CLIMATE SPECTATOR: A big renewables question mark

The federal government promised to assess the potential for 100 per cent renewables through AEMO's energy planning scenarios. Twelve months later, why have we heard nothing?

Climate Spectator

As part of the Clean Energy Future carbon pricing package the Greens very cleverly gained an agreement from the government that they would:

"Ask AEMO [the Australian Energy Market Operator] to expand its planning scenarios to prepare for greater use of renewable energy. This will include further consideration of energy market and transmission planning implications of moving towards 100 per cent renewable energy.”

While the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation tend to get much of the attention, the initiative above has the greatest chance of making a long-run difference to the prospects of renewable energy in this country. So it’s particularly concerning that we’ve heard incredibly little from the government about this initiative 12 months since it was unveiled.

Why on earth would a few modelling scenarios make such a big difference?

The simple answer is because it shapes what policymakers consider is and isn’t possible and this ultimately shapes policy and regulation.

Back in 2007, in the lead up to the federal election, when I was involved in lobbying for an expansion of the Renewable Energy Target, I was repeatedly told that 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020 was technically impossible. I also had political advisers informing me of how Origin Energy and the ESAA would insist to them that a 20 per cent target was technically infeasible.

Now of course most people are willing to concede that the target is certainly technically achievable, although they might argue about whether it is economically desirable. Yet a large group of incredibly influential people within both industry and the public service still consider renewable energy to be little more than an expensive political sop to the masses, who don’t know what’s good for them.

When you confront these people about why they think this, their answer is incredibly simple. They point at how these sources of energy currently represent a tiny proportion of our electricity compared to fossils fuels and then say, "the wind doesn’t blow all the time and sun doesn’t shine at night.”

Generally there’s really not much more to their argument than that. There’s no discussion of the amount of megajoules of solar radiation hitting a square metre of the earth’s surface, and the conversion efficiency of a solar cell. They don’t talk about the area of land exposed to wind speeds above six or seven metres per second, nor cite historical meteorological statistics over dispersed geographical locations. They tend to not know much about the amount of gigajoules embodied within agricultural waste residues. And they mention surprisingly little on the potential for improvement of energy storage technology, or the cost and electrical losses involved in new transmission infrastructure.

The CSIRO’s recently released report, Solar intermittency: Australia’s clean energy challenge, really hit the nail on the head with this statement:

"Whilst much is said about the effect of intermittency on electricity networks, the information shared and views expressed are often anecdotal, difficult to verify and limited to a particular technical, geographical or social context. There is surprisingly very little real-world data on how intermittency, particularly solar intermittency, affects electricity networks.”

The thing is the renewable energy doubters could just be right, at least about whether there might be more easily implemented alternatives to 100 per cent renewables for achieving our emissions goals. But shouldn’t we at least have a good, hard, physics look before coming to definite conclusions about what is and isn’t possible?

This ‘physics’ look is very different to what has traditionally been done by energy modellers in this country. This is because these energy models leave out any highly detailed analysis of actual real weather patterns (ROAM Consulting being a notable exception). Instead they adopt simplifying arbitrary constraints in their models to save time, such as wind can’t exceed 20 per cent of an individual state’s power demand, whether or not this might be true.  

In the end these models tend to land on geothermal or coal, with carbon capture and storage coming to our rescue. This actually ends up working out really well for environmentalists (even though many don’t like clean coal) because it caps the cost of achieving deep cuts in emissions. But hanging our hat on geothermal and clean coal coming to the rescue at a cheap cost may not be realistic.

The electricity system is a slow moving beast so it’s best to plan well in advance for the worst as well as the best. Also the costs of the various technologies are subject to high degrees of uncertainty, so we should not constrain modelling by narrow guesstimates of the costs of each technology.   

Beyond Zero Emissions and University of NSW’s Ben Elliston have taken a good first step towards having a physics look. But these are only intended to be launching points for others to go into more detail. To explore this issue thoroughly requires the resources of government and the expertise of AEMO.

It’s been over 12 months since the government committed to doing this – why have we heard so little?

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