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With seven weeks to go, the US election is Biden’s to lose: Part 2

This post is a continuation of yesterday’s post, providing an overview of the state of play in the 2020 presidential election. 

Swing states where Biden or Trump lead by less than 5 points:

  • Florida: 2.7 points to Biden
  • North Carolina: 1.4 points to Biden
  • Texas: 0.8 points to Trump
  • Ohio: 0.9 points to Trump
  • Georgia: 1.5 points to Trump
  • Iowa: 1.6 points to Trump

These are six states that could go either way in 2020. All were won by Trump in 2016. 

Ohio and Florida are swing states par excellence. Results in Florida are reliably close and this year looks like no exception. Since 2000, Florida has not been won by more than 5 points by any party. Biden has consistently led in state polling since April but the gap has narrowed in recent weeks.

Ohio is also a consistently competitive state, although it swung strongly behind Trump in 2016. It has a remarkable history as a bellwether: it has been won by the winning candidate at every presidential election since 1964, and has sided with the winning candidate all but once since 1944! Ohio’s status as a bellwether may come to end this year: despite Biden’s national lead of over 7 points, Trump leads in Ohio by just under 1 point.

Iowa is another of those mid-western states (like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio) that has been shifting to the right over the last decade. Obama won Iowa by 10 points in 2008; Trump won it by 9 points in 2016. 

In terms of its political lean, Iowa has often sat in the middle of the Midwestern states over the last couple of decades: it has not been quite as strong for Democrats as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin but it has been consistently more Democratic than Ohio. However, Iowa’s shift to the right in 2016 was large and even now Trump leads in the state by 1.6 points. 

North Carolina and Georgia are Republican leaning swing states. North Carolina has only been won by Democrats once since 1980 (by Obama in 2008) but results are often close. Biden is currently leading by a bit over 1 point.

Georgia has not been won by Democrats since Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 but demographic changes have seen Georgia slowly shuffle to the left – the 2018 election for state governor was very close. Part of the reason Democrats have not yet had a breakthrough in the state is because Georgia is one of the least elastic states in the country – that means that there are very few swing voters. The state’s troubled history of racialised politics means that many voters are either rusted on Democrats or Republicans. In 2020, it looks like Biden will have a decent chance of picking it up – Trump is leading in the polls by just one and a half points.   

Finally, Texas looms as one of the most interesting contests this election. Trump currently leads in the state polls by less than one point as demographic changes shift this formerly staunch Republican state to the left. Although Texas is unlikely to be decisive in determining the election winner (Biden will be elected if he wins just the four states where he is already leading by more than 5 points), a Biden win in Texas would have a seismic impact on the electoral map. Texas has not been won by any Democratic nominee since 1980, and it is the only large state that Republicans can consistently rely on winning. Without Texas, there are far fewer paths to a majority for a Republican nominee.

All in all, these six states are unlikely to be the tipping point that determines whether Biden or Trump wins the election. But they will determine whether Biden wins narrowly or by a landslide. 

If Biden only gains the four states where he leads in the polls by more than five points (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona), he will win the electoral college 289 to Trump’s 247. But if he also wins these six states, Biden’s win becomes a massive landslide: 409 to 125. That’s because these states are big and have a lot of electoral votes – with the exception of Iowa, the other five states in this category are all in the top ten most populous states in the country. 

States where Trump leads by 5-10 points:

  • Missouri: 6.5 points to Trump
  • South Carolina: 6.7 points to Trump
  • Montana: 8.4 points to Trump
  • Kansas: 9.2 points to Trump
  • Alaska: N/A

I will briefly mention the states where Trump is leading by five to ten points: Missouri, South Carolina, Montana, Kansas and Alaska. I have intentionally not called these states ‘swing states’ because all traditionally vote Republican.

In all likelihood, Biden will probably not win these states. But the fact that Trump’s leads in these states are so weak is a clear sign of the trouble he is in. Trump won South Carolina and Alaska by over 14 points in 2016, Missouri by over 18 points and Montana and Kansas by over 20 points.

Not even in Obama’s landslide victory in 2008 did Democrats win any of these states (although he came extremely close to winning Missouri). South Carolina, Kansas and Alaska have been won by Republicans at every election for the last forty years, and Montana has been won by Democrats just once (in 1992). These are most definitely not swing states. 

A Biden victory in these states may be unlikely, but just as a major polling error could endanger Biden’s leads in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, so too a polling error could endanger Trump’s leads in any of these five states.

There have not been enough polls of Alaska for FiveThirtyEight to produce a polling average but the few polls that do exist indicate a competitive Republican-leaning race. 

Why Trump could still win

The polls paint a good picture for Biden’s chances. But he definitely doesn’t have it locked up. There are still at least three reasons that Trump could win:

  • A narrowing of the polls. They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, we are still seven weeks from the election, so there is still time for Trump to reduce Biden’s leads in key swing states. Nonetheless, the stability of Biden’s polling lead, the relative lack of undecided voters this year and Trump’s apparent inability to course correct for a sustained period of time means I am pretty skeptical this will eventuate. Oh, and Americans have already started voting.
  • A sizeable polling error. Polls are not perfect – they are a snapshot of a group of voters at a particular point in time. Polling is a very useful tool but it is perfectly normal for polls to be a few points off (and even more on occasion). This means that it is possible Trump is doing better than the polls suggest. But this cuts both ways – a polling error is just as likely to benefit Biden as it is to benefit Trump. The polls may have had a 3.2 point bias to Democrats in 2016 but they had a 2.5 point bias to Republicans in 2012 (for a more detailed explanation of polling error, see here).
  • Election shenanigans. US elections are often accompanied by minor and occasionally major scandals, with issues around ballot admissibility and election administration par for the course in a country where one major party knows it can only win elections by excluding some voters. But this year, with so many voters voting by mail, with the possibility that the election winner will not be known on the night of the election and with President Trump explicitly suggesting that he may not respect the election result, there is more uncertainty than usual this year. This is the real wildcard.

So while Trump’s re-election remains a distinct possibility, Biden is in the box seat. Biden’s polling lead has been large and stable for so long, I find it hard to see Trump winning unless something changes soon. Time is fast running out for Trump to bridge the gap.

All poll numbers used in this post were sourced from FiveThirtyEight’s presidential polling averages on Sunday 13thSeptember.

For an overview of each state’s voting history in presidential elections, see here.

To see an interactive map of which states Biden and Trump need to win the presidency, check out 270towin.com.

For a cool visualisation of how the partisanship of swing states has changed over the last 20 years, see this 538 article.

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With seven weeks to go, the US election is Biden’s to lose: Part 1

In just over seven weeks on November 3, the United States will hold its presidential election, alongside an election for the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate. This post will analyse the presidential polls and what they can tell us about Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s prospects for victory.

Unlike in Australia over the last year, there are new polls almost every day in the United States and there are a number of poll aggregators, including FiveThirtyEight’s weighted polling average. FiveThirtyEights’s polling average will be the main source of polling information for this post.

The national picture

As of Sunday, Biden leads FiveThirtyEight’s polling average by 7.6 points. This lead has been extremely steady all year. In fact, since Biden became the de facto Democratic nominee for president after Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign in April, Biden’s lead in the polls over Trump has never dropped below five points. 

Since June 5th, Biden’s lead over Trump has not varied by more than a few points, staying above 7 points and below 10 points. That is a very resilient lead and is particularly impressive considering all that has happened in the US over the last five months (read here in case you’ve forgotten).

