Visions, hype and Twitter: Elon Musk and Energy Policy’s latest twist. #auspol

Who would dare make a prediction about Australian energy and climate policy these days? The truth keeps turning out not stranger than we think, but stranger than we can think.

Last week Tesla’s vice president for energy products, Lyndon Rive was drumming up interest for his company’s batteries, the “PowerWall”. As opponents of renewable energy never tire of saying, as if it is a stunning insight, it’s only on tv that the sun always shines, and the answer is not blowing in the wind for the same reason of ‘intermittency‘. Renewables advocates counter this by speaking of storage (e.g pumped hydro), but everyone is holding out for a hero. (That’s enough shoe-horned song references, Ed).

Rive, pointed out that after a Californian power crisis “From start to finish, we installed an 80MWh battery pack at one of the substations in Southern California,”

California had had a methane leakage at a gas peaking plant, whereas South Australia’s September blackout – was due to high winds (despite the blame game which ensued). Knowing he had piqued his potential customers’ interest, Rive said “We can do the exact same thing in South Australia. Storage is the technology, and it can solve the problem within the next 100 days or so.”

Mike Cannon-Brookes the ‘accidental billionaire’  , the co-founder software company Atlassian was impressed, tweeting “Holy s#%t” and following it up with “how serious are you about this bet? If I can make the $ happen (& politics), can you guarantee the 100MW in 100 days?”

Rive’s cousin, one Elon Musk, tweeted back “Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?”

Nick Hammsen of the ABC notes that detail is sketchy. The Californian scheme was an 400 of Tesla’s Powerpack 2 batteries, which Tesla claim is infinitely scalable. Hammsen notes that system big enough for South Australia would run into the tens, if not hundreds of millions of dollars and that the cost and who would foot the bill is unclear.

Since then, Musk and South Australian Premier Jay Weatherhill have spoken, with Musk tweeting

Mr Weatherill, who had floated the balloon of a states-based emissions trading scheme  said “Today I had a positive discussion with Elon Musk regarding his battery proposal,”

Greens Senator Hanson-Young is also intetested, arguing

The way the spot market works and way the electricity market is currently structured means that battery storage just can’t compete at the same level.”

Policy via Twitter (a la Trump)

This is under way because following a ‘policy bonfire‘, in 2013 and 2014, there is the mother of all policy vacuums in Canberra, with no resolution in sight. When this happened under John Howard, the states – with New South Wales under Bob Carr as leading light – started a push for an emissions trading scheme, which created impetus for a national scheme.

Entrepreneurs, be they policy or technology-based, are needed to ‘shake things up’. As an academic colleague wrote

I’m generally pro Musk, on the grounds that all visionaries are flawed, and stunts can be useful. You’ve gotta have someone willing to take the big risks, but the personality that allows that kind of behaviour is almost certainly going to also include some narcissism and megalomania. Every other entrepreneur who developed a whole new system in the past was also like this. Henry Ford, George Stephenson, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, etc”

“Socio-technical transitions” are indeed about visions  , but of course, visions are okay if you’re rich; if you’re poor and you have visions, they send you to a psychiatrist.

 Regardless of the ins and outs of visions, proposals like these take on a life of their own. If this twitter love-in goes on much longer – and if Cannon-Brookes finds the cash – Musk and Weatherill will both be in a position where they have to do something together, or look like – as they say in Newcastle (England) “All fur coat and no knickers.”

Talk, like Australia’s electricity, is no longer as cheap as it was.

South Australia has a long history as a “laboratory”

You could argue that South Australia’s foundation as the only non-convict labour colony under White Settlement (or invasion) is the first example of its role as a ‘laboratory’.

South Australia’s longest serving premier, Tom Playford (in office from 1938 to 1965) was certainly capable of thinking big, with his 1946 nationalisation of the Adelaide Electric Supply Company to create the (since privatised) Electricity Trust of South Australia (this was done with the enthusiastic support of the Federal Labor Government of Ben Chifley) and his nuclear ambitions.

Later visions of state-based responses to economic, social and environmental pressures were less successful (for example Premier Don Dunstan and Monarto, and John Bannon‘s similarly ill-fated “multi-function polis.”

As a virtual city-state, South Australia  can claim a place as an ‘urban laboratory’ and be an object of study for the question ‘Can cities shape socio-technical transitions and how would we know if they were?’  A new experiment seems to be unfolding. Tomorrow (Tuesday 14th March), Weatherill will announce a series of State government measures to deal with energy prices, energy security and climate change. Watch this space…

Winners and Losers

If it comes off, (and the “if” and the “it” are big questions), who would be the winners and losers? It would clearly be better PR than you could ever buy for Musk – proof of concept for his technology. Weatherill and his government are up for re-election in March 2018 and needing to put meat on the bones of the ‘OpenState’ festival promises, would be a happy chappy.

Academics studying “sustainability sociotechnical transitions” and the importance of visions and hype will love it. Public policy theorists who use the ‘Multiple Streams’ approach point out that often policy entrepreneurs develop solutions and then go looking for a problem to attach them to. The Musk-Adelaide connection would become the obvious citation

Renewable proponents would see their enthusiasm and hard work vindicated, especially if customers (and voters) see a stabilisation (or decrease?) in electricity prices, and an end to insecurity of supply. Community-based schemes may of course fear being pushed aside by the big boys, as do the Zen Energy owners and managers, who reckon a local consortium could do the job Musk is promising on the same time-scale.

Conversely, it would be bad news for the South Australian opposition, which is reduced to ‘me-tooism’. Liberal Opposition leader Stephen Marshall said in response to the Musk proposal

“It’s the sort of thing we need to be looking at to secure the stability of our grid here in South Australia and also how we can lower energy prices in this state” [source]

For the Federal Coalition it is another big headache – it is hard to see how Malcolm ‘innovation/exciting time to be alive’ Turnbull can object. He and Musk talked on Sunday, with the now usual exchange of mutually-congratulatory tweets.

If it came off, it would, presumably, be disastrous for the status quo actors who own/operate the centralised fossil-fuel power stations and grid, accelerating the ‘death spiral‘ of grid defection.

They can be expected to fight back, by attacking the credibility of proponents (with Musk, that’s hard), the technology and by attempting to slow deployment. But in South Australia, they may not have enough levers to pull on, enough credible threats to make.

2017 is already living up to its billing as a perplexing roller-coaster.

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