The South Australian Labor government has announced a tender for “low carbon” energy as part of a plan to source all the government’s needs from clean energy, just as the country’s energy operator flagged that the state could reach 100 per cent renewables, with wind and solar and battery storage, within two decades.
Premier Jay Weatherill announced the government would tender for 481GWh of “low carbon energy” – equivalent to around 140-180MW of wind or solar power – for government sites. This would meet all the government’s electricity needs.
“We are determined to make Adelaide a showcase city for low-carbon and clean technologies, to attract investment, drive innovation and create new jobs,” Weatherill said. He canvassed technologies such as wind, solar PV, solar thermal, batteries, hydrostorage and efficient gas or hybrid proposals.
South Australia already supplies 40 per cent of its electricity demand from wind and solar, and scenarios canvassed in a report released today by the Australian Energy Market Operator say the state could generate more than its annual electricity needs from wind energy and solar PV alone, and could reach that mark well before 2034/35.
In its latest report on the National Electricity Market’s transmission needs over coming decades, AEMO outlines what it calls the “rapid transition” scenario, where there is huge uptake of rooftop solar and battery storage in Australia, as well as large-scale wind and solar.
Currently, South Australia has 1,200MW of wind energy (since lifted to 1,452MW), and 576MW of rooftop solar.
But in AEMO’s “rapid transformation” scenario, it says that the amount of rooftop solar (currently supplying 7 per cent) could rise 5-fold, the amount of wind energy (33 per cent) could nearly double, and there could be another 500MW of large-scale solar.
This would take South Australia to 2.4GW of wind energy, more than 3.3GW of rooftop solar, and with some 541MW of utility solar. That would produce the equivalent of the anticipated electricity demand for the state, assuming energy efficiency measures continued to be deployed.
There is certainly no shortage of wind energy projects in the queue for South Australia; a whole lot more, in fact, than is allowed in the AEMO scenario.
Interestingly, the AEMO modelling does not include solar towers plus storage, of the type proposed for Port Augusta, because it says that, based on its “input assumptions”, large-scale solar thermal generation is not as cost-effective as large-scale PV. But it seems pretty clear from developments overseas that solar tower and storage will be combined with solar PV to provide a powerful and competitive proposition, particularly in relation to gas-fired generation.
According to the AEMO modelling, more than 60 per cent of the time there would be “zero inertia”, even by 2024/25. That means that within a decade, the state will be powered fully by wind and solar for more than half the time.
Presumably, that leaves open the possibility of “zero inertia” – or 100 per cent renewables – a lot more of the time as more solar and wind capacity is installed in the decade that follows.
This is not to say that South Australia will be 100 per cent renewable, and only renewable. It will rely on the interconnector to Victoria and the rest of the grid to export excess power, and to import power when needed. But this is the way that grids have been designed for decades.
What it does do is to open up a market for ancillary services, which could be provided by utility-scale storage – as is being trialled in Germany and California – or from existing gas stations, who could provide these services without actually burning any fuel.
The AEMO is also yet to model the impact, and the obvious benefits, of utility-scale storage. Not only will grid-based storage help integrate the variable outputs of wind and solar, it will be able to provide crucial ancillary services (frequency and voltage) and may even reduce the cost of grid upgrades.
In Queensland, Ergon Energy is putting in a series of battery storage installations that it says will help increase the penetration of renewables, and cut the costs of grid upgrades by around one-third. Proposals are currently being considered for the country’s largest grid-based non-hydro storage facility in South Australia.
AEMO will likely model those inputs in future years, when the technology becomes more visible. Solar towers with storage are likely to play a key role because of their flexible output in meeting variations of demand and supply.
South Australia, AEMO recognises, will be a test-case of how to deal with extremely high rates of penetration of wind and solar. The International Energy Agency says wind and solar may provide half the world’s demand by 2050 in some scenarios. But South Australia is at the forefront of developments.
The rapid shift from 40 per cent renewable energy to the equivalent of 100 per cent renewable energy highlights just what might be possible for the rest of Australia.
It may also leave the pro-nuclear lobby aghast, because by the time any reactors could be built – probably 2035 at the earliest – the state may already be able to satisfy its needs from wind, solar, battery storage and the connection to Victoria.
Indeed, the only way there could be any room for a nuclear plant is to deliberately slow down the uptake of renewables in the state, and elsewhere. Many nuclear lobbyists promote this idea, questioning the impact of high renewable penetration, and they have the enthusiastic support of the coal lobby, keen to keep renewables at bay.
This has already happened to a certain extent. The federal Coalition brought large-scale renewable energy investment to a halt across the country, and it is yet to resume, despite the agreement to cut the renewable energy target by nearly one-third.
The only new wind farm to begin construction in South Australia in recent times, Hornsdale, is being commissioned by the ACT government as part of its own 90 per cent renewable energy target by 2020 (and 100 per cent by 2025).
SA Power Networks, which owns the distribution grid, is also proposing “demand tariffs” that it says could slow the uptake of rooftop solar by half.
The recent “brown-out” in the state last week is also being used by the nuclear and fossil fuel lobbies as a reason to attack the state’s reliance on wind energy, even though AEMO says the fault was in network infrastructure, and no amount of coal or nuclear would have prevented the blackout.
Still, the Seven Network’s Today Tonight program ran an extraordinary program this week attacking wind energy, saying it was the cause of the blackouts, and would lead to widespread job losses, more blackouts, and soaring electricity bills.
The errors in the report are too many to capture here – but it ignored the fact that bills have soared because of the doubling in network costs, and wholesale prices in the state have actually fallen dramatically (see also here and here) since the introduction of wind energy – hence the early retirement of the coal generators because they are uneconomic.
The report also ignores the fact that South Australia has been using the inter-connector less in recent years than it did before the arrival of wind and solar energy. AEMO has made it clear that the withdrawal of coal will not affect grid stability.
The program interviewed Matthew Warren, the head of the Energy Supply Association of Australia, which represents the coal-fired generators and has also lent its support to the nuclear industry.
Warren says nowhere else in the world is seeking to do what South Australia is doing. As the former, although somewhat controversial head of the Clean Energy Council, Warren knows that is absolute rubbish. Numerous countries and states are seeking the same outcome as South Australia, although they are watching with keen interest.
Danny Price – the head of Frontier Economics and the architect of Tony Abbott’s Direct Action plan – is a long-time critic of the wind industry, and a favourite of the fossil fuel industry. He told Today Tonight that any business would be “mad” to set up in South Australia, because of the potential impact of the wind industry.
And just for good measure, the program showed some images of wind turbines on fire. No images of the pollution caused by brown coal, or its health impacts, or the recognition that coal and gas-fired generators often “trip” suddenly, leaving the grid with no power. Expect more of the same to come.
Giles Parkinson is a journalist of 30 years experience, a former Business Editor and Deputy Editor of the Financial Review, a columnist for The Bulletin magazine and The Australian, and the former editor of Climate Spectator.