100% renewables might be fantasy, but it’s what Australia is signing up for

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Australia reportedly excluded from “high ambition” meeting it pretended to be part of in Paris. Perhaps it’s time the Coalition started to take targets like 100% renewable energy seriously. After all, that is effectively what it is signing up for.

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Earlier this week, the Institute for Sustainable Futures in Sydney released a report that told us not only is 100 per cent renewable energy by 2030 possible – the Australian Energy Market Operator had already told us that – but it would also likely save us money.

But if you thought that the prospect of one of the most exciting and dramatic industrial revolutions taking place over the next decade would draw some interest from mainstream media and the political class – what with an election date announced the same day – then you would have been disappointed.

Instead, the stories published on RenewEconomy and The Guardian drew the same, repetitive diatribe from climate deniers, the coal lobby, nuclear boosters and right wing ideologues.

It’s a “fantasy” they say. And they perpetuated the same sort of myths espoused this week by the Northern Territory Treasurer – that renewables cause cables to “melt, collide and fail”– and that they will bring an end to modern civilisation. These and others myths are expertly dissected by UNSW energy expert Mark Diesendorf in this article today.

True, there are some who believe that targets such as 100 per cent renewable energy in defined time frames are unhelpful because they are so absolute, and appear dogmatic and unrealistic.

And there is a huge question-mark whether Australia could, as the ISF study suggests, install 4,500MW of solar each year (that is nearly the sum total of its installation to date), and if technologies such as hydrogen (to create renewable fuels) and ocean energy and geothermal will be ready and economic within the proposed time frames.

Certainly, such targets could not be met under the current Coalition government, which flails even Labor’s proposal for 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030 as an irresponsible, economy-ending policy, and which wants to remove the grants-based funding so essential to the roll-out of new technologies.

It is also doubtful that such targets could be met in a relatively small energy system dominated by a cabal of powerful incumbents and who appear to have the key regulators at their beck and call. They can’t stop new technology, but with changes to rules and tariffs, they can slow it down.

But if the Australian government looks carefully at the Paris climate agreement it is about to sign in New  York, then it will realise that it has effectively signed up for a target in the same ball-park as that envisaged by ISF, and more or less spelt out in the Greens’ energy policy. It may not be 100 per cent renewables by 2030, but it will not be far short.

Rapid de-carbonisation and net zero emissions are the calling cards of this agreement – and recent soaring temperatures, record low ice levels in the Arctic and the devastating bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef only put more urgency to the targets.

The Coalition, though, is pretending otherwise. As environment minister Greg Hunt prepared to fly to New York, to join 168 countries gathered to sign the treaty, and with the promise of ratifying it later this year, he once again hailed Australia’s modest emissions reduction target – 26-28 per cent reductions by 2030 – as a great gift to the world.

This, of course, is a nonsense. Any number of institutions have pointed out that if Australia’s efforts were reciprocated across the world, we would be heading for global warming closer to 4°C than the aspirational 1.5°C included in the Paris agreement.

Hunt, on ABC TV’s Lateline program, said that Australia is doing more than any other country on “per capita” reductions. But that is because it has done so little in the past 20 years. As The Climate Institute pointed out, if Australia meets its 2030 targets – and it still has no policy to do that – only Saudi Arabia will have higher per capita emissions.

This may explain why it seems that Australia has not been invited to the so called “High Ambition Coalition” meeting that is being held in the lead-up to the signing of the Paris pact.

This group includes the Marshall Islands, the United States, European Union, Mexico, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Norway, Brazil and a range of other developed and developing countries from around the world.

This group was instrumental in securing a more ambitious outcome in Paris by isolating countries, such as Saudi Arabia, that sought to weaken the outcome. The Australian government claimed membership of the group at the end of the Paris meeting but membership was always dependent on credentials.

So Hunt and his colleagues – including the tight cabal around prime minister Malcolm Turnbull who say the science is not settled (Senate leader George Brandis and National leaders Barnaby Joyce and Fiona Nash) should check the fine print.

The recent data – on emissions growth and average global warming – and the devastating impacts on the Great Barrier Reef highlights how little room there is to move.

The Paris agreement implies a strict carbon budget that may be exhausted by 2030. It does not allow for the increase in energy emissions Australia has posted since the carbon price was dumped, or the growth in overall emissions predicted by the government itself, or the building of new mega-mines in Queensland.

The Paris agreement calls for a rapid decarbonisation, and net zero emissions, and this was underlined by Christina Figueres, the secretary general of the UN climate body, the UNFCCC.

“The short 15 years to 2030 will need to deliver unprecedented outcomes in terms of global well-being and poverty eradication,” she said. “Nothing less will do than a massive global transformation to clean energy, restored lands and societies pre-proofed against existing climate change.”

And in a direct contradiction of the Coalition’s standard position that “coal will cure poverty and hunger”, the UN said: “More carbon in the atmosphere equals more poverty.”

The Climate Institute said Australia will attend the event with domestic policies that are delivering rising pollution, sluggish clean energy investment and no plan for net zero emissions.

“Australia urgently needs a plan to build an economy shifting towards net zero emissions,” CEO John Connor said. “That plan needs to replace coal burning power stations with clean energy over the next 20 years, as well as maximise opportunities in the growing global clean energy economy.”

