Semitransparent solar cells: a window to the future?


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Looking through semitransparent cells – one day these could be big enough to make windows.
UNSW, Author provided

Matthew Wright, UNSW and Mushfika Baishakhi Upama, UNSW

Can you see a window as you are reading this article?

Windows have been ubiquitous in society for centuries, filling our homes and workplaces with natural light. But what if they could also generate electricity? What if your humble window could help charge your phone, or boil your kettle?

With between 5 billion and 7 billion square metres of glass surface in the United States alone, solar windows would offer a great way to harness the Sun’s energy. Our research represents a step toward this goal, by showing how to make solar panels that still let through enough light to function as a window.




Read more:
Solar is now the most popular form of new electricity generation worldwide


The economics of renewable energy are becoming increasingly favourable. In Australia, and many other parts of the world, silicon solar cells already dominate the rooftop market.
Rooftop solar power offers an increasingly cheap and efficient way to generate electricity.

But while great for roofs, these silicon modules are opaque and bulky. To design a solar cell suitable for windows, we have to think outside the box.

When we put a solar panel on a roof, we want it to absorb as much sunlight as possible, so that it can generate the maximum amount of power. For a window, there is inevitably a trade-off between absorbing light to turn into electricity, and transmitting light so we can still see through the window.

When thinking about a cell that could be fitted to a window, one of the key parameters is known as the average visible transmittance (AVT). This is the percentage of visible light (as opposed to other wavelengths, like infrared or ultraviolet) hitting the window that travels through it and emerges on the other side.

Semitransparent solar cells convert some sunlight into electricity, while also allowing some light to pass through.
Author provided

Of course we don’t want the solar window to absorb so much light that we can longer see out of it. Nor do we want it to let so much light through that it hardly generates any solar power. So scientists have been trying to find a happy medium between high electrical efficiency and a high AVT.

A matter of voltage

An AVT of 25% is generally considered a benchmark for solar windows. But letting a quarter of the light travel through the solar cell makes it hard to generate a lot of current, which is why the efficiency of semitransparent cells has so far been low.

But note that electrical power depends on two factors: current and voltage. In our recent research, we decided to focus on upping the voltage. We carefully selected new organic absorber materials that have been shown to produce high voltage in non-transparent cells.

When placed in a semitransparent solar cell, the voltage was also high, as it was not significantly lowered by the large amount of transmitted light. And so, although the current was lowered, compared to opaque cells, the higher voltage allowed us to achieve a higher efficiency than previous semitransparent cells.

Having got this far, the key question is: what would windows look like if they were made of our new semitransparent cells?

Do you see what I see?

If your friend is wearing a red shirt, when you view them through a window, their shirt should appear red. That seems obvious, as it will definitely be the case for a glass window.

But because semitransparent solar cells absorb some of the light we see in the visible spectrum, we need to think more carefully about this colour-rendering property. We can measure how well the cell can accurately present an image by calculating what’s called the colour rendering index, or CRI. Our investigation showed that changing the thickness of the absorbing layer can not only affect the electrical power the cell can produce, but also changes its ability to depict colours accurately.

A different prospective approach, which can lead to excellent CRIs, is to replace the organic absorber material with one that absorbs energy from the sun outside the visible range. This means the cell will appear as normal glass to the human eye, as the solar conversion is happening in the infrared range.

However, this places limitations on the efficiency the cells can achieve as it severely limits the amount of power from the sun that can be converted to electricity.

What next?

So far we have created our cells only at a small, prototype scale. There are still several hurdles in the way before we can make large, efficient solar windows. In particular, the transparent electrodes used to collect charge from these cells can be brittle and contain rare elements, such as indium.




Read more:
Solar power alone won’t solve energy or climate needs


If science can solve these issues, the large-scale deployment of solar-powered windows could help to bolster the amount of electricity being produced by renewable technologies.

The ConversationSo while solar windows are not yet in full view, we are getting close enough to glimpse them.

Matthew Wright, Postdoctoral Researcher in Photovoltaic Engineering, UNSW and Mushfika Baishakhi Upama, PhD student [Photovoltaics & Renewable Energy Engineering], UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Forget turning straw into gold, farmers can turn trash into energy


Bernadette McCabe, University of Southern Queensland and Craig Baillie, University of Southern Queensland

Mention agriculture to many Australians and it conjures up images of mobs of cattle in the dusty outback, or harvesters gobbling up expanses of golden wheat. In reality, much of our high-value agriculture is near the coast, and close to capital cities. Think of the Adelaide Hills, the Lockyer Valley west of Brisbane, Victoria’s Gippsland region and Goulburn Valley, and Sydney’s Hawkesbury Valley.

These centres are where a lot of our agricultural processing happens – near big, eco-conscious populations ready to put their hands in their pockets for quality products.


Read more: Why consumers need help to shift to sustainable diets


But besides feeding us, farming can also potentially help us with the move towards cleaner energy. While it’s unclear how agriculture will factor into the federal government’s proposed National Energy Guarantee, it’s obvious that the farming sector can do plenty to reduce Australia’s emissions. An Industry Roadmap released this week by the Carbon Market Institute forecasts that by 2030 carbon farming will save the equivalent of 360-480 tonnes of carbon emissions, generate between A$10.8 billion and A$24 billion in revenue, and create 10,500-21,000 jobs.

One extremely promising area is turning agricultural waste and by-products into energy. This reduces emissions, makes farmers less vulnerable to variable energy prices, and adds value for consumers.

