The Australian government’s chief scientific body says there is no apparent technical impediment to reaching 100 per cent renewables for the national electricity grid, and levels of up to 30 per cent renewable energy should be considered as just “trivial” in current energy systems.
The CSIRO estimate was made in the Senate select committee into the “Resilience of electricity infrastructure in a warming world,” which is providing some fascinating insight that we will be reporting on (because mainstream media won’t).
Of course, the whole proposition of the committee was considered absurd by One Nation Senator and climate conspiracy theorist Malcolm Roberts, who repeatedly insisted that global warming was not happening and constantly badgered the energy experts on this point.
But what did emerge was a general consensus that the electricity grid was in the midst of a rapid and massive transformation, and a change of rules and regulations could likely accelerate that transformation and make it cheaper.
And amid the toxic political debate about the level of renewable energy, specifically wind and solar, that can be accommodated into the system, CSIRO energy division’s principal research scientist Paul Graham said there were no barriers to 100 per cent renewable energy, and lower levels could be easily absorbed.
This is despite contentious claims from conservatives, and many in mainstream media that even having 23.5 per cent renewables (the 2020 target) would “force feed more … instability into the grid,” as the AFR editorialised on Wednesday.
Graham’s testimony indicated that such fears and scare mongering were bunkum.
“We could probably add that introducing renewables at a share of 10, 20 or 30 per cent is fairly trivial on the basis that the existing generation capacity has a lot of flexibility to deal with the variability,” Graham told the committee, noting that existing back-up and redundancy for the current coal-dominated grid was already in place.
“Traditional approaches around peaking gas, using the dispatchability of coal and the interconnection between states allow renewables to contribute to the system. That has generally been the approach in most states.”
Graham said the challenges could start to emerge when the penetration of wind and solar move above 40 per cent –as it has in South Australia, which explains why it is focusing on storage and is finally getting traction on its call for changes to energy market rules.
“When we do modelling where we increase the renewable penetration above around 40 per cent of the energy delivered (where South Australia is now) that starts to force out some of that existing dispatchable generation, and then we find that you need to add other technologies to support renewables,’ Graham said.
“That can include storage, as we have been talking about, and there are a number of different storage technologies.
“It can also mean adding other dispatchable renewables. We often think about solar thermal as a dispatchable renewable, and there are geothermal technologies.”
And Graham, a co-author of a landmark report with the country’s network owners last year that showed high levels of renewable energy could be incorporated into the grid, and produce a $100 billion cheaper outcome than business as usual, says renewables could go much, much higher.
“When we have done modelling that goes to very high renewable penetration, getting close to or up to 100 per cent, we have done calculations of very, very high battery deployment to achieve that, and we are also using technologies like biogas, which is dispatchable, and dispatchable biomass.
“But I should add that that takes care of the sort of energy balancing on a half-hour basis. There are also other issues around the need for frequency control and so forth, where you need additional technologies that provide inertia.
“That could include things like synchronous condensers and more advanced inverters for the battery technologies, and so forth.
“So generally there appear to be engineering solutions for lots of different levels of renewable penetration. The only uncertainty is that we have not actually seen them deployed, but, in theory and in simulation and modelling, there do appear to be solutions going forward to achieve whatever is desirable.”
So, the committee chair asked, technical capability is not the issue?
Graham : “Yes, that is correct. There are some aspects of that that we have not explored and some aspects that we have. A lot of that is outlined in the recent work with the Energy Networks Australia report around the Electricity Network Transformation Roadmap, where we have highlighted things such as that it would be useful if we had price signalling and communication between technologies down at the distribution end of the market and up into the wholesale market. There are number of barriers that could be removed that would support a higher penetration of renewables. I will not try to list them all, but certainly I take the direction of your question, and the answer is yes.”
These comments go to the market rules that include changes such as the 30-minute settlement rule, which most experts say favours incumbent gas generators at the expense of fast-response new technology such as battery storage. The incumbent generators are furiously opposing this proposed rule change.
Several of the Senators on the committee, including Roberts and Liberal Senator Chris Back, expressed their complete distaste for wind energy, and held to their pre-conceived ideas that only fossil fuel “baseload” could deliver reliability and security.
Roberts was quickly disabused of this notion by energy expert Dr Matthew Stocks, from the College of Engineering and Computer Science, at Australian National University, in this exchange.
Senator Roberts: Like Senator Back, I totally oppose wind generation and, if ever solar becomes competitive, then that will be ideal for me when I look at the overall lifespan of the solar technology. Would you all agree that stable base load supply is essential?
Dr Stocks: No, I would not. My submission quite clearly points out that the system could provide a stable balanced system with a combination of wind and PV and pumped hydro storage. I take a very different position: base load is not essential.
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.