Sitting on the sidelines isn’t going to help shift Australia towards greater adoption of renewable energy.
In Australia the story of renewable clean energy has largely been one of missed opportunities and sometimes baffling short-sighted decisions. Yet this is also a time of numerous technological breakthroughs in the fields of solar power and battery technology, and there has never been a better time to help bring about a better future.
The 2013 election of Tony Abbott saw the start of an ideological campaign against renewables, with an unsuccessful attempt to shut down the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC.) Plan B was to curtail their powers: the CEFC was later instructed by the Federal Government not to invest in wind and small-scale solar projects. Expansion of Australia’s renewable power sector is being held back by an old-style centralised grid and fossil fuel influence in politics.
However, on the international stage, the outcome of the Paris climate talks in December 2015 represents a global commitment to phase out fossil fuels. Australia very recently signed up to an international consensus on keeping the Earth’s temperature rise down to 1.5 degrees, which translates into full decarbonisation by 2050 or earlier. Australia’s challenge is to make the necessary policy reversals to translate this into action.
Politically, Labor supports reaching net zero emissions by 2050, and the Greens want 90 per cent renewables by 2030. GetUp! and Solar Citizens have teamed up to create the Homegrown Power Plan that involves going 100 per cent renewable by 2030, a scenario that analysts claim would be cheaper for Australia in the long run than business as usual.
Australia’s share of electricity from renewable sources rose from about four per cent in 2006 to thirteen per cent in 2016. After a debate in which its abolition was an option on the table, the Renewable Energy Target (RET) was saved, but shrunk from 41,000 gigawatt-hours (GWh) to 33,000 GWh, and is anticipated to represent about 23 per cent of demand by 2020. Far stronger state and territory targets exist in the ACT (90 per cent by 2020), and South Australia (50 per cent by 2025.)
During the passage of the RET, at the last moment the Abbott Government threw a curveball by including power from native forest ‘waste’, a move that was probably designed to reduce the share available to wind and solar. With much of Australia’s native forest yield classified as ‘waste’ and converted to woodchips, a vision of this type of power coming exclusively from sawdust and mill offcuts is unrealistic. Several power stations are now including native forest in their generation mix, or have been granted approval to do so, making the need to challenge this practice via consumer power a top priority. Because of the way that grid power is mixed up together, unfortunately power companies are unable to avoid purchasing it, leaving GreenPower as the best solution.
Buying GreenPower is slightly more expensive than dirty energy, but ensures that some or all of your power usage is sourced from renewable energy, with options ranging from 10-100%. Excluded are native forest ‘waste’, large hydro projects, and installations dating from before 1997. At present, about 600,000 households, or seven per cent of the population, are signed up. An important aspect of GreenPower is that it is additional to the RET, and is not contributing to an outcome that would have been achieved anyway.
The wind sector has been most successful in South Australia, where about about forty per cent of electricity use comes from turbines and there is active state government support. Elsewhere, the picture has not been so encouraging. In Victoria, the former conservative state government effectively blocked wind development by giving every residence within two kilometres of a wind farm the power of veto, until this was more recently halved when Labor took over.
Red tape is always a risk to wind power developers, one example being the creation of a new post of Wind Farm Commissioner to handle complaints from the public. This was inserted late into the RET deal in order to placate a couple of anti-wind cross-bench senators.
Meanwhile there is the issue of health effects claimed by people living close to wind farms. Despite minimal supporting scientific evidence, the National Health and Medical Research Council has just responded to government concerns in this area by allocating $3.3 million for further research. Interestingly, wind farm health symptoms seem to be absent from Western Australia, Tasmania and Continental Europe.
Probably the most substantial concern tied to wind turbines is their frequent use of rare earth elements whose production typically generates radioactive thorium as a byproduct. Substituting these elements is technically feasible, as has been shown by the German manufacturer Enercon. Other industry players are researching ways to reduce their usage.
The largest wind development in Australia, and also the Southern Hemisphere, is the Macarthur Wind Farm located on Victoria’s South Coast. A joint venture between AGL and New Zealand power company Meridian Energy, it became operational in 2013. With a capacity of 420 megawatts (MW), it generates power for an equivalent 220,000 households, and avoids 1.5 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions annually.
Blessed with one of the world’s highest concentrations of solar energy, Australia has the world’s greatest proportion of households with rooftop solar. Growth has been driven by high power bills, and generous feed-in tariffs that have since been discontinued everywhere other than the Northern Territory. As a result, solar photovoltaic (PV) is now found on more than 1.5 million homes, and represents at least 2.5 per cent of national electricity generation. Fifteen per cent of households have solar PV, which rises to twenty per cent if solar hot water is also taken into account.
Larger-scale solar projects in Australia usually involve scaled-up quantities of PV panels, and recent years have seen three projects completed in the western areas of New South Wales. These are at Nyngan (102MW), Broken Hill (53MW), and Moree (56MW), with other larger installations in the pipeline. ARENA is directing further funding to big solar in the hope of boosting its economic viability to that of wind energy by 2020.
Our solar thermal facilities are very limited, with an exception being a 9MW booster to the Liddell coal-fired power station in the Hunter Valley. Under construction is a 1.5MW facility at Port Augusta in South Australia, where the tomato grower Sundrop Farms will be using solar thermal for heating, hot water and electricity.