If Biden wins the popular vote count on election day by his current 7.6 point margin, he will almost certainly be elected president in November.

But, as anyone who followed the 2016 election will remember, winning the popular vote does not guarantee an election victory. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1% in 2016, yet failed to win the presidency.

US presidential elections are not determined by winning the national popular vote. Victory requires winning a majority of delegates in the electoral college. Each state is accorded electoral college delegates (from here on called ‘electoral votes’) roughly based on their population, with each state awarded a minimum of three votes (it’s slightly more complicated than that but that’s the short explanation). The most populous state, California, has 55 electoral votes. The District of Columbia, which is not a state, is also awarded three electoral votes. 

There are 538 electoral votes in total, so getting a majority requires winning 270 electoral votes.

In 48 states and DC, electoral votes are awarded to the candidate who wins the most votes statewide. In two states, Maine and Nebraska, delegates are awarded a bit differently. Maine awards two electoral votes to the statewide winner and two votes to the winner in each congressional district. Nebraska awards two votes to the statewide winner and three votes to the winner in each district. In 2020, only one electoral vote is likely to be competitive in each of these two states, so I won’t say anything more about them in this post.

The majority of states (and therefore electoral votes) are not competitive at most elections. For example, there are 14 states that have voted Democratic at every presidential election since 1992 and 13 states that have voted Republican at every election since 1980. A further eight states have voted Republican at every election since 2000. The vast majority of these 35 states are not expected to be competitive this year (with a few exceptions that will be discussed below).

So to summarise, becoming president requires a candidate to gain a majority of electoral votes by winning in competitive states.

With the explanation done, let’s turn to the state polls.

Biden is currently leading in the polls in every state that Clinton won in 2016, plus six states that Trump won in 2016.

At the moment, the traditionally competitive states (called ‘swing states’) can be divided into three general groups: 

  • Swing states where Biden or Trump lead by less than five points. These states are very competitive.
  • Swing states where Biden leads by between five and ten points. Biden is the favourite in these states, but they remain competitive.
  • Swing states where Biden leads by more than ten points. These states are unlikely to be competitive this year.

Let’s tackle each of these groups in reverse order.

I will also briefly look at the states where Trump is leading by between five and ten points.

Swing states where Biden leads by more than 10 points:

  • New Mexico: 13 points
  • Maine*: 11 points
  • Virginia: 10.8 points
  • Colorado: 10.6 points

New Mexico, Virginia and Colorado all voted for Clinton in 2016. These are states that have traditionally been competitive swing states but have been trending more Democratic in recent years. Neither Colorado nor Virginia has been won by a Republican since 2004 and New Mexico has only gone Republican once since 1992. Nonetheless, when Republicans are doing well, they can expect to be competitive in these states. 

Clearly that is not the case this year. With Trump underwater nationally by more than 7 points, these states are highly likely to be won by Biden.

Swing states where Biden leads by 5 to 10 points:

  • Michigan: 7.6 points
  • Minnesota: 7.4 points
  • New Hampshire: 6.9 points
  • Wisconsin: 6.5 points
  • Nevada: 5.9 points
  • Pennsylvania: 5.1 points
  • Arizona: 5 points

These are seven states where Biden has a decent but not overwhelming lead. Three of these are Democratic leaning swing states that Clinton won in 2016: Minnesota, New Hampshire and Nevada.

Since 1992, New Hampshire has only backed a Republican once and Nevada twice. Minnesota has historically been a safe Democratic state – in fact, it is the only state to have backed a Democrat at every election for the last forty years – but it has been edging to the right over the last decade. Biden’s leads in these states are pretty strong but not overwhelming. If Trump is going to gain any states that Clinton won in 2016, it will be one of these three states.

Biden is also leading in four states that Trump won in 2016: Arizona, and the infamous trio of mid-western states that unexpectedly delivered the presidency to Trump: Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Until 2016, Michigan and Pennsylvania hadn’t voted for a Republican since 1988 and Wisconsin hadn’t since 1984. But they have been slowing trending to the right and Trump ended up winning all three states in 2016 – each by less than 1%. Had Clinton won these three states, she would have won enough electoral votes to become president. All three states loom as crucial pick-ups for Biden and crucial holds for Trump in 2020.

Arizona is a traditionally Republican state – it has been won by Democrats just once in the last forty years. But it has been shifting to the left over the last decade and this year it may finally cross the threshold.

If Biden can hold New Hampshire, Nevada and Minnesota, while gaining three out of four of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona, Biden will win the presidency. There is still enough time that Biden’s lead could narrow in all these states by election day and a sizeable polling error may mean that these states are closer than they appear. But you’d much rather be in Biden’s position in these states than Trump’s.

Part two of this post will be posted tomorrow.

All poll numbers used in this post were sourced from 538’s presidential polling averages on Sunday 13thSeptember.

For an overview of each state’s voting history in presidential elections, see here.

To see an interactive map of which states Biden and Trump need to win the presidency, check out 270towin.com.

For a cool visualization of how the partisanship of swing states has changed over the last 20 years, see this 538 article.

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A third of all US coal generation occurs in just five states

In last week’s post, I looked at the transformation that has occurred in the United States’ electricity sector over the last decade. Today’s post will again look at the United States but I will hone in on the situation in individual states. I do not have the time to do a detailed overview of the electricity sector in all 50 states, so instead I will just analyse one metric: coal generation.

Warning: there are a lot of numbers in this post.

Much like in Australia, there is significant variation in coal generation by state in the United States. On the low end, Rhode Island and Vermont have been coal free for over a decade. On the high end, West Virginia has sourced over 90% of its electricity from coal for the last decade.

But let’s start in 2010.

In 2010, 45% of the United States’ electricity was from coal and 48 out of 50 states burned coal (the aforementioned Rhode Island and Vermont were the only two that didn’t). 

10 states were heavily reliant on coal, using it for over 70% of their electricity. Theses states were West Virginia (97%) and Kentucky (93%) in the Appalachian Mountains, the industrial mid-western states of Indiana (90%), Ohio (82%), Missouri (81%) and Iowa (72%), and the sparsely populated Western states of Wyoming (89%), North Dakota (82%) and Utah (81%). New Mexico (71%) in the south-west rounds out the top 10.

17 states generated between 40% and 69% of their electricity from coal, including large states like Michigan (59%), North Carolina (56%), Georgia (53%), Pennsylvania (48%) and Illinois (47%).

9 states used coal for between 20% and 39% of their electricity, including Arizona (39%), Texas (37%), Virginia (35%) and Florida (26%). 

Finally, 12 states sourced less than 20% of their electricity from coal, including New York (10%) and California (1%). Plus there were the two coal free states.

Between 2010 and 2019, the situation changed dramatically. The overall proportion of US electricity from coal almost halved to 24%. By 2019 47 states still burned coal, with Massachusetts being the only state to end coal burning over the last decade. But almost all states had reduced coal burning (the exceptions being Alaska and Maine, which already used very little coal to begin with).

12 states have substantially reduced the proportion of their electricity sourced from coal by over 30%. The most impressive changes occurred in Ohio and Delaware. Ohio, a large industrial mid-western state, had been the fourth most coal-reliant state in the country in 2010 but with a huge 43% reduction in the proportion of coal generation, Ohio now relies on coal for just 39% of its electricity. The tiny east coast state of Delaware also experienced a 43% reduction but because its coal use was much lower than Ohio to begin with, its coal use is now very close to zero (2%).

