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Bill McKibben on Unions, Tesla, & Elon Musk — CleanTechnica Interview

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In the second part of my two-part interview with Bill McKibben, we spent a lot of time talking about Elon Musk, Tesla, and social trust. That included getting into the topic of unions, the UAW itself, cryptocurrency, and whether or not people with nefarious — or at least selfish and greedy — motives have intentionally split the “climate solutions community.” This is surely a topic I will come back to repeatedly, and I’m almost considering writing a book on it. It was good to get into a bit of a discussion with someone as notable, influential, and intelligent as Bill McKibben about these matters, but it also opened my eyes to how big of a challenge we face with this ongoing story. As with any complicated and controversial conversation, I cannot say that I got to adequately frame or respond to every big matter mentioned here. I will attempt to address a few things in the text below better than I could on the call. (Listen to part one of the interview, or read the summary, here: “Bill McKibben On Climate Crisis, Climate Grief, Climate Action, & US Climate Policy — CleanTechnica Interview.”)

Note that the following is not a summary of the discussion, which I found very good and useful. It is simply extra commentary to add context to a few topics.

Unions & Tesla

The beginning of this part of the interview, which focused on the complicated relationship between Elon Musk and some very politically engaged progressives, required a somewhat long intro/setup. I believe this is the most complicated matter around “the story of Elon Musk” in the past few years, and it mostly regards Tesla. It’s complicated because it’s not just one topic or one story; it’s not a clear “this side is good, and this side is bad” case; and one round builds on another in a combative cultural and political narrative that I think is rooted in misunderstandings and poor communication. In fact, as I noted at some point in our conversation, watching this play out for the past few years has reminded me of watching a relationship fall apart in which one communication mistake, misunderstanding, or insensitivity after another leads to a deeper and deeper split.

I won’t get into many of the phases of this, but the thing that I’ve always wondered about is the roots of the Tesla unionization effort that was prominent a few years ago. How much of it was nefarious versus good intentioned, and was there a clear concerted effort to “split the community” with this “battle?” Was the original intent to actually take Tesla down (something that was very possible and nearly happened in 2018)? What is definitely clear, though, is that large portions of the political left have their criticism or even animus for Elon Musk rooted in this story. (Note: I am strongly a member of the “political left” and would advise against too broad a brush on how “the left” has responded overall to Tesla and Elon Musk, especially on the matteis of unionization and factory policies.)

To conclude this long setup, I think it’s important to clearly state the core points of view that the two sides hold:

Elon Musk and many of his & Tesla’s supporters believe that unionization efforts at Tesla have been driven by the UAW and are not good intentioned at all but simply a way to stifle Tesla’s growth and progress while lining the pockets of corrupt union executives. Taking it further, there’s a concern among many that the UAW would like to get inside the doors of Tesla in order to harm it for the benefit of Ford, GM, and Stellantis.
Many on the left, on the other hand, see the story as Tesla workers trying to unionize in order to get paid better wages and improved working conditions. Many also see Elon Musk’s responses as illegal union busting stimulated by selfish motives and lack of concern for others.

Again, I am not making a judgement call on any of those opinions, just summarizing what I see as the core perceptions of each side. I do not know who started the unionization efforts and why, and I don’t want to jump to any conclusions.

On the matter of the UAW, it is true that leaders of the UAW have been busted in recent years for corruption. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that unions in general don’t work hard on the part of the workers they represent, or that the UAW is just trying to swindle Elon Musk and Tesla out of money at the expense of progress. Also, simple logic points out that many employees, especially factory workers, do not have much bargaining power individually, and that they could benefit from shared bargaining. One reader responding to the article linked above explained it well in a comment:

“Missing from individualist discussions of the pros and cons of unions is an understanding of institutional power. When unions were stronger and more prevalent in the workforce, workers in all sectors — union and non union — did better. To move to a more economically just world, we need institutions that push that move. Even though union bosses, like politicians and corporate executives, can be corrupt, unions remain an institution that pushes for economic justice.”

