• John McDonnell

Large scale batteries could become stranded assets

On the ABC's Four Corners program on Monday, the key proposition was that gas generators were likely to become stranded assets once renewables and batteries become the basis of the Australian electricity grid.

In the program, the South Australian energy minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan said that his state had installed or was in the process of installing five large batteries, which would make South Australia independent of east coast fossil fuel generated power.

The idea that gas would be a less critical source of power was endorsed by Dr Kerry Schott, chair of the Energy Security Board, who said that renewables - plus batteries and pumped hydro - would provide much more of the power in the grid than had previously been assumed.

Major fund investment advisers interviewed for the program said that their attention was turning more and more towards renewables and batteries rather than gas generation.

While the program explored the role of hydrogen as an industrial feedstock and transport fuel, nuclear energy was not mentioned at all, even though NSW energy minister, Matt Kean - who gave an extensive interview to the program - has said that small modular reactors (SMR’s) are likely to be operating in Australia by the mid-2030’s.

Robert Pritchard, a director of the Australian company, SMR Technologies, has commented on the introduction of nuclear power to Australia in his review of the book, “An Australian Nuclear Industry – Starting with Submarines”.

Pritchard says:

“Of the G20 nations, Australia is one of only three that does not derive some of its electricity from nuclear power, because it is prohibited by legislation.
“In 2016, the Turnbull government had decided to build 12 French-designed Attack class submarines to replace its ageing Collins class fleet (‘the submarine project’). The approximate cost was to be AU $3 billion per submarine. The government decided they would be powered by diesel."

As FlowNews24 has noted previously, the US government is putting pressure on Australia to revert to the original French design for the submarines, which utilises nuclear power.

This could lead to the introduction of nuclear power to Australia which would make the need for batteries redundant. As was revealed in the Four Corners program, batteries have a long payback period because they used infrequently for short periods to stabilise the grid.

From this perspective, SMR’s are likely to be a more attractive investment proposition because they would be earning money 24/7.

In his article, Pritchard points out that:

“SMRs are modular because they are small enough to be built in a factory and shipped as a complete unit to the installation site. Experts acknowledge the inherent safety of the latest SMR designs.
“SMRs would provide diversity and reliable electricity in Australia. They would make an important contribution to the reduction in emissions and provide a pathway to reductions in other sectors, particularly process heat for industry and transport.”

There is already an SMR operating in Utah in the United States. Providing it establishes that it can deliver power at an affordable price without risk, then SMR’s are likely to enter into use around the G20 for hydrogen production and power for electric vehicles.