Using waste for energy

In Queensland and northern New South Wales, some sugar mills are making electricity by burning bagasse (sugarcane waste) as a biomass energy source. Other plants in Victoria, like Warrnambool Butter & Cheese, are using whey to produce biogas, thus reducing their spending on natural gas.

Other kinds of waste from viticulture and horticulture are also potentially useful. Even the trash produced when cotton lint fibres are removed from the seed is a largely untapped source of environmentally friendly energy.


Read more: Explainer: why we should be turning waste into fuel


The agricultural sector should be aiming to close the loop: to reclassify waste as a resource. Turning trash into treasure is a step towards energy independence, an idea that is gaining momentum overseas. An energy-independent farm seeks to cater for its own energy needs, creating a self-sustaining environment that buffers against fluctuating energy prices.

Australian farms should largely be able to achieve this. The trend towards renewable energy sources, and equipment that can run on biofuels, demonstrates an appetite for sensible, sustainable technology.

Biodiesel, wind and solar energy, and electricity and gas generated from biogas are being implemented globally. From an international perspective, farmers’ consideration for using or increasing renewable energy seems to be independent of the size of their operations but rather stem from their desire for farms to be energy-independent.


Read more: Biogas: smells like a solution to our energy and waste problems


La Bellotta farm in Italy, a mixed-energy farm, is a prime example. It’s using a concept tractor powered by methane generated from on-farm waste.

Closer to home, Westpork, WA’s largest pork producer, is about to add wind power and battery storage to its existing solar arrays, and possibly biogas too, as part of a plan to go 100% renewable energy and slash production costs.

The right policy settings

Agriculture was responsible for about 16% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, trending down to 13% in 2015.

The National Farmers Federation is looking to the Government’s 2017 Review of Climate Policy to deliver policy settings that will enable the sector to remain competitive and grow production at the same time as meeting international obligations.

We particularly need policy to encourage investment in agriculture research. Climate-smart practices and technologies can simultaneously reduce emissions and improve productivity and profitability.

Meanwhile, improving the design of carbon-offset markets (like the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund) to make them more accessible to farmers could unlock the full carbon potential of Australian farms.


Read more: Farming in 2050: storing carbon could help meet Australia’s climate goals


A recent report from Powering Agriculture, produced with international backing, showed that while food production across the world is increasing, the energy required for each unit of food is falling.

With Australia’s relatively small population, huge area and extreme temperatures, it’s hard to compare apples with apples, but the adoption of renewable energy in Australian agriculture is helping to make us look like more efficient food producers too.

Mixing renewable energy sources gives farmers a plausible path to becoming energy independent. Bioenergy, such as biogas, gives flexibility to intermittent power like solar and wind, while reducing waste and creating a home source of biofertiliser.

When you boil it down to basic science, food and fibre are just stored energy. Beyond the animals and crops farmers bring to market, the Australian agricultural sector produces massive amounts of energy – they just need the tools to monetise it.


The ConversationThe topic of Farm Energy Independence will be discussed at the upcoming TropAg Symposium.

Bernadette McCabe, Associate Professor and Principal Scientist, University of Southern Queensland and Craig Baillie, Director (National Centre for Engineering in Agriculture), University of Southern Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

After the storm: how political attacks on renewables elevates attention paid to climate change



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AAP/David Mariuz

David Holmes, Monash University

This time last year, Australia was getting over a media storm about renewables, energy policy and climate change. The media storm was caused by a physical storm: a mid-latitude cyclone that hit South Australia on September 29 and set in train a series of events that is still playing itself out.

The events include:

In one sense, the Finkel Review was a response to the government’s concerns about “energy security”. But it also managed to successfully respond to the way energy policy had become a political plaything, as exemplified by the attacks on South Australia.

New research on the media coverage that framed the energy debate that has ensued over the past year reveals some interesting turning points in how Australia’s media report on climate change.

While extreme weather events are the best time to communicate climate change – the additional energy humans are adding to the climate is on full display – the South Australian event was used to attack renewables rather than the carbonisation of the atmosphere. Federal MPs hijacked people’s need to understand the reason for the blackout “by simply swapping climate change with renewables”.

However, the research shows that, ironically, MPs who invited us to “look over here” at the recalcitrant renewables – and not at climate-change-fuelled super-storms – managed to make climate change reappear.

The study searched for all Australian newspaper articles that mentioned either a storm or a cyclone in relation to South Australia that had been published in the ten days either side of the event. This returned 591 articles. Most of the relevant articles were published after the storm, with warnings of the cyclone beforehand.

Some of the standout findings include:

  • 51% of articles were about the power outage and 38% were about renewables, but 12% of all articles connected these two.

  • 20% of articles focused on the event being politicised by politicians.

  • 9% of articles raised climate change as a force in the event and the blackouts.

  • 10% of articles blamed the blackouts on renewables.

  • Of all of the articles linking power outages to renewables 46% were published in News Corp and 14% were published in Fairfax.

  • Narratives that typically substituted any possibility of a link to climate change, included the “unstoppable power of nature” (18%), failure of planning (5.25%), and triumph of humanity (5.6%).

Only 9% of articles discussed climate change. Of these, 73% presented climate change positively, 21% were neutral, and 6% negative. But, for the most part, climate change was linked to the conversation around renewables: there was a 74% overlap. 36% of articles discussing climate change linked it to the intensification of extreme weather events.