Other large coal users have also undergone a big drop in coal use such as Iowa (down 35%), Kansas (down 34%) and Indiana (down 31%). Large states like Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Pennsylvania also saw substantial declines in coal use, as did smaller states like Maryland, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

On the flip side, 12 other states experienced very underwhelming declines in coal use. This doesn’t include Alaska (up 1%) and Maine (up 0.3%), which both saw a marginal increase in coal reliance. Of those 12 states, six already had very low coal use in 2010 (Idaho, California, Washington, Oregon, Connecticut and New Jersey) so there really wasn’t much further for coal use to fall in these states.

However four heavily coal-reliant states also had unusually small declines in coal use. These states were Wyoming (down 5%), West Virginia (down 6%), Missouri (down 9%) and Nebraska (down 9%).

So how do the states compare now?

In 2019, there were just four states that still sourced over 70% of their electricity from coal (down from 10 states in 2010) and just eight states sourced between 40% and 69% of their electricity from coal (down from 17 states in 2010).

23 states now rely on coal for less than 20% of their electricity (up from 12 in 2010), plus there are three coal free states. The other 12 states are between 20% and 39%.

In 2019, the four most coal-reliant states were West Virginia (91%) and Kentucky (73%) in the Appalachian Mountains, Missouri (73%) in the industrial mid-west and Wyoming (84%) in the west. Utah (65%) and North Dakota (63%) were fifth and sixth.

Of the twelve largest states by population (with more than eight million people), Ohio (39%), Michigan (32%) and Illinois (27%) were the only states where coal-reliance was above the national average of 24% in 2019. 

North Carolina (23%), Georgia (20%), Texas (19%) and Pennsylvania (17%) all had a below average reliance on coal, while Florida (9%), Virginia (4%), New Jersey (2%), New York (0.3%) and California (0.1%) are all getting very close to phasing out coal completely.

As an Australian, I find these numbers striking. The fact that the four most populous states in the United States (California, Texas, Florida and New York) source 0.1%, 19%, 9% and 0.3% respectively of their electricity from coal highlights just how exposed Australia is to coal, with Australia’s three largest states reliant on coal for over 70% of their electricity.

Of the 50 states in the United States, 46 are less reliant on coal than Australia’s three biggest states. In fact, if New South Wales were a part of the United States, it would be the third most coal-reliant state in the whole country! Add in Queensland and Victoria, and Australia’s three biggest states would all be in the top seven most coal-reliant states in the United States (refer to Table 1). 

Table 1.  The most coal reliant states in the United States and Australia.

State:Proportion of electricity from coal in 2019:
West Virginia91%
Wyoming84.3%
New South Wales76.8%
Missouri72.8%
Kentucky72.7%
Queensland70.5%
Victoria70.2%
Utah64.4%

Until now, this post has focused exclusively on the proportion of coal use for electricity generation by state. But I will conclude this post with a brief look at the gross amount of coal use by state. Why does this matter? Well, some small states may get a large proportion of their electricity from coal but they may use a lower quantity of coal than a much bigger state with a lower proportion of coal use.

Take the examples of Texas and Wyoming. Wyoming gets 84% of its electricity from coal while Texas gets just 19% of its electricity from coal. But whereas Texas is the second most populous state in the US with over 28 million people, Wyoming is the least populous state with a bit over 500,000 people – its population is fifty times smaller than Texas. Wyoming sourced over 34,000MWh of electricity from coal and Texas sourced over 91,000MWh. So despite Texas being significantly less reliant on coal than Wyoming, it actually burnt almost three times more coal than Wyoming.

When looking at the gross amount of coal use, Texas burns more coal than any other state in the United States. In fact, a third of all the country’s coal burnt for energy generation occurs in just five states. As well as Texas, Indiana, West Virginia, Missouri and Kentucky collectively produce 33% of all the United States’ coal fired electricity. If the United States is to rapidly reduce emissions from the electricity sector by phasing out coal in coming years, these are the five states that will bear the brunt of the transition.

Table 2. List of states in the United States, comparing the proportion of electricity generation from coal in 2010, 2015 and 2019 and how it has changed. Sorted by 2019 coal generation.

State:2010 % coal2015 % coal2019 % coalChange from 2010 to 2019
West Virginia96.70%94.10%91%-5.70%
Wyoming89.30%88%84.30%-5.00%
Missouri81.30%78.10%72.80%-8.50%
Kentucky92.70%86.90%72.70%-20.00%
Utah80.60%75.50%64.40%-16.20%
North Dakota81.90%74.60%62.80%-19.10%
Indiana89.70%75.20%59.10%-30.60%
Nebraska63.80%60.60%54.70%-9.10%
Montana62.40%54.70%52%-10.40%
Colorado68.10%60.20%45.10%-23.00%
Wisconsin62.50%56%42%-20.50%
New Mexico70.70%62.50%41.80%-28.90%
Ohio82.10%58.80%39.10%-43.00%
Arkansas46.20%39.10%37.90%-8.30%
Iowa71.80%52.60%35.10%-36.70%
Kansas67.80%54%33.40%-34.40%
Michigan58.80%46.80%32%-26.80%
Minnesota52.30%43.30%31.50%-20.80%
Illinois46.50%38%26.90%-19.60%
United States – total44.80%33.20%23.50%-21.30%
North Carolina55.90%31.10%23.30%-32.60%
Tennessee53%40.10%22.90%-30.10%
South Dakota32.80%15.50%20.80%-12.00%
Arizona39.10%32%20.50%-18.60%
Georgia53.30%28.80%19.80%-33.50%
Texas36.50%27%19%-17.50%
Alabama41.40%27.20%18.80%-22.60%
Pennsylvania48%30.10%16.80%-31.20%
South Carolina36.20%23.40%14.80%-21.40%
Maryland54.30%38.30%14.40%-39.90%
Hawaii14.30%13.20%13.20%-1.10%
Alaska9.20%10.60%10.60%1.40%
Oklahoma43.60%32.70%9.40%-34.20%
Florida26.20%18.10%8.70%-17.50%
Louisiana23.30%14.10%7.30%-16.00%
Nevada19.90%6.80%6.90%-13.00%
Washington8.20%4.60%6.80%-1.40%
Mississippi25%9.90%6.60%-18.40%
Oregon7.50%4.10%4.10%-3.40%
Virginia34.90%20.40%3.60%-31.30%
Delaware45.60%7.70%2.30%-43.30%
New Hampshire13.90%4.70%1.90%-12.00%
New Jersey9.80%2.40%1.50%-8.30%
Maine0.50%0.80%0.80%0.30%
New York9.90%1.70%0.30%-9.60%
Connecticut7.80%1.60%0.10%-7.70%
California1%0.20%0.10%-0.90%
Idaho0.70%0.50%0.10%-0.60%
Massachusetts19.40%7%Coal free-19.40%
Rhode IslandCoal freeCoal freeCoal free
VermontCoal freeCoal freeCoal free

All data on electricity generation in the United States was calculated from the United States Energy Information Administration’s Electricity Data Browser.

Data on Australian electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

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In just one decade, the United States has halved its coal use

It is one of the most remarkable energy transition stories – how the United States, the world’s largest economy, has halved its coal generation in just a decade. This post will provide an overview of American electricity generation, how it has changed over the last decade and how it compares with Australia. My post next week will explore the fascinating differences in coal generation across the 50 American states.

The national picture

Table 1. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source in the United States.

