Australia sets the pace to renewables

Australia is streaking ahead of other countries when it comes to renewable energy, to the extent where we may reach our Paris carbon reduction commitments five years early, claims a new report.

New analysis by the Australian National University has found Australia is installing renewables 4-5 times faster per capita than the EU, USA, Japan and China, a rate which they say sees no signs of slowing.

“The installation of renewables in Australia last year really ramped up compared to these other major economies, and we expect that trend to continue this year and beyond,” said Andrew Blakers from ANU, who co-authored the report.

Australia’s renewable revolution

The report outlines Australia’s remarkable transition to renewable energy, which sees it on track to reach 50% renewable electricity in 2024 and 100% in 2032, in the face of an arguably hostile government.

Despite several studies into the effect of government policy frameworks suggesting Australia will miss the Paris commitments, it appears the renewable industry – long derided, and public motivation, will override and exceed the targets.

According to the numbers, sourced from the Clean Energy Regulator, Australia deployed 5.1 gigawatts of solar and wind systems in 2018. Two-thirds of that was ground-mounted, including the Sapphire wind farm in NSW, and the first stage of the massive Bungala solar farm in South Australia.

Roof-mounted systems provided the remaining 1.7 gigawatts of new solar and wind systems, a rate which is increasing by 50% per year – revealing the significant impact that individual actions of homeowners can have.

The new installations will add to Australia’s already world-leading per capita rooftop-solar deployment.

Off-the-shelf storage solutions provide stability

Co-researcher Bin Lu said stabilising a 100 percent renewable electricity grid is possible using off-the-shelf storage already in use in Australia, such as pumped hydro and batteries.

“We can do this with energy storage, demand management and strong interstate connection using high-voltage transmission lines to smooth out the effect of local weather,” says Lu.

With recent widespread blackouts in Victoria being caused by the failure of coal-fired power plants, the researchers also expect a more stable network based on renewable generation.

“Australia’s coal power stations are old and are becoming less reliable, and transition to a modern renewable energy system can improve grid stability,” says Lu.

Despite recent increases, renewables will begin to take effect

Despite the rollout of renewables already, Australia’s overall emissions have continued to rise, with the Department of Environment reporting a 3.4 megatonne increase in the year to June 2018 largely driven by increased liquefied natural gas exports. However, the report argues those increases will soften “because of stabilisation of emissions from LNG, the government’s Direct Action program and increased uptake of electric water heaters and electric vehicles”.

The report made an assumption based on Department of Environment numbers that emissions outside the electricity sector will increase annually by 2 megatonnes a year.

With each additional gigawatt of renewables reducing overall emissions by about 2 megatonnes by supplanting coal power stations, the report predicts that even with the non-electricity sector increases, Australia’s overall emissions should substantially reduce. “The overall decrease of 10-11 megatonnes per year is fast enough to reach Australia’s entire Paris target in 2025,” the authors write.

“We’re now at a point where the renewables being introduced into the system would lead to significant overall reductions in emissions going forward,” says report author Matthew Stocks.

“We predict that Australia will move into a net reduction of emissions in the next year, and that rate will begin to increase.”

Transition is zero cost

The report also reveals that this transition has a zero net cost, with renewables now cheaper than fossil fuel generation, and steadily falling.

“This (renewable generation) is below the cost of electricity from existing gas-fired power stations, and is also below the cost of new-build gas and coal power stations,” say the authors.

When compared to coal, the cost of electricity from solar and wind is already similar to the cost of running and maintaining most of the black coal power stations in Australia. With those power stations ageing and approaching retirement, the cost differential will likely further swing in favour of renewable sources, even ignoring the ongoing fall in costs.

“Nearly all of the new power stations are either PV or wind. We anticipate that this will continue into the future, provided that energy policy is not actively hindering development,” Stocks told The Guardian.

This includes controversial proposals to encourage investment in coal power generation and indemnify operators against future carbon prices.

This article was first published on Australia’s Science Channel, the original news platform of The Royal Institution of Australia.

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