Australia first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy?
Australia first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy? Why is there so much press and attention to renewable energy? You might find yourself pondering over this while taking your morning cup of coffee or tea. Well, the answer lies in the fact that the world is on the precipice, about to change so radically that the survival of our species is in doubt. Climate change is real, and it has been gathering speed as we grow ever more connected and develop capacity to use more energy.
Global carbon dioxide emissions have been steadily rising, in tandem with increasing industrialization and urbanization. As we burn fossil fuels to manufacture cement, machines and the products that make our lives easier, sea levels have been rising as well.
The good news is that Australia is not one of the top countries responsible for the trends highlighted above. That belongs to the likes of:
However, this does not mean that Australia should sit back and relax, washing its hands like the Biblical Pontius Pilate.
If the country transitioned to renewable energy by 20502, we would remove the need for fossil fuels including coal, gas and oil. This would save the economy up to $740 billion dollars. $90 billion dollars would be saved over the period to 2050. This is according to a report from the institute for sustainable futures at the University of Technology Sydney.
Australia first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy? – Well maybe not the first!
In fact, Australia would not be the first country in the world to think of transitioning to 100% renewable energy. Several countries have already done so1, including:
- Bonaire: this Caribbean island with 14500 residents has 12 wind turbines that generate almost all of the power that the country needs. Bonaire is also currently working on a system that will utilize local algae to create biofuel, further cutting the connection to fossil fuels.
- Costa Rica: the country has been running on 100% renewable energy since 2015. It is also working on becoming carbon neutral in the next 6 years by putting a lot of money in hydropower and geothermal power. They also have plans for wind and solar energy as well.
- Iceland: the country gets 100% of its energy from renewable energy sources. 2/3 of this is from hydropower. They are also big on geothermal power given that it’s a volcano superpower.
The Present Situation in Australia – Australia first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy?
According to the Clean Energy Australia Report 20153:
- Renewable energy provided 14.6 per cent of Australia’s electricity in 2015, enough to provide power for the equivalent of approximately 6.7 million average homes. This was up on the 13.5 per cent of electricity delivered by renewables the year before.
- Power generation from Australia’s hydro plants was down due to low rainfall, but wind and solar generation each increased by just over 20 per cent to more than compensate for the drop in hydro power.
- The continued reduction of state feed-in tariff levels led to lower but more sustainable sales of rooftop solar power in 2015. Rooftop solar power passed 5 gigawatts of capacity in early 2016, enough for a virtual power station large enough to power all the homes in Brisbane and Perth.
- Five new wind farms were completed in 2015, along with eight solar farms larger than 1 megawatt of capacity. Two of the three largest solar plants in the country, at Nyngan (AGL/First Solar) and Broken Hill (AGL/First Solar) became operational during 2015, while the Moree Solar Farm (FRV) officially launched in the early part of 2016. All of these are in New South Wales and received financial support from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.
- Investment confidence in the Australian renewable energy sector languished in the first half of last year. The RET review was finally resolved by a bipartisan legislative change in June, and interest from domestic and international investors has increased as a result.
- More than 8000 megawatts (MW) of wind power and 2500 MW of solar power projects are either under construction or have planning approval. This is more than enough to meet the 2020 RET. 1000 MW of projects were added to the pipeline in 2015 through government approvals processes.
- Investment in major projects was $1.2 billion for 2015, although almost all of these received support either from ARENA or state-based renewable energy programs.
- Employment in the renewable energy industry contracted by 3 per cent in the 2014-15 financial year, a decline of 470 jobs compared to the financial year before. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the industry employed 14,020 people at the end of the year.
Image showing estimated contribution of technology to renewable energy generation in Australia, from the Clean Energy Report3
Australia first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy? – We must do better today
Image showing Renewable energy penetration per state as per the 2015 clean energy report
Image showing energy generation per state, as per the Clean Energy 2015 report
The Need for Change
About 50 countries met in 2016 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, Morocco4 and agreed to use renewable energy by 2050. These are countries that stand the most to lose if climate change continues on its inexorable march to its logical conclusion, which is chaos and death for life on earth as we know it today.
The question is, can Australia get there? – Australia first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy?
