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Carbon tax dumped: how do we get to 100% renewable energy?

The Federal Government has sparked significant debate with the confirmation it intends to move from a fixed carbon price to an emissions trading scheme next year. But where is the description of the long…

It’s hard to imagine a future without fossil fuel, but sound modelling can help. Dave Clarke

The Federal Government has sparked significant debate with the confirmation it intends to move from a fixed carbon price to an emissions trading scheme next year. But where is the description of the long term, low carbon future for Australia? Aside from the 90% renewable energy target proposed by the Greens, the major parties are slim on long-term vision.

International experience suggests that when we start talking about long term futures, it can dramatically shift debate towards a long term vision. It’s particularly important to outline those futures that are most different from the present, so that they can be clearly understood.

The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) recently released a landmark report showing that shifting to 100% renewable electricity is a feasible and affordable option for the Australian National Electricity Market. Coming from the highly conservative body responsible for “keeping the lights on”, this carries a hefty credibility.

The operator’s modelling shows that a 100% renewable power system could be installed for around a 20‑30% increase from present retail electricity prices. In the context of rising fuel prices and mounting pressure to reduce greenhouse emissions, the cost of a 100% renewable power system could be similar to what we would be paying for electricity anyway by around the year 2030.

But a 100% renewable system is very different from the one we currently operate. We currently source only around 10% of Australia’s electricity from renewables.

The energy market operator’s modelling of a 100% renewable future has already significantly shifted the debate within industry. Seen as “crazy talk” only a few years ago, 100% renewable scenarios are now being discussed as genuine and valid options by an increasing number of industry organisations.

But this dramatic mind-shift is at risk of stagnating. The rapid development of renewable energy technologies means results from this modelling will date rapidly. For the 100% renewables option to stay on the table we need to update the modelling regularly. This makes sure our leaders are well informed of all the options, and the market understands all possible futures in which they might be operating.

Familiarity bias and institutional barriers often make it hard to consider alternatives based upon radical changes in technology, and this is particularly prevalent in the electricity industry. Often, the very methods we use limit possible outcomes, potentially ruling out entire technology classes.

This certainly applies in the recent modelling conducted by the electricity operator. The existing models for routine long term planning could not deal with large quantities of wind and photovoltaics. The operator had to develop a whole new model.

When the electricity market operator is making long term projections it has to look beyond the three year political cycle and be guided by hard science. It should consider a range of scenarios in line with Australia’s international commitments to do our “fair share” of limiting global warming to 2°C.

We have to consider and plan for rapid trajectories for emissions reduction as one of a range of futures that may eventuate. This informs our leaders and helps market participants make effective decisions about large investments.

The energy market operator has invested substantial time and effort in developing the modelling tools and methodologies to make this study possible. We should keep using them: the ongoing expense is likely to be very modest in the context of the investment we need to address all the challenges the electricity industry faces.

The modelling is vital to properly understanding the limitations, costs, risks and opportunities of the full range of options on the table. We are, after all, talking about Australia’s energy future. Decisions made now will affect our nation for generations to come.

Beyond modelling, how would we get to this 100% renewable future in reality? Many policy mechanisms are available – we could expand and extend the Renewable Energy Target as suggested by the Greens, or we could ensure stable carbon prices at a sufficiently high level.

Other nations have also applied utility scale feed-in tariffs to great effect, similar to that now being put in place to drive solar development in the ACT.

In the short term debate on the carbon price, let’s not forget about the long term vision. Policy makers have a great opportunity to inexpensively shift debate by asking the electricity market operator to continue modelling 100% renewables scenarios in the years to come.

This is an essential first step to get us there.

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53 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Cm

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    I don't know if it's wise to continue on the 'renewables only' goal for dealing with climate change, the main goal should be decarbonisation of the energy sector.

    The need to decarbonise is too urgent to limit ourselves to a small suite of technologies in my opinion.

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Paul Cm

      The AEMO report considered a range of technologies. Biogas, Hydro (incl. pumped hydro), CST, PV (utility), PV (rooftop), Wind, Bagasse, Wave, Biomass, Geothermal

      I assume you a referring to nuclear although you do not say - is this now the technology that "dare not speak its name"?