For more on this topic, listen to Bill McKibben talk about it in the podcast above.

Myths About Tesla

There were a couple of things in that portion of the conversation that were not accurate, but I didn’t want to derail the core discussion to correct them. However, I feel an obligation to do so here.

First of all, McKibben noted that $10 billion from the government saved Tesla at some point. I think this was a mixup based on two different stories. I think he was partly referencing the $465 million Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing (ATVM) federal government loan Tesla received in 2010 and then paid back 9 years early. (Note that Ford got a nearly $6 billion loan under this program that it seems to have never paid back, while GM had just been bailed out to the tune of $50.35 billion — both far higher governmental costs than Tesla’s short-term $0.465 billion loan.) I think he was also referencing some very misleading, misguided articles about “Tesla subsidies” that greatly exaggerate the extent to which Tesla has been supported by subsidies of any sort. I tried to address that matter in this article.

McKibben also said, “One punchline of this story is: the Chinese are figuring out how to build electric cars faster, cheaper, and in bigger quantity, and without having outsized cartoon characters at the helm of the whole operation.” I’m not sure where some of these statements originated. Tesla is by far the top producer/seller of electric vehicles globally, and its models even top the charts in China. Furthermore, Tesla has been a clear inspiration for some of China’s EV policies — and the extent of its policies.

Tesla has been building cars faster, cheaper, and in bigger quantity in China. Part of that, of course, is due to different labor norms there, which would bring us back to the topic I focused on at the start of this article. The big positive story from China on EVs is simply that the Chinese government mandates them to some extent and strongly supports them on the demand-stimulus side, resulting in EV market share of overall auto sales that is now above 10%, as well as China representing about 50% of the global EV market. But that’s all policy stuff, not business stuff. On the business front, Tesla is the clear leader in China, and some competing automaker executives aren’t even shy about admitting it.

A third point McKibben made that I didn’t want to spend time on during the conversation but which I feel I must address here is the statement that it’s inevitable Tesla will be unionized via the UAW at some point — because all other automakers end up unionizing. Perhaps he meant that in their home countries all automakers are unionized to some extent, but it’s worth remembering that several automakers have large factories in the USA (BMW, Nissan, Honda, Toyota, etc.) and are not affiliated with any unions (including the UAW) in our country. It certainly doesn’t seem to be inevitable that Tesla workers would ever decide to unionize and join the UAW. In fact, I’d bet against it happening. Legally, Musk and other executives at Tesla are not allowed to “union bust” and prevent worker efforts to do that. Some critics claim that they find ways to do so anyway, but supporters of how things are organized at the moment argue that Tesla workers genuinely don’t want to get involved with the UAW, think unionization would slow innovation and hurt them personally, and are happy with their current setup. This is one of the top issues I feel like I don’t have adequate insight into when it comes to Tesla, and I have thought seriously for a while about trying to put in hardcore effort to try to find answers on the ground. At the moment, though, all I can say is that I’ve seen strong arguments on both sides and all we know so far is that there’s never been a strong unionization movement inside Tesla.

Wealth Inequality in Modern Society

We barely touched on the matter of wealth inequality in the US, but it did come up. That is an enormous topic that is well beyond the scope of this conversation or article. I think it’s fair to say that most people can see that we have a problem when tens of millions of Americans struggle to get adequate food or housing while Elon Musk is worth $220 billion (you could make 220,000 millionaires out of Musk if you could split him into 220,000 people). We have serious problems with politics, policy, and economics in the United States. However, close followers of Tesla also know that pretty much all of Elon Musk’s net worth is in shares of companies he founded and got off the ground, so saying he needs to pay more taxes on his extreme wealth means saying that he has to sell a lot of shares of his companies to pay taxes on his “paper gains” (and consider for a moment that it’s just other super wealthy people and companies that are going to buy those shares). Selling a lot of shares of Tesla, meanwhile, would likely lead to the stock going down, which could drive down Musk’s wealth far beyond the taxes he’d pay while also potentially reducing his long-term influence over the company. Meanwhile, though, Musk can basically get low-interest bank loans for more money than he’d ever be able to spend on himself because of his high net worth — and that’s what he does for money. In other words, the whole system is complicated.

