Liberal party donor and coal plant owner Trevor St Baker is proposing with the help of his mates in government to build two new coal power stations in Australia at the expense of taxpayers.
However, the big four banks and the big three energy companies are not having a bar of it. Indeed the majority of Australia’s energy companies are working towards a very different future for the country’s energy system, a future powered by clean, renewable energy.
There are now at least nine studies conducted during the decade that have analysed how Australia can move from an electricity system based on polluting coal and gas to one powered by the sun, wind and waves.
The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) – the body tasked with making sure we have energy when we need it – found there were “no fundamental limits to 100% renewables”, and that the current standards of the system’s security and reliability would be maintained.
These studies show different pathways towards 100% renewable energy, but what they all agree on is that it can be achieved.
So how would it work? If we get our policies and regulation right, the electricity system of the future could look something like this:
1. Big on wind and solar
In future, the bulk of our electricity will come from the most affordable technologies – wind and solar photovoltaic (PV). In areas with the best renewable resources, big wind and solar projects connected to transmission lines will generate electricity to power Australia’s industry, transport, cities and exports.
Modelling by the University of New South Wales suggests that wind generation could supply up to 70% of Australia’s electricity needs, while modelling by CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia found that wind and solar could provide nearly all generation in future. UNSW’s analysis, backed up by AEMO’s Integrated System Plan, also found that many of the best solar and wind sites in Australia were in remote locations – renewable energy zones, needing new transmission investments to harvest these amazing resources.
2. Lots of different technologies in different locations
These solar and wind farms will be spread across the country, sharing their output, because in a huge continent the size of Australia, the wind is almost always blowing somewhere.
The supply gaps will then be filled with a range of on-demand renewables and storage, such as concentrating solar thermal with storage, pumped hydro, batteries (grid and domestic), sustainable bioenergy and more.
A study by Andrew Blakers at Australian National University found that pumped hydro could provide enough backup for a grid entirely powered by wind and solar power.
Hold on … hydropower in the dry continent of Australia? Yes, they have identified 22,000 potential sites, mainly off-river reservoirs in hilly terrain or abandoned mine sites, and just 0.1% of those could meet all of Australia’s storage needs in a 100% renewable grid.
This means we will move from a power system paradigm of baseload (big thermal generators) and peaking plants (quick-start gas) to one where our bulk energy is supplied by variable renewables and dispatchable renewables, and storage will fill the gaps.
3. Small, so everyone can benefit
According to CSIRO and Energy Networks Australia, between 30% and 45% of the country’s future energy generation will be local and customer-owned – in homes, businesses and communities. This means solar panels on every sunny roof, and batteries in households and commercial buildings. In apartment blocks, there will be microgrids powered by solar and batteries. Renters will join community solar projects and landlords will be required to make properties more energy efficient. When you go to the shopping centre and plug in your electric car, it will be shaded by solar panels.
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