Sydney’s closer to being a zero-carbon city than you think


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The potential clean energy sources are all around Sydney, just waiting to be harnessed.
Author provided

Rob Roggema, University of Technology Sydney

You live in one of the sunniest countries in the world. You might want to use that solar advantage and harvest all this free energy. Knowing that solar panels are rapidly becoming cheaper and have become feasible even in less sunny places like the UK, this should be a no-brainer.

Despite this, the Australian government has taken a step backwards at a time when we should be thinking 30 years ahead.


Further reading: Will the national energy guarantee hit pause on renewables?


Can we do it differently? Yes, we can! My ongoing research on sustainable urbanism makes it clear that if we use the available renewable resources in the Sydney region we do not need any fossil resource any more. We can become zero-carbon. (With Louisa King and Andy Van den Dobbelsteen, I have prepared a forthcoming paper, Towards Zero-Carbon Metropolitan Regions: The Example of
Sydney, in the journal SASBE.)

Enough solar power for every household

Abundant solar energy is available in the Sydney metropolitan area. If 25% of the houses each installed 35 square metres of solar panels, this could deliver all the energy for the city’s households.

We conservatively estimate a total yield of 195kWh/m2 of PV panel placed on roofs or other horizontal surfaces. The potential area of all Sydney council precincts suited for PV is estimated at around 385km2 – a quarter of the entire roof surface.

We calculate the potential total solar yield at 75.1TWh, which is more than current domestic household energy use (65.3TWh, according to the Jemena energy company).


Further reading: What’s the net cost of using renewables to hit Australia’s climate target?


Wind turbines to drive a whole city

If we install small wind turbines on land and larger turbines offshore we can harvest enough energy to fuel our electric vehicle fleet. Onshore wind turbines of 1-5MW generating capacity can be positioned to capture the prevailing southwest and northeast winds.

The turbines are placed on top of ridges, making use of the funnel effect to increase their output. We estimate around 840km of ridge lines in the Sydney metropolitan area can be used for wind turbines, enabling a total of 1,400 turbines. The total potential generation from onshore wind turbines is 6.13TWh.

Offshore turbines could in principle be placed everywhere, as the wind strength is enough to create an efficient yield. The turbines are larger than the ones on shore, capturing 5-7.5MW each, and can be placed up to 30km offshore. With these boundary conditions, an offshore wind park 45km long and 6km wide is possible. The total offshore potential then is 5.18TWh.

Altogether, then, we estimate the Sydney wind energy potential at 11.3TWh.

Around 840km of ridge lines (marked in yellow and red) in the Sydney metropolitan area can be used for wind turbines.
Author provided

Further reading: FactCheck Q&A: is coal still cheaper than renewables as an energy source?


Turning waste into biofuels

We can turn our household waste and green waste from forests, parks and public green spaces into biogas. We can then use the existing gas network to provide heating and cooling for the majority of offices.

Biomass from domestic and green waste will be processed through anaerobic fermentation in old power plants to generate biogas. Gas reserves are created, stored and delivered through the existing power plants and gas grid.


Further reading: Biogas: smells like a solution to our energy and waste problems


Algae has enormous potential for generating bio-energy. Algae can purify wastewater and at the same be harvested and processed to generate biofuels (biodiesel and biokerosene).

Specific locations to grow algae are Botany Bay and Badgerys Creek. It’s noteworthy that both are close to airports, as algae could be important in providing a sustainable fuel resource for planes.

Using algae arrays to treat the waste water of new precincts, roughly a million new households as currently planned in Western Sydney, enables the production of great quantities of biofuel. Experimental test fields show yields can be high. A minimum of 20,000 litres of biodiesel per hectare of algae ponds is possible if organic wastewater is added. This quantity is realisable in Botany Bay and in western Sydney.

Biomass fermentation of household and green waste and wastewater treatment using algae arrays can generate biogas, biodiesel and biokerosene.
Author provided

Further reading: Biofuel breakthroughs bring ‘negative emissions’ a step closer


Extracting heat from beneath the city

Shallow geothermal heat can be tapped through heat pumps and establishing closed loops in the soil. This can occur in large expanses of urban developments within the metropolitan area, which rests predominantly on deposits of Wianamatta shale in the west underlying Parramatta, Liverpool and Penrith.

Where large water surfaces are available, such as in Botany Bay or the Prospect Reservoir, heat can also be harvested from the water body.