Fuel source% in 2010% in 2015% in 2019Change from
2010 to 2019
Natural gas23.9%32.7%38.4%14.5%
Coal44.8%33.2%23.5%-21.3%
Nuclear19.6%19.6%19.7%0.1%
Other renewables 
(incl. wind and solar)
4.1%7.2%10.9%6.8%
Conventional
hydro
6.3%6.1%6.7%0.4%
Other1.5%1.3%1.1%-0.4%
Total
renewable
10.4%13.3%17.6%7.2%
Total
non-emitting
30%32.9%37.3%7.3%
Change in
total generation 
from 2010
to 2019
-0.2%

It is no secret that current United States President Trump doesn’t accept the reality of climate change and support for the coal industry has been a key part of his electoral strategy. It is also no secret that former President Obama mostly failed to seriously cut greenhouse gas emissions in his eight years in office because many of his policy initiatives were blocked by a Republican-controlled Congress (and conservative Democrats). 

It is a reflection of the weakness of the presidency and the federal government in the United States more generally that these events have had little impact on the underlying economic trends that have driven a steep and rapid decline in coal use over the last decade.

In 2010, coal was the single largest source of electricity generation in the United States, providing 45% of the country’s electricity. Gas provided 24% and nuclear provided 20%. Renewables, primarily hydro, provided 10% and other sources provided 1.5%.

Since then, coal generation has collapsed by almost half to just 24%. About one third of the decline in coal has been replaced by renewables, primarily new wind and solar plants. But gas generation has replaced the other two-thirds, increasing to 38%. Increased gas generation is not much of an improvement than coal from an emissions perspective because gas can be just as polluting as coal.

Gas is now the single largest source of electricity generation in the United States, even if it only provides a bit over a third of the country’s electricity. Coal, nuclear and renewables provide 24%, 20% and 18% respectively of the country’s electricity. 

But there is more nuance to this. Although coal’s decline has been steady over the past decade, the increase in gas and renewables has not.

Between 2010 and 2015, the proportion of coal generation declined by almost 12%. About three-quarters of the gap left by coal was filled by gas and just one quarter was filled by renewables. This period was primarily characterised by cheap new gas supplies driving out more expensive coal.

The situation has been quite different over the last four years. Between 2015 and 2019, coal declined by almost 10%. Yet gas only covered about 55% of this gap; renewables covered 45%. Wind and solar in the United States are now outcompeting coal and are increasingly outcompeting gas (in Australia, wind and solar farms are already significantly cheaper than both new coal and new gas). Increasingly as coal power stations shut down, more and more of the gap is being filled by renewables.

On current trends, renewables will soon become the second largest source of electricity generation in the United States, on track to overtake both coal and nuclear in the next two to three years. In contrast to the rapid decline of coal and the rise in gas and renewables, nuclear generation has been stagnant, up just 0.1% in a decade.

There are some revealing contrasts between the energy transformations taking place in the United States and Australia:

  • The United States has long had a more diverse mix of electricity generation than Australia, a situation that is still true today. While gas is the United States’ largest source of generation at 38%, coal is the largest source of generation in Australia at 56%. The risks of relying on such a polluting fuel source for such a large amount of Australia’s electricity will only increase as the world decarbonises.
  • A core driver of the decline in United States coal generation has been the large fall in the price of gas. This is the complete opposite of the situation in Australia, where gas prices have skyrocketed in recent years.
  • The total amount of electricity generation has barely changed in the United States over the last decade – down just slightly (0.2%). In the last five years alone, Australia’s total electricity generation has increased by 4%. 
  • The United States has a number of legacy nuclear power stations, built in previous decades and increasingly ageing. This means that the United States gets 37% of its electricity from non-greenhouse gas emitting power sources*, despite only 18% coming from renewable energy sources, like wind, solar and hydro. Australia does not have any nuclear power stations and we get slightly more of our electricity from renewables than the United States (21%). 

If the trends of the past decade are anything to go by, the United States will completely phase out coal generation by the early 2030s.** For Australia to do the same will require a much more rapid phase out of coal than is currently planned.  

Next week’s post will look at coal generation in more detail across America’s fifty states. 

All data on electricity generation in the United States was calculated from the United States Energy Information Administration’s Electricity Data Browser.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

*Nuclear power stations do produce toxic waste, but not in the form of greenhouse gases.

** Past performance is not necessarily a reliable indicator of future performance, to repurpose the super fund disclaimer.

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Electricity generation in Australia, Part 4: NSW and VIC

This is the fourth and final part of a series looking at electricity generation in Australia. You can also read parts one, two and three.

This post will provide an overview of electricity generation in New South Wales and Victoria over the last five years.

New South Wales:

New South Wales201520182019Change from
2015 to 2019
Black coal80.5%78.8%76.8%-3.7%
Wind2.5%4.3%6%3.5%
Hydro5.4%6.9%4.7%0.7%
Small-scale
solar PV
2%3.3%4.2%2.2%
Natural gas7.3%3.1%4.1%-3.2%
Large-scale
solar PV
0.3%1.5%2.3%2%
Biomass1.5%1.6%1.6%0.1%
Oil products0.4%0.5%0.5%0.1%
Total
renewable
11.8%17.5%18.7%6.9%
Change in 
total 
generation
from 2015 
to 2019
8.6%

New South Wales* is the most coal dependent state in Australia, with black coal providing 77% of the state’s electricity generation. New South Wales is also the least reliant on gas of the mainland states, at 4%.

Almost 19% of the state’s electricity is from renewable energy, including 6% wind, 5% hydro, 4% rooftop solar and 2% large-scale solar. Biomass provides almost 2%. Overall, the state generates 9% more electricity now than it did in 2015.

New South Wales has had the most stable electricity supply make-up over the last five years, symptomatic of a lack of support for the renewable energy industry until very recently. The biggest changes have been the 3.7% decrease in coal and the 3.5% increase in wind. 

Total renewable energy generation in New South Wales bounces around year-to-year due to the state’s relatively high proportion of hydro generation. Hydro generation is heavily influenced by rainfall, which is variable.

From 2018 to 2019, wind and solar generation increased by 3.4% – a sizeable increase not far behind Victoria and Queensland. But total renewable energy generation increased by just 1.2%. The wind and solar increase was partly cancelled out by a 2.2% decline in hydro generation, due to low rainfall.

Conversely, there has been heavy rainfall in the first half of 2020, so it is probable that hydro will drive a sizeable increase in total renewable energy this year, even if wind and solar do not increase by much. 

So when analysing the renewable energy transition in New South Wales, it is best to exclude hydro generation to get a more accurate picture of the situation. 

Big changes loom in New South Wales. The state has the oldest coal power station fleet in the country including the 48-year old Liddell power station, which will shut during 2022 and 2023. The state government has also begun a process to enable a massive increase in renewable energy projects in the years to come. Clearly the stability of recent years is coming to an end.

Victoria:

Victoria201520182019Change from
2015 to 2019
Brown coal85.4%75.8%70.2%-15.2%
Wind5.9%9.7%11.4%5.5%
Natural gas3.1%6.3%8.3%5.2%
Small-scale
solar PV
1.7%3.5%4.6%2.9%
Hydro2.4%2.4%2%-0.4%
Biomass1.3%1.6%1.7%0.4%
Large-scale
solar PV
0%0.4%1.6%1.6%
Oil products0.2%0.4%0.4%0.2%
Total
renewable
11.3%17.6%21.2%9.9%
Change in 
total 
generation
from 2015 
to 2019
-15.7%

Victoria sources a bit over two-thirds of its electricity generation from brown coal – it is the only state in Australia that burns brown coal. Wind energy is the second largest source of electricity at 11%, with rooftop solar providing 5%, hydro 2% and biomass and large-scale solar each providing almost 2%. Gas supplies 8%.