In my opinion, outside of the climate crisis, the biggest problem in US society is that our governmental investment in the bulk of our people is completely anemic. We don’t provide a good enough social safety net and we have enormous problems with poor physical health, unfathomable mental health challenges across society, massive drug addiction, and very limited opportunity for a decent quality of life and “upward mobility.” We also have unsatisfactory education systems and infrastructure. To solve those problems would require a variety of solutions that we seem incapable of getting through any realistically possible Congress — a 21st century New Deal, cuts in defense spending, decent IRS enforcement for tax cheats, policies focused on investing in our kids and investing in our future, getting back to the corporate tax rates of our economic prime as a country, and greater taxes on luxury goods and non-basic spending across society. Oh yeah, plus a carbon pricing system that discourages pollution while raising funding for things we want.

Alas, the conversation could not get into all of those topics and the discussion about how unbelievably wealthy Elon Musk is and how that relates to our broken economic system was far too shallow, simplistic, and probably useless for achieving the things that both McKibben and I would like to see.

Again, continuing my core theme in this discussion: I expressed that my concern is that infighting (perhaps purposefully stimulated) among the most climate-concerned and active in our society is slowing cleantech progress and collaboration that is so critical to our future as a society and as a species. McKibben humorously summarized, “In the Twitter age, we’re all good at controversy.”

That’s quite a lot to discuss and we’re only halfway through this second half of the podcast. I’ll have to return to this podcast episode soon to get into the remaining topics of cryptocurrency, social trust, and a few actual cleantech topics. In the meantime, you can listen via the SoundCloud embed above, the Spotify embed below, or on your favorite podcast network if it’s not one of those.

You can subscribe and listen to CleanTech Talk on: AnchorApple Podcasts/iTunesBreakerGoogle Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket, Podbean, Radio Public, SoundCloud, Spotify, or Stitcher.

See part one of the Bill McKibben interview here: “Bill McKibben On Climate Crisis, Climate Grief, Climate Action, & US Climate Policy — CleanTechnica Interview.”


 

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Electric Car FAQs: Do EVs All Use the Same Plug?

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Electric cars are mostly like regular cars. You step on the pedal on the right and the car goes, you turn the wheel and the car turns, and the only real difference is what kind of fuel goes in it. We say stuff like that all the time. If we’re being completely honest, though, that’s only mostly true. 99% of the time the only difference is what kind of fuel goes into the car, but that last 1% probably needs explaining.

To provide that explanation, we’ve launched a new segment called “Electric Car FAQs” that hopes to answer those oddball questions that come up 1% of the time. Today’s question: do EVs all use the same plug?

EV FAQs: Do EVs All Use the Same Plug?

Even if you don’t know anything about how electric cars work, you could probably guess that they run on some kind of battery. You’d be right! That battery acts like a gas tank in a conventional car, storing “electric fuel” in reserve until it’s needed. You even fill it up like a gas tank — the main difference is you’re plugging the car into an EV charging station, not a gas pump. Sounds easy, right?

The good news is that it is easy to plug in your EV! But one thing that many people don’t realize is that there are different types of electric car plugs, and different types of chargers. Each one has different capabilities, costs, and charging speeds, and that’s where some confusion can sneak into the conversation.

As ever, we’re here to clear things up for you — starting with the chargers.

EV Charging Levels

Image courtesy of GM.

Level 1 is basically a standard 3-prong outlet, like the kind you have your phone charger plugged into. These work the same way, providing a slow trickle of energy to your electric car battery to basically replace a few miles of driving. You’ll usually get 2-4 miles of range per hour of charging, and it usually won’t increase your monthly electric bill by a noticeable amount, making level 1 home charging an extremely cost-effective charging solution.