      I notice that Mark Duffet below links to a pro-nuke site without disclosing the fact - is this a new strategy?

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    2. Paul Cm

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      That doesn't necessarily mean nuclear Mike, but yes that is one technology that has been excluded.

      The real point - as I said - is that I believe it to be more wise to focus on decarbonisation with any and all technologies available.

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      I think the key word here is "Convincingly"

      ie. you didn't find it convincing, not that it wasn't objectively convincing

      In the same way that a young earth creationists doesn't find evolution convincing

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    2. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Did you read the link I posted, and evaluate it on its own merits despite Mike Hansen's bizarre fixation with the IP address it emanates from? The lion's share of baseload in the AEMO scenario is slated to come from geothermal - yet one of the leading geothermal outfits in Australia (Petratherm) has just announced they are putting further investment on hold in favour of exploring for fossil gas. How can you not see what is wrong with this picture?

      I dispute every assertion in your last sentence (to state they are 'simple facts' is flat-out wrong). The last is subjective by definition, but to the extent is largely down to the efforts of those such as yourself to make it so. I refuse to concede the field to irrationality.

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    1. Doug Hutcheson

      Poet

      In reply to Michael Shand

      More Power to the greens' approach to dealing with global warming, but I'm not sold on other aspects of their political platform. Maybe things will get bad enough that even their unpalatable policies will 'get up' because they offer the only credible solution to decarbonising the energy supply. Sigh.

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    2. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Doug Hutcheson

      The Greens have some great policies but no one party can accurately represent any of us.

      The underlying problem here is the 2 party preferred system, we need a mixed member representation system where even if you don't get the majority of the vote you still get a say in policies

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  2. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    Good point about the public discussion being limited. Here is a good website/group that promotes what appears to be a credible "ten year roadmap for 100% renewable energy":

    http://bze.org.au/zero-carbon-australia-2020

    Hard to really discuss this without good understanding of the stakeholders, and while some people have this understanding, to a person like me, with limited industry knowledge, the inflexibility appeared to be that there are entrenched commercial interests, inhibiting the structural changes needed in the market. Complex problem...

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    1. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Craig Myatt

      " website/group that promotes what appears to be a credible "ten year roadmap for 100% renewable energy": "
      Come on Craig, who do they think they are kidding oyjr than themselves?
      Are there a heap of engineers with power and construction industry experience in that group?

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    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Greg North

      Craig has given you a link. You could always tear yourself away from the climate crank blogs for a few minutes and look yourself. What is it with climate science deniers and their inability to do research?

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    3. Greg North

      Retired Engineer

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      The Zero Carbon mob have been around for a while Mike and I've read some of the stuff previously, all studies modelling etc. and hardly a skeric of practicality re scales of construction and practicality.

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    4. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      A link, yes, here are some others detailing the fundamental flaws of the BZE '100% renewables' model:

      http://theenergycollective.com/barrybrook/43114/another-zero-carbon-australia-2020-critique-%E2%80%93-will-they-respond

      http://bravenewclimate.com/2010/08/12/zca2020-critique/ (BEWARE! HOSTED BY A SITE THAT IS PREPARED TO CONSIDER ALL DECARBONISATION OPTIONS INCLUDING NUCLEAR!)

      An alternative look at decarbonisation is Australia that is prepared to consider ALL the options is at http://www.zerocarbonoptions.com/

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    5. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      That would be the same website that hosts climate science denier and anti-renewables fanatic Peter Lang.

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  3. Greg North

    Retired Engineer

    I do not think I would be putting too much faith in a landmark report and any modelling that emanates from it when it starts if with
    " No Reliance or warranty - This document or the information it refers to may be subsequently
    updated or amended. While AEMO has made every effort to ensure the quality of the
    information in this document, AEMO does not warrant or represent that it is accurate, reliable,
    complete or current or that it is suitable for particular purposes. In particular, the findings…

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    1. Jeremy Hall

      PhD student

      In reply to Greg North

      I'm sure you can cherry-pick better than that Greg. If I wanted to read the whole report I'd have clicked on the link myself.
      Understanding and acknowledging its own shortcomings is one of the hallmarks of any serious model. The bits you've emphasised show that there's a long way to go, but they add weight to the final conclusions.