There was also a strong correlation between the positive and negative discussion of climate change and the ownership of newspapers.

The starkest contrast was between the two largest Australian newspaper groups. Of all the sampled articles that mentioned climate change, News Corp was the only group to has a negative stance on climate change (at 50% of articles), but still with 38% positive. Fairfax was 90% positive and 10% neutral about climate change.

Positive/negative stance of articles covering climate change by percentage.

Given that more than half of all articles discussed power outages, the cyclone in a sense competed with renewables as a news item. Both have a bearing on power supply and distribution. But, ironically, it was renewables that put climate change on the news agenda – not the cyclone.

Of the articles discussing renewables, 67% were positive about renewables with only 33% “negative” and blaming them for the power outages.

In this way, the negative frame that politicians put on renewable energy may have sparked debate that was used to highlight the positives of renewable energy and what’s driving it: reduced emissions.

But perhaps the most interesting finding is the backlash by news media against MPs’ attempts to politicise renewables.

19.63% of all articles in the sample had called out (mainly federal) MPs for politicising the issue and using South Australians’ misfortune as a political opportunity. This in turn was related to the fact that, of all the articles discussing renewables, 67% were positive about renewables with only 33% supporting MPs’ attempts to blame them for the power outages.

In this way, while many MPs had put renewables on the agenda by denigrating them, most journalists were eager to cover the positive side of renewables.

Nevertheless, the way MPs sought to dominate the news agenda over the storm did take away from discussion of climate science and the causes of the cyclone. Less than 4% of articles referred to extreme weather intensifying as a trend.

This is problematic. It means that, with a few exceptions, Australia’s climate scientists are not able to engage with the public in key periods after extreme weather events.

When MPs, with co-ordinated media campaigns, enjoy monopoly holdings in the attention economy of news cycles, science communication and the stories of climate that could be told are often relegated to other media.


The ConversationWith thanks to Tahnee Burgess for research assistance on this article.

David Holmes, Director, Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Can two clean energy targets break the deadlock of energy and climate policy?



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Climate policy has become bogged down in the debate over a clean energy target.
Shutterstock

Bruce Mountain, Victoria University

Malcolm Turnbull’s government has been wrestling with the prospect of a clean energy target ever since Chief Scientist Alan Finkel recommended it in his review of Australia’s energy system. But economist Ross Garnaut has proposed a path out of the political quagmire: two clean energy targets instead of one.

Garnaut’s proposal is essentially a flexible emissions target that can be adapted to conditions in the electricity market. If electricity prices fail to fall as expected, a more lenient emissions trajectory would likely be pursued.

This proposal is an exercise in political pragmatism. If it can reassure both those who fear that rapid decarbonisation will increase energy prices, and those who argue we must reduce emissions at all costs, it represents a substantial improvement over the current state of deadlock.


Ross Garnaut/Yann Robiou DuPont, Author provided

Will two targets increase investor certainty?

At a recent Melbourne Economic Forum, Finkel pointed out that investors do not require absolute certainty to invest. After all, it is for accepting risks that they earn returns. If there was no risk to accept there would be no legitimate right to a return.

But Finkel also pointed out that investors value policy certainty and predictability. Without it, they require more handsome returns to compensate for the higher policy risks they have to absorb.


Read more: Turnbull is pursuing ‘energy certainty’ but what does that actually mean?


At first sight, having two possible emissions targets introduces yet another uncertainty (the emissions trajectory). But is that really the case? The industry is keenly aware of the political pressures that affect emissions reduction policy. If heavy reductions cause prices to rise further, there will be pressure to soften the trajectory.

Garnaut’s suggested approach anticipates this political reality and codifies it in a mechanism to determine how emissions trajectories will adjust to future prices. Contrary to first impressions, it increases policy certainty by providing clarity on how emissions policy should respond to conditions in the electricity market. This will promote the sort of policy certainty that the Finkel Review has sought to engender.

Could policymakers accept it?

Speaking of political realities, could this double target possibly accrue bipartisan support in a hopelessly divided parliament? Given Tony Abbott’s recent threat to cross the floor to vote against a clean energy target (bringing an unknown number of friends with him), the Coalition government has a strong incentive to find a compromise that both major parties can live with.


Read more: Abbott’s disruption is raising the question: where will it end?


Turnbull and his energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, who we understand are keen to see Finkel’s proposals taken up, could do worse than put this new idea on the table. They have to negotiate with parliamentary colleagues whose primary concern is the impact of household electricity bills on voters, as well as those who won’t accept winding back our emissions targets.

Reassuringly, the government can point to some precedent. Garnaut’s proposal is novel in Australia’s climate policy debate, but is reasonably similar to excise taxes on fuel, which in some countries vary as a function of fuel prices. If fuel prices decline, excise taxes rise, and vice versa. In this way, governments can achieve policy objectives while protecting consumers from the price impacts of those objectives.

The devil’s in the detail

Of course, even without the various ideologies and vested interests in this debate, many details would remain to be worked out. How should baseline prices be established? What is the hurdle to justify a more rapid carbon-reduction trajectory? What if prices tick up again, after a more rapid decarbonisation trajectory has been adopted? And what if prices don’t decline from current levels: are we locking ourselves into a low-carbon-reduction trajectory?

These issues will need to be worked through progressively, but there is no obvious flaw that should deter further consideration. The fundamental idea is attractive, and it looks capable of ameliorating concerns that rapid cuts in emissions will lock in higher electricity prices.

