As Australia sweltered this week with major cities recording temperatures in the mid 30’s and many towns around 40 degrees, the electricity network underpinned by reliable coal fired power generation provided the largest share of our energy requirements.

For example of the 33,700 MW of plant in operation at 3.35 pm (AEST) on Tuesday 19 January, coal accounted for 22,338 MW – or 66% of the total. If gas is included, fossil fuels sources supplied 84% of Australia’s total electricity generation. 

Coal was even more dominant in NSW and Queensland where it accounted for 80% and 73% of generation respectively.

After coal and gas the next most important generation contributor was hydro power at 8.5% share with lower contributions from solar and wind at 5% and 2.5% respectively.

It’s easy to take for granted but coal keeps households, whole of industry, hospitals, trains, educational facilities, tourism and retail and entertainment operational all year round and it is available every hour of the day.

The scale, reliability and accessibility of coal fired power is particularly important on hot summer days providing vital and often lifesaving air conditioning and refrigeration requirements. The intermittency and inherent scale limitations of solar and wind means they are not a viable alternative.

The South Australian figures also highlight the different fuel sources utilised in times of high demand.  Despite the SA government wanting 50 per cent of the state’s electricity to come from renewables by 2025, the reality as at 3.35pm on Tuesday this week saw coal provide 24% of electricity and with gas included, fossil fuels supplied 88% of all electricity in the state.

Without fossil fuels, South Australians would be relying on wind and solar and at 12 per cent electricity generation this is clearly not enough for the needs of industry and households nor would it allow sweltering South Australians to operate refrigeration, air conditioners and fans.

In fact, if South Australia were to keep to their 50 per cent renewable target, the energy deficit would need to be met by reliance on coal-fired plants in Victoria.

Coal will remain the mainstay of our electricity generation and reducing our reliance on coal would have negative consequences on the reliability and cost of supply.  Alternative energy source have a role to play however they need to be cost competitive, subsidy free and reliable for households and industry. 

Screen shot from NEM Watch as at 3.35 pm on Tuesday 19 January 2016:

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