Victoria’s electricity sector has been turbulent in recent years. Victoria is the only state in Australia where overall electricity generation has declined over the past five years, down by almost 16%. This is primarily due to the sudden closure in 2017 of Hazelwood, Australia’s oldest and most polluting coal power station, which came just months after its owners announced the closure. 

This sent shockwaves throughout the electricity sector, which was unprepared for such a sudden withdrawal of electricity supply. This led to an increase in generation from all other energy sources (except hydro) while Victoria became increasingly reliant on importing electricity at times of high electricity demand from South Australia, Tasmania and to a lesser extent New South Wales.

Ironically, the supply impacts of Hazelwood’s closure have been compounded by climate change. Increasingly extreme heat waves in recent summers have driven up electricity demand whilst causing major breakdowns in Victoria’s remaining ageing coal power stations. Witness the enforced blackouts across parts of Melbourne in January 2019, when several of the state’s coal units broke down due to the extreme heat.

Victoria has a relatively high proportion of renewable energy at 21%, with strong increases in both wind and solar generation over the last five years. Wind and solar generation will increase further in the next couple of years as Victoria is currently the renewable energy investment capital of Australia, with more new projects scheduled to connect over the next 12 months than in any other state. Unfortunately, this also means that Victoria is suffering most acutely from onerous grid connection requirements on new renewable energy projects.

While the state is on track to exceed 50% renewable energy by 2030, Victoria continues to be grossly unprepared for another coal closure. I continue to think that an early full or partial closure of the Yallourn coal power station within the next five years is far more likely than generally appreciated ……but that is a topic for another post.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

* For electricity generation purposes, the ACT is included in the total for New South Wales. The ACT has relatively little electricity generation within its borders but the local government purchases renewable energy to supply 100% of the ACT’s electricity consumption.

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Wind and solar farms are still stuck in the waiting room

Source: Pinterest

Back in May, I wrote a post about the wind and solar farms connecting to the electricity grid over the next twelve months. With the release of AEMO’s latest generation information on July 22nd, I can provide an update on how things are going and compare what has changed since the previous release on May 1st. 

And the news is not encouraging. Much like Agent Dale Cooper in the red room of Twin Peaks, not knowing when he’ll be allowed to leave and whether he’ll have to wait two minutes or 25 years, completed wind and solar farms continue to be stuck indefinitely in the waiting room of the electricity grid in record numbers. 

Since May 1, just one solar farm has entered full service. This is despite 14 wind and solar farms originally being scheduled to enter full service by the end of July.

Table 1. Just one solar or wind farm has entered service since May 1.

StateWind and solar projectsSize (MW)
QLDHaughton solar133

The connection dates for many projects have been delayed even further since May. The full commercial use dates for 18 wind and solar projects have been pushed back, a clear sign that AEMO is still struggling to deliver timely connections. Ten of these projects have been hit by comparatively minor delays of one to two months, albeit these delays add to existing delays of months or even years.

Eight projects face more severe delays:

  • The Bungala 2 solar farm and Murra Warra stage one wind farm have been delayed by three months, while the Goonumbla, Kiamal stage one and Glenrowan West solar farms have all been delayed by four months.
  • The Dundonnell wind farm in Victoria has been delayed by five months.
  • The Yarranlea solar farm in Queensland has been delayed by six months.
  • Worst of all, stage 2 of the Lincoln Gap wind farm in South Australia has been delayed a full 14 months. Instead of connecting next month, it will now have to wait until October next year.

To reiterate, almost all these projects have finished construction. The delays are overwhelmingly caused by strict new grid connection rules introduced by the operator of the electricity grid, AEMO.

There is a silver lining: the number of projects in commissioning (ie. in the process of connecting to the grid) has surged from nine to seventeen. Eleven of these projects are schedule to be online by the end of August. I am very skeptical AEMO will keep to this timetable but we live in hope.

AEMO has also provided full commercial use dates for six new wind and solar projects. These are outlined in the table below. One of these projects, the Silverton wind farm in New South Wales, had actually been classified as ‘in service’ until the latest update, when its status reverted to ‘in commissioning’ (it seems that the previous ‘in service’ listing was an error as it has been reported that the project had faced connection issues for the last two years).

Table 2. Full commercial use dates for six new wind and solar projects have been revealed in the latest Generation Information update.

StateWind and solar projectsFull commercial use dateSize (MW)
NSWSilverton wind*Aug-20199
VICBerrybank windOct-20181
QLDMiddlemount solarDec-2026
QLDBroadsound solarDec-20355
NSWWellington solarFeb-21211
NSWBango 973 windApr-21159

The delays to wind and solar farm connections are endangering the future of renewable energy development in Australia, probably more than any other factor. As RenewEconomy has reported extensively, many of the biggest wind and solar farm developers have abandoned Australia over the last 18 months after making huge losses on projects that have completed construction but are unable to connect to the grid.

The next AEMO update – probably at the end of September or October – should provide a clearer picture of whether AEMO are actually getting on top of the connection process, or if the seemingly never-ending commissioning delays will continue to slowly suffocate the renewable energy industry. 

Table 3. Month of estimated full commercial operation of new wind and solar projects, as of July 22.

StateWind and solar projectsFull commercial
use date
Size (MW)
NSWBomen solarJul-20100
NSWNevertire solarJul-20132
VICElaine windJul-2084
VICYendon windJul-20144
VICCherry Tree windJul-2058
QLDMaryrorough solarJul-2035
QLDCoopers Gap windJul-20453
SABungala 2 solarAug-20135
VICMurra Warra Stage 1 windAug-20226
TASCattle Hill windAug-20144
SALincoln Gap wind stage 1Aug-20126
VICMortlake South windAug-20158
NSWSilverton windAug-20199
NSWGoonumbla solarSep-2070
NSWDarlington Point solarSep-20275
TASGranville Harbour windSep-20112
VICYatpool solarSep-2050
VICCrowlands windSep-2080
QLDKennedy solarOct-2015
QLDKennedy windOct-2043
QLDWarwick solarOct-2032
VICBerrybank windOct-20181
VICKiamal Stage 1 solarNov-20200
QLDOakey 2 solarNov-2056
NSWLimondale solar 1Nov-20220
QLDYarranlea solarDec-20103
VICDundonnell windDec-20336
NSWBiala windDec-2011
NSWSunraysia solarDec-20229
NSWCollector windDec-20227
NSWMolong solarDec-2032
QLDLilyvale solarDec-20118
VICMoorabool windDec-20312
VICStockyard Hill windDec-20532
VICBulgana Green Power Hub windDec-20194
QLDMiddlemount solarDec-2026
QLDBroadsound solarDec-20355
NSWWellington solarFeb-21211
QLDGangarri solarMar-21120
VICWinton solarMar-2185
VICGlenrowan West solarApr-21106
NSWCrudine Ridge windApr-21135
VICCohuna solarApr-2131
NSWBango 973 windApr-21159
SALincoln Gap wind stage 2Oct-2186
Total: 45 projects6,736

Note: This table includes the Mortlake South wind farm and the Broadsound solar farm, which are technically classified as emerging and maturing projects rather than committed projects. But both projects are expected to have full commercial use by the end of this year so I have included them in this post. Queensland is also home to the committed Hughenden solar farm but a full commercial use date is not provided and as such, it is not included in this post.

