Mike Cannon-Brookes explains South Australia's energy problem and Elon Musk's plan to fix it

Mike Canon-Brookes (L)/ Supplied.

Mike Cannon-Brookes, co-founder of Atlassian, is the man to thank for stoking the fire under Elon Musk’s plan the fix Australia’s energy problems.

In just a couple of working days Cannon-Brookes has navigated the political landscape to get Musk in contact with the Australian prime minister and premier of South Australia, and created enough hype on Twitter than he has been deluded with expressions of support from the Australian business community.

But don’t mistake the speed of the process with the ease of the task.

To create a storage grid using Tesla batteries, that will prevent South Australia from experiencing blackouts, is complex process that has many asking the question: “What does all this mean?”

Speaking to ABC’s Radio National program, Cannon-Brookes laid out his take on the situation.

“The getting of power is not actually the problem,” he said. “South Australia has a surplus of power versus demand.

“[The batteries] make it possible to have a much larger quantity of renewables,” he said, adding that they act to grid and make renewables more economically viable.

So basically, the problem in South Australia is the stability of the grid not the quantity of power it is generating.

“What the batteries allow you to do is time shifting as well as some grid control work to make the grid more stable,” he said.

When asked who the energy provider would be, he said: “As a third party you could buy the power straight off the grid, like the consumer, and sell it back.

“There’s obviously a lot of wind farms and power companies, as well as grid operators, it’s quite a complex picture as to where you would put this, but there a multiple, different potential solutions.”

And while it is a great to see a shift in momentum on the energy debate, many are wondering why a foreign company is being used as opposed to one of the number of Australia battery companies already producing similar products and offering their services for the project.

The truth of the matter is most likely that Musk brings celebrity billionaire power to what has been a fraught political slanging match for several months.

Several projects, worth billions of dollars, compared to the $200 million Musk plan, have been proposed or are already underway in South Australia. Tesla and Musk are actually a little slow out of the starter blocks and to some degree may have even missed the boat.

Last year the South Australian government decided to use its buying power as both muscle and incentive to shake up the energy market, putting out a tender for a new player – existing energy suppliers excluded – to supply 75% of the government’s power needs, while it also sought another 25% from storage-based renewable options. The tenders have closed and results have not yet been revealed, but that means Tesla is too late.

Meanwhile, details about Lyon Solar’s to build the world’s biggest solar-based battery system, the size of a football field, near Roxby Downs, emerged as far back as July 2016. Along with that $300 million plan underway, the company has around 250MW of projects on the drawing board across South Australia.

SA’s Zen Energy, chaired by Rudd era climate change economist Ross Garnaut, has already put forward plans with energy giant Santos for a 100MW dual-fuel power station near Port Augusta using gas and solar.

Cannon-Brookes says “it’s a complicated picture” and if the conversation is about which is the best battery “then the country is in a good spot”.

“Most of the batteries are sourced overseas, we have a number of very promising, somewhat experimental techniques here. Again, if battery storage becomes a large-scale industry that will benefit those Australian battery companies as much anyone else.”

He said software control systems and installation, among other things are needed “to take a battery and turn it into a grid storage facility”.

Cannon-Brookes acknowledge that some people were disappointed that this has only becoming a national agenda issue after two tech billionaires began tweeting about it, but said he’s just trying to change the energy conversation.

“It’s a little embarrassing that how fast and how far it’s gone,” he told RN. “Nothing that we have achieved in the last week couldn’t have been achieved seven days ago.

“There are a number of Australian and international companies.. proposing this solution to the South Australian crisis last week, last month, even as long as three or four months ago and falling on deaf ears. So I think you probably have to put some of that on the politicians and other people who have been ignoring other potential solutions.

“At the moment I am just trying to move forward and see if we can turn this momentum into something actual, that turns into a solution for South Australia, and hopefully an example of what Australians can do,” he said.

“We have about six or seven months to get something solved, and the question is what regulations need to change now so that’s a possible time frame. I bet the people of South Australia would be upset if the reason it didn’t get done was regulation rather than the ability to install and deliver batteries.

“The Australian reaction has been amazing… lets prove to the world we can do it.”

Listen to the full interview with Radio National here.

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