Level 2 charging stations use 208 or 240 volts of electricity — more like the big plug your clothes dryer is plugged into. These are to charge your vehicle up to 10 times faster than a level 1 station. If you drive more than a few miles per day and want the convenience of knowing you’re starting each day with “a full tank” from charging at home, installing a level 2 charger in your garage is the way to go, and you can expect to get up to 200 miles of range from an 8 hour, overnight charge.

Because level 2 power is usually available in most commercial locations, many businesses that want to incorporate EV charging stations into their parking lot deploy level 2 charging stations. Whether you’re putting a level 2 one in at your home or at your business, be sure to check with your local utility for rebates and incentives to help keep costs down.

Level 3 DC Fast-Charging

DC fast-charging plugs are typically considered “level 3” and have significantly faster charging speeds than the level 1 or level 2 “AC” chargers. With enough juice, a DC fast charger can charge an electric car battery to 80% from almost empty in about 20 minutes (depending on the vehicle) … but this is a good time to tell you that not all “level 3” charging is created equal.

“Level 3” is a generic term that used to be quite clear. As technology has advanced, though, it’s a term that has led to more confusion that anything else, because it could mean anything from around 25kW of power to more than 300kW (!?).

That’s why some electric car owner apps like Chargeway have “split” Level 3 charging into levels — 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 — to highlight that difference. At a local (well, local to Chicago, anyway) “level 3” station in Chargeway, it would take about three and a half hours to go from 10% to a 90% charge in a car like the 2021 Ford Mustang Mach E

Screencap from Chargeway app.

… at another local charger, a “level 6” to use Chargeway’s naming system — the time drops significantly. You can get the exact same charge in under 40 minutes (below), instead of (quick math) 2015 minutes. That’s a lunch stop or a grocery run, and knowing ahead of time what to expect when you get to a fast charger is going to make a big difference in your experience.

Screencap from Chargeway app.

The National Auto Dealers’ Association recently partnered with Chargeway to help train electric car dealers to use this more intuitive “level 1–7” power system as they talk about EV chargers … but they also want to use Chargeway to help simplify the conversion about plugs, which we’ll get to next.

Different Types of EV Plugs

CHAdeMO was the first type of DC fast-charging system on the market, and helped early e-mobility adopters reduce range anxiety. Cars with CHAdeMO plugs can fast charge a battery to 80% in about 60 minutes at a rate of roughly 2 miles of range added per minute of charging.

Image by CleanTechnica.

Today, the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi Outlander PHEV (shown, above) are the most common CHAdeMO vehicles, but even they are switching to the more common J1772 with their next generation of electric cars. Still, there are hundreds of thousands of used EVs on the market that use this standard, so it’s worth knowing about.

Most “modern” electric vehicles (the notable exceptions being cars built by Tesla) use the J1772, and the J1772 plug can charge your car using 120, 208, or 240 volts of electricity, depending on the type of charger station you’re using. These are those “level 1” and “level 2” we talked about earlier, and it’s the most common type of charging you’ll find.

For fast charging, those same cars use the SAE Standard Combined Charging System, or CCS. Developed by the society of automotive engineers (SAE, natch), this is the most widely used fast charging standard globally, and works with most fast chargers — just not, currently, the Tesla Supercharger Network, will.

Tesla cars on the Tesla Supercharger network use proprietary standards that, while also called “level 3” by most networks, typically fall into the “level 6” or “level 7” range offered by Chargeway. Tesla drivers have exclusive access to the national network of Tesla Superchargers to charge their vehicles, but they have to use an adapter to charge at other DC fast-charging stations that use CCS or CHAdeMO plugs and at Level 1 and Level 2 charging stations.

Tesla Supercharger in Florida, by Zach Shahan/CleanTechnica.

Colors & Numbers

We already talked about the way that a charging app displays information can have a huge impact on your expected wait times while you’re charging. Chargeway also simplifies the process of finding charging stations that work for your car. Instead of showing a “generic” charging map that shows all the chargers in your neighborhood, Chargeway only shows you the stations that will work for your specific car, reducing anxiety and making it easier to “fill up faster” with electric fuel.

