A new study from the Australian National University school of electrical engineering says Australia could reach the equivalent of 100 per cent renewables by 2032, if the current rates of installation of wind and solar continued.
The research, led by Professor Andrew Blakers and Dr Matthew Stock, says the technology and infrastructure needed to support that amount of wind and solar can also be put in place within that time frame.
The most important thing the government of the day can do is to get out of the way, although it will need some considerable facilitation and co-ordination to get everything built and in place in time.
The ANU study says Australia is installing solar PV and wind 4-5 times faster per capita than China, Japan, the EU and the US, and is on track to reach 50 per cent renewable electricity by 2024 – far ahead of Labor’s federal target date of 2030, which the Coalition government describes as “reckless.”
Blakers says this has important implications for Australia. It would mean that not only would the electricity sector meet its “share” of the current Paris climate commitment within a few years, something that is already locked in, but could also meet the economy-wide target of 26-28 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030.
It’s important to note here that other experts question this assumption on economy wide emissions and whether this would be enough to deliver Australia’s weak Paris treaty emissions target, and they point out that Australia will be under pressure to increase its target in coming years.
“We anticipate that this will continue for many years, provided that energy policy is not actively hindering development of renewables.”
That assumption that the government is minded to “get out of the way” and facilitate this deployment, is a very big “IF”.
The current Coalition government has done the opposite, and analysts warn that the industry risks “falling off a cliff” with the current government.
It engineered a capital strike and an investment trough from 2013 to 2016 by threatening to scrap the renewable energy target, and then finally reducing it. The current wind and solar boom has come despite the government’s intentions, rather than because of it.
And it appears keen to repeat the dose.
Energy minister Angus Taylor insists there is already too much wind and solar in the grid, and his policies – the “big stick” proposal to control prices and force divestment, and the proposed tender for 24/7 power – are being criticised by virtually everyone for being rushed, ill-thought-out and likely to delay investment rather than encourage it.
Blakers says that because of the falling cost of solar PV and wind energy, it is now clearly below the cost of building a new coal or gas plant, and similar to the cost of some existing coal plants – an assumption that is also shared by the CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator.
“The net cost of achieving deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions is approximately zero,” the researchers say, although they note that large-scale renewable transition entails tens of billions of dollars to be spent in rural Australia.”
Blakers and Stock say that stabilising the electricity grid when it has 50-100 per cent renewable energy is straightforward using off-the-shelf technologies already widely used in Australia, including storage (pumped hydro and batteries), demand management and stronger interstate transmission (to smooth out the effects of local weather).
The ANU researchers have previously produced studies that illustrate how that can be done, and have also prepared detailed reports on the prospect of pumped hydro across the country.
Numerous projects – including Snowy 2.0, Tasmania’s “battery of the nation”, and any number of smaller pumped hydro developments in Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia – are on the drawing boards and having feasibility studies done.
“Most developing countries lie in the low-latitude sunbelt and can readily follow the Australian renewable energy path rather than go through a fossil fuel era – a bit like Africa skipping landline phones and transitioning directly to mobiles,” the researchers say.
“Renewable energy offers real hope for massive avoidance of greenhouse emissions and preservation of a livable planet.”
The ANU research notes that the current policy boost, the large-scale renewable energy target, will be met by 2020 (if not earlier), but deployment could still continue at rapid rates because:
Large-scale Generation Certificates (LGCs) will continue to be issued to accredited new generating capacity by the CER after 2020 out till 2030. (Although one has to question what value those LGCs will have).
Renewable investment opportunities are broadening beyond the wholesale market, with companies increasingly realising the economic and environmental credential benefits of renewable energy supply contracts.
For example, Sanjeev Gupta has announced that he will add 1GW behind the meter at the Whyalla steelworks and Sun Metals in Townsville has already installed 125 MW of solar generating capacity.
The price of wind and PV will continue to fall rapidly, opening up further market opportunities, as well as placing downwards pressure on electricity prices.
Increased deployment of electric vehicles in place of internal combustion vehicles and increased deployment of electric heat pumps in place of gas for water and space heating is expected to increase electricity demand.
Since nearly all new generation capacity in Australia is PV and wind, a sharp increase in demand is expected to be met by a large increase in the deployment rate of PV and wind.
Retiring existing coal power stations will be replaced by PV and wind.
“This paper demonstrates that Australia’s renewable energy industry has the capacity to deliver deep and rapid emissions reductions,” the authors say.
“Direct government support for PV and wind would help enhance industry capability but is no longer critical. What is crucial is government policy certainty that will enable the renewable industry to realise its potential to deliver deep emissions cuts.
“The most useful support that the government could provide is provision of high voltage interconnectors between states and to renewable energy zones (containing large numbers of PV and wind farms).
“This is akin to government provision of toll roads to resolve road traffic bottlenecks and the NBN to resolve internet traffic bottlenecks.
“Support for storage would also be very useful, for example through Snowy 2.0 or similar schemes.”
The scenario painted by ANU is based on capacity factors of 40 per cent for wind, just 21 per cent for solar (DC), and 15 per cent for rooftop solar. Blakers notes these are conservative estimates.
Behind-the-meter installations also play a crucial role, continuing at its current quick rates and accounting for around one-third of all generation by the early 2030s – again, this is quite consistent with other studies.
The ANU report says the techniques for balancing and managing a 100 per cent renewables grid are relatively straightforward, and not as expensive as many suggest.
“The cost of hourly balancing of the Australian electricity grid is modest: about $5/MWh for a renewable energy fraction of 50%, rising to $25/MWh for 100% renewables,” it says.
“Thus, the cost of the required storage and transmission is considerably smaller than the cost of the corresponding wind and solar farms. Australia’s coal power stations are old and are becoming less reliable, and transition to a modern renewable energy system can improve grid stability.”