University researches and academics do not typically move this quickly: the cadence of their work is usually dictated by the need for detailed analysis, papers and conference presentations.
But when an ACT research team led by Andrew Blakers and Matthew Stocks this month announced the result of research about the shift to renewables and its impact on emissions, they were quick to respond.
Blakers and Stocks’ research came to two conclusions that are important to the current debate about the energy transition: mainly that shifting to 100 per cent renewables is technically feasible, and at the current rates of deployment, enough wind and solar could be built by 2032, just 13 years away.
They were not particularly controversial observations, but given the constant push back by conservatives, ideologues and fossil fuel promoters that a 100% renewables is impossible, and repeated assertions that wind and solar can never be built quick enough, they were important points to make.
What upset their colleagues, and which provoked such a rapid response in social and mainstream media, was the claim that this transition was largely achievable if the government “got out of the way” and could actually deliver the country’s Paris commitment for economy-wide emissions reduction targets 5 years early.
The colleagues argued that not only do they have their numbers wrong, it also gives the impression that the government could do nothing and still make their Paris targets. ANU climate change expert Frank Jotzo, in these pages, and Bill Hare, in The Guardian, both made this point forcefully.
Sure enough, within hours of the initial research, energy minister Angus Taylor and otherwise invisible environment minister Melissa Price had issued a statement claiming that the government was “on track” to meet its emissions reductions by 2025, thanks to an investment boom created by a policy mechanism that their government tried to kill.
This, from a government with no forward policy on renewables and emissions, and a minister seemingly determined to stop any new investment in wind and solar, was breath-taking hypocrisy even in a political word sadly inured to such lies and deception.
The researchers, including Blakers, Stock, Jotzo and more than 40 other academics, local and international experts, regulators and government representatives, have now grouped together – following a three-day symposium in Canberra – to argue that yes, a quick transition towards 100 per cent renewables is possible and it will play a central role in emissions reductions.
But, and this is a very big but, it does need a plan, and a carefully drawn one at that.
It is not sufficient, they say, to simply build enough wind and solar to meet the supply needs of the economy. Market reform is desperately needed to keep up with technology changes and reflect the different capabilities of the new equipment.
Obviously, more investment in storage is also needed, but this needs to be co-ordinated. More demand response is also required, and so too is investment electricity transmission, and there are emerging bottlenecks, and market settings are not delivering for consumers.
“In recent times the Australian energy sector has deployed solar and wind power at unprecedented rates,” the group of 45 researchers and energy experts say in a joint statement.
“While action is also required in other sectors of the economy to achieve deep emissions cuts, a sustained shift from fossil fuels to solar and wind power is absolutely necessary for Australia to meet and surpass our 2030 emissions target.
“The shift to 100% renewables will be accompanied by the inevitable phasing out of existing coal power plants. Achieving a smooth transition will require careful attention to coal power workers, their communities and energy consumers.”
Jotzo told RenewEconomy that the three-day symposium included a “stellar cast” of researchers, industry representatives, regulators, network operators, and international experts. (RenewEconomy contributor david Leitch, from ITK Consulting, was there for a couple of sessions and wrote this piece last week: “Why 50 per cent renewables by 2030 is such an easy target”.
He said wind could account for 40 per cent of Australia’s generation by 2040. “Without a energy policy, don’t expect a smooth ride.”
The symposium also heard from Stanford University’s Mary Cameron, who presented research on the global shift to renewables, using wind, solar and water for electricity, transportation, heating and cooling, and industry.
“Transitioning to 100 per cent WWS (water, wind solar,) in all energy sectors is technically and economically possible,” Cameron said. “The main barriers are social and political.”
“The symposium offered a very optimistic picture of what can be done,” Jotzo says.
“There is agreement among all these experts that renewables will carry the day in Australia, that’s for sure. The international experts are crystal clear about where the journey is going in australia … it is in renewables.”
Jotzo says the focus of the discussions was about what need to happen to bring these technologies together. There are bottlenecks in transmission investment (which regulators may be seeking to ease given their response to the latest proposal), and uncertainty about storage investments, with any decision on Snowy 2.0 to influence many investments.
But a major focus was about the regulatory environment and the need for reform of the National Electricity Market, whose rules still take no account of environmental outcomes.
“There were some strong views about the inadequacy of market and regulatory settings,” Jotzo says, noting that stable policy was also needed, either in the form of a modified National Energy Guarantee, an emissions intensity scheme, or a clean energy target.
“There were also some issues around market power around incumbent coal generators and how that may play out for the transition to renewables,” Jotzo says.
The conclusions were that it was not quite as simple as asking the government to get out of the way. If anything, a lack of action could impede progress and create particularly messy transition.
“The purpose of the statement was to make it clear publicly that the (transition to renewables) is not going to happen by itself. Most people are quite concerned that to make it clear can’t just sit back and relax and put a tick to it.”