The ConversationFor mine, I would not be at all surprised if prices decline sharply as we begin to decarbonise, such is the staggering rate of technology development and cost reductions in renewable energy. But I may of course be wrong. Garnaut’s proposal provides a mechanism to protect consumers if this turns out to be the case.

Bruce Mountain, Director, Carbon and Energy Markets., Victoria University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A cleanish energy target gets us nowhere



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Shutterstock

Alan Pears, RMIT University

It seems that the one certainty about any clean energy target set by the present government is that it will not drive sufficient progress towards a clean, affordable, reliable energy future. At best, it will provide a safety net to ensure that some cleanish energy supply capacity is built.

Future federal governments will have to expand or complement any target set by this government, which is compromised by its need to pander to its rump. So a cleanish energy target will not provide investment certainty for a carbon-emitting power station unless extraordinary guarantees are provided. These would inevitably be challenged in parliament and in the courts.


Read more: Turnbull is pursuing ‘energy certainty’ but what does that actually mean?


Even then, the unstoppable evolution of our energy system would leave an inflexible baseload power station without a market for much of the electricity it could generate. Instead, we must rely on a cluster of other strategies to do the heavy lifting of driving our energy market forward.

The path forward

It’s clear that consumers large and small are increasingly investing “behind the meter” in renewable energy technology, smart management systems, energy efficiency and energy storage. In so doing, they are buying insurance against future uncertainty, capturing financial benefits, and reducing their climate impacts. They are being helped by a wide range of emerging businesses and new business models, and existing energy businesses that want to survive as the energy revolution rolls on.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) is providing critically important information on what’s needed to deliver energy objectives. The recently established Energy Security Board will work to make sure that what’s needed is done – in one way or another. Other recommendations from the Finkel Review are also helping to stabilise the electricity situation.

The recent AEMO/ARENA demand response project and various state-level energy efficiency retailer obligation schemes and renewable energy targets are examples of how important energy solutions can be driven outside the formal National Energy Market. They can bypass the snail-paced progress of reforming the NEM.

States will play a key role

State governments are setting their own renewable energy targets, based on the successful ACT government “contracts for difference” approach, discussed below. Victoria has even employed the architect of the ACT scheme, Simon Corbell. Local governments, groups of businesses and communities are developing consortia to invest in clean energy solutions using similar models.

Some see state-level actions as undermining the national approach and increasing uncertainty. I see them as examples of our multi-layered democratic system at work. Failure at one level provokes action at another.

State-level actions also reflect increasing energy diversity, and the increasing focus on distributed energy solutions. States recognise that they carry responsibilities for energy: indeed, the federal government often tries to blame states for energy failures.

There is increasing action at the network, retail and behind-the-meter levels, driven by business and communities. While national coordination is often desirable, mechanisms other than national government leadership can work to complement national action, to the extent it occurs.

Broader application of the ACT financing model

A key tool will be a shift away from the current RET model to the broader use of variations of the ACT’s contract for difference approach. The present RET model means that project developers depend on both the wholesale electricity price and the price of Large Generation Certificates (LGCs) for revenue. These are increasingly volatile and, over the long term, uncertain. In the past we have seen political interference and low RET targets drive “boom and bust” outcomes.

So, under the present RET model, any project developer faces significant risk, which makes financing more difficult and costly.

The ACT contract for difference approach applies a “market” approach by using a reverse auction, in which rival bidders compete to offer the desired service at lowest cost. It then locks in a stable price for the winners over an agreed period of time.

The approach reduces risk for the project developer, which cuts financing costs. It shifts cost risk (and opportunity) to whoever commits to buy the electricity or other service. The downside risk is fairly small when compared with the insurance of a long-term contract and the opportunity to capture savings if wholesale electricity prices increase.

The ACT government has benefited from this scheme as wholesale prices have risen. It also includes other requirements such as the creation of local jobs. This approach can be applied by agents other than governments, such as the consortium set up by the City of Melbourne.

For business and public sector consumers, the prospect of reasonably stable energy prices, with scope to benefit if wholesale prices rise and limited downside risk, is attractive in a time of uncertainty. For project developers, a stable long-term revenue stream improves project viability.

The approach can also potentially be applied to other aspects of energy service provision, such as demand response, grid stabilisation or energy efficiency. It can also be combined with the traditional “power purchase agreement” model, where the buyer of the energy guarantees a fixed price but the project developer carries the risk and opportunity of market price variations. It can also apply to part of a project’s output, to underpin it.

The ConversationWhile sorting out wholesale markets is important, we need to remember that this is just part of the energy bill. Energy waste, network operations, retailing and pricing structures such as high fixed charges must also be addressed. Some useful steps are being taken, but much more work is needed.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Poor households are locked out of green energy, unless governments help


Alan Pears, RMIT University

A report released this week by the Australian Council of Social Service has pointed out that many vulnerable households cannot access rooftop solar and efficient appliances, describing the issue as a serious problem.

It has provoked controversy. Some have interpreted the report as an attack on emerging energy solutions such as rooftop solar. Others see it as exposing a serious structural crisis for vulnerable households.

The underlying issue is the fundamental change in energy solutions. As I pointed out in my previous column, we are moving away from investment by governments and large businesses in big power stations and centralised supply, and towards a distributed, diversified and more complex energy system. As a result, there is a growing focus on “behind the meter” technologies that save, store or produce energy.

What this means is that anyone who does not have access to capital, or is uninformed, disempowered or passive risks being disadvantaged – unless governments act.

