Australia adding green energy at less than half the required rate to keep grid stable: UNSW

Australia adding green energy at less than half the required rate to keep grid stable: UNSW

Australia is adding renewable energy at less than half the rate needed to replace retiring coal-fired generation and meet its own 2030 climate targets, one of the country’s leading energy experts says.

Key points: University of NSW research shows growth rate of green energy needs to more than double Senior researcher says grid stability at stake as transition away from coal-fired generation accelerates Energy Minister Chris Bowen says there is much to to catch up

In a wake-up call to state and federal governments, the University of New South Wales said there was a “mismatch” between Australia’s renewable energy ambitions and the reality on the ground.

The warning comes after a pivotal year in which the closing dates for many of the nation’s largest coal-fired power plants were accelerated – in some cases by decades.

UNSW senior research fellow Dylan McConnell said the watershed nature of 2022 showed there was little contention between politicians and investors about the need to transition away from fossil fuels.

Dr McConnell said the critical issue now was the speed at which the shift occurred.

Owners of Australia’s largest power station, the coal-fired Eraring, quickly adjusted its closure. (Shuttershock: Harley Kingston)

He said Australia was far behind the pace at which it needed to add and connect new renewable energy capacity to replace coal-fired power poised to leave the system.

Adoption ‘must increase’

“On an energy basis, we’ve added almost the same gigawatt-hours of energy over the last five years,” Dr McConnell said.

“It was a pretty linear addition.

“That linear addition really needs to increase to meet those targets.”

Research by Dr McConnell shows Australia’s renewable energy output has been growing at an average of 7.5 terawatt hours per year since 2018 – equivalent to around four per cent of demand in the national electricity market serving the eastern states.

Dr McConnell said the growth rate should more than double to 15.7 terawatt-hours by the end of the decade under the Australian Energy Market Operator’s central plan.

Despite this, he said activity was slowing in some ways, pointing to the report from the Clean Energy Council which showed that only one renewable energy project had reached ‘financial close’ in the September quarter last year.

He suggested that there must be policy changes before the energy market operator’s plans can be reconciled with reality.

Getting new wind and solar power to major population centers is a challenge. (ABC News: John Gunn)

“There is basically a difference between how the market operator models a system versus what happens in the real world,” he said.

“We have market dynamics and other factors that drive investment decisions in the real world.

“And so you have private actors and governments doing things at whatever pace they see fit.

“While the market operator does a central planning, top-down least cost optimization.

“They’re assuming a carbon budget, for one, that doesn’t exist in the real world.”

Goals ‘ambitious but achievable’

Federal Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen said the government’s 2030 target of meeting 82 per cent of Australia’s energy needs from renewable sources was “ambitious but achievable”.

Mr Bowen said the government was trying to overcome years of “stop-start energy policy”, which he said had delayed and complicated the transition.

“We have a lot of catching up to do,” Mr Bowen said.

“That is why we are investing in new storage and transmission projects, with our Rewiring the Nation projects … to allow more renewable energy into the grid.

“It will also mean more jobs in storage, transmission and adaptation.”

Symptomatic of the challenges is opposition to transmission projects seen as critical to connecting massive volumes of new wind, solar and hydro capacity.

Rebecca Tobin and her family don’t want overhead transmission lines on their property. (Credit: Rosie O’Keefe/Silk Imagery)

At Darlow, about 420km south-west of Sydney, Rebecca Tobin opposed plans to build a high-voltage power line known as HumeLink through her cattle farm.

Ms Tobin said she was particularly concerned about the increased risk of bushfires.

“The Dunnsweg fire started just kilometers away from where we are,” Ms Tobin said, referring to a fire from the black summer of 2019.

“That fire was terrifying and lived through it [makes] you think you’re going to lose everything.

“We already have a 330kV line. It will be parallel to that.

“During the fires, my father witnessed the 330kV line arc.

“And he was completely petrified by what he saw.”

Community concerns are increasing

The 40-year-old is part of a group of landowners affected by HumeLink who are pushing for the project to be built underground as much as possible.

Transgrid, the company behind HumeLink, has suggested the cost of putting the line underground could be as much as three times higher than building overhead.

It says the $3.3 billion project is needed to fully connect an expanded Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro facility, due for completion from 2025.

Chris Bowen says “there will be no transition without broadcasting”. (ABC News: Peter Curtis)

A spokesperson for Transgrid said the company was always vigilant in its maintenance of assets to guard against the risk of bushfires.

“We are working with all stakeholders to find the best solution to this challenge and welcome further engagement on this critically important issue,” the spokesperson said.

“Transgrid shares the Australian Energy Regulator’s vision to ensure a secure, reliable and affordable energy future for all Australians.”

Ms Tobin said she was a supporter of renewable energy, but it was wrong to build transmission lines in places where it could increase the risks of bushfires in a hot climate.

“We understand that HumeLink is necessary to secure the electricity network,” she said.

“But what we don’t understand is the way it’s done and that when you have the technology to put it underground, why isn’t that what we’re going for.”

New capacity “not really optional” An expensive expansion of the Snowy hydro scheme relies on transmission upgrades to succeed. (Supplied: Snowy Hydro)

Dr McConnell said Australia had little time to build the renewable generation capacity needed to keep the system stable.

“We need to deploy a lot of capital and build a lot of capacity, but even if we didn’t care about emissions, we would still need to deploy a lot of capital and build a lot of stuff very quickly,” Dr McConnell said.

“It’s a bit of a false choice in that sense, to say whether it’s necessary or feasible or not, because it’s something we kind of have to do to have a reliable electricity system.

“If we don’t build these things fast enough, or we don’t replace plants that come out, then we’re going to have challenges with reliability and keeping the lights on.”

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