The layers of the underlying Hawkesbury sandstone, the bedrock for much of the region, can yield deep geothermal heat. This is done by pumping water into these layers and harvesting the steam as heat, hot water or converted electricity.

Sydney’s geology offers sources of both shallow and deep theothermal heat.
Author provided

Further reading: Explainer: what is geothermal energy?


Hydropower from multiple sources

The potential sources of energy from hydro generation are diverse. Tidal energy can be harvested at the entrances of Sydney Harbour Bay and Botany Bay, where tidal differences are expected to be highest.

Port Jackson, the Sydney Harbour bay and all of its estuaries have a total area of 55km2. With a tidal difference of two metres, the total maximum energy potential of a tidal plant would be 446TWh. If Sydney could harvest 20% of this, that would be more than twice the yield of solar panels on residential roofs.

If we use the tide to generate electricity, we can also create a surge barrier connecting Middle and South Head. Given the climatic changes occurring and still ahead of us, we need to plan how to protect the city from the threats of future cyclones, storm surges and flooding.

I have written here about the potential benefits of artificially creating a Sydney Barrier Reef. The reef, 30km at most out at sea, would provide Sydney with protection from storms.

At openings along the reef, wave power generators can be placed. Like tidal power, wave power can be calculated: mass displacement times gravity. If around 10km of the Sydney shoreline had wave power vessels, the maximum energy potential would be 3.2TWh.

In the mouths of the estuaries of Sydney Harbour and Botany Bay, freshwater meets saltwater. These places have a large potential to generate “blue energy” through reverse osmosis membrane technology.

To combine protective structures with tidal generating power, an open closure barrier is proposed for the mouth of Sydney Harbour. The large central gates need to be able to accommodate the entrance of large cruise ships and to close in times of a storm surge. At the same time, a tidal plant system operates at the sides of the barrier.

An artist’s impression of the Sydney Harbour surge barrier and tidal plant.
Drawing: Andy van den Dobbelsteen, Author provided

Further reading: Catching the waves: it’s time for Australia to embrace ocean renewable energy


Master plan for a zero-carbon city

All these potential energy sources are integrated into our Master Plan for a Zero-Carbon Sydney. Each has led to design propositions that together can create a zero-carbon city.

The Zero-Carbon Sydney Master Plan maps out how the city can be fossil-free.
Author provided

The ConversationThe research shows there is enough, more than enough, potential reliable renewable energy to supply every household and industry in the region. What is needed is an awareness that Australia could be a global frontrunner in innovative energy policy, instead of a laggard.

Rob Roggema, Professor of Sustainable Urban Environments, University of Technology Sydney

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

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What’s the net cost of using renewables to hit Australia’s climate target? Nothing


Andrew Blakers, Australian National University; Bin Lu, Australian National University, and Matthew Stocks, Australian National University

Australia can meet its 2030 greenhouse emissions target at zero net cost, according to our analysis of a range of options for the National Electricity Market.

Our modelling shows that renewable energy can help hit Australia’s emissions reduction target of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2030 effectively for free. This is because the cost of electricity from new-build wind and solar will be cheaper than replacing old fossil fuel generators with new ones.


Read more: Want energy storage? Here are 22,000 sites for pumped hydro across Australia


Currently, Australia is installing about 3 gigawatts (GW) per year of wind and solar photovoltaics (PV). This is fast enough to exceed 50% renewables in the electricity grid by 2030. It’s also fast enough to meet Australia’s entire carbon reduction target, as agreed at the 2015 Paris climate summit.

Encouragingly, the rapidly declining cost of wind and solar PV electricity means that the net cost of meeting the Paris target is roughly zero. This is because electricity from new-build wind and PV will be cheaper than from new-build coal generators; cheaper than existing gas generators; and indeed cheaper than the average wholesale price in the entire National Electricity Market, which is currently A$70-100 per megawatt-hour.

Cheapest option

Electricity from new-build wind in Australia currently costs around A$60 per MWh, while PV power costs about A$70 per MWh.

During the 2020s these prices are likely to fall still further – to below A$50 per MWh, judging by the lower-priced contracts being signed around the world, such as in Abu Dhabi, Mexico, India and Chile.