The reality is that energy-efficient appliances and buildings, rooftop solar, and increasingly energy storage, are cost-effective. They save households money through energy savings, improved health, and improved performance in comparison with buying grid electricity or gas. But if you can’t buy them, you can’t benefit.

In the past, financial institutions loaned money to governments or big businesses to build power stations and gas supply systems. Now we need mechanisms to give all households and businesses access to loans to fund the new energy system.

Households that cannot meet commercial borrowing criteria, or are disempowered – such as tenants, those under financial stress, or those who are disengaged for other reasons – need help.

Governments have plenty of options.

  • They can require landlords to upgrade buildings and fixed appliances, or make it attractive for them to do so. Or a bit of both.

  • They can help the supply chain that upgrades buildings and supplies appliances to do this better, and at lower cost.

  • They can facilitate the use of emerging technologies and apps to identify faulty and inefficient appliances, then fund their replacement. Repayments can potentially be made using the resulting savings.

  • They can ban the sale of inefficient appliances by making mandatory performance standards more stringent and widening their coverage.

  • They can help appliance manufacturers make their products more efficient, and ensure that everyone who buys them know how efficient they are.

To expand on the last suggestion, at present only major household white goods, televisions and computer monitors are required to carry energy labels. If you are buying a commercial fridge, pizza oven, cooker, or stereo system, you are flying blind.

The Finkel Review made it clear that the energy industry will not lead on this. It clearly recommends that energy efficiency is a job for governments, and that they need to accelerate action.

The ConversationIt’s time for governments to get serious about helping everyone to join the energy transition, not just the most affluent.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Solar is now the most popular form of new electricity generation worldwide


Andrew Blakers, Australian National University

Solar has become the world’s favourite new type of electricity generation, according to global data showing that more solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity is being installed than any other generation technology.

Worldwide, some 73 gigawatts of net new solar PV capacity was installed in 2016. Wind energy came in second place (55GW), with coal relegated to third (52GW), followed by gas (37GW) and hydro (28GW).

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Together, PV and wind represent 5.5% of current energy generation (as at the end of 2016), but crucially they constituted almost half of all net new generation capacity installed worldwide during last year.

It is probable that construction of new coal power stations will decline, possibly quite rapidly, because PV and wind are now cost-competitive almost everywhere.

Hydro is still important in developing countries that still have rivers to dam. Meanwhile, other low-emission technologies such as nuclear, bio-energy, solar thermal and geothermal have small market shares.

PV and wind now have such large advantages in terms of cost, production scale and supply chains that it is difficult to see any other low-emissions technology challenging them within the next decade or so.

That is certainly the case in Australia, where PV and wind comprise virtually all new generation capacity, and where solar PV capacity is set to reach 12GW by 2020. Wind and solar PV are being installed at a combined rate of about 3GW per year, driven largely by the federal government’s Renewable Energy Target (RET).

This is double to triple the rate of recent years, and a welcome return to growth after several years of subdued activity due to political uncertainty over the RET.

If this rate is maintained, then by 2030 more than half of Australian electricity will come from renewable energy and Australia will have met its pledge under the Paris climate agreement purely through emissions savings within the electricity industry.

To take the idea further, if Australia were to double the current combined PV and wind installation rate to 6GW per year, it would reach 100% renewable electricity in about 2033. Modelling by my research group suggests that this would not be difficult, given that these technologies are now cheaper than electricity from new-build coal and gas.

Renewable future in reach

The prescription for an affordable, stable and achievable 100% renewable electricity grid is relatively straightforward:

  1. Use mainly PV and wind. These technologies are cheaper than other low-emission technologies, and Australia has plenty of sunshine and wind, which is why these technologies have already been widely deployed. This means that, compared with other renewables, they have more reliable price projections, and avoid the need for heroic assumptions about the success of more speculative clean energy options.

  2. Distribute generation over a very large area. Spreading wind and PV facilities over wide areas – say a million square kilometres from north Queensland to Tasmania – allows access to a wide range of different weather, and also helps to smooth out peaks in users’ demand.

  3. Build interconnectors. Link up the wide-ranging network of PV and wind with high-voltage power lines of the type already used to move electricity between states.

  4. Add storage. Storage can help match up energy generation with demand patterns. The cheapest option is pumped hydro energy storage (PHES), with support from batteries and demand management.

Australia currently has three PHES systems – Tumut 3, Kangaroo Valley, and Wivenhoe – all of which are on rivers. But there is a vast number of potential off-river sites.

Potential sites for pumped hydro storage in Queensland, alongside development sites for solar PV (yellow) and wind energy (green). Galilee Basin coal prospects are shown in black.
Andrew Blakers/Margaret Blakers, Author provided

In a project funded by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, we have identified about 5,000 sites in South Australia, Queensland, Tasmania, the Canberra district, and the Alice Springs district that are potentially suitable for pumped hydro storage.

Each of these sites has between 7 and 1,000 times the storage potential of the Tesla battery currently being installed to support the South Australian grid. What’s more, pumped hydro has a lifetime of 50 years, compared with 8-15 years for batteries.

Importantly, most of the prospective PHES sites are located near where people live and where new PV and wind farms are being constructed.

Once the search for sites in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia is complete, we expect to uncover 70-100 times more PHES energy storage potential than required to support a 100% renewable electricity grid in Australia.

