Could Australia run only on Renewable Energy for its electricity?

IdeasGroupHeaderwritten by Peter Croft

Does it make sense to go Off-Grid? Where does all of this fit with our CO2 Reduction targets announced by the Government?

A couple of months ago, I published an article on this blog entitled Optimism about tackling climate change.

In this article, I outlined the forecast rapid drop in prices for battery storage of electricity over the next few years. I also quoted the CEO of SA Power Networks (formerly ETSA Utilities) – Rob Stobbe – who spelt out the implications of this development – it will make sense for consumers, even communities, to go off grid, especially in remote areas. Then, others in urban and rural areas will also defect, because they like the idea of renewables and independence. And ‘no doubt over time’, Stobbe says, some residential developments and communities will either go off totally or use the local grid or a ‘thin grid’ to assist in moving energy around that development or community.

So, at the local level, going ‘off grid’ is likely to be a realistic choice in the next few years for many people. The recent announcements by Tesla and other companies of dropping prices for battery storage adds to this. But what about the economy as a whole?

Solar_twoMark Diesendorf, Associate Professor at University of NSW has been researching scenarios for 100 per cent renewable electricity (RE) for Australia. His most recent book is entitled Sustainable Energy Solutions. Mark gave a number of presentations in mid-March 2015 in Adelaide on this topic.

One of his presentations (to the Conservation Council of South Australia) was entitled Busting Myths about Sustainable Energy. And there are many myths.

One of the very long-lasting myths is that renewable energy sources are not suited to meeting the demand for electricity which varies over the course of any 24-hour period. Conventional wisdom is that to meet this demand requires a substantial ‘base load’ of generation capability plus peaking supplies which can be switched on to address peaks such as air conditioning on hot summer afternoons (refer page 17 of “Sustainable Energy Solutions”).

The question which arises is – how can inherently variable renewable energy sources such as solar and wind – provide the base load capability which a fossil or nuclear power plant can provide?

Mark’s book outlines a different way of meeting the demand. He makes the point that, while a single solar or wind unit will be variable in its generation of electricity, the more that such units are dispersed around Australia and inter-connected, the more that the sum of the energy generated amounts to a reliable and consistent source. For example, while it might be wind-less in one part of Australia at a given moment, it may be windy at another place; so, by spreading the renewable generation, one is also spreading the risk.

He reported on modelling work done at UNSW where known solar and wind readings at sites around Australia clearly showed that, using current technology, appropriately sited and inter-connected wind and solar units would provide what amounts to a “base load”. The peaking requirements could be met by a mixture of flexible renewable technologies such as geothermal, hydroelectric, concentrated solar-thermal and bioenergy power stations (refer page 86 of Sustainable Energy Solutions). Together, the renewable electricity technologies can supply Australia’s electrical energy needs. More generally, ‘for electricity generation in particular, hourly computer simulations show that in many countries and other regions, supply from 80-100 per cent RE can be just as reliable as existing fossil and nuclear supplies.’

His work on the costs of these renewable technologies indicates that, when carbon costs are taken into account, the costs of existing renewable technologies are broadly cost competitive with fossil fuel technologies and that these will ‘inevitably become cheaper as their sales increase”.

The next few years will be particularly interesting then. Whether at the household and community level, or at the regional/continent level, renewable electricity generation facilities are showing themselves as being capable of meeting our electricity needs and, increasingly, cost competitive. All of this suggests that the Federal Government’s recent commitments of 26-28% reduction in CO2 gas generation by 2030 is very much at the lower end of what is achievable.

What can you do? The Australian Conservation Foundation has announced a major set of rallies in the last weekend of November, around Australia, to protest the Government’s targets for CO2 reduction. These would be great to support. Plus monitor the developments on the storage front: these will change our electricity options within a very few years.


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