As plans emerge for the development of a massive new “baseload” solar thermal and storage plant to “replace” coal in South Australia, a new report from WWF Australia has questioned the very concept of “baseload”, arguing that this model of power generation is made redundant by a 100% renewable energy grid.
The report, published on Wednesday, argues that Australia could completely and effectively replace the nation’s mostly coal-based “baseload” power generators by harnessing huge volumes of renewable energy – using existing technologies, including battery storage – distributed across the country.
“The reality is that electricity usage is variable, demand changes throughout the day and night, and Australia doesn’t need baseload power generation,” the report says.
“With key market reforms in place to manage the energy transition, Australians can comfortably let go of the mindset of ‘baseload’ and have confidence in a modern, reliable, renewable energy sector powering our future.”
This “mindset” that renewable energy technologies like solar PV and wind don’t “do baseload” due to the intermittent nature of the resource has long been a barrier to the wholesale shift to renewables.
Of course, the argument – most commonly touted by the fossil fuel industry and coal lobbyists, and sometimes even by proponents of solar thermal technology – is increasingly being undermined by the onset of cheaper and more efficient battery storage.
But regardless of the rise of energy storage, many energy market analysts and players argue that the entire model of baseload energy supply is being made redundant by the shift to cheap and easy distributed renewables and increasingly sophisticated energy management software.
Certainly this is the thinking in places like Denmark, which is a functioning example of modern energy supply without baseload. But it is also the thinking in China, which still has a huge reliance on coal-fired power.
As the report notes, and we have reported here before, that much is evident in the February comments of the chairman of the State Grid (China’s biggest network owner), who said there was “no technical challenge at all” preventing grids from running smoothly without baseload supply. “The only hurdle to overcome is mindset.”
In Germany, 50 Hertz, the company responsible for more than one-third of Germany’s electricity grid,
says there is no issue absorbing high levels of variable renewable energy such as wind and solar, and grids could absorb up to 70 per cent penetration without the need for storage.
And the message is the same: “It’s about the mindset,” said Boris Schucht, the company’s CEO. “Ten to 15 years ago when I was a young engineer, nobody believed that integrating more than 5 per renewable energy in an industrial state such as Germany was possible.”
In the region Schucht operates in, though, 46 per cent of the power supply comes from wind and solar. Next year it will be more than 50 per cent.
In Australia, meanwhile, the mindset remains stubbornly in place, and yet 100 per cent renewable energy has already become a reality over given periods in given states, including South Australia and Tasmania.
The report notes that the ACT will soon rely on 100% renewable energy, with its policy plans to achieve this by 2020 using a mix of wind and solar, and existing large hydro.
But the report also notes that to support this transition further, it is vital that Australia urgently review its energy market frameworks to integrate them with climate change policies.
This very idea – that National Electricity Market laws should include an environmental objective, to keep Australia’s grid more closely aligned with its Paris climate commitments and national efforts to cut power sector emissions – was, however, recently rejected by the federal government.
The recommendation, made by the Australian Greens as part of a federal government inquiry into the performance and management of electricity network, was aimed at addressing community concerns about rising electricity prices and the reasons behind them.
Labor has also promised a review into the National Electricity Market and its “objectives”, and wants environment to be included. Without it, Labor climate spokesman Mark Butler said earlier this week, the market is not fit for purpose and has no signal to decarbonise.
Which brings us back to mindset: “In Australia we are used to the idea of ‘baseload energy’ being the energy that ensures we can flick the lights on at any point in the night, but that’s old thinking,” said Adrian Enright, Climate Change Policy Manager at WWF-Australia.
“The problem is the bulk of our baseload energy comes from high polluting, ageing coal fired generators. Some of Australia’s existing baseload capacity was built before man first landed on the moon.
“To enjoy clean air and reduce carbon pollution Australia will need to shift to a modern, 21st Century model, powered by 100% renewable energy by 2035. This is possible, affordable and very popular.
In the lead up to the federal Election, WWF-Australia is calling on all parties to commit to a transition to 100% renewable electricity by 2035.