Potential PHES upper reservoir sites east of Port Augusta, South Australia. The lower reservoirs would be at the western foot of the hills (bottom of the image).
Google Earth/ANU

Managing the grid

Fossil fuel generators currently provide another service to the grid, besides just generating electricity. They help to balance supply and demand, on timescales down to seconds, through the “inertial energy” stored in their heavy spinning generators.

But in the future this service can be performed by similar generators used in pumped hydro systems. And supply and demand can also be matched with the help of fast-response batteries, demand management, and “synthetic inertia” from PV and wind farms.

Wind and PV are delivering ever tougher competition for gas throughout the energy market. The price of large-scale wind and PV in 2016 was A$65-78 per megawatt hour. This is below the current wholesale price of electricity in the National Electricity Market.

Abundant anecdotal evidence suggests that wind and PV energy price has fallen to A$60-70 per MWh this year as the industry takes off. Prices are likely to dip below A$50 per MWh within a few years, to match current international benchmark prices. Thus, the net cost of moving to a 100% renewable electricity system over the next 15 years is zero compared with continuing to build and maintain facilities for the current fossil-fuelled system.

Gas can no longer compete with wind and PV for delivery of electricity. Electric heat pumps are driving gas out of water and space heating. Even for delivery of high-temperature heat for industry, gas must cost less than A$10 per gigajoule to compete with electric furnaces powered by wind and PV power costing A$50 per MWh.

Importantly, the more that low-cost PV and wind is deployed in the current high-cost electricity environment, the more they will reduce prices.

Then there is the issue of other types of energy use besides electricity – such as transport, heating, and industry. The cheapest way to make these energy sources green is to electrify virtually everything, and then plug them into an electricity grid powered by renewables.

A 55% reduction in Australian greenhouse gas emissions can be achieved by conversion of the electricity grid to renewables, together with mass adoption of electric vehicles for land transport and electric heat pumps for heating and cooling. Beyond this, we can develop renewable electric-driven pathways to manufacture hydrocarbon-based fuels and chemicals, primarily through electrolysis of water to obtain hydrogen and carbon capture from the atmosphere, to achieve an 83% reduction in emissions (with the residual 17% of emissions coming mainly from agriculture and land clearing).

Doing all of this would mean tripling the amount of electricity we produce, according to my research group’s preliminary estimate.

The ConversationBut there is no shortage of solar and wind energy to achieve this, and prices are rapidly falling. We can build a clean energy future at modest cost if we want to.

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Energy solutions but weak on climate – experts react to the Finkel Review



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The Finkel Review is scientifically modest but politically deft.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Hugh Saddler, Australian National University; Alan Pears, RMIT University, and David Karoly, University of Melbourne

The keenly anticipated Finkel Review, commissioned in the wake of last year’s South Australian blackout, has made a range of recommendations aimed at delivering a reliable, secure and sustainable National Electricity Market.

Among the proposals is a new Clean Energy Target to boost investment in low-carbon electricity generation, as well as moves to require high-emitting power stations to give three years’ notice before shutting down.

Below, our experts react to the measures.


“Security and reliability are first”

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Australian National University

With so much focus on the design of a mechanism to support a shift towards lower-emissions generation, it is easy to forget that the primary purpose of the Review, commissioned following the “system black” event in South Australia on September 28, 2016, was “to develop a national reform blueprint to maintain energy security and reliability”. It is thus appropriate that security and reliability are the first topics to be addressed in the main body of the report.

System security is defined as the ability of the system to tolerate disturbances. Maintaining security requires the system to be able to prevent very high rates of change of frequency. At present the system has no explicit mechanism for doing this, but relies implicitly on the inertia provided, effectively as a free service, by existing large thermal generators.

The report recommends a series of regulatory energy security obligations to provide this service by various additional means, falling on the transmission network service providers in each of the five NEM regions (states), and also on all new generators connecting to the system.

System reliability is defined as the ability of the system to meet consumer demand at all times. In the old system, this is achieved by “dispatchable” generators, meaning coal and gas generators that can vary their output as required to meet demand.

In the new system, with large amounts of variable wind and solar generation, other supply sources are needed to meet demand at times of low wind speed and/or lack of sun – that is, to act as complements to wind and solar. Existing hydro and open-cycle gas turbine generators are ideally suited to this task, but with the growth in wind and solar generation, this capacity will very soon be insufficient for the task across the NEM (and is already insufficient in SA).

The Report recommends what it calls a Generator Reliability Obligation, which would be triggered whenever the proportion of dispatchable generation (which could include batteries and other forms of storage) in a region is falling towards a predetermined minimum acceptable level. The obligation would fall on all new renewable generators wishing to connect thereafter and, in the words of the Report “would not need to be located on site, and could utilise economies of scale” through multiple renewable generation projects “pairing” with “one new large-scale battery of gas fired generation project for example”.

If implemented, this recommendation would seem certain to greatly complicate, slow down and add to the administrative overhead cost of building new renewable generation. It would involve putting together a consortium of multiple parties with potentially differing objectives and who would otherwise be competing with one another in the wholesale electricity market.

A far better approach would be to recognise that dispatchable generation provides a distinct and more valuable product than non-dispatchable generation. There should be a separate market mechanism, possibly based on a contracting approach, to provide this service. If well designed, this would automatically ensure that economies of scale, as may be realised by pumped hydro storage, for example, would be captured. This approach would be far more economically efficient, and thus less costly to electricity consumers, than the messy processes required under the Report’s obligation approach.