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  4. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    Perhaps the author can tell us who the industry organisations are that she refers to in her following comment, 'Seen as “crazy talk” only a few years ago, 100% renewable scenarios are now being discussed as genuine and valid options by an increasing number of industry organisations.'

    I can think of no sensible, logical, methodical person let alone a reputable industry organisation who would postulate that Australia could provide 100% of its power from renewable sources within the next 50 years.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      The conservative futurist - the future will be exactly the same as today (or if not that exactly the same as the 1950s).

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    2. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Really Gerard?

      I know a lot of sensible. logical and methodical people and reputable industry organisations who postulate that commerical fusion reactors will be available in less that 50 years.

      Want to bet against them?

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    3. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Trevor S

      Trevor

      You may be correct, but I think it is still an open question and there are views both ways. I saw an interesting TV show on the issue the other day, and every fusion scientist predicted that it would be within 50 years - but they may be wrong as well. Here is the link to the program if you are interested.

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00hr6bk

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  5. Gerard Dean

    Managing Director

    I also note that the author attended the totally useless climate change conference in Copenhagen. I understand the trip was made courtesy of that old standby, JetA1 fossil fuel.

    My point is a serious one, If the author claims we should move to 100% renewables in the next few years, how does she think we are going to keep flying around the world to academic conferences and holidays in view that there is no renewable jet fuel. Not now, not in 10 years time, maybe by the 2050 at the earliest.

    Until then, all concerned climate change believers should holiday in a caravan park in Geelong.

    Gerard Dean

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    1. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Thanks for the advice Gerard but best you stick to doing what you do best - studying Andrew Bolt's blog and denying climate science.

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    2. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to Gerard Dean

      Sorry to disappoint you Gerard by air travel accounts for less than 3 per cent of global emissions - and falling as design and fuel improves.

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    3. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Ian Alexander

      Yep a tent or caravan in the backyard makes more sense. The awful caravans and winibago things I have to contend with on the P.H. when I go to town. The highways crawling with them, all looking at paradise out the window.

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    4. Mike Swinbourne

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Ian Alexander

      I would put Gerard more in the category of a galah, who can only repeat one phrase over and over again.

      Jet A-1. Ahhhh. Ahhhhhhhhh.

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    5. Trevor S

      Jack of all Trades

      In reply to John Newton

      What did G Monbot have to say on that
      http://www.monbiot.com/2006/02/28/we-are-all-killers/

      "As far as climate change is concerned, this is an utter, unparalleled disaster. It’s not just that aviation represents the world’s fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. The burning of aircraft fuel has a “radiative forcing ratio” of around 2.7(11). What this means is that the total warming effect of aircraft emissions is 2.7 times as great as the effect of the carbon dioxide alone. The water…

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    6. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to Trevor S

      "The water vapour they produce forms ice crystals in the upper troposphere (vapour trails and cirrus clouds) which trap the earth’s heat."

      At least when flying stops, the water vapour it produces and the subsequent clouds will disappear within a few months.

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  6. ian cheong

    logged in via email @acm.org

    seriously? please explain what technologies will be used to time shift renewable energy to meet peak demand. perhaps a real world functioning example and projections of mass production cost reductions over time.

    the 20-30% more expensive figure sounds like fairy land.

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    1. ian cheong

      logged in via email @acm.org

      In reply to ian cheong

      on reflection, we have the technology now to make an international electricity market. all we have to do is transmit solar electricity from the sunny side to the darker parts.

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    2. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to ian cheong

      Baseload provided by distributed wind/biogas or perhaps with some baseload biomass or deep geothermal if it is cheaper.

      Daytime peaking with PV. Evening peaking with solar thermal / heat storage or biogas depending which is cheaper.

      20-30% is retail price increases. Generation costs are currently quite a small portion of retail prices (around 25%) so an increase of generation costs to $120-$130 /MWh only leads to retail prices increasing by 20-30%.

