has a plan for 50% renewables by 2030. Sign our petition if you want real action on climate change…

Posted by Australian Labor Party on Monday, 5 November 2018

The Greens chimed in:

"So still having 50% dirty energy in 2030? C'mon Labor. An increase is good but we can get to 100% clean energy by then."

Followed by well-meaning renewable energy advocates who genuinely believe that:

"100% renewable energy is being achieved by Iceland, Albania, Paraguay, Scotland, Sweden, and Germany 98% Norway is gaining ground. Australia could lead the world. The technology already exists."


"Why not 100% renewables by 2030? It's costed and achievable, but only the Greens are planning a future for all of us."

These are the factually inaccurate comments that form when the media is biased and sloppy and people don't (or won't) check the facts.

Here's why the views are factually incorrect.

There are two types of renewables:

  1. Dispatchable
  2. Intermittent

'Dispatchable' is more affordable and reliable than 'intermittent'.

Intermittent requires additional dispatchable power to deliver reliability.

Hydro and geothermal are dispatchable renewable technologies.

Wind and solar are intermittent renewable technologies.

Wind varies between 0% and 100% output, with an average of only 30%.

Solar varies with the amount of sunshine reaching the rooftops. In Australia, the average is about 22% of installed capacity. Globally, solar only delivers 12% of its installed capacity.

Here's an example of wind variability across Australia's National Electricity Market (NEM):


And on another day, the average output is higher:

The dramatic swings in variability require dispatchable power to step in on relatively short notice. This is typically hydroelectric and natural gas-fired power. Coal is good at maintaining a high level of consistent baseload power but is slow to change its output and, therefore, unsuitable to respond to sudden changes in wind output.

Solar has a different issue. It provides peak power during the middle of the day.

Solar power profile in Victoria on Tuesday 13 November 2018. Source:

Whereas the demand profile looks like this:

Source: AEMO

At the end of 2017, Australia had around 6,401 MW of installed solar PV capacity. Output for December 2017 was 1,011,927MWh or just 21.2% of the installed capacity.

When discussing energy policy, understanding the difference between installed capacity and 'useful' capacity is essential. Otherwise, we're comparing apples and oranges.

The next point to note is how the difference between dispatchable and intermittent technologies impacts the cost to the consumer.

Nowhere in the world does higher penetration of wind and solar coincide with lower/affordable electricity prices.

On the other hand, the price trend for countries with higher penetration of hydro is lower than that for those with high wind and solar penetration.

It's sloppy to lump all renewables into one basket by saying, 'if Albania and Paraguay can go 100% renewable, so can Australia'.

It's biased to leave context and cost out of the discussion.

We all agree that we must be accurate and specific when comparing or discussing options. So, let's take a couple of examples and be specific.

  • Albania and Paraguay are almost 100% hydro
  • Iceland has 71% hydro and 29% geothermal
  • Norway has 96% hydro
  • Sweden is 42% hydro, 41% nuclear

To be specific, we need to understand whether Australia can get to 100% in the same way as those countries quoted as examples for us to follow.

The answer to this depends on the local potential of various energy resources.

Let's look at hydro.

Australia has around 7,800 MW of installed hydro capacity generating 16,285GWh of electricity for 2016–17, equivalent to 6.7% of total generation.

As Geoscience Australia tells us, Australia has limited hydroelectric locations and is constrained by the level of rainfall needed to replenish dams:

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth, with over 80 per cent of its landmass receiving an annual average rainfall of less than 600 mm per year and 50 per cent less than 300 mm per year. There is also high variability in rainfall, evaporation rates and temperatures between years, resulting in Australia having very limited and variable surface water resources. Much of Australia's economically feasible hydro energy resource has already been harnessed.

The Australian Energy Resource Assessment confirms technically feasible hydro-energy potential is estimated to be around 60 TWh per year. Our annual demand is just under 200 TWh. And remember, technically possible doesn't necessarily mean economically feasible.

Therefore, as some suggest, we can't go 100% renewable, just like Albania and Paraguay.