The data in this post was sourced from AEMO’s Generation Information July 2020. This is the one-stop shop for information on power stations in the National Electricity Market and is updated every few months.

* The Silverton wind farm was previously classified as ‘in service’. See note in text.

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Electricity generation in Australia, Part 3: SA and QLD

This is the third part of a series looking at electricity generation in Australia. Part one is here and part two is here.

This post will provide an overview of electricity generation in South Australia and Queensland over the last five years.

South Australia:

Table 1. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: SA

South Australia201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Natural gas38%47.9%48.9%10.9%
Wind32.6%40.4%36.9%4.3%
Small-scale
solar PV
6.6%9%10%3.4%
Large-scale
solar PV
0%1.1%2.7%2.7%
Oil products1.2%1%0.9%-0.3%
Biomass0.7%0.6%0.6%-0.1%
Hydro0%0%0%
Brown coal20.9%-20.9%
Total 
renewable
39.9%51.2%50.2%10.3%
Change in 
total 
generation
from 2015 
to 2019
19.1%

South Australia has probably had the most significant electricity transformation of any state over the last five years. 

Today, South Australia gets the majority of its electricity from renewables, with wind providing 37% of the state’s electricity generation and solar providing 13% (including 10% rooftop solar). Gas provides 49%.

In 2015, 21% of South Australia’s electricity was from brown coal. In 2016, the state’s last coal power station shut down, taking out a fifth of the state’s electricity supply. The gap has been filled more or less equally by both gas and renewables (which have increased by 11% and 10% respectively).

Overall electricity generation has increased by 19% in the last five years. To understand why, we have to consider the effects of the Hazelwood coal power station closure in Victoria. Hazelwood’s closure in 2017 transformed the import/export relationship between Victoria and South Australia. Previously, Victoria’s cheap coal power stations had provided substantial electricity exports to South Australia. South Australia’s gas power stations were more expensive to run so didn’t turn on as often.

But after Hazelwood’s closure, Victoria suddenly had a lot less electricity to send to South Australia and, at times, Victoria now relies upon South Australia to export it electricity. Consequently, many of South Australia’s more expensive gas generators were up and running significantly more often. As well as pushing up electricity prices, this drove the 19% increase in South Australia’s electricity generation.

South Australia continues to be a world leader in wind and solar but the next stage of the state’s transition will require a significant expansion in storage capacity and the construction of a new transmission line connecting South Australia to New South Wales. This interconnector is scheduled to be up and running in 2023.

It will also require a resolution to the state’s system security issues. With wind and solar providing much of the state’s electricity supply at certain times of the day, the electricity grid operator (AEMO) has placed constraints on wind generation and directs gas generators to stay online when they would rather be switched off. This is a temporary stop-gap measure, which should be resolved in the first half of 2021 (see pages 5 and 6 here for details). Once resolved, this should enable South Australia’s renewable energy generation to reach new heights.

Queensland:

Table 2. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: QLD

Queensland201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Black coal68.9%74.8%70.5%1.6%
Natural gas23.4%14.8%14.9%-8.5%
Small-scale
solar PV
2.9%4.3%5.2%2.3%
Large-scale
solar PV
0%1.2%3.6%3.6%
Biomass2.4%1.9%1.9%-0.5%
Oil products1.6%1.5%1.5%-0.1%
Hydro0.8%1.2%1.5%0.7%
Wind0.1%0.4%1%0.9%
Geothermal0%
Total
renewable
6.1%8.9%13.2%7.1%
Change in 
total 
generation
from 2015 
to 2019
5.4%

Queensland primarily relies on coal for its electricity. Black coal supplied 71% of the state’s electricity in 2019, while gas provided 15%. 13% of the state’s electricity is renewable, with solar providing 9% and biomass, hydro and wind providing less than 2% each.

Queensland’s energy transition has really only just begun; renewables increased by just 2.8% in the three years to 2018, but increased by 4.3% in 2019 alone – the biggest increase of any state that year. Another substantial increase in renewable energy generation is likely in 2020.

Another notable trend in Queensland is the significant decline in gas generation since 2015. Since 2015, gas has fallen from 23% to 15% of the state’s supply. At the same time, Queensland’s total electricity generation has gone up by 5% and coal generation has increased by 1.6%.

I suspect this fall in gas generation is due to the start of liquefied natural gas exports in Queensland. The start of the LNG industry in Queensland has had a similar effect to pulling a plug out of a full bath; the vast majority of the east coast’s gas production is now shipped overseas, driving up prices and reducing supply in Australia. It is probable that gas suppliers simply decided that they could get a higher price selling their gas offshore than they could get selling gas to Queensland’s gas power stations.

Queensland has excellent renewable energy resources and it is great to see one of Australia’s largest wind farms now undergoing commissioning while another truly massive wind farm will begin construction next year. These projects will significantly increase the state’s wind generation, which is currently at a pitifully low level of 1%.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

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Electricity generation in Australia, Part 2: NT, TAS and WA

This is the second part of a series looking at electricity generation in Australia. Part one is here.

Electricity generation in Australia varies significantly by state – from the coal-reliant eastern states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, to gas-reliant Western Australia and the Northern Territory, to the renewable energy powerhouses of Tasmania and South Australia.

This post will look at electricity generation in the Northern Territory, Tasmania and Western Australia and assess how it has changed over the last five years.

Northern Territory:

Table 1. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: NT

Northern
Territory
201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Natural gas79.3%63.2%57.6%-21.7%
Oil products19%33.4%38.4%19.4%
Small-scale
solar PV
1.2%2.5%3.1%1.9%
Large-scale
solar PV
0.3%0.8%0.8%0.5%
Biomass0.3%0.2%0.2%-0.1%
Total
renewable
1.7%3.5%4.1%2.4%
Change in
total
generation
from
2015 to
2019
48.7%

The Northern Territory’s primary electricity sources are gas (58%) and oil products (38%), supplying around 96% of the territory’s electricity.

The most striking thing about the NT is how much electricity generation has increased in the last four years – total electricity supply has increased by almost 50%. This is a far larger increase than any other Australian state. I do not know enough about NT to provide an explanation for this, though I speculate it may have something to do with the huge new liquefied natural gas processing facilities constructed in recent years.

The make-up of NT’s generation has changed significantly over the last five years but not in a way that is beneficial for the climate: a 22% fall in the proportion of gas has been cancelled out by a 20% increase in oil products. Small and large scale solar has increased by a bit over 2%. The transition to renewables has proceeded at an extremely slow pace in the NT, totalling 4.1% in 2019 compared to 1.7% in 2015.

But the territory government has not been idle, providing funding for new large-scale solar farms and big batteries while advancing electricity market reforms that should facilitate a further increase in solar generation in the future. As such, the NT should see a significant increase in renewable energy generation in 2020 and 2021, albeit remaining at a low level overall (the Territory government claims the NT will reach 16% renewable energy by the end of this year – if that eventuates, it would be a four-fold increase on 2019).

Tasmania:

Table 2. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: TAS

Tasmania201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Hydro87%84.2%81.1%-5.9%
Wind10.2%9%11.2%1%
Natural gas1.1%5.2%5.6%4.5%
Small-scale
solar PV
1.1%1.2%1.6%0.5%
Biomass0.3%0.2%0.3%
Oil products0.3%0.2%0.2%-0.1%
Large-scale
solar PV
0%0%0%
Total
renewable
98.6%94.7%94.2%-4.4%
Change in
total
generation
from 2015
to 2019
10.4%

Tasmania is the renewable capital of Australia, with the vast majority of its electricity from hydro power stations. 81% of Tasmania’s electricity was from hydro in 2019, while wind provided 11%. Renewables in total supplied 94% of the state’s electricity. 