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  7. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    As folks like PaulM sya, the 'solution' isn't 'renewables', because only one is -- local solar PV/hot-water.

    The carbon footprints and land & species destruction of others, like the silly windmills pictured above, make them anything but "renewable".

    We've had people aware of the problem and designing solutions for decades. Surprise? http://tinyurl.com/6xgpkfa

    Had JFK's plans not been misdirected by Nixon & Carter, we'd likely have eliminated combustion power by about 2000. Imagine what…

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    1. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Tandra Lenley

      You need to explain why. The list of papers proves what? To propose proof of something you need to propose something, with the appropriate research to back it up, then have the proposal submitted for peer review with proof, (studies), to be scrutinised by peer scientists, and subsequent endorsements.
      A list of "sceptical "green" energy peer reviewed papers, working list" by Popular Technology explains nothing, unless there is a conclusion and it has been tested for validity.
      Why has the word green been marked with quotation marks?
      Define "working list", what work?
      Does popular technology ever submit anything to anybody, or is it a website devoted to confusion, dog-whistling, bias, and fools.

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    2. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Popular Technology is a website run by the infamous climate science denier Andrew Khan aka PopTech who in real life is a phone computer support person.

      His thing used to be how MS IE was a better browser than Firefox but morphed into climate crankism which apparently gives his website more hits.

      http://rabett.blogspot.com.au/2013/02/rtfr-pops.html

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    3. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Mike Hansen

      Thanks Mike, I had a run-in with the man on the weekend, and the hackles are still extended. I wonder if he'll pop up when Tandras shift is done. Sure it's arguing with same old, and like M.L. pointless, but still a reasonable thing to do. With your input Mike, extra context, for all to read.

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  8. Neil Gibson

    Retired Electronics Design Engineer

    How we get to 100% renewable energy. The simple answer is we don't unless most of the energy is nuclear.
    It is easy to check how the UK disastrous foray into wind power is going by monitoring the output of 8,5GW of useless environment-destroying bird mincers at http://www.gridwatch.templar.co.uk/. How many thousands of homes is this not powering.

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    1. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Neil Gibson

      Neil, your statement is not complete. It is not a disastrous proposal for Scotland. Where it would be highly effective. And given that the distance to the south is not great, highly feasible for some sharing, with money involved. The UK energy market needs more transformation to be effective, and I have no doubt this will occur.
      https://theconversation.com/its-advantage-scotland-when-it-comes-to-wind-power-15900

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    2. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      It's only remotely feasible for Scotland because it already has massive built-in storage in the form of hydro (but nowhere near enough for the whole UK). This is not a practical option for Australia.

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    3. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      Australia is a much larger land mass and hence can distribute turbines over a much larger area to reduce the overall fluctuations.

      The AEMO study did find potential sites for further pumped storage in Australia (Appendix 4).

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    4. Wil B

      B.Sc, GDipAppSci, MEnvSc, Environmental Planner

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      And you know what you mean when you say "distribute turbines over a much larger area". You mean that we will have high voltage lines criss-crossing the landscape, at hideous expense, ruining the countryside, significant transmission losses, and a major overbuild of turbines.

      Wouldn't it be simpler to build a small number of large concentrated low carbon energy facilities near where the infrastructure already exists?

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    5. Gary Murphy

      Independent Thinker

      In reply to Wil B

      Hideous expense? No. Wind generation is viable at around $100 / MWh. Gas backup adds around $10. Transmission line costs add another $10-$20.

      Building nuclear would not be simple at all. You need to consider fuel enrichment / reprocessing and waste management facilities. As well as large water requirements and huge political / siting difficulties.

      Recently in the US they had to shut down nuclear reactors in a heat wave. Would that be the case for reactors in Australia? If so then they would need gas backup capacity as well.

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    6. Chris O'Neill

      Victim of Tony Abbotts Great Big New Tax

      In reply to Gary Murphy

      "Recently in the US they had to shut down nuclear reactors in a heat wave."

      The reactors could have been left running quite happily but they weren't allowed to heat the cooling water beyond a regulated temperature.

      "Would that be the case for reactors in Australia?"

      Only if the cooling system wasn't designed properly.

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