Looking to the future: Australia’s energy supply and demand
Let’s assume that at some point in February next year it will reach 45 degrees in south-east Australia.
Let’s assume it will be more than 43 degrees for three days running. Let’s assume you are unlucky and the temperature tops 40 degrees for a week or more……..
As the climate control kicks in, home solar systems are also firing up. At the turn of the decade, rooftop solar panels were a novelty. Now, more than 1.5 million households have them. They provide some relief for the stretched electricity grid.
And the grid needs all the relief it can get. Like most of us, electricity infrastructure performs less well when it is hot. This applies to the ageing equipment in creaking old coal plants and gas-fired turbines. Some break down as the temperature rises. It also applies to solar photovoltaic panels, some of which lose nearly a fifth of their capacity as the temperature goes past 40……..
the extraordinary weather conditions means the annual threat of bushfire – which could knock out transmission lines and possibly affect generators – remains constant………
The scenario above is the picture today, but it will almost certainly have changed again by next summer. The energy industry has been acting as though on fast-forward over the past fortnight, and shows no sign of slowing down.
The Clean Energy Council says there is more than $5.5 billion worth of renewable energy projects under construction this year. On Thursday, Lyon Solar added plans for a $1 billion solar and battery plant in South Australia’s Riverland to be in place by next summer. Billed as the biggest of its type in the world, it includes a 330 megawatt solar farm and 100 megawatt battery system with four hours’ storage – enough, proponents say, to potentially make concerns about South Australia and Victoria’s supply redundant.
This is independent of the Weatherill government’s quick tender for Australia’s first large-scale battery system that could – if Tesla mogul Elon Musk is to be believed – be built in 100 days. It is one of a number of steps planned by the South Australian government. Less headline grabbing, but possibly just as important, is that Premier Jay Weatherill has assured the public there will be 200 megawatts of emergency back-up in place. Almost certainly, it will be met by bringing in cheap, reliable and emissions-intensive diesel generators. This was the path Tasmania took when its hydro dams were running low and the Basslink cable to Victoria was broken last year. It might seem antiquated, but works.
The Victorian government has also promised a battery tender, aiming to have 50 megawatts – enough to power a couple of regional cities for four hours – before Christmas. Another 50 is expected to follow in 2018……..
The ignored opportunity
Perhaps because it has no champion among industry or regulators, the potentially significant scope to quickly reduce electricity demand through smarter use of technology remains little explored.
A paper released last week by the awkwardly named Energy Efficiency Certificate Creators Association makes the case for the savings possible by cutting waste.
Victoria has been a leader in this area with an energy efficiency scheme that, until the Coalition walked away before the last election, had bipartisan support. Ric Brazzale, managing director of Green Energy Markets, estimates the cleaner lights and appliances it helped install last year alone reduced demand by about 120 megawatts – the equivalent of a small power plant.
Advocates want incentives for businesses to reduce production when necessary and to upgrade substandard equipment – think boilers, airconditioners, fridges and insulation. At a household level, the call is for greater support to install better whitegoods and battery packs.
Small steps can make a significant difference. Replacing old lights with LEDs, for example, can cut electricity consumption from that device by up to 80 per cent.
Better demand management will help, but it won’t avoid the need for more generation. The big, unaddressed question is what will the response be when the next large coal power plant closes – and the next one after that, and so on.
Australia has 23 remaining coal generators. As the federal government acknowledges, several more may shut over the next decade. According to modelling for the Climate Change Authority, all would need to be gone and replaced by cleaner technology by 2035 if Australia is to play its part under the Paris deal to keep global warming below 2 degrees.
That notional deadline rarely gets a mention in public debate, but a campaign is in full flight for a bipartisan national energy and climate policy to set the pace for the transition to cleaner plants. Businesses are worried that ageing coal plants will otherwise continue to shut abruptly – Hazelwood’s closure was announced just five months out – without there being time to build replacements. The federal government has rejected their preferred model, an emissions intensity scheme, and as has offered no alternative.
Reviews into electricity security (by chief scientist Alan Finkel) and climate policy (by the Environment Department) are under way, but the government is fundamentally divided on the need to do anything. It is hard to see where it lands.
Nationally, the only significant large-scale policy designed to drive energy investment beyond this decade is Victoria’s ambitious and contested renewable energy target, which aims to build enough wind and solar farms to deliver 40 per cent of the state’s electricity needs by 2025. (The ACT has also a renewable target, but in other states the goals are purely aspirational.)
The Andrews government has not said what it thinks the rapid growth in clean energy means for the Latrobe Valley’s three remaining coal plants – Yallourn, Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B. The state opposition plans to abolish the renewable target if it wins power next year, but it hasn’t said what, if anything, it would do in its place. It has hinted it may subsidise coal plants to keep them open.
Meanwhile, anyone hoping for an answer on what will keep the lights on in the longer term is left waiting. http://www.theage.com.au/business/energy/power-games-the-quick-fix-and-unanswered-questions-on-electricity-20170327-gv7w01.html
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