Tasmania’s hydro output varies depending on water storage levels: higher water storage generally means more hydro generation and vice versa. Lower rainfall in recent years is a likely explanation for the 6% decline in hydro since 2015. This has driven a fall in the proportion of Tasmania’s energy generation from renewable energy, from 99% in 2015 to 94% in 2019. But with two new wind farms joining the grid this year, this trend should begin to reverse. Solar provides just 1.6% of the state’s electricity – unsurprising considering Tasmania’s southern latitude. 

Tasmania has just one gas power station, which has increased gas’ share of generation from 1% to 6% since 2015 at the expense of hydro. Closing this power station will be vital if the state is to reach its target of 100% renewable electricity by 2022.

The state’s total electricity generation has increased by 10% since 2015, with the state exporting more electricity to Victoria.

Western Australia:

Table 3. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: WA

Western
Australia
201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Natural gas54.9%61.5%61.3%6.4%
Black coal28%24.8%23.2%-4.8%
Oil products10.2%5.6%5.5%-4.7%
Wind4.1%3.9%5.1%1%
Small-scale
solar PV
1.8%3.2%3.9%2.1%
Hydro0.6%0.5%0.5%-0.1%
Biomass0.4%0.4%0.3%-0.1%
Large-scale
solar PV
0.1%0.2%0.2%0.1%
Total
renewable
6.9%8.1%10%3.1%
Change
in total generation
from 2015
to 2019
11.5%

Like the NT, Western Australia is primarily a gas-powered state, getting 61% of its electricity from gas. Black coal provides 23% of the state’s electricity and oil products provide 6%. 10% of WA’s electricity is from renewable energy, the vast majority from wind and solar.

The main change over the last five years has been in the proportions of the different fossil fuels. Gas has increased by over 6% while oil products has declined by 5% and is now at almost half the level of 2015 (10% to 6%). Meanwhile, black coal has declined by 5%, partly due to the closure of Muja AB, partly due to increased gas generation and partly because solar has continued to chip away at coal’s market share.

Overall electricity generation has increased by 12% across the state since 2015 due to higher demand.

Western Australia looms as an interesting state in the energy transition over the next few years. After years of stagnation, 2019 provided the first evidence that the state is finally picking up speed, with renewable energy generation increasing by almost 2% – for comparison, it increased by just 1.2% in the previous three years combined. The state government is delivering a whole host of reforms to the electricity market that should significantly increase WA’s attractiveness to renewable energy developers and improve access to the electricity grid.

Like South Australia, Western Australia is at the forefront of the minimum demand challenge, with increasing rooftop solar generation cutting grid demand to lower and lower levels during the middle of the day, throwing up a host of technical challenges.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

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The state polling drought and what it means for interpreting political events

A break from energy this week.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a notable decline in the number of opinion polls measuring voting intention. It may be because media companies can no longer afford to commission polling or because of the failure of federal polls to indicate a Coalition victory at the 2019 federal election. Either way, there have been far fewer polls published.

This is particularly pronounced at the state level, where there have been extremely long periods without any voter intention polling whatsoever.* The most egregious examples:

  • Victoria has had no polling at all since the state election 19 months ago
  • New South Wales has had no polling at all since the state election 15 months ago
  • Western Australia has had no polling at all in 22 months – this is despite the next state election being nine months away.

Polling has been only slightly more frequent in two other states:

  • Queensland had two polls in 2019 and has had two polls in 2020 so far. That is very sparse for a state heading into a competitive election in just four months time.
  • South Australia has had one poll in each of 2019 and 2020.

Tasmania is the only state that has had consistent voter intention polling, with five polls in 2019 and one in 2020 so far (I highly recommend reading the Poll Bludger for regular updates on political polling in Australia ).

Of course, polling has its limitations. Polls are a snapshot of voter sentiment at a fixed point in time (it is not a forecast); a pollster’s methodologies can affect a poll’s sample and in turn the results; if pollsters conduct polling but only release the results selectively, the public can get a distorted view of voter sentiment; and of course, it is foolish to place too much emphasis on just one poll.

But polling is a useful tool that has a really, really important role in political discussion: it acts as a reality check on the commentaries of political pundits, halting questionable media narratives and spurring new ones.

Let’s consider this in the context of Victoria, where there has been no polling since the state election in November 2018.

Victorian Labor had a gigantic election victory in 2018 – the polls showed a close race 6 months out but as the election drew closer Labor’s lead in the polls increased, especially from September. The polls in the last couple of weeks of the campaign in November indicated a comfortable Labor victory – in fact, Labor ended up winning by an even greater margin than the polls indicated.

(See this excellent piece by journalist Noel Towell two days before the state election, which demonstrates the importance of polling that showed the Coalition losing ground, countering the narrative given to the media by Coalition operatives “that everything was going great”.)

Polls are obviously valuable in the weeks leading up to an election by providing an indication of the sort of result we can expect. But conclusions drawn from election results are carried over into the next term of parliament by the media and political pundits. The narrative developed in the immediate aftermath of the Victorian state election continues to influence media and political commentary today, without any more recent polling to challenge or confirm it.

The decisiveness of Labor’s victory in 2018 quickly lead to a general consensus amongst the media and political class regarding the explanation for the victory, which goes something like this: 

  • Labor is building infrastructure at a faster rate than any government in the state’s recent political history and voters approve.
  • Voters care a lot less about government scandals and corruption than they do about a government delivering services and building infrastructure.
  • The Coalition’s campaign was doomed by its narrow, tough-on-crime agenda, while Matthew Guy’s meeting with an alleged mafia figure shredded his credibility (‘lobster with a mobster‘ is still the catchiest name for a political scandal I have heard).
  • Voters like can-do Dan Andrews with his direct, relatable and (perceived) honest communication.
  • The dumping of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister a few months before the state election dragged down support for the Coalition in Melbourne, where Turnbull was especially popular.

This narrative has continued to inform political and media commentary in Victoria over the last 19 months.

But how much of this narrative still holds true? 

Eventually, when the next poll does come, media commentators will posit a range of explanations for any movement (or non-movement). But the most recent baseline with which this future poll can be compared will be the election of November 2018. They say a week is a long time in politics; well 19 months is an eternity.

This matters. Understanding how voters respond to political events affects how political parties develop their strategies and tactics, how they fight elections, how the media choose to cover political events and in the long-term, how we understand and remember history.

Let’s consider Victoria again: what if the overwhelming reason Labor did so well at the state election was due to the removal of Prime Minister Turnbull? Perhaps if a poll had been conducted in early 2019 after more time had passed, Labor’s support would have been much lower. 

And what was the effect of COVID-19? What was Labor’s support like in February 2020, before the s*** hit the fan? Was the government in a strong or weak position? And since then, has COVID-19 strengthened Labor’s position or weakened it? Was the government doing okay in early June before the recent political scandals hit? Did these scandals cause a reduction in support for the government or did they barely register? Regular polling is the only way we can attempt to answer these questions empirically.

But now it is too late; these questions are now impossible to answer empirically. So much has happened over the last 19 months that there are a whole host of different explanations that might be true.

When the next poll comes, all we will have is the subjective interpretations of the media and political pundits to untangle these factors and explain any rise or fall in support for either party. And that is a tragedy. 

