Attacks on Snowy 2.0 miss the point

Anyone who’s paid attention to my politics over the years knows my opinion of the Turnbull Government — but it’s frustrating to see people try to exploit ignorance to argue against the Snowy 2.0 project.

None of what I’m about to write assesses the economic (or, for that matter, environmental or technological) merits of “Snowy 2.0”.

However: if you’re going to lay partisan criticism on a project, don’t do it in a way that gives ammo to the enemy.

Here are the three refrains I see on Twitter, and why I’d like them abandoned.

  1. “It’s not a generator, it’s just a battery”

No kidding. So is the Tesla battery, and I’ll bet a fiver that at least half the people who hate Snowy 2.0 because it’s “just a battery” love the Elon Musk battery in South Australia.

Batteries are indispensable in a renewable-powered world — the Tesla battery has already shown its value in a world where a coal generator can trip unexpectedly, by responding in milliseconds to a change in grid frequency when Victoria’s Loy Yang generator tripped.

Pumped hydro can’t deliver millisecond responses, but it can last longer: if Snowy Hydro is right, it would offer 350,000 MWh storage versus South Australia’s 129 Mwh.

If Snowy 2.0 works as an economic, environmental and technological proposition, storage that can run all night (or longer — Snowy Hydro says “three million homes for a week) is a good thing.

Whether storage comes from Snowy 2.0 or some better-thought-out project, I expect pumped hydro will be in the storage mix of the future.

2. Less than perfect efficiency

Critics of Snowy Hydro 2.0 have discovered thermodynamics, and are gleefully pointing out that it takes more energy to push water uphill than you get back when you run the generators.

Great work, geniuses: all batteries return less than 100 per cent of the electricity you put in.

Pumped hydro can get to around 80 per cent, which is less than Tesla’s 92 per cent, but different systems serve different needs.

3. Snowy 2.0 might be charged from a coal-powered station

As a gotcha, this wins the “no shit, Sherlock” award, with a side-order of “you’re not helping”.

While non-renewable sources exist, grid-scale batteries will interact with whatever is on the grid, either directly (coal power charges the battery) or indirectly (the battery’s impact on the grid mix while charging).

In the Snowy 2.0 case, well, we don’t actually know what will provide the “lift” electricity because it hasn’t been designed yet. If it’s just taken from whatever’s on the grid at the time, then it will match the generation mix at that time. Or perhaps a deal will be cut so it buys renewables. We don’t know.

Are there good arguments against Turnbull’s Snowy 2.0 thought bubble? Sure. It’s already run into cost blowouts; it has no environmental impact assessment; it’s going to take ages to build; it’s the brainchild of a government and Prime Minister who haven’t successfully built anything much.

The problem I have with partisan-over-factual attacks on the idea is this: the arguments can be used to attack any battery, not just Snowy 2.0.

You don’t need to give ammo to renewable energy’s enemies to attack Malcolm Turnbull.