Does Musk have 'power' to solve Aussie energy crisis?

SYDNEY • Mr Elon Musk's brave bet to fix Australia's energy crisis in 100 days - or hand the money back - has landed the tech entrepreneur an hour-long phone call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and thrown him into a debate over whether battery technology is the solution for a nation still wedded to coal for much of its power.

The call on Sunday followed a Twitter conversation last week between Mr Musk and Australian tech billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, in which the Tesla co-founder promised to install and get working a Tesla battery storage system designed to prevent blackouts in South Australia, the mainland state most reliant on renewable energy.

That promise injected Mr Musk into the middle of a messy political spat in Australia over energy policy.

He found a receptive ear in the Prime Minister, who had made innovation a flagship policy ahead of an election last year. Energy storage will "be a priority this year", Mr Turnbull tweeted after the call. Mr Musk replied on Twitter that renewables and storage were huge disrupters to traditional electricity supply.

Electricity and gas provider AGL Energy lent support to the project yesterday, saying it had offered Tesla a battery storage site in South Australia.

"It sounds like a bit of a crazy idea but sometimes crazy ideas can have a big impact," said Mr Tony Wood, director of energy at Melbourne-based Grattan Institute.

A series of blackouts in South Australia has sparked fears of more widespread outages across the nation's electricity market and raised questions as to why one of the world's largest producers of coal and gas is struggling to keep the lights on in a mainland state.

Meanwhile, South Australia's state government plans to release a new energy policy today.

Solar and wind account for about 40 per cent of the state's power generation but because renewable energy can suffer intermittent power flows, companies like Tesla argue that battery technology can help store and manage when electricity is provided.

Mr Musk can point to success delivering a similar-sized battery project in the US state of California in 90 days though Tesla, known for making electric cars, has missed many other aggressive product milestones it set for itself.

Australian battery producers are also waiting in the wings, with AGL hoping to set up the world's largest virtual power plant in South Australia to ease stress on its electricity grid, at a cost of about A$20 million (S$21 million).

Also, energy storage company Zen Energy is exploring the development of a 150MW battery in South Australia.

Carnegie Clean Energy, a developer of wave energy, yesterday confirmed discussions with South Australia about providing battery energy storage solutions.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline 'Does Musk have 'power' to solve Aussie energy crisis?'. Print Edition | Subscribe