South Australia is expected to pass its 50 per cent renewable energy target next year – nearly a decade ahead of schedule – and the Labor government will now aim to get the state as close to 100 per cent renewable energy as possible.
Premier Jay Weatherill said in Paris on Monday that the state was leading the world in the incorporation of variable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, and hoped the knowledge gained would create a massive economic opportunity for a state struggling with the decline of long-term industries such as car manufacturing.
“We are running a big international experiment right now,” Weatherill said at the launch in Paris of the Compact of States and Regions, an initiative that will see 44 states and regions reduce their emissions by 12.4 tonnes by 2030.
“We have got a long, skinny transmission system and we will soon have 50 per cent renewable energy, including a lot of wind and some solar.
“We need technology breakthroughs for large-scale storage, such as pumped hydro or batteries, but these are massive technological challenges that are exciting opportunities for the state.”
South Australia does find itself at the cutting edge of the transition from a fossil-fuel based economy to an energy system dominated by technologies such as wind, solar and storage. Its last coal fired power generator is due to close in March next year.
The 50 per cent renewable energy target was formally announced last year, but was always going to be met well ahead of time – the addition of the Snowton 2 wind farm, the construction of the Hornsdale wind farm, and the growth in rooftop solar PV will take the state over that threshold in 2016.
Indeed, the Australian Energy Market Operator has forecast that all of the state’s daytime demand may on occasions be met by rooftop solar alone within the next decade.
It recently undertook scenario planning that suggested the state could reach close to 100 per cent renewable energy within two decades. In reality, the state is unlikely to go all the way to 100 per cent renewables, because it will likely find that electrification of transport is a bigger priority. But it could go close.
In an interview, later, with RenewEconomy, Weatherill said the state would now aim to get as close to 100 per cent renewable energy as it could, as part of its plan to attain zero net emissions by 2050, and attract $10 billion of investment to the state in the next decade.
“We want to get as close to 100 per cent renewable power as possible,” Weatherill said in the interview. “There will probably still need to be some small proportion of baseload power in the system for a period of time.
“But if we find an effective solution to storing energy from wind and solar and dispatching it at peak periods, then that will remove the need for baseload power and a fossil fuel energy source.”
That transition is likely to be closely scrutinised by the huge number of detractors, both by fossil fuel interests, the nuclear lobby and many in mainstream media, with even a recent outage caused by equipment failures blamed on the state’s reliance on wind energy.
Weatherill conceded that the state was taking risks, but indicated it had no real choice given the demise of traditional industries such as car manufacturing, and also given the huge opportunities in clean technology.
“We know there are challenges here,” Weatherill told RenewEconomy. “But with big risks, go big opportunities.
“The imperative is so strong for the planet, and also our state. Our state is at a point of transformation, so we have got to take risks to show what the future of community looks like.”
And with that, he said, go first mover opportunities.
“If we can solve (these issues) in South Australia, we can then help others. We are trying to turn this into an exciting challenge, rather than a burden.”
The state is also focusing on transport, looking to electrify its bus and private car network, and is keen to attract the interest of electric vehicle manufacturing.
It is about to conduct a tender for its fleet of 7,500 government vehicles, which could conceivably go to an electric vehicle manufacturer (the contract currently lies with General Motors Holden, which ceases manufacturing in the state in 2017), and it is looking at driver-less car technologies.
It is also supporting its capital city, Adelaide, in its push to become the first large carbon neutral city in the world – a target it hopes to achieve within a decade. Both the state government and the city council have pushed new incentives to encourage battery storage in homes and businesses. Weatherill has also called for tenders to ensure that his government’s own electricity demand is met entirely by renewable energy.
South Australia is also hosting a royal commission into the nuclear fuel cycle, but since the release of a new report late last month predicting that nuclear technology will cost more than twice as much as wind and solar in the next decades, the chance of nuclear power being built in South Australia, or even Australia, appears negligible.
“(Nuclear) may be not viable for South Australia, or our nation. But it may be viable for other countries who are building a frightening amount of (coal fired power stations),” Weatherill said.
Weatherill admitted there was resistance in some quarters, but the number of climate sceptics was reducing. (It should be noted that South Australia has its fair share of prominent sceptics in the likes of Senator Corey Bernardi, former Senator Nick Minchin and others).
On that point, it was interesting to note the comments by California Governor Jerry Brown at the joint press conference. Brown wants California to reach around 70 per cent renewable energy by 2030, and he says such plans are fiercely resisted by many in business and the powerful fossil fuel lobby.
“Decarbonising the global economy, or any economy, requires an heroic undertaking,” Brown said. “It has a lot of opposition.”
He pointed to the fossil fuel industry, sceptical and resistant people in the business community, and “elected officials who are in opposition or silent, and not willing to vote on regulatory policies needed to do the job.”
But Weatherill said many in business are now seeing decarbonisation as an opportunity.
“We want to attract those companies that have a low-carbon plan as part of their business objectives. And frankly they are being driven by their employees, who want that ethical offering.
“We see this as a way of attracting good people and great companies who want to be part of the high-tech innovative future for our state.
“We always believed there were massive advantages for first movers. Economies that make these adjustments earliest will reap the most benefits and avoid the worst costs.”
As for Australia’s federal government, which has still to announce any long-term renewables target, Weatherill said he was hoping for a co-operative environment rather than the “destuctive and negative” attitude towards climate change of the last few years.
“We know the present prime minister is supportive of such a scheme. He has just got to get his party to come along with him.”