How to get out of the energy crisis, according to top technology experts

Low-emissions technology and renewable energy are the way out of the current energy crisis, according to the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

In its new report on the state of low-emissions technology, the academy emphasises that existing renewable energy sources – like solar, wind, batteries and pumped hydro – are mature technologies which will provide cheaper and more reliable energy in the long term.

While they’re already a big part of our energy mix, it’s going to take more work before they’re dominant. According to the academy, Australia needs more policy, big infrastructure investments, and broad social support to transition completely to these technologies.

“By deploying clean energy on the huge scale required to replace fossil fuels, we can eliminate nearly three quarters of global emissions and enhance global energy security,” says academy fellow Katherine Woodthorpe, former director of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and Vast Solar.

“In Australia, it will also lead to cheaper and more reliable supplier pricing for onshore manufacturers as well as a potentially exportable resource.”

Professor Renate Egan, research leader for the University of New South Wales at the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics says: “Australia-wide, we already get 32% of our electricity from renewables. And that’s actually doubled in five years.

“We need that to double again. We can do it possibly in five years, but at least in 10 years.”

At the centre of the transition lies our energy grid. Formerly something that ran off a handful of big energy producers, the grid is becoming more and more complicated with the addition of smaller and more diverse energy sources – from rooftop solar, to large batteries and offshore wind farms.

Egan refers to the modernising grid as an “internet of energy”.

“With [energy] being generated in all different places and flowing in all different directions, we really need better monitoring, measuring and analysis of what’s going on, to allow us to make smart decisions,” says Egan.

Fortunately, the technology now exists to manage this change too.

“You’ll need smart sensors deployed pretty much everywhere producing a huge volume of data, with smart software to analyse and make use of that data,” says academy fellow George Maltabarow, the former managing director of Ausgrid.

Academy fellow Professor Lachlan Blackhall, head of the battery storage and grid integration program at the Australian National University says: “This trend of distributed energy resources is actually happening globally.

“We’re seeing a really significant increase in the decentralisation of all energy systems. But Australia is actually on track to have the most decentralised energy system of anywhere in the world.”

Strengthening and diversifying the grid is particularly important, because electricity will be providing more of our energy in general.

Maltabarow says the transition away from fossil fuels “is going to require electrifying just about everything”.

This transition includes household gas supplies – although gas power stations will likely still have a small role to play as a peak transition fuel for the next few decades. Electric vehicle batteries could also provide some additional storage space for the grid to use.

“We really do have all of the technology that we’re going to need, so it’s really important that we also focus on the social and the economic,” says Blackhall.

“One of the key things that we do advocate for is actually an increase in the amount of social science research, in particular, that’s being done to actually go out and understand householder and community expectations and ensure that we have social licence for this very significant energy transition.”

Social support is particularly important in the context of the current crisis, where energy prices are 115% higher than previous records, and trading was temporarily suspended by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

More on the energy crisis: Why have gas prices increased so drastically?

“The current crisis has been a decade in the making,” says Maltabarow.

“In the short to medium term, prices are going to increase. The challenge is to make sure that increase is minimised to the extent that we can.”

Academy fellow Alex Wonhas, a member of the NSW Energy Corporation’s advisory board and former head of engineering and system design at AEMO says Australia “has the technologies to avoid a future crisis”.

“However, we must act now to lay the foundation of a truly modern energy system,” Wonhas says.

“That requires investment in a whole mix of different technologies.”

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