“Energy efficiency is effectively handballed to governments”

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

The Review’s approach to the demand side is very focused. Demand response, the capacity to reduce demand at times of extreme pressure on the supply system, is addressed thoroughly. The past under-utilisation of this approach is acknowledged, and the actions of the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) intended to capture some of its potential in time for next summer are outlined.

However, the deep cultural problems within the Australian Energy Markets Commission regarding demand response are not tackled. Instead, the AEMC is asked (yet again) to develop facilitation mechanisms in the wholesale market by mid-2018.

Energy efficiency is effectively handballed to governments. After making some positive comments about its valuable roles, recommendation 6.10 states that governments “should accelerate the roll out of broader energy efficiency measures to complement the reforms recommended in this Review”.

This is a disappointing outcome, given the enormous untapped potential of energy markets to drive effective energy efficiency improvement. But it clearly shows governments that they have to drive energy-efficiency initiatives unless they instruct energy market participants to act.


“It follows the wrong path on greenhouse emissions”

David Karoly, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Melbourne and Member, Climate Change Authority

The Finkel Review says many sensible things about ways to improve the security and reliability of Australia’s electricity sector. However, it follows completely the wrong path in what it says about lower greenhouse emissions from the electricity sector and Australia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. This is disappointing, as Alan Finkel is Australia’s Chief Scientist and a member of the Climate Change Authority.

All economy-wide modelling shows that the electricity sector must do a larger share of future emissions reductions than other sectors, because there are easier and cheaper solutions for reducing emissions in that sector. However, this review’s vision is for “emissions reduced by 28% below 2005 levels by 2030” – exactly the same as Australia’s target under the Paris Agreement. It should be much more.

The ConversationAustralia’s commitments under the Paris Agreement are “to undertake ambitious efforts” to limit global warming “to well below 2℃ above pre-industrial levels”. The Targets Report from the Climate Change Authority in 2015 showed that this means Australia and the electricity sector must aim for zero emissions before 2050, not in the second half of the century, as suggested in the Finkel Review.

Hugh Saddler, Honorary Associate Professor, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University; Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University, and David Karoly, Professor of Atmospheric Science, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s energy debates need to move beyond political tribalism



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AAP/Mick Tsikas

Michael West, University of Sydney

As public angst over the prospective A$1 billion subsidy to coal magnate Guatam Adani hits fever pitch, a small company is modestly beavering away on another – more worthy – energy project in Far North Queensland. The Conversation

Genex Power has turned the abandoned Kidston gold mine into a solar farm and pumped-hydro power storage project. Kidston will deliver 145MWh of renewable energy per year. This is enough to power 26,484 homes. In terms of reducing emissions, this is equivalent to taking 33,000 cars off Australian roads.

Like Adani, the Kidston project also got a leg-up from government. It won a grant of nearly A$9 million from ARENA, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, and struck a deal with the state of Queensland to sell electricity for 20 years.

Unlike Adani’s Carmichael coal mine, however, the Kidston solar project has bankers and investors. Unlike Adani, whose labyrinthine corporate structure wends its way to the Cayman Islands, Genex is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange, has a market value of A$70 million and is owned by small investors. When it delivers its first power in the next three months, it’s likely to pay tax on its profits.

The furore over Adani has so far centred on the putative subsidy for the rail line to cart the coal from the Galilee Basin to the coast. There is no rail line without a mine, however, and so the bigger question is: who is going to tip in the A$10 billion in project finance to build the mine?

Adani’s bankers have long fled the scene – not just for environmental reasons, but because the business case for building this, the world’s biggest new thermal coal mine, is sketchy.

The global seaborne coal market is in structural decline. There is a glut. Thermal coal futures prices are well below the spot price – and even at present spot prices, this is hardly a viable financial proposition.

Power contract prices for next year are now far higher than the wholesale spot prices during the carbon price period.
Green Energy Markets

So it is that, for many, the Australian government’s stubborn support of the Carmichael mine is beyond comprehension. It defies logic on so many levels: environmental, political and financial.

The word “jobs” is bandied about by the proponents of the project. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull even claimed Carmichael would create “tens of thousands of jobs”. Adani itself claims 10,000 jobs. Yet the company’s expert witness in the Land Court of Queensland two years ago conceded the real figure was more like 1,464 jobs. Pit-to-port, this is a highly mechanised operation.

The only plausible explanation for the persistent support of the mine by the government is ideology: left versus right, green versus brown.

This syndrome of political tribalism impeding rational decisions is enshrined brilliantly in a report last week by Tristan Edis and Ric Brazzale of Green Energy Markets. Titled “Overcoming ideology to support new power plant investment and reduce power prices”, the authors describe how ideology and “immature, ideological squabbling” had led to the shambles which is Australia’s energy policy.

Average annual price trends indicate that the cost of residential electricity is set to rise between 2016-17 and 2018-19.
AEMC

Australia’s electricity prices are already among the highest in the world and are going higher. Meanwhile, the political tribes are still mired in the debate about whether climate change is real and whether renewables are to blame for blackouts in South Australia.

Edis and Brazzale have a good crack at the Australian Energy Market Commission, Frontier Economics, and other industry lobby groups in their report. They found that whether Australia opted for an emissions intensity trading scheme or an expanded renewable energy target – or even a scheme proposed by News Corp commentator Judith Sloan – didn’t really matter because renewable energy was now cheaper than fossil fuels anyway.