Blue for CHAdeMO, green for J1772/CCS, and red for Tesla.

Image courtesy of Chargeway.

Higher numbers equal faster charging, so if you have a Chevy Bolt, that’s a Green 4. A Mustang Mach-E? That’s a Green, too, but it will go up to level 6. A brand-new Tesla Model S? Red 7.

It’s intuitive, and it’s the language that many dealers will soon be using. “Because the 16,000+ NADA member dealers represent nearly all the major automotive brands, their adoption of Chargeway will create a de facto ‘standard dictionary’ of EV charging terms,” reads the official NADA press release. “‘Green’ plugs, ‘Level 6’ chargers, etc. That will make it easier for EV dealers and buyers to communicate, regardless of brand.”

With all that said, we hope we’ve made it clearer for you to understand the different types of EV charging and chargers. If you want to hear about more clever ways to visualize or talk about EVs, you can tune into Chargeway’s founder, Matt Teske, on the Electrify Expo podcast with CleanTechnica’s Jo Borras (me!) on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere you get your podcasts.

Original content from CleanTechnica.


 

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Diess Survives Volkswagen Board Review — for Now

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Herbert Diess, CEO of the Volkswagen Group, was put under the microscope recently after he suggested publicly that as many as 30,000 manufacturing jobs at the company could be lost if it fails to meet the challenge from competitors, principally Tesla. His remarks were interpreted by some, especially Daniela Cavallo, the head of the works council, as a threat to fire 30,000 employees.

Diess further inflamed the passions of company insiders when he invited Elon Musk to call in to a meeting of 200 Volkswagen senior managers. That annoyed just about everyone in the company who wasn’t already annoyed by the job cuts thing and resulted in a call to convene the rarely use mediation committee of the Volkswagen management board. That committee is made up of representatives from the company’s largest shareholders as well as the head of the works council (worker union).

A meeting was held last Tuesday but no announcements were made afterwards. The only things Reuters could uncover about the meeting were two statements from anonymous sources. The first said, “This topic is so hot, it is on a knife edge. I can’t say anything further.” The other said, “As expected, there is nothing new.” The most that can be gleaned from this kerfuffle is that Diess has been called on the carpet and warned that he must change his management style or face possible termination.

Changing his management style appears to mean he should stop pissing off the works council. Cavallo is on record as saying, “We’re tired of hearing time and again that the works council is apparently only concerned with preserving the status quo.” She insists that all the workers and labor representatives are fully supportive of the proposals Diess has put forth to speed up the transition to electric vehicles, including a major rethink of how they build cars at its largest factory, in Wolfsburg.

The crux of Diess’ recent remarks is that Tesla will soon be building electric cars in Grünheide in much less time with fewer workers. Stripping away all the emotional content of his recent remarks, it should be intuitively obvious to the most casual observer that you can’t compete successfully if your cars cost more to build than the cars your competitor is making. It’s as plain as the face on your nose, and yet Diess has been called to account for saying out loud what should be evident to everyone.

Sources tell Reuters that the committee is working to craft a position that will satisfy all parties — which means it will probably satisfy no one. Diess will be asked to change his management style, which is a little like asking a leopard to change its spots, while new board members will be announced, new assurances on job prospects for employees will be given, and new investment plans for Volkswagen Group will be put forth.

There are rumors — unfounded, unconfirmed, and uncorroborated — that if Diess is tossed overboard, he could wind up being tapped to run the automotive division of Tesla, which would allow Musk to focus his considerable talents on other things like SpaceX, energy storage, and tangling with Bernie Sanders on Twitter.

Part of Diess’ problems may stem from the fact that he is an outsider. From 1996 to 2015, he worked at BMW, where he was a member of its management board. Volkswagen, like any major corporation, has a culture of promoting from within. No doubt, bringing Diess in from outside the company — and from a competitor in the German auto industry at that — rankled lots of loyal Volkswagen managers who maybe thought they should have been promoted when the diesel cheating scandal hit in 2015 and Martin Winterkorn was given the heave ho.

Sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Has Diess learned his lesson? “We’ll see,” said the Zen master.


 

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Hydro Versus Batteries: Tasmania Pushes Its Undersea Cable Plan

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There is no question that hydroelectric power is a wonderful thing. It’s green, it’s renewable, it’s emissions-free, and it’s relatively inexpensive.  There is also no question that water can be stored behind a dam for days, weeks, months, or even years before it is used to spin turbines that generate electricity.

Tasmania has an abundance of hydroelectric power — quite a bit more than it needs, actually. It would very much like to sell some of its excess electricity to the rest of Australia. The plan put forward by Hydro Tasmania and TasNetworks is known as the Marinus Link — a 500-kilometer-long undersea transmission line linking Tasmania to Melbourne. From there it would connect to the utility grid on the mainland, making Tasmania Australia’s national battery, so to speak.

But there’s a flaw in the Hydro Tasmania plan. According to a report written by the highly regarded Dr. Bruce Mountain for the Victoria Energy Policy Center, the Marinus Link is a money-losing proposition that will only make less economic sense in coming years as the cost of grid scale battery storage continues to decline. Here’s a quote from the Executive Summary that pretty much says it all.

“The main conclusions of that report are that 1,500 MW of four-hour battery can be provided for less than half the cost of Marinus Link; that the same capacity of six-hour battery can be provided for 79% of the cost of Marinus Link and that 1,500 MW of eight-hour battery storage is still cheaper than Marinus Link.

“In other words, even if Hydro Tasmania is able to provide, for no additional cost, 1,500 MW that it could export to Victoria day-in day-out for eight hours at a stretch for the foreseeable future, it will still be cheaper to build 1,500 MW of batteries in Victoria rather than to build Marinus Link. Of course the Tasmanian electrical system has no-where near the power or energy capability needed to provide 1,500 MW of supply to Victoria for 8 hours every day and so many billions will be needed to expand its storages and energy production in Tasmania in order to be able to provide the capacity that Marinus Link claims to offer.”

The ending of the report is just as brutal. “We now feel able to conclude that not only does Marinus Link have no chance of competing with battery alternatives but that if Hydro Tasmania develops pumped hydro capacity in Tasmania it is very likely that, like Snowy 2.0, it will be stranded from the outset.”

Cuanto Cuesta?

So how much would the Marinus Link cost? The proposal calls for building two new 750-megawatt undersea power cables between Tasmania and Victoria at a cost of about $3.5 billion. Hydro Tasmania, which is owned by the state of Tasmania, plans to store power in Tasmanian dams by releasing water to generate electricity for export to Victoria when prices are high, and pumping the water back into dams when power prices are low.

According to MSN, Mountain claims that if the Marinus Link is funded by the Tasmanian or Commonwealth governments, taxpayers will be left paying for an asset that would cost more to build than it can earn. “It would be placing a dead weight on the shoulders of the people of Tasmania, if indeed the people of Tasmania bear most of the cost. If it’s borne by the Commonwealth in some way, it’ll be placing a burden on all taxpayers and energy consumers depending on how the bid ends up, when you build an asset that can’t compete.”

Mountain also expressed skepticism about the the long term benefits of construction jobs associated with the projects. “It would be much better for the community if the government simply gave that money out — frankly, it would be less of a loss for the community. Building a white elephant, a dead weight loss, entrenches disadvantage.” No namby-pamby, wishy-washy words from the esteemed Dr. Mountain. Better to take that money and just throw it in the street.

The Case For Marinus Link

Hydro Tasmania and TasNetworks aren’t giving up the fight. TasNetworks general manager for Marinus Link Bess Clark says both batteries and pumped hydro storage will be needed as Australia’s energy market transitions away from fossil fuels. “Marinus Link presents a once in a generation opportunity to double Tasmania’s clean energy, helps combat climate change, puts downward pressure on power prices and creates thousands of local jobs,” she says, before adding that modeling by the Australian Energy Market Operator shows the Marinus Link will be a key part of Australia’s energy grid in the future.