That’s 20 years, or by 2036. In the end, it doesn’t matter much if 100 per cent renewables is ever reached at all, much less at a particular date. But a rapid decarbonisation means high penetration renewables, rapid phasing out of coal, and investment in “enabling technologies” such as battery storage.

As Stanford University’s Tony Seba has suggested, the rapid fall in technology costs – principally solar and battery storage and smart technologies – will make oil, coal and even gas all but redundant within 15 years.

Whether that happens or not in a short time-frame is largely dependent on the attitude and business models of the incumbents. The power of the incumbents, and the influence of the fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies, and the right wing ideologues amongst them, is a major barrier. As the head of the China grid told the Big Oil lobby in Texas last month, it’s a matter of culture and attitude. They are harder nuts to crack than the technology.

 

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16 Comments
  1. john 3 years ago

    What is need is a leader who can set a goal, rather like one who said ” Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country ”
    So replace the “country” with “Humanity” and that is the message I want to hear.
    Instead of using stored sun power; which FF is; use incoming sun power in all its guises, which if fully utilized has 23,000 times the energy requirement of earth per day.
    Sun, wind, wave and every aspect of the technology with appropriate hydro and storage both hydro or chemical.
    Yes a today cost, which looks high, however large reduced externalization penalties are avoided.
    The end result is an effort for humanity and directly a cost reduction that only gets better the longer the technology is in place.
    Look for ” childhood without seeing white clouds and stars ” to understand the Chinese perspective on externalize cost to society, and apologizes to John F. Kennedy foundation.
    I want a leader with vision not slogans or appeal to some subsection of society.
    Am i willing to take some pain in the transition ? Answer ” Did the sun come up this morning ?”

  2. Cooma Doug 3 years ago

    Thinking about this a great deal I often read the doubts about 100%. I saw one
    recently that talked about 70% as some kind of limit…..???
    From the point of view of grid management anything near 50% is in the finishing straight of the Melbourne cup.
    By the time we hit 40% across the nation, base load plant would already be the problem and the integration of more renewables the easiest solution. Indeed this is already the case.
    Coal plant and corrupt and or ignorant politicians are the problem.

    • solarguy 3 years ago

      Certainly no argument from Doug!

    • Nick Thiwerspoon 3 years ago

      70% without storage. But 100% with storage–which may come from an unexpected source. A Tesla stores enough electricity to power the average US home for a week, an average Ozzie home for 5 days.

      • Cooma Doug 3 years ago

        The average US home in 5 days will use 80kwh.

      • Smurf1976 3 years ago

        Don’t forget that US homes also use a lot of gas and oil which, if we’re going renewable, will need to shift to electricity or some other means.

        • Nick Thiwerspoon 3 years ago

          Indeed

  3. SM 3 years ago

    With Greg Hunt as Minister for ‘Selling the Australian Climate Policy Vision’ we’re never going to move sensibly forward. Hopefully the election will deliver us a new Minister !

    • Ken Dyer 3 years ago

      Dont hold your breath. Down here in the Flinders electorate, voters would elect a tailors dummy if it had a blue tie. Oh, that’s right, they did last time, didn’t they? He holds his seat with 9% margin. The only way you will get a new minister at the next election is to kick the Turnbott government out! Meanwhile Hunt and his collegues continue to wreck the country I love. Shame!

      • solarguy 3 years ago

        Perhaps even crime of the century, rather than shame!

    • solarguy 3 years ago

      It can happen if you vote for the right party.

  4. Radbug 3 years ago

    With the Pilbara & the Nullarbor, and their proximity to port facilities, plus their southern hemisphere, contra-seasonal, position, Australia, Namibia, and Chile stand to become the Solar Methanol “OPEC” of the 21st century. I did a back-of-envelope calculation: a 400GW installation will need 11,500 tonnes of silver in its PV panels. Silver-impregnated graphene ribbons MAY be the solution, but … work is on-going. Also, a non-precious metal electrolysis electrode. Moly sulphide MAY be the solution, but … work is on-going. Giles, there are serious IP rewards on offer to the team that clears this pair of roadblocks. Now that the PBOC has indicated that it will not exchange $US for yuan once the yuan gets gold backing, this country will either have to export much more or just get bought up, lock, stock and barrel. It will no longer be able to pay for its gargantuan trade deficits with US fiat dollars. As of 19th April, when the Shanghai Gold Fix went live, Climate Change Denial now equals national bankruptcy.

    • nakedChimp 3 years ago

      Hey, that’s some interesting news.

      • Radbug 3 years ago

        On 18th April, the first Korean/Japanese methanol-fuelled 50K tonne tanker vessel was delivered to Marinvest & on-leased to Waterfront Shipping Co. This vessel, the “Taranaki (something)”, is the first of three of its kind. The ship uses MAN B&W ME-LGI two-stroke dual-fuel engines that can run on methanol & classical heavy oil. “When operating on methanol, the ME-LGI significantly reduces emissions of CO2, NOx, & SOx. Patrick Mossberg, Chair of Marinvest, said, “This is just the beginning of our investment in this clean, innovative, marine technology. ps. Marine emissions are around 4% of total global emissions & European container port cities want to ban all ships that come in & blanket their cities with their filthy diesel dust. Marinvest has gotten the message.

  5. Rob 3 years ago

    Vote Greens!

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