Our electricity system of the future could be powered by sun, wind and waves
Liberal party donor and coal plant owner Trevor St Baker is proposing with the help of his mates in government to build two new coal power stations in Australia at the expense of taxpayers.
However, the big four banks and the big three energy companies are not having a bar of it. Indeed the majority of Australia’s energy companies are working towards a very different future for the country’s energy system, a future powered by clean, renewable energy.
There are now at least nine studies conducted during the decade that have analysed how Australia can move from an electricity system based on polluting coal and gas to one powered by the sun, wind and waves.
The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) – the body tasked with making sure we have energy when we need it – found there were “no fundamental limits to 100% renewables”, and that the current standards of the system’s security and reliability would be maintained.
These studies show different pathways towards 100% renewable energy, but what they all agree on is that it can be achieved.
So how would it work? If we get our policies and regulation right, the electricity system of the future could look something like this:
1. Big on wind and solar
In future, the bulk of our electricity will come from the most affordable technologies – wind and solar photovoltaic (PV). In areas with the best renewable resources, big wind and solar projects connected to transmission lines will generate electricity to power Australia’s industry, transport, cities and exports.
Modelling by the University of New South Wales suggests that wind generation could supply up to 70% of Australia’s electricity needs, while modelling by CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia found that wind and solar could provide nearly all generation in future. UNSW’s analysis, backed up by AEMO’s Integrated System Plan, also found that many of the best solar and wind sites in Australia were in remote locations – renewable energy zones, needing new transmission investments to harvest these amazing resources.
2. Lots of different technologies in different locations
These solar and wind farms will be spread across the country, sharing their output, because in a huge continent the size of Australia, the wind is almost always blowing somewhere.
The supply gaps will then be filled with a range of on-demand renewables and storage, such as concentrating solar thermal with storage, pumped hydro, batteries (grid and domestic), sustainable bioenergy and more.
A study by Andrew Blakers at Australian National University found that pumped hydro could provide enough backup for a grid entirely powered by wind and solar power.
Hold on … hydropower in the dry continent of Australia? Yes, they have identified 22,000 potential sites, mainly off-river reservoirs in hilly terrain or abandoned mine sites, and just 0.1% of those could meet all of Australia’s storage needs in a 100% renewable grid.
This means we will move from a power system paradigm of baseload (big thermal generators) and peaking plants (quick-start gas) to one where our bulk energy is supplied by variable renewables and dispatchable renewables, and storage will fill the gaps.
3. Small, so everyone can benefit
According to CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia, between 30% and 45% of the country’s future energy generation will be local and customer-owned – in homes, businesses and communities. This means solar panels on every sunny roof, and batteries in households and commercial buildings. In apartment blocks, there will be microgrids powered by solar and batteries. Renters will join community solar projects and landlords will be required to make properties more energy efficient. When you go to the shopping centre and plug in your electric car, it will be shaded by solar panels.
4. Demand is as important as supply
Future electricity use will be much more dynamic. When the sun is shining or a gale is blowing, smart software will send a signal to energy users to turn on their pumps and fill up their batteries.
When wind generation is low, batteries will be signalled to turn on. This is called demand response. As the Alternative Technology Association’s 100% Renewable Grid report found, this approach can deliver reliable grid electricity and lower energy bills – a win-win.
We will also need to use energy much more efficiently, and more thandouble productivity. Our houses, buildings, equipment, appliances, transport and industrial processes all need to become more efficient.
5. Poles and wires – we’ll build them only when we need them
Our electricity grid will continue to act as an essential service. However, households and businesses will be incentivised to use the local grid infrastructure through revised tariffs and peer-to-peer energy trading.
And while households will draw less electricity from the grid than they do now (thanks to energy efficiency or rooftop solar), the demand for electricity overall will increase as we power up domestic transport and industrial processes, ensuring that the grid we need is affordable for all.
In some places though, where it’s cost effective, edge of grid communities will be slowly taken off the grid. As the poles and wires become too expensive to maintain for just a few users, these communities will be powered by renewable microgrids and storage.
6. Industry and transport go renewable too, and not just in Australia
A pathway that gets us zero pollution energy by 2050 requires that we get to zero-pollution electricity as soon as possible. The electrification of many things that currently run on gas or liquid fuels is a crucial step.
Taking the pollution out of our transport and industrial sectors means helping them make the switch from fossil fuels to other energy sources. As our grid gets cleaner, it will make even more sense to switch from other fuels to electricity. Examples include switching from:
petrol to electric vehicles, which according to University of Technology Sydney could save Australians $400bn in imported oil between now and 2050;
gas to electric (or geothermal) heat-pumps for heating.
Transforming our transport sector to make it powered by 100% renewable energy will also require mode-shifting to greater public and active transport. In future, heavy transport, such as our garbage trucks, are likely to be powered by renewable hydrogen.
In the industrial sector, we will see the rise of renewable industry precincts where heat-intensive industries can access renewable heat from bioenergy, concentrating solar thermal and renewable hydrogen production. These precincts will also be the key locations for Australia’s renewable export industries – energy-intensive products and the production of renewable hydrogen and ammonia. Our renewable exports will support countries such as Japan, South Korea and Indonesia to move towards 100% renewable energy.
7. Resilient to extreme weather
While doing our fair share to cut pollution will help avert the worst aspects of climate change, we cannot avoid the warming that is already locked into the system. As such our future electricity system will have to cope with more extreme weather events. During these, urban and rural areas will be able to island themselves, having sufficient capacity to power themselves as standalone grids for at least six to 12 hours. This creates a more resilient and reliable electricity system – the Danish electricity system operator already does this to better manage their system.
Such a transition has engineering and policy challenges that must be addressed, but with our smartest minds on the job, creating this energy system of the future is already under way. The biggest question that remains is – will we do it at the speed that climate change demands?