Environment Exchange“We are going to have 100% per cent renewable electricity. It is going to happen. The question is whether it is sooner or later” says Professor Andrew Blakers.

Our March Environment Exchange was on Using Nature for Power: Timelines for a 100% Renewable Energy Future with Professor Andrew Blakers, Director of the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University and Megan Ward, Manager of Renewable Energy Projects Unit with the ACT Government Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate. Andrew gave an overview of the status of solar and wind generation and cost forecasts and the potential of pumped hydro as a storage option. Megan talked of the ACT 100% renewable energy target by 2020 and the mechanisms by which we will achieve this.

Blakers forecasts that we must close some fossil fuel power plants early in order to meet the “Paris target” of reducing global heating to less than 2 degrees. In order to do this he says Australia needs to achieve 45% renewable electricity by 2030. Currently the Coalition supports 23.5% by 2020, with no significant talk of increasing this beyond 2020. The national ALP has flagged a target of 50% by 2030. The good news is, Blakers says, we can get to 100% renewable electricity at zero net cost if we use pumped hydro as a storage mechanism. Currently only 15% of Australia’s electricity generation comes from renewable energy sources.

Technology is irrelevant as renewable electricity from sun and wind is already almost the same price or cheaper than fossil fuel (gas and black coal) electricity generation. By 2020 when it counts, as more fossil fuel power plants will need to be replaced, renewables will be decisively cheaper. Blakers says there is no end in sight for ongoing cost reductions with both wind and sun. Already most new generation electricity in Australia is solar or wind and comprised 50% of global new generation.

Natural retirement of coal power would see the coal power industry close in Australia by 2059 with a 1/3rd of capacity gone by 2030, 2/3rd gone by 2037 and the rest by 2059. However Blakers says we could do better and we should aim to push out all coal by 2030. So the question is can we close existing fossil fuel power plants sooner. 

Blakers says a key policy mechanism would be to set retirement contracts for existing fossil fuel power plants. He predicts all these retiring coal and gas power plants will be replaced by solar or wind electricity generation. This, coupled with pumped hydro for storage, could deliver a very cost effective and reliable alternative to fossil fuel electricity generation.

Pumped hydro involves pairs of reservoirs, typically 10 hectares each, which are operated by an altitude difference of between 300 and 900 metres, in hilly terrain, and joined by a pipe with a pump and turbine. Water is circulated between the upper and lower reservoirs in a closed loop to store and generate power. “Pumped hydro energy storage is 97% of all storage worldwide and can be used to support high levels of solar PV and wind” said Blakers. The technology is proven and has minimal impact on the environment.

Similarly Megan Ward says: “The issue is not the technical but rather making sure we have the right policy settings. We are firmly on track here in the ACT to reach both our 40% greenhouse gas reduction target and 100% renewable electricity by 2020”. Currently just over 20% of our electricity is renewable with this increasing to 40% by 2017, 60% by 2018 and 100% by 2020. The reverse auctions will deliver 75% of the 100% renewables target.

Renewables investment

Ironically, on the day of our Environment Exchange Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce stated the ACT 100% renewable energy target was “totally insane”  and “crazy” and “it just doesn’t work”.  Yet as Megan Ward pointed out it is working and the ACT reverse auction mechanism proved itself by delivering at costs far less than expected.

The ACT Government is now focussing on battery storage as part of its renewable electricity program, with the last reverse auction to include battery storage. In addition the ACT Government is rolling out 36MW of battery storage capacity in Canberra homes and businesses over the next four years. The intent is to keep the ACT at the cutting edge of innovation in delivery of renewable energy.

The next challenge for the ACT will be how to make other sectors beyond electricity 100% renewable, particularly transport which in 2020 will comprise 50-60% of the ACT’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

See the presentations here:

Professor Andrew Blakers – presentation and summary video

Megan Ward – presentation and summary video

Register for our Environment Exchange on Tuesday 18 April: Climate Change: Getting to zero net emissions.


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