In our research, published today, we modelled the all-in cost of electricity under three different scenarios:

  • Renewables: replacement of enough old coal generators by renewables to meet Australia’s Paris climate target

  • Gas: premature retirement of most existing coal plant and replacement by new gas generators to meet the Paris target. Note that gas is uncompetitive at current prices, and this scenario would require a large increase in gas use, pushing up prices still further.

  • Status quo: replacement of retiring coal generators with supercritical coal. Note that this scenario fails to meet the Paris target by a wide margin, despite having a similar cost to the renewables scenario described above, even though our modelling uses a low coal power station price.

The chart below shows the all-in cost of electricity in the 2020s under each of the three scenarios, and for three different gas prices: lower, higher, or the same as the current A$8 per gigajoule. As you can see, electricity would cost roughly the same under the renewables scenario as it would under the status quo, regardless of what happens to gas prices.

Levelised cost of electricity (A$ per MWh) for three scenarios and a range of gas prices.
Blakers et al.

Balancing a renewable energy grid

The cost of renewables includes both the cost of energy and the cost of balancing the grid to maintain reliability. This balancing act involves using energy storage, stronger interstate high-voltage power lines, and the cost of renewable energy “spillage” on windy, sunny days when the energy stores are full.

The current cost of hourly balancing of the National Electricity Market (NEM) is low because the renewable energy fraction is small. It remains low (less than A$7 per MWh) until the renewable energy fraction rises above three-quarters.

The renewable energy fraction in 2020 will be about one-quarter, which leaves plenty of room for growth before balancing costs become significant.

Cost of hourly balancing of the NEM (A$ per MWh) as a function of renewable energy fraction.

The proposed Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project would have a power generation capacity of 2GW and energy storage of 350GWh. This could provide half of the new storage capacity required to balance the NEM up to a renewable energy fraction of two-thirds.

The new storage needed over and above Snowy 2.0 is 2GW of power with 12GWh of storage (enough to provide six hours of demand). This could come from a mix of pumped hydro, batteries and demand management.

Stability and reliability

Most of Australia’s fossil fuel generators will reach the end of their technical lifetimes within 20 years. In our “renewables” scenario detailed above, five coal-fired power stations would be retired early, by an average of five years. In contrast, meeting the Paris targets by substituting gas for coal requires 10 coal stations to close early, by an average of 11 years.

Under the renewables scenario, the grid will still be highly reliable. That’s because it will have a diverse mix of generators: PV (26GW), wind (24GW), coal (9GW), gas (5GW), pumped hydro storage (5GW) and existing hydro and bioenergy (8GW). Many of these assets can be used in ways that help to deliver other services that are vital for grid stability, such as spinning reserve and voltage management.


Read more: Will the National Energy Guarantee hit pause on renewables?


Because a renewable electricity system comprises thousands of small generators spread over a million square kilometres, sudden shocks to the electricity system from generator failure, such as occur regularly with ageing large coal generators, are unlikely.

Neither does cloudy or calm weather cause shocks, because weather is predictable and a given weather system can take several days to move over the Australian continent. Strengthened interstate interconnections (part of the cost of balancing) reduce the impact of transmission failure, which was the prime cause of the 2016 South Australian blackout.

The ConversationSince 2015, Australia has tripled the annual deployment rate of new wind and PV generation capacity. Continuing at this rate until 2030 will let us meet our entire Paris carbon target in the electricity sector, all while replacing retiring coal generators, maintaining high grid stability, and stabilising electricity prices.

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University; Bin Lu, PhD Candidate, Australian National University, and Matthew Stocks, Research Fellow, ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, Australian National University

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

Will the National Energy Guarantee hit pause on renewables?


Frank Jotzo, Australian National University and Salim Mazouz, Australian National University

The federal government’s new National Energy Guarantee (NEG) proposal looks likely to put the brakes on renewable energy investment in Australia. And based on the sparse detail so far available, there are serious questions about whether the plan really can deliver on its aims of reliability, emissions reductions and lower prices.

The broad mechanism design could be made to work, but to be effective in driving the transition of the energy sector it would need adequate ambition on carbon emissions and very careful thought about the reliability requirements of the future electricity grid.


Read more: Infographic: the National Energy Guarantee at a glance


The policy may well be used to force investment into the fossil fuel power fleet through regulatory intervention, and perhaps for the power sector to buy emissions offsets. This would risk locking in a carbon-intensive power system.

The NEG: top or flop?