At Port Augusta, South Australia’s remaining two coal-fired power stations have reached the end of their life, and their closure is imminent. This will inevitably have an impact on the city, which has been championing a renewable substitute in the form of 6 solar thermal plants and 95 wind turbines. Multiple stakeholders are on-board, including environment and climate groups, unions, the business community, and the local council. Proponents have even lined up a developer, US-based SolarReserve.
The community has been busy lobbying politicians, and in 2012 even organised a Walk for Solar covering the three hundred kilometres from Port Augusta to Adelaide. Prospects are looking encouraging, with the proposed project a strong candidate for a share of the Federal Government’s new $1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund.
The storage option
Domestic storage batteries were traditionally of a clunky design, and were intended for solar-powered houses with no grid connection. However everything changed in April 2015 when electric car maker Tesla unveiled its Powerwall unit. Sleek and sexy, this can easily be attached to the wall of a garage. It has a 6.4kWh capacity, and requires a solar PV system of at least 4kW plus a new inverter.
A major attraction here is to go off-grid and avoid exorbitant utility charges. However, with
Australia’s average daily electricity consumption being 18kWh per day, multiple units will probably be needed unless the household is frugal. Some companies sell hybrid systems that combine both the functions of battery storage and grid connection. Payback periods are likely to be well in excess of the ten-year warranty, but prices are expected to fall.
Competitors in the marketplace include AGL’s Power Advantage, Redflow’s ZCell, AllGrid’s GridWatt, Enphase, Panasonic, and Daimler. Most are based on lithium-ion technology that is linked to rare earth element related issues. Two exceptions are the ZCell that uses zinc bromide liquid, and the GridWatt that has lead-acid gel tubes. A further option in the future will be ‘vehicle-to-grid’, where an electric car is used as a de facto battery that can store power and send it back to the house. This makes sense, given that the average vehicle is parked 95 per cent of the time.
Australia has also been trialling solar PV coupled with a 1.1MWh utility-scale battery storage at a new development at Alkimos Beach near Perth, and solar combined with domestic battery storage at the nearby White Gum Valley estate.
One downside to renewable energy is its ties to ‘smart’ meters, despite other options being available in most instances.In the modern world, ‘smart’ has been chosen as shorthand for a device that communicates by emitting radio frequency radiation, which is classified by the World Health Organization as ‘possibly carcinogenic’.
Despite strong support from some environmentalist advocates and the Greens, smart meters (also known as advance meters) are encountering public resistance. They give off frequent radiation spikes, and some householders with smart meters are reporting a range of health symptoms consistent with radiation exposure. This issue is far worse for electro-sensitives.
Other issues include the risk of fire, the possibility of hacking, centralisation of grid control, steep bill increases, a general lack of energy savings, and private data being frequently sold to third parties. On the plus side, smart meters do provide scope for mobile phone addicts to monitor usage in real time.
In states where they are being rolled out, smart meter adoption is generally voluntary, but may be organised under an opt-out model where a householder taking no action will receive one automatically, sometimes when they are on holiday.
Dotted around the country, several local community power projects are feeding power into the grid. These are at Hepburn Springs (wind), Denmark (wind), Shoalhaven (solar), Nimbin (solar) and Bega (solar.) Others are in the pipeline, and the website of Citizens Own Renewable Energy Network Australia (CORENA) has a list of projects looking for investors.
Australia’s first community-owned wind farm at Hepburn Springs in Victoria started with a proposal at a 2004 public meeting, and the completed installation was connected to the grid seven years later, in 2011. Most of the $10 million in funding was raised via a share offer.
Its two turbines have a combined four-megawatt capacity, and generate sufficient electricity to power about 2,300 homes. Because there is no infrastructure for distributing power locally, it is instead purchased by Red Energy and sold to the grid as GreenPower. As with other wind farms, its expected economic life is about 25 years.
In another exciting development, Australia’s first community-owned electricity retailer will soon be opening its doors to customers in regional New South Wales. Enova Energy will be sourcing all of its power from GreenPower and other renewable energy sources, and also intends to offer an attractive feed-in tariff to solar owners.
How to take action
Sitting on the sidelines isn’t going to help shift Australia towards greater adoption of renewable energy. Here are some suggestions:
- Arrange with your power company to buy some or all of your electricity as GreenPower.
- Consider switching to a retailer that has better policies and is more renewables-friendly. The Green Electricity Guide awarded top places to Powershop and Diamond Energy.
- Energy efficiency is more environmentally sound than renewable energy generation. Invest in measures such as LED lighting, water-efficient shower heads, ceiling insulation, and replacing old inefficient appliances with others that have top energy star ratings.
- Look into rooftop solar.
- Investigate solar hot water, or getting an efficient heat pump running off solar PV.
- Support and invest in community power projects.
- Lobby at the political level for renewable energy via climate groups such as 350.org Australia.
Solar buyers’ guide: www.choice.com.au/home-improvement/energy-saving/solar/buying-guides/solar-panels
Solar Citizens: www.solarcitizens.org.au
Green Electricity Guide: www.greenelectricityguide.org.au
Repower Port Augusta: www.repowerportaugusta.org
Hepburn Wind: www.hepburnwind.com.au
350.org Australia: www.350.org.au
Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.
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