Thanks to spiralling gas prices, the cost of wholesale power on the east coast of Australia hovers above $100 per megawatt hour – whereas the latest round of auctions for solar and wind had been achieving prices of $65.

Edis and Brazzale write:

Our understanding is that developers are capable of financing solar projects today at prices of around $75 to $85/MWh (where a long-term power purchase agreement is in place) and the expectation is that this would decline noticeably over the next ten years. This marks a stark contrast with Frontier’s assessment that costs would not reach $100/MWh for around a decade and not reach $85/MWh until 2040.

Globally, solar auction prices have tumbled from almost $US250MWh to $US50MWh since 2010.

The average prices resulting from international renewable energy auctions from 2010 to 2016.
IRENA

This goes for India too, which is making an aggressive transition to renewable energy and is on track to phase out thermal coal imports by 2020. If, with the help of hapless Australian taxpayers, Adani gets its massive Carmichael coal mine up and running, its first production may be just about the time the last ship carrying thermal coal docks at an Indian port.


This column, co-published by The Conversation with michaelwest.com.au, is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Michael West, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gas crisis? Energy crisis? The real problem is lack of long-term planning



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The long view: energy policy needs to stay firmly focused on the horizon.
Mattinbgn/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Alan Pears, RMIT University

If you’ve been watching the news in recent days, you’ll know we have an energy crisis, partly due to a gas crisis, which in turn has triggered a political crisis. The Conversation

That’s a lot of crises to handle at once, so lots of solutions are being put forward. But what do people and businesses actually need? Do they need more gas, or cheaper prices, or more investment certainty, or all or none of the above? How do we cut through to what is really important, rather than side details?

The first thing to note is that what people really care about is their energy costs, not energy prices. This might seem like a pedantic distinction, but if homes and businesses can be helped to waste less energy, then high prices can be offset by lower usage.

The second thing to note is that energy has become very confusing. A host of short- and long-term problems have developed over decades of policy failure, meaning that there is no single solution.

Take gas prices, which were indirectly responsible for South Australia’s blackouts last month. Last week, SA Premier Jay Weatherill responded by unveiling a A$550-million plan including a new state-owned gas power station, while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed to have secured a promise of secure domestic supply from gas producers.

Short-term thinking

It is crucial to keep the ultimate goals in focus, or else our short-term solutions could exacerbate long-term problems.

For electricity, we want to avoid blackouts and limit prices and overall costs. We need to do this in ways that allow us to meet our climate constraints, so we need solutions with zero or very low greenhouse emissions.

For gas, we need to ensure enough supply for local demand, at reasonable prices, and give large consumers the opportunity to negotiate contracts over reasonable time frames.

This means we need to allocate more of our gas to local consumers, because increasing overall gas production would just add to our long-term climate problems.

Peak gas and electricity prices are entangled. In our electricity markets, the most expensive generator needed to maintain supply in a given period sets the price for all the generators. So if an expensive gas generator sets a high price, all of the coal and renewable energy generators make windfall profits – at the consumer’s expense.

So either we need to ensure gas generators don’t set the price, or that they charge a reasonable price for the power they generate.

Quick fixes

Demand management and energy storage are short-term fixes for high peak prices. Paying some electricity or gas consumers to use less at peak times, commonly called “demand response”, frees up electricity or gas, so prices don’t increase as much.

Unfortunately, policymakers have failed to introduce effective mechanisms to encourage demand response, despite the recommendations of numerous policy reviews over the past two decades. This is a serious policy failure our politicians have not addressed. But it could be fixed quickly, with enough political will.

Energy storage, particularly batteries and gas storage, can be introduced quickly (within 100 days, if Tesla’s Elon Musk is to be believed). Storage “absorbs” excess energy at times of low demand, and releases it at times of shortage. This reduces the peak price by reducing dependence on high-priced generators or gas suppliers, as well as reducing the scope for other suppliers to exploit the shortage to raise prices.

The same thinking is behind Turnbull’s larger proposal to add new “pumped hydro” capacity to the Snowy Hydro scheme, although this would take years rather than weeks.

Thus South Australia’s plan, which features battery storage and changes to the rules for feeding power into the grid, addresses short-term problems. Turnbull’s pumped hydro solution is longer-term, although his handshake deal with gas suppliers may help in the short term.

The long view

When we consider the long term, we must recognise that we need to slash our carbon emissions. So coal is out, as is any overall expansion of natural gas production.

Luckily, we have other affordable long-term solutions. The International Energy Agency, as well as Australian analysts such as ClimateWorks and Beyond Zero Emissions, see energy efficiency improvement as the number-one strategy – and in many cases, it actually saves us money and helps to offset the impact of higher energy prices. Decades of cheap gas and electricity mean that Australian industry, business and households have enormous potential to improve energy efficiency, which would save on cost.

We can also switch from fossil gas to biogas, solar thermal and high-efficiency renewable electricity technologies such as heat pumps, micro-filtration, electrolysis and other options.

Renewable energy (not just electricity) can supply the rest of our needs. Much to the surprise of many policymakers, it is now cheaper than traditional options and involves much less investment risk. Costs are continuing to fall.

But we need to supplement renewable energy with energy storage and smart demand management to ensure reliable supply. That’s where options such as pumped hydro storage, batteries and heat-storage options such as molten salt come in.

This is why the crisis is more political than practical. The solutions are on offer. It will become much more straightforward if politicians free themselves from being trapped in the past and wanting to prop up powerful incumbent industries.

Alan Pears, Senior Industry Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.