A spokesman for Hydro Tasmania said batteries wouldn’t be able to meet all of Australia’s energy storage requirements and that deep storage like pumped hydro will be needed. “It’s not a question of having one or the other. We will need all the relevant, cost competitive technologies to play their part to ensure all Australians have a power system that is reliable, secure and affordable,” he said.

Last week the Tasmanian Chamber of Commerce and Industry threw its “wholehearted support” behind the Marinus Link project. “We know that this project will be fantastic not just for employment across the state over the next 50 years but also for the growth of business within Tasmania,” TCCI CEO Michael Bailey said.

All Of The Above

There are two sides to this debate and they both have points in their favor. Pumped hydro can supply power far longer than any grid storage battery in existence. A battery can react in milliseconds; pumped hydro cannot. One of the benefits of battery storage is its frequency and voltage regulation capability. Both save grid operators money but are services pumped hydro cannot provide.

Then there is the question of timing. Bruce Mountain tells the Sydney Morning Herald the Victorian Big Battery, composed of dozens of Tesla Megapacks, will be commissioned shortly, while a similar installation at Jeeralan should be ready by 2026. There are four more storage battery projects in the pipeline as well. A further four major batteries are likely to proceed. Those will all be in place and operational before the Marinus Link becomes operational.

“Battery storage capacity will be built and operational in Victoria long before Marinus Link and the Battery of the Nation developments in Tasmania are close to operational,” the VEPC report says. “Marinus Link continues to have no prospect of competing against battery alternatives in Victoria.” Mountain adds, “Considering the much higher efficiency and responsiveness of chemical batteries than pumped hydro, if pumped hydro is developed in Tasmania it is surely likely that it, not batteries, will sit idle.”

“It’s not a question of having one or the other,” Hydro Tasmania counters. “We will need all the relevant, cost-competitive technologies to play their part to ensure all Australians have a power system that is reliable, secure and affordable.” Tasmania also is investing heavily in the power of wind, something it also has in abundance.

The Trouble With Transmission

Solar power advocates like to say that a gigantic solar farm in a small corner of the Sahara desert could power all of Europe and the UK — if there were transmission lines connecting the two areas. In the US, some people dream of New Yorkers getting solar power from California after the sun sets on the Big Apple. That could happen if there were transcontinental high voltage transmission lines.

That being said, transmission lines can be hugely expensive to construct and maintain. They are also subject to disruption from any number of causes — wind, earthquakes, wild fires, even malicious damage. The world is learning a hard lesson about making stuff in one place for consumption in another place using a flotilla of cargo ships to connect the two. Anything that can go wrong often does go wrong and at the worst possible time. Just ask Puerto Rico about relying on distant generating stations to power its major cities.

Pumped hydro is an important piece of the energy storage puzzle but it can’t just be plunked down close to the places where demand for electrical energy is high. In theory, battery storage facilities can be sited almost anywhere. Ideally, they can go where retired thermal generating stations are located, places with the advantage of already having the connections needed to feed the stored power into the electrical grid.

Planning For The Future Is Hard

The objection is not to Tasmania’s abundant hydro power. The objection is the cost of getting it to distant markets at competitive cost. Then there a time considerations. What may seem like a good idea today may not look quite so appealing a few years down the road when the economics tilt more in favor of one solution than another. When there is not an unlimited supply of money, it is best to invest what you have in solutions that will be fiscally viable for the longest period of time, not one that will be come economically noncompetitive before the end of its useful life.

Perhaps Tasmania would be wise to invest its dollars in technologies that turn its excess electricity into green hydrogen or ammonia, which could then be exported at reasonable cost to anywhere in the world. The issue is not energy storage. The issue is energy transmission. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in Australia, where wise energy planning at the federal level appears to be an alien concept.


 

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