Having rejected several options – including an emissions intensity scheme, the Clean Energy Target put forward by the Finkel Review, and any continuation of the Renewable Energy Target – the government has finally managed to get a policy proposal through the party room, formulated in advice by its newly established Energy Security Board.

Analysts’ initial reactions have ranged from unbridled enthusiasm to derisive rejection. It depends on political judgments, expectations about how the scheme might operate in practice, and how high one’s expectations are for efficiency and environmental effectiveness.

The politics of this are complicated, but there are hopes that the Labor opposition will agree to the scheme in principle. But the decision is ultimately with the Australian states, which would need to pass legislation to implement it.

Reliability guarantee: supporting fossil fuels?

The first element of the NEG is the “reliability guarantee”. This would require electricity retailers to buy some share of their electricity from “dispatchable” sources that can be readily switched on. The NEG list includes coal and gas, as well as hydro and energy storage – essentially, anything except wind and solar.

The NEG proposal might be informed by a political imperative to support coal. As John Quiggin has pointed out, defining coal-fired plants as dispatchable is questionable at best: they have long ramp-up times and are sometimes unavailable.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) would prescribe the share of the “dispatchable” power sources and perhaps also the mix of technologies in retailers’ portfolios, separately in each state. This would be a remarkably interventionist approach.

Demand from retailers for the power sources they are told to use could trigger investment in new gas generators, refurbishment of existing coal plants, and some investment in energy storage. It is difficult to see how it would force the building of new coal plants, given their very large upfront cost and long-term emissions liabilities.

Would electricity prices be lower, as the Energy Security Board’s advice claims? Investment in new power generation will tend to reduce prices, cutting into profit margins. But the resulting investments will come at higher economic cost than market solutions, because they are determined by regulators’ orders made with a view to the short-term energy mix, not long-term cost-effectiveness. And there would be risk premiums on project finance, reflecting uncertainty about future policy settings.

Emissions guarantee: flexible but weak?

The NEG’s second pillar is the “emissions guarantee”. This would require retailers to keep their portfolio below some level of emissions intensity (carbon dioxide per unit of electricity).

This increases the demand for electricity from lower-emissions technologies, allowing them to command higher market prices and therefore encouraging investment in them. This price signal would benefit renewables and also favour gas over coal, as well as discriminating against the most polluting coal plants.

The Energy Security Board’s advice suggests that retailers would have flexibility in complying with that obligation, by buying and selling emissions components of their contracts, and potentially also using emissions offsets from outside the scheme to make up for any exceeding of emissions limits.

The reliability and emissions elements of the NEG interact with each other, and the net effect depends on the detailed implementation as well as the relative importance of the two components.

Given the politics within government, the weight could be on support for coal and gas generation. The reliability guarantee could therefore end up putting a tight lid on the amount of new wind and solar that can enter the system.

Renewables, gas or credits?

The Energy Security Board makes explicit reference to Australia’s Paris target of a 26-28% reduction in emissions, relative to 2005 levels, by 2030. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said the NEG will be expected to cut electricity emissions by a similar percentage, as a “pro rata” contribution to this goal.

But to meet the economy-wide target, the electricity sector would need to make deeper cuts, because emissions reductions are cheaper and easier here than elsewhere.

The Energy Security Board says it expects renewables to reach 28-36% by 2030. This is rather low, considering that the Finkel Review projected 42% under its proposed clean energy target, and 35% under business as usual. Other analyses have shown that much higher levels of renewables are achievable.

So if the NEG is not geared to support renewables, how could significant emissions reductions be achieved?

One way would be to replace coal with gas-fired power, and brown coal with black coal. But the government has flagged that it is opposed to closing old coal plants. And a large-scale shift to gas would raise electricity prices further, unless gas prices were to tumble.


Read more: The government’s energy policy hinges on some tricky wordplay about coal’s role


That leaves another option, mentioned in the Energy Security Board’s report: power retailers could buy emissions offset credits from elsewhere to make up for not meeting the emissions standard, specifically from projects under the government’s Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF).

This might be attractive for the government, as electricity retailers would then pay for ERF credits, rather than government as has been the case until now. It may also be attractive to the power industry, as it would reduce the cost of complying with the new obligations. Retailers would pass on the costs to their customers, so electricity consumers would end up paying for ERF projects.

