As Australia installs renewable energy at a record rate, and sets new benchmarks on output and the share of wind and solar in the grid, the next question must surely be – how far can this transition go?
It is quite clear now that electricity is Australia’s easiest and cheapest option to decarbonise emissions, but the grid represents only a small part of the country’s total carbon pollution. A de-carbonised grid, however, offers avenues to slash emissions in transport, heat, industrial use and manufacturing.
So can the country reach 100 per cent renewables, or as near as dammit, and how quickly can it be done?
First, the can or can’t it question. Australia’s political debate is riven by those who say that wind and solar cannot power a modern economy. It’s the core argument of the coal and nuclear lobbies. Numerous energy experts say renewables and storage can do the job, and this is supported by analysis from the CSIRO, the networks lobby, ANU, UNSW and many others.
So what does the organisation whose responsibility it is to keep the lights on in the midst of this transition say about 100 per cent renewables?
“Technically we can make it work, but it requires clear direction,” says Alex Wonhas, the head of system design and engineering at the Australian Energy Market Operator.
How quickly could this be done? The question was put to renewable energy professionals at the Clean Energy Summit in Sydney this week, and the overwhelming majority (84 per cent) suggested it could be done by 2040. Nearly half said it could be done by around 2030 or 2035, as Professor Ross Garnaut has also suggested.
It was just a straw poll of 270 energy professionals, but what did AEMO make of that sort of timeline?
“10-15 years is a very ambitious transition,” Wonhas told the conference. So much needs to be done, he said.
Wonhas says it is critical to ensure that distributed energy resources – rooftop solar, storage and demand management that will be a key component of the modern grid – is well co-ordinated, and there needs to be a well thought out plan to address issues such as system strength and marginal loss factors that are now crippling new investment.
But Wonhas, like Clean Energy Council CEO Kane Thornton earlier in the day, drew parralels with the landing on the moon. “They had a goal, they had a clear plan.”
A plan, however, is what is lacking in Australia.
The absence of federal energy minister Angus Taylor from this conference, the lack of any energy and climate policy, the failure to call a meeting of COAG energy ministers, and the slow pace of essential reform has been a key theme of this summit, and a source of frustration from ESB chair Kerry Schott, to state energy ministers, and all down through the various institutions and industry players.
The new scenarios will include a “step change” that Wonhas says will be in line with the Paris targets, which is to keep average global warming well below 2°C, and hopefully to 1.5°C.
That implies a grid that is largely (95 per cent) or completely decarbonised by 2050. The UN is asking all countries, including Australia to commit to zero emissions (for the whole economy) by 2050. Some states such as NSW have such a plan, and that implies a zero carbon grid well before that date.
“Anything beyond 2°C is catastrophic,” Corbell told the Clean Energy Summit on Tuesday. “We need to have an emissions intensity of no more than 5 per cent by 2050 …. and we need to structure policy, regulatory and financial instituions to respond to that number.”
“The success of renewable energy means we can now start to decarbonise other sectors like transport and turn our attention toward an extraordinary opportunity exporting renewable energy – in the form of hydrogen or using HVDC – to Asia and the world.
Peter Cowling, the Australian head of wind turbine manufacturer Vestas agreed, noting that just as the country finds cost effective solutions, the transition is being stalled by the lack of a policy vision. “We really do have the opportunity …. but there is not enough urgency. We are going to miss out.”