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Bleak emissions outlook points to a renewable future

This week, unpublished estimates from the International Energy Institute showed that 2010 was the most carbon-intensive year in human history. Chief Economist of the IEA Dr Fatih Birol responded to the…

Europe is leading the world in renewable technology. AAP

This week, unpublished estimates from the International Energy Institute showed that 2010 was the most carbon-intensive year in human history.

Chief Economist of the IEA Dr Fatih Birol responded to the finding by noting that the prospect of staying below the 2-degree threshold “is getting bleaker”.

This revelation is sobering and reminds us of the urgent need to scale up and rollout existing renewable energy technologies.

Increasing the scale of the challenge is the IEA’s finding that the majority of the power plants operating in 2020 —including ones that are currently under construction or already approved — will be powered by fossil fuels.

Given the long operating life of these installations, a massive amount of carbon emissions is being locked in for the next 40 years.

The fact is, we will have to retire our fossil fuel plants earlier than planned.

In his Critical Decade report for the Climate Commission, Professor Will Steffen highlighted the most important question we should ask: how can we fully decarbonise our economy without blowing our carbon budget first?

According to the Potsdam Institute on which his work is based, for a country like Australia with high per capita emissions, a ten year decarbonisation timeline would be appropriate.

Australian policymakers are set to diverge from this path by facilitating a switch to gas electricity generation as a so-called transitional fuel.

According to climate change minister Greg Combet, “For baseload electricity generation it will be gas-fired electricity that we see emerge, and for that investment to be committed, we need a carbon price in the economy.”

If we’re going to have to shut down the fossil fuel power plant operating today to meet science-based reduction targets then is it sensible to build new ones?

Australia, with the best solar and wind resources of any developed nation, can make the global challenge easier by deploying today’s renewable energy technologies —concentrating solar thermal power, wind, and photovoltaics.

Concentrating solar thermal (CST) power with storage is a perfect option for providing zero-carbon baseload power.

Its unique energy storage allows CST installations to produce electricity day and night.

In recent weeks, the Spanish Gemasolar plant, with 15 hours of storage, started feeding electricity to the grid. Spain’s feed-in tariffs for CST have encouraged billions of private sector investment that will see 2500 MW installed by 2013.

The United States is also part of the CST boom. Federal loan guarantees and Investment Tax Credits have kickstarted utility-scale renewable energy developments like the 390MW Ivanapah power tower, the 1000MW Blythe trough plant with storage, and the 110 MW Tonopah tower with storage.

The EU’s powerhouse economy Germany has increased the cumulative installed capacity of photovoltaics from 2900MW in 2006 to over 17000MW in 2010.

The German and Spanish feed-in tariffs provide a model for sustained expansion of renewable energy in Australia, as they create a truly level playing field for all renewables, and might help us leapfrog the costly and emissions-intensive shift to gas.

Rather than gamble on gas and risk billions of dollars worth of stranded assets in the electricity sector, policymakers can find confidence in research that shows renewable energy technologies are travelling quickly and predictably down cost curves.

In research commissioned by the government’s chief climate change advisor Ross Garnaut, we reviewed the current and future costs of renewables.

Comparing data from a range of international and Australian-specific studies, evidence suggests Australia’s current modelling on the cost of renewable energy technologies is out of date and overly conservative.

Renewable technologies are expected to decline in cost more rapidly than the Australian models predict.

A large proportion of cost reductions have come from the learnings and economies of scale associated with large-scale global deployment.

The sooner Australia gets on with the job of a large-scale roll out of these renewable energy sources, the faster the nation will benefit from the improved economics of these technologies.

Such efforts will help Australia and the globe make the carbon cuts needed to avoid runaway climate change.