Even assuming that all of the ERF’s emissions reductions are real (and some of them may not be), all this does is shift the adjustment burden from electricity to other sectors such as agriculture.

The ConversationThe NEG has the potential to reduce emissions effectively if the parameters are adjusted accordingly. But what seems more likely is that it will put the brakes on investment in renewables, solidify the status quo and delay the energy transition.

Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University and Salim Mazouz, Research Associate, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Australian National University

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.

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.

Who tilts at windmills? Explaining hostility to renewables


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

Studying the catastrophe that has been Australian climate and energy policy these past 30 years is a thoroughly depressing business. When you read great work by Guy Pearse, Clive Hamilton, Maria Taylor and Phillip Chubb, among others, you find yourself asking “why”?

Why were we so stupid, so unrelentingly shortsighted? Why did the revelation in 2004 that John Howard had called a meeting of big business to help him slow the growth of renewables elicit no more than a shrug? Why did policy-makers attack renewable energy so unrelentingly?

About now, readers will be rolling their eyes and saying either “follow the money, stupid!” or “they are blinded by their marketophilia”. Fair enough, and they have a point.

My recently published paper, titled “Wind beneath their contempt: why Australian policymakers oppose solar and wind energy”
outlines the hostility to renewables from people like former treasurer Joe Hockey, who found the wind turbines around Canberra’s Lake George “utterly offensive”, and former prime minister Tony Abbott, who funded studies into the “potential health impacts” of wind farms.

It also deals with the policy-go-round that led to a drop in investment in renewables.

In a search for explanations for this, my paper looks at what we academics call “material factors”, such as party donations, post-career jobs, blame avoidance, diminished government capacity to act, and active disinformation by incumbents.

I then turn to ideological factors such as neoliberalism, the “growth at all costs” mindset, and of course climate denial.

Where it gets fun – and possibly controversial – is when I turn to psychological explanations such as what the sociologist Karl Mannheim called “the problem of generations”. This is best explained by a Douglas Adams quote:

Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.

Over the past 50 years, white heterosexual middle-class males with engineering backgrounds have felt this pattern particularly keenly, as their world has shifted and changed around them. To quote my own research paper:

This loss of the promise of control over nature occurred – by coincidence – at the same time that the British empire disintegrated, and the US empire met its match in the jungles of Vietnam, and while feminism, civil rights and gay rights all sprang up. What scholars of the Anthropocene have come to call the “Great Acceleration” from the 1950s, was followed by the great (and still incomplete) democratisation of the 1960s and 1970s.

The rising popularity of solar panels represents a similar pattern of democratisation, and associated loss of control for those with a vested interest in conventional power generation, which would presumably be particularly threatening to those attracted to status, power and hierarchy.

Consider the cringe

Here are a couple more ideas and explanations that didn’t make the cut when I wrote the research paper. First up is the “biological cringe” – analogous to the “cultural cringe”, the self-loathing Australian assumption that all things British were better.

In Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies, the historian Tom Griffiths notes that:

Acclimatization societies systematically imported species that were regarded as useful, aesthetic or respectably wild to fill the perceived gaps in primitive Australian nature. This “biological cringe” was remarkably persistent and even informed twentieth-century preservation movements, when people came to feel that the remnants of the relic fauna, flora and peoples, genetically unable to fend for themselves, should be “saved”.

Second, and related, is the contempt and hatred that settler colonialists can feel towards wilderness, which in turn morphs into the ideology that there should be no limits on expansion and growth.

This means that people who speak of limits are inevitably attacked. One good example is Thomas Griffith Taylor (1880-1963), an Australian scientist who fell foul of the boosters who believed the country could and should support up to 500 million people.

Having seen his textbook banned in Western Australia for using the words “arid” and “desert”, Taylor set sail for the United States. At his farewell banquet at University of Sydney, he reinterpreted its motto Sidere mens eadem mutate (“The same spirit under a different sky”), as “Though the heavens fall I am of the same mind as my great-great-grandfather!”

I am anticipating that at least four groups will object to my speculations:
(vulgar) Marxists, for whom everything is about profits; positivists and Popperians, who will mutter about a lack of disprovability; deniers of climate science, who often don’t like being described as such; and finally, those who argue that renewables cannot possibly provide the energy return on investment required to run a modern industrial economy (who may or may not be right – we are about to find out).

The ConversationReader, of whatever category, what do you think?

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

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