What about geothermal? That works for New Zealand and Iceland.

First, it is necessary to distinguish between hydrothermal and other geothermal resources:

  • Hydrothermal resources use naturally occuring hot water or steam circulating through permeable rock; these conventional geothermal systems are usually based on hydrothermal aquifers commonly associated with active or young volcanic systems (like New Zealand and Iceland). Australia lacks hydrothermal resources as it has no active volcanism on the mainland.
  • Natural radioactive decay produces heat in the Hot Rock and Hot Sedimentary Aquifer Geothermal Resources. Geothermal systems that are similar to Australia’s Hot Sedimentary Aquifer systems have been used elsewhere in the world for electricity generation and direct-use applications for over 20 years.

Unfortunately, the identified geothermal resources are deemed sub-economic for electricity generation due to the project cost and the remote location of the resource.

How about nuclear?

In countries like Sweden, Finland, Canada, France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland, China, South Korea, Scotland, or the USA, nuclear plays an important role in the energy mix, lowering CO2 intensity while providing reliable power. It's biased to ignore all these successfully deployed nuclear plants and only mention incidents like Chornobyl, 3-mile Island, and Fukushima. Unfortunately, nuclear is banned in Australia.

I’d add gas, but unlike the US, the price in Australia is increasingly unaffordable and primarily responsible for setting the recent high wholesale prices in the National Electricity Market due to its increased use following the closure of coal plants and the need to back up added intermittent wind and solar capacity.

Where does this leave those who cite other countries' success in claiming Australia should be aiming for 100% renewables?

The only choices in Australia are wind and solar with battery storage and/or pumped hydro.

Given that wind and solar require additional costs to build backup power and/or storage, the examples of successful deployment of 100% renewables don’t map directly to Australia. We're comparing apples and oranges.

The sooner we become more specific and understand the techno-economic basis for each technology, the better we can make informed decisions.

Wind and solar cannot provide affordable, reliable power here in Australia. Batteries are currently an expensive band-aid solution to reliability issues. Battery prices have fallen, but with competition for battery raw materials increasing due to the projected uptake of battery-electric vehicles, it will be increasingly complex to service both the network storage and automotive markets at affordable prices in the medium to long term.

The data allows us to do some analysis.

We've established that the countries put forth by renewables advocates as an example of why we should aspire to 100% renewables have different renewable resources than those available here in Australia.

If we’re serious about CO2, nuclear is a better answer than wind and solar for replacing coal and gas.

'Greenwashing' the IEA report

Now that we've covered the impact of bias and sloppiness, let's return to the point of this article, highlighting 'greenwashing' by the ABC.

The first thing to note is that the report isn't free, and most aren't going to buy it. Therefore, most can't verify the ABC's take on it. This is even more important, as ABC has a duty of care to be balanced when reporting on paywalled information.

Let's break down how the ABC spins the report, starting with the headline:

"Renewables overtake fossil fuels in new power generation"

The sloppy reporting and bias begin right there.

The report states that "Wind and solar are on the rise, having overtaken fossil fuels in 2017 in terms of capacity additions".

It's like telling someone you have a lot of bank accounts without saying how much money is in them. Pointless. There's no magnitude around the value that matters.

Capacity is typically couched in gigawatts (GW). The output of any given capacity is expressed in watts per hour. On a global scale, terawatt hours (TWh) measure output.

This aspect of 'greenwashing', the use of the word capacity, without mentioning the capacity factor, or 'useful' capacity, or output, lets us know the writer is either sloppy or biased.

The article continues:

New wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) generation accounted for nearly half of all the additional electricity capacity in 2017, outpacing fossil fuels as renewable energy prices decline, and the IEA said that is set to grow.

"Of the 870 gigawatts worldwide that are currently under construction or are expected to come online by the end of 2020, almost 60 per cent will use renewables-based technologies."

"The increasing competitiveness of solar PV pushes its installed capacity beyond that of wind before 2025, past hydropower around 2030 and past coal before 2040," the report predicted.

