Hamish Cumming doesn’t fit the mould of an anti-environment crusader, climate-change denier or fossil-fuel industry stooge.
He runs a substantial organic beef and broad-acre oats farm and, a mechanical engineer by training, made his fortune developing a fuel efficiency device for diesel engines that was snapped up by the US military.
Beside his wife, Lou, Cumming’s great love is the brolga, Queensland’s endangered faunal emblem; some of the birds nest on his property in southwest Victoria.
Cumming has the inquisitive mind of an inventor, a fascination for detail and a nonsense-detector that makes him resistant to the corporate brush-off. Now some see him as a modern-day Don Quixote, tilting at wind turbines.
What started as a campaign to save his local brolgas has developed into something of a private obsession that Cumming considers to be a public duty; to understand whether the billions of dollars being added to the nation’s power bills to subsidise wind turbines in the name of cutting carbon dioxide emissions is money well spent.
His questions are all the more pressing given the federal government’s pending decision to stick with the Renewable Energy Target that will see thousands more wind turbines rolled out across the nation.
Cumming says his analysis is that the inefficiencies introduced into the electricity system by the addition of intermittent wind energy cancel out most, if not all, of the claimed benefits. His logic follows the findings of reports in Ireland, the Netherlands, Britain and the US, where it has been found incorporating wind farms into a coal-fired power grid forces inefficiencies into the generators that undermine the CO2 emissions savings of the renewable technology.
Cummings says he has tracked the carbon intensity increases at Victorian brown-coal generators over the past six years, and believes they correlate closely to the addition of wind farms into the grid across South Australia, Victoria and NSW.
Australia’s renewable energy lobby, the Clean Energy Council has previously been quick to reject Cumming’s claims as the ramblings of misguided amateur. It declined to nominate the actual carbon emission savings from wind power for this story.
Cumming says he maintains an open mind. But the mechanical engineer in him wants cold, hard facts, which he says are proving surprisingly difficult to get.
He rejects industry claims, ventilated on the ABC’s Media Watch, that the National electricity Market, through which electricity is traded across a national network, explains the discrepancy.
Cumming’s dogged perseverance has shown that the calculations relied upon to distribute millions of dollars and invest billions more seem to owe as much to art as science.
Cummings says the Australian Energy Market Operator has been unable to provide credible data because, like the industry as a whole, it uses models to calculate emissions. These models are based on the amount of electricity dispatched from the power plant, rather than the amount of coal that is burnt or the actual emissions being generated.
“This is not how the real world operates,” Cumming said this week in a blunt email exchange with the AEMO.
The ferocity of the response to Cumming’s initial concerns, first raised in Inquirer and criticised on Media Watch, has motivated him to keep digging.
“I think it should be completely opened up and looked at, at the level of fuel consumption of each fossil fuel generator, which should be matched against the power that is being sold,” Cumming says.
“Currently it appears they are looking at what power is being sold and reversing back their calculations to come to some fictitious number and that number is not real.”
The only way to get the real situation, he argues is to get the coal data direct from the power generators. But when Inquirer asked International Power Australia, owners of the Hazelwood and Loy Yang Power stations, for coal-use data it was told “this is a difficult time of the year; I’m afraid we will have to politely decline.” Says company spokesman Trevor Rowe. “While I appreciate you have asked specific questions about our brown coal generators, may I suggest that AEMO would be a good source of this sort of information for coal-fired power stations generally.”
But AEMO spokesman Joseph Adamo said “Unfortunately AEMO does not have access to the confidential National Greenhouse Emissions Reporting System, database of emission outputs per facility, which would be the definitive source on these matters. Where AEMO needs to estimate an emissions liability for NEM plant, it relies on expert advice provided by ACIL Tasman in 2009.”
For Cumming this is not good enough. “The AEMO should be asking for these figures from all the generators, so you can track and report actual emissions numbers instead of just making it up,” he replied to AEMO. “Millions of tonnes of coal being burnt extra, just to satisfy wind farms and black coal generators, makes a mockery of the so-called emission savings from wind farms.”
Adamo responded: “We do not accept the notion ‘we are not on top of this’ and are ‘just making it up’ nor do we accept that “AEMO is putting out reports and figures that are so grossly incorrect’.”
But he said it was up to generators to tell AEMO if they believed the organisation’s reports to be inaccurate.
Energy market analyst Hugh Saddler does not agree with Cumming’s reasoning on the carbon abatement of wind, but says he would welcome a review of the ACIL Tasman report on which the industry bases its calculations.
“I think it would be a good thing if AEMO commissioned a more recent study,” Saddler says. “The fact is they haven’t and they use those figures as well. I don’t have much more to go on unless the coal stations themselves start reporting what their month-by-month coal burn is.”
He says increased coal consumption may reflect a lower energy value of the coal being burned. But what is clear, Saddler says, is that Australia’s overall CO2 emissions are declining.
His most recent report shows emissions from power generation fell by a further 0.6 million tonnes in the year ending November, due to a big downturn in demand for electricity.
“The result has been that coal-fired generators are supplying less electricity, with consequent reductions in emissions,” the report said.
Saddler says it is the overall reduction that matters, “Whether you attribute the fall to wind, solar or reduced demand at the meter no one knows,” he says. “We don’t have enough data to know but what we do know is the electricity output from major coal-fired generators has been going steadily down.”
Cumming says his argument is while electricity output may be falling, the amount of CO2 emissions per unit of electricity is not.
Energy market analyst Danny Price of Frontier Economics says coal-fired generators will become less efficient as more renewable energy is added to the system under the federal government’s target.
“It will never get to the point that wind won’t make a net impact on carbon emissions,” he says. “But adding more wind will certainly be more expensive.” Frontier Economics estimates that cost burden for generators of RET will be $17 billion.
Cumming says his main concern is the public wallet.
“It matters because what is happening emissions-wise is reflected in consumer power bills,” he says. “The wind companies claim the turbines are abating greenhouse gas emissions and the consumer is paying for that abatement. If there is very little or no green house gas emission being abated, then that is a waste of money.
“At the other end of the equation you have fossil-fuel generators that are burning excess fuel to supply a set amount of electricity, and being paid compensations for it under the carbon tax.
“It matters because the consumer is paying for both ends of a system that doesn’t appear to be abating any greenhouse gas.”
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