Australia has a credible path to a low carbon grid. Why won’t the Coalition embrace it?


Don’t believe the nonsense that you might read from conservative commentators, and in too much of the mainstream media, that having a high renewables grid will be the path to economic ruin.

The federal Coalition government used to say much the same thing. Prime minister Scott Morrison last year said Labor’s 50 per cent renewable energy target for 2030 would “wreck the economy” and make Julia Gillard’s carbon price look like a mosquito bite. “Their targets depend, in fact they rely, on shutting industry and businesses down; you can’t achieve that any other way,” Morrison said at the time.

Oh, really? Curiously, as RenewEconomy reported last year, and as is now being more widely acknowledged, the very same Coalition government changed tack late last year when it released figures that assumed Australia, under its stewardship, would reach 50 per cent renewables by 2030. Just by doing not very much at all.

No talk now of economic ruin, or soaring electricity prices. The clean energy transition is underway, led in no small part by homeowners and businesses, who will likely double, or even treble the amount of rooftop solar on their premises, changing their homes and places of work into potential “virtual power plants” (VPPs) that can provide added services to the grid.

So, if the Coalition can admit that we can get to 50 per cent renewables by 2030 with little effort, or added cost, where might we get to by 2040? The Coalition is presumably too terrified of its own right wing rump, the fossil fuel industry and the Murdoch media to say it out loud, but the answer is pretty obvious.

In its Integrated System Plan, the proposed 20-year blueprint for the future of Australia’s electricity grid, the Australian Energy Market Operator spells it out clearly: By 2041/42, even under its “central scenario” of current policies, Australia’s main grid will be supplied 73 per cent by renewable energy.

In other scenarios, it is much higher. Its “high DER” scenario, where households and businesses embrace rooftop solar, battery storage, electric vehicles and VPPs at a faster rate than expected, the ratio of renewables is 74 per cent. In a technology led scenario, featuring a greater fall in wind and solar costs than expected, the ratio ends up being 79 per cent.

In the “step change” scenario, where policy makers make a conscious effort to take the advice of the experts and scientists and seek to do their share of trying to limit average global warming to 1.5°C, the ratio of renewables in Australia’s main grid is 89 per cent.

See: AEMO maps out path to 90 per cent renewables for Australia by 2040

By then, Tasmania, of course, is already sourcing all of its electricity needs from renewables, and exporting a lot of excess wind energy to Victoria. South Australia, another state with a Liberal government and a plan to reach “net 100 per cent” renewables by 2030, has done just that and is also exporting excess wind and solar power by 2041/42.

Source: AEMO

And NSW, currently the state with the biggest share of coal in the country, and the oldest and creakiest generators, has also reached 100 per cent renewables by 2041/42. See the table above, all NSW’s electricity generation comes from wind, rooftop and large scale solar, storage in the form of pumped hydro, batteries and VPPs, and traditional hydro.

Remarkably, according to the AEMO scenario, this means that it will be the three states currently led by conservative governments that will reach 100 per cent renewables first.

And, it should be pointed out, the costs of this last scenario are not much different than where we are heading in any case. As AEMO has pointed out on many an occasion, the country’s coal-fired generators are getting old and unreliable, and money needs to be spent on replacing them. The cheapest alternative is clearly wind, solar, and a mixture of storage and other “dispatchable” capacity.

AEMO doesn’t suggest what the wholesale price of electricity will be by 2041/42, but its estimated “system costs” are just a fraction of those “multi-trillion” dollar estimates often bandied around mainstream media. See our story:

Economist Ross Garnaut has said on many occasions that the country could reach 100 per cent renewables by the early 2030s and have a cost of wholesale electricity lower than what we have now. Others agree, and there is not a single major utility in the country that disputes the cost savings from renewables, even if some differ on the timing of the transition.

Garnaut and others say we can go further, pointing to the possibilities of “green hydrogen”, sourced from vast wind and solar arrays that could deliver Australia “700 per cent” renewables – according to ARENA boss – and deliver lower costs and huge economic opportunities at the same time. See also: Energy Insiders Podcast: 100% renewables? Let’s do 700% renewables!

A series of major projects, including the proposed 10GW solar farm and battery storage in the Northern Territory, backed by billionaires Michael Cannon-Brookes and Twiggy Forrest, along with the 15GW Asia Renewable Energy Hub, and another 5GW project north of Perth, are all exploring the possibilities.

Source: AEMO

The key message from AEMO’s ISP is that they are many scenarios that could evolve, but serious emissions reductions, and cost reductions, are attainable. But it does need a plan, otherwise the transition will continue to bump into the hurdles and bottlenecks that are now being experienced in the sector.

What’s the Coalition government doing about it? Shutting its eyes mostly. Morrison talks about “changes” to climate policies, but these do not include any move to raise the Coalition’s weak ambition. Major newspapers paint a picture of horrendous costs of wind and solar.

See our story: $5 trillion? For a business daily, the AFR has a lousy grip on energy numbers

Energy minister Angus Taylor, known mostly for talking down wind and solar, and under scrutiny over his attacks on the City of Sydney and other matters, is promoting gas.

Just before Christmas, Taylor unveiled deals to underwrite the costs of two “fast-start” gas generators in Queensland, where no one can actually see the need for one, and another in Victoria.

That fact that Taylor has more shortlisted projects that could also receive funding is preventing others from making decisions about their own plans, and commitments to pumped hydro, battery storage and other fast-start generators will likely be delayed until Taylor makes a decision. And he is clearly in no hurry.

Meanwhile, wind and solar projects are being delayed, curtailed, or dissuaded from construction, largely because of the lack of planning that has marked six years of Coalition government, more interested in tearing down policies than creating new ones.

Taylor, meanwhile, is taking what we might call the “Lomborg” defence, hinting at plans to provide funds to explore up to 100 alternative renewable energy technologies. It all comes from the Bjorn Lomborg doctrine of obfuscation and delay – deny that the technologies that can do the job are already at hand, and insist more money should be spent on R&D before deployment.

The real experts, however, tell us we have the technologies to achieve quick and significant emissions cuts, just as the climate scientists insist we must. There is really no excuse for not seizing the moment.



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