The quick answer to that is yes. However, according to a 2013 Post Carbon Pathways report7, the main barriers to the widespread implementation of large-scale renewable energy and low carbon energy strategies are political rather than technological. The report includes key roadblocks such as:
- Climate change denial
- Fossil fuel lobby
- Political inaction
- Unsustainable energy consumption
- Outdated energy infrastructure
- Financial constraints
These roadblocks can be found all over the world. It is no surprise then that Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States. Trump has publicly stated that he believes Climate Change is a plot by the Chinese to undermine the growth of the United States. He does not believe in the Paris Climate change agreement signed in 2016 and it is likely that his administration will not pay much attention to enforcing its solutions to stopping the harmful effects of global warming.
In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull has made a complete about turn from accepting that it was possible to supply all of Australia with electricity from renewable sources6. He is now talking about the country having unrealistic renewable energy targets, while stating that the country needs more, not less, of coal-fired electricity generation. This exemplifies the 2013 report showing that stumbling blocks to a 100% renewable energy powered country are political.
How to get there – Australia first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy?
According to the Institute of Sustainable Futures (ISF) report5, Australia is very well positioned to tap into the new large-scale global renewable market. This is important bearing in mind that the country has an ageing coal power plant fleet. This means that we have a golden opportunity to restructure the power sector. There are three ways that the country could go:
- Maintain the status quo and continue relying on fossil fuels for energy generation.
- Focus on renewable energy in the stationary power sector by 2030, leaving the transport and industry sectors dependent on fossil fuels.
- Aiming for a fully decarbonized power sector by 2030 and a fully renewable energy supply system including transport and industry by 2050.
The report states that it is both technically possible and economically sound to move to an advanced renewables scenario (3) by 2050. ISF envisions that:
- The supply of electricity is 100% renewable by 2030 for stationary power.
- By 2035 97% of total electricity demand (including electrified transport) is
- supplied by renewables.
- Energy productivity doubles by 2030.
- All coal power plants shut down by 2030.
- Firm capacity remains at today’s level of approximately 75% throughout the entire scenario period.
- The supply of energy is 41% renewable by 2035, 64% by 2040 and 100% by 2050.
- Australia is independent from oil imports within one generation.
- The supply of energy is 50% renewable by 2035 and 100% by 2050.
- Electricity use doubles by 2050 to replace direct fuel consumption.
Primary Energy – Australia first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy?
- 41% of energy use across all sectors is renewable by 2030, 59% by 2035, 75% by 2040 and 96% by 2050.
For all this to happen, the following is what needs to be done to move the country closer to a 100% renewable energy source:
Policy Stability: the country needs a secure and stable framework for the deployment of renewable power generation.
Stronger energy efficiency policies: the existing policy settings such as those in the National Energy Productivity plan will need to be strengthened so as to deliver on the country’s potential to double energy productivity by 2030.
The role of future energy utilities: currently, there is ‘grid parity’ of rooftop solar PV under most current retail tariffs. It is assumed that the utilities of the future will successfully deal with the challenges of increased local generation and come up with new business models that will focus on energy services, instead of only selling kilowatt-hours.
Nuclear power generation and carbon capture and storage (CCS): these are not factored in the transitioning to a 100% renewable energy production. This is because these two methods are not classified as renewable energy resources, and also because nuclear power generation entails high costs, have uncertainty over social license to operate and have very long construction times (about 12 years).
Population and GDP: there is need for long-term average GDP growth of about 2% per year for Australia to have the capital to make the transition to 100% renewable energy status by 2050.
Cost assumptions: Technology costs are also assumed to decline with deployment scale rather than with time, which means that if this holds true, then the renewable energy cost reduction potentials in all possible scenarios (1-3) would be larger because of bigger market sizes.
The painful pill – Australia first nation to be 100% powered by renewable energy?
To make it possible for the country to supply renewable energy for all electricity, transport and industry sectors, we would need to cough up about $800 billion dollars between now and 2050. This is more than the $650 billion it would cost if we simply continued with the status quo as it is2. This is obviously a prickly political issue.
However, in the end, the pain of the $800 billion would be more than made up for by the savings of $740 billion in the economy and saving $90 billion over the period to 2050. We owe it to ourselves, to our children and to the planet to come up with 100% renewable energy system that does not overburden the earth with its consequences (read climate change and global warming).
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