$240 billion cuppa: Plan for Australia’s future electricity grid

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By 2050, electricity used to boil a kettle could be generated by over 20 different sources. How are we preparing for this huge grid transformation?

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Next time you boil the kettle in your kitchen or office, have a think about this: over 90 per cent of the electricity used today is being generated by coal and gas. By 2050, when you do the same thing – make a cuppa – the electricity you use could be generated by over 20 different energy sources and technologies.

That’s a big change.

In some future scenarios we could be looking at an even split between renewable and conventional coal and gas power stations – with some potentially using carbon capture and storage technologies, significantly decreasing our carbon emissions.

“So what,” I hear you say? “As long as I can make that cuppa, right?”

Wrong. What if you had $240 billion dollars to spend to give the electricity sector the makeover it needs to help with the transition to a much more diverse mix of 20 plus energy technologies? This is the challenge facing Australia’s electricity sector today and it has been coined the ‘energy transformation’, a transformation not seen since the industrial revolution.

There are many factors fuelling this transformation; including the take up of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels and the steadily decreasing prices of new low emission technologies, including PV.

Households are becoming energy generators. One in 10 Australian homes now has solar panels installed; totalling 17,354,018 metres squared of PV power generation. This is called distributed generation and poses challenges to the electricity grid because predictable energy demanders (consumers) are suddenly changing their energy consumption behaviour. The electricity grid must learn to operate as a ‘transaction enabler’ for these new generators rather than simply a one way delivery system.

The increasing take-up of PV and other new technologies is driven by dramatic price reductions. PV has halved in price since 2008 and wind farms have increased tenfold in just a decade. The main implication is that renewables are much more commercially viable. The key question now is not whether renewable will ever make up a significant part of our electricity supply, but how will we best manage that transition given they are so different to the existing supply from conventional gas and coal fired power.

Decisions around investment and policy need to be made soon so that by 2050 when we are making that refreshing cup of Earl Grey, we are boiling the kettle using electricity generated from the most cost competitive, low emission energy sources possible.

The future of Australia’s electricity supply and the electricity grid is something CSIRO is exploring through the Future Grid Forum and the Future Grid Research Cluster.

The Future Grid Forum is an Australian first collaboration that brings together the entire electricity sector – over 40 electricity generators, distributors, transmission service providers, retailers, regulators, government, consumer and environment groups – to create a road map for the future of the electricity sector. The Road Map will be released at the end of 2013.

Building on the Forum, in May 2013 CSIRO launched a new $13 million research collaboration, the Future Grid Cluster. Four universities – University of Sydney, University of Newcastle, University of Queensland and University of NSW – will work with CSIRO to develop a suite of tools to understand, develop and optimise energy grids of the future.

So, we have it all in hand I guess. Now, time to make that cuppa.

Dr Luke Reedman is a Senior Research Scientist at the CSIRO. A version of this article was also published on [email protected]. Reproduced with permission

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4 Comments
  1. suthnsun 6 years ago

    “So, we have it all in hand I guess.” A surprisingly depressing comment. I guess it feeds into long term gut level frustration that Australians will talk and study endlessly spending time and dollars.
    Yet (or hence?) we have no agreed big picture strategy which gets us where we need to be and the time frames are collapsing as we speak. The contrast with some other countries is very stark.

  2. Keith 6 years ago

    How come carbon capture and storage gets a mention? Given that new coal is already more expensive than new solar, how could coal + CCS possibly compete on price as CCS adds at least 30% to costs? Any CCs technologies carry the risk that the stored CO2 will escape some time in the future. So it is time to just say that we are approaching the end of coal.

    Suthsun, I agree with you. Existing solar and wind will get us a long way (already demonstrated in South Australia) so time to get on with it. I’m sceptical that leaving the planning to the existing fossil fuel mob (who control the shots now) is the way to do it. That’s just a recipe for obfuscation and delay.

    By 2050 we need to be long past any fossil fuel contribution or it won’t be a happy future.

  3. Louise 6 years ago

    It is absolutely irrational and absurd to spend $240 billion dollars on the grid when the money would provide far better results if it were invested in making every structure in Australia an off-grid/energy autonomous structure.

    The grid fantasy is a path back in time. We might as well go back to horse draw carriages.

    In Germany large industrial complexes/companies are in the process of installing their very own large scale PV power plants or wind turbines, as it is more economical, calculated over the life of the system, to go off-grid.

    The illusion that we need the grid is rapidly evaporating.
    An expensive illusion I might add.

  4. Louise 6 years ago

    If you build new buildings/residential subdivisions, then it is cheaper to build island/off-grid energy autonomous buildings than to continue the old way of laying cables to houses.

    The old way is becoming rapidly functionally obsolete.

    It costs approximately $20,000 dollars per dwelling if you build a new residential subdivision and put cables in the ground.

    If the developer of a residential subdivision would purchase PV equipment the houses could be electrified permanently for the same amount of money.

    If you were to order 1000 times 10kW PV panels and inverters you could be purchasing at high volume wholesale price, which is as low as US$0.45 FOB per watt for PV panels and US$110 FOB per kW inverter capacity, and have the goods ship to an Australian port.

    After adding up all the accumulating costs involved and added the 10% GST you would end up with a price of less than Au$7500 dollars for 10kW PV panels and inverters.

    You would still have the cost of installing the equipment.

    How much does that cost?

    Total cost . equipment cost . installation cost
    $20,000 minus $7,500 equals $12,500.

    Even if the cost of installation were to cost $12,500 dollars to install a 10kW solar system, (the gold plated price), it would be as expensive as providing the electricity connection to a residential home.

    The difference is the energy self-sufficient house would not have the quarterly electricity bills that the grid connected house has.

    There is something seriously wrong with the way we keep insisting on propping up regional monopolies.

    Go 100% renewables now, not in 100 years from now.

    .

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