Each of those paragraphs tries to give the reader the impression that renewables are overtaking coal and, in particular, solar is making the most significant advances.

However, if we analyse the data in the WEO2018 report to compare apples with apples, we get an objective view:

  • Solar capacity increased from 300 to 398GW between 2016 & 2017, representing 36% of all new capacity additions
  • Solar generation increased from 328 to 435 TWh over the same period, representing only 14% of additional electricity generated

This is important because, as mentioned above, wind only blows 30% of the time, and solar PV only delivers 12% of its capacity globally (22% in Australia).

This particular point can be neatly summarised by two charts on pages 293 and 294 of the IEA report.

The first chart:

Source: EIA World Energy Outlook 2018 page 293

The above chart clearly shows that the capacity addition of wind and solar exceeded fossil fuels in 2017. Remember, capacity is a pointless indicator. Useful capacity is the figure we need to understand.

The chart below shows both the expected capacity additions and output by 2020.

Source: EIA World Energy Outlook 2018, page 294

Key takeaways from these two charts:

  • New solar and wind account for around 400GW of capacity and about 260TWh of output
  • Coal and gas account for around 300GW of additional capacity and over 400TWh of output

The point? Capacity is not a valid measure when comparing intermittent renewables against dispatchable coal, hydro, natural gas, and nuclear.

By quoting capacity, most readers will think renewables are more valuable than they are.

Let's restate the above paragraphs from the ABC article to account for the capacity factor:

New wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) generation accounted for nearly half of all the additional electricity capacity in 2017, outpacing fossil fuels as renewable energy prices decline, and the IEA said that is set to grow.


"New wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) accounted for one third of new electricity output in 2017, while additional coal and natural gas capacity accounted for 47% of new electricity output."


"Of the 870 gigawatts worldwide that are currently under construction or are expected to come online by the end of 2020, almost 60 per cent will use renewables-based technologies."


"Of the 870 gigawatts worldwide that are currently under construction or are expected to come online by the end of 2020, 27% will be solar and 19% will be wind (total 46%), which will provide an additional 13% and 17% electricty (total 30%), respectively. Coal and natural gas will account for 33% of the additional capacity and 51% of the additional electricty generated in 2020."

And finally:

"The increasing competitiveness of solar PV pushes its installed capacity beyond that of wind before 2025, past hydropower around 2030 and past coal before 2040," the report predicted.


"Solar PV output will not exceed wind, hydro or coal by 2040, delivering less than 10% of the worlds electricity.' 

After singling out capacity rather than useful capacity, or output to provide a balanced view, the article then plants this headline:

"Solar, wind can't provide 100pc of power … yet"

This implies that wind and solar 'could' supply 100% in the future.

A contradictory quote by IEA Chief Economist Lazlo Varro immediately follows it:

"If you ask the question 'can you power 100 per cent of the Australian economy on wind and solar?', with the current state of this technology the answer is no,"

Followed by further equivocation:

"Rephrase the question as 'can you increase the share of wind and solar if you do your homework in improving the system?' and the answer is definitely yes."

So, it starts with the implication that wind and solar could provide 100% of power at some point, then finishes with 'you can increase the share of wind and solar if you do your homework in improving the system'. These are two vastly different propositions, conflated to make wind and solar seem more capable than they are.

In closing, the article fails to mention the cost of modifying Australia's network to accommodate 100% wind and solar, nor the scale and cost of the wind and solar itself.

'Greenwashing' is all about cherry-picking the data, ignoring context, and hoping your readers don't have the ability or desire to check the facts for themselves.

As mentioned, the ABC does write balanced articles, as expected. However, in this instance, they've strayed from reporting into advocacy.

And with state and federal elections approaching, disinformation can sway opinions.


Renewables overtake fossil fuels in new power generation: IEA

Renewable energy has surpassed fossil fuels worldwide as the main source of new electricity generation, according to the International Energy Agency.

Source: Renewables overtake fossil fuels in new power generation: IEA