People often criticise poll-driven media narratives but the problem has never been the polls themselves; rather it is how the media and political class have chosen to use and interpret them.

Polls, interpreted accurately, are the best tools we have to measure voter sentiment between elections. And they are certainly a heck of a lot more credible than press gallery commentary based upon conversations with political party operatives, other journalists and a few vox pops.

So when the next state poll is eventually released, beware of any commentator who clings too strongly to a particular narrative. With no polling for so long in Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales, drawing conclusions from the next poll will be fraught with uncertainty. So keep an open mind and be prepared that a whole host of explanations may be true.

And hope that we won’t have to wait another 19 months for the next poll.

For more information about opinion polling, I highly recommend the Poll Bludger and Kevin Bonham’s blog.

* No, polls of premier approval ratings definitely don’t count. Approval rating polling has some value but it is no substitute for voting intention polling.

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Coal in Australia, Part 2: Queensland

This is the second in a series of posts providing an overview of Australia’s coal industry. You can read part one here.

Victoria has two coal mines. Western Australian also has two. 

Queensland has 57.

Queensland is the largest coal producer in Australia. It is home to 57 coal mines, 50 of which produced coal in 2018-19. 

Of these 57 mines, six are located in southern Queensland – the region south of Bundaberg. Coal in this region is primarily thermal coal (used to make electricity), much of which is used to power the four local coal power stations: Kogan Creek, Tarong, Tarong North and Millmerran. The coal from this region is sourced from two coal basins: the Surat Basin and the much smaller Tarong Basin.

Queensland’s 51 other coal mines are all located in central Queensland, from the Dawson mine in the south located inland from Gladstone, all the way up to the Collinsville coal mine located half way between Mackay and Townsville. Almost all these coal mines are located in what is one of the largest coal basins in the world: the Bowen Basin. The Bowen Basin is a huge deposit of thermal and metallurgical coal (used in steel-making), stretching north to south for 600km and east to west for 200km at its widest point. This huge area is dotted with around 50 coal mines that supply a large proportion of the world’s exported coal.

Another couple of mines are located in the comparatively tiny Callide Basin, where only thermal coal is produced. To the west of the Bowen Basin lies the Galilee Basin, another huge deposit of primarily thermal coal. As of yet, there are no active coal mines in this basin although it is home to a host of huge proposed projects.

There are a range of plans for new coal mines throughout Queensland, with major developments planned in the Bowen Basin as well as the Galilee Basin. All of Queensland’s advanced coal projects are located in these two basins (according to the Queensland Government’s definition of ‘advanced’).

Central Queensland is also home to four coal power stations (Gladstone, Stanwell, Callide B, Callide C) located in a triangle between the regional cities of Rockhampton, Gladstone and Callide. 

In total, Queensland’s eight coal power stations supplied 71% of the state’s electricity in 2019 and their capacity is significantly larger than both Victoria’s and Western Australia’s (but smaller than New South Wales).

Queensland is a massive coal exporter – the vast majority of coal that is mined in the state is shipped overseas. Coal from southern Queensland is transported by rail to the Fisherman Islands coal export terminal just north of Brisbane. Coal from the Bowen and Callide Basins is transported by rail to one of three locations: 

  • The Wiggins Island, RG Tanna or Barney Point coal terminals in Gladstone.
  • The Hay Point or Dalrymple Bay coal terminals near Mackay.
  • The Abbot Point coal terminal near the town of Bowen.

Queensland primarily exports metallurgical coal, making up 72% of the state’s coal exports. Overall, Queensland’s total coal exports increased by 3% between 2014-15 and 2018-19.

78% of Queensland’s coal exports go to just six countries: China (21%), Japan (20%), India (16%), South Korea (12%), Taiwan (5%) and Singapore (5%). Coal imports and exports can vary significantly from year to year but collectively, Queensland’s exports to these six countries have declined by 4% since 2014-15 (refer to Table 1). So if exports to Queensland’s six biggest customers have declined by 4%, what explains the 3% increase in total coal exports from 2014-15 to 2018-19?

Table 1. The six largest export markets for Queensland coal in 2018-19.

Market2014-2015 QLD coal exports (tonnes)2018-2019 QLD coal exports (tonnes)Change (%)% of QLD coal exports
China 52,886,82147,874,649-9%21%
Japan49,811,66943,793,474-12%20%
India34,567,11036,558,2296%16%
Korea24,316,27626,604,8649%12%
Taiwan11,026,92310,899,408-1%5%
Singapore10,875,46010,188,901-6%5%
Total183,484,259175,919,525-4%78%

Behind these six countries, which all imported over 10 million tonnes of coal from Queensland in 2018-19, there are 12 other countries that imported between 1 and 10 million tonnes. These 12 countries bought 17% of Queensland’s coal. See the full list in Table 2.

Table 2. The twelve export markets that received between one and ten million tonnes of Queensland coal in 2018-19.

Market2014-2015 QLD coal exports (tonnes)2018-2019 QLD coal exports (tonnes)Change (%)
Vietnam569,7698,279,8061,353%
Hong Kong –6,001,758N/A
Switzerland2,985,9804,638,14555%
Brazil4,937,1663,995,699-19%
Germany4,155,6773,411,423-18%
France3,286,1972,975,694-9%
Malaysia955,0442,237,659234%
Indonesia1,487,3071,727,56416%
Poland775,7411,487,39692%
Turkey1,473,6711,444,755-2%
Netherlands2,283,1751,291,667-43%
South Africa992,8611,167,95218%

There are four markets that stand out with significantly increased coal demand over the last four years: Poland, Malaysia, Hong Kong and most importantly, Vietnam. Poland’s 92% increase in coal imports from Queensland is intriguing, as Poland is practically the last pro-coal country in northern or western Europe. Malaysian coal demand has increased by over 200%. Despite these increases, Poland and Malaysia still don’t consume that much Queensland coal. 

Hong Kong’s imports have gone from zero to 6 million tonnes in just two years, a huge increase, but I wonder if this is due to an accounting change.

The most important change is in Vietnam, which has gone from a very small coal customer to Queensland’s seventh biggest coal customer behind Taiwan. It is no wonder Vietnam has become the favourite child of the Australian coal lobby in the last couple of years. If these trends continue (and they may not) Vietnam may soon overtake Singapore and Taiwan to become the fourth largest market for Queensland coal.

But with Vietnam the only significant growth market for Queensland coal, arguments in favour of new coal mines are misguided from an economic perspective (as well as being criminal from a climate perspective). Vietnam has had a central role in countering the decline in coal demand from Queensland’s other customers. If Vietnam were excluded from the data, Queensland’s 3% increase in total coal exports from 2014-15 to 2018-19 would actually have been a 0.5% decline. The sooner Vietnam’s coal demand peaks, the sooner demand for Queensland’s coal will flat-line and eventually decline.

Queensland’s coal exports are likely to be more resilient than other markets (including New South Wales) due to their high reliance on metallurgical coal whilst having a relatively low reliance on thermal coal. Thermal coal is in structural decline and this decline is likely to accelerate in the next few years as the world transitions to renewable energy in the electricity sector. Metallurgical coal is used in steel-making and its decline will likely take longer to come to pass.

For an excellent map of Queensland’s coal sector, refer to the Queensland Government’s Queensland Coal Map Fourteenth Edition.

Much of the data in this post was calculated from the Queensland Government’s Coal industry review statistical tables 2018-19.