It’s time Australia got serious about shift to 100% renewables

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The transition to 100% renewables is still not taken seriously by many in the energy industry. It should be.

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Image Source: www.schoolstrike4climate.com
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On Friday last week, more than 100,000 young people took to the streets across Australia striking for climate action. They were joined by 1.3 million others across the world in the biggest day of civil disobedience on climate change ever.

In the wake of this leadership, it is beholden on adults who care about climate to ask two questions:

What can I do to support young people to continue to assert their moral authority on the need to act on climate?

How do we use this moment created by young people to most effectively progress action on climate change?

While not every renewable energy executive is going to follow in Oliver Yates’ footsteps and become an independent candidate for Federal Parliament, there is much that people working in the renewables industry can do (the Solar Beach Warringah campaign is a great example).

Oliver Yates is a former Macquarie Banker and ex-CEO of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

The Australian Climate Strikes on Friday had three demands:

Stop the Adani coal mine

No new coal or gas

100% renewable energy by 2030

While the clean energy sector could definitely join the call for the first two demands, it is of course #3 that is where our industry will play the biggest role.

Despite the fact that there are now at least nine studies showing that 100 per cent renewables is possible for Australia and the analysis from ANU that shows if we continue the current rate of renewables deployment we will reach 100% renewables by 2030, 100 per cent is still not taken seriously by many in the energy industry.

Last year when AEMO released the current version of the Integrated System Plan (ISP) energy politics shifted. The Neutral Scenario normalised the idea of 50 per cent by 2030.

It did this by visualising what it would look like for example creating renewable energy zones and by kicking off a much-needed conversation about the need for more transmission. It also gave a credible reference to energy commentators and politicians.

Unfortunately, 50 per cent renewables by 2030 is not sufficient for three main reasons.

Firstly, according to the Climate Change Authority, to meet Australia’s share of the Paris Agreement to limit warming to below 2degrees and keep the possibility of limiting warming to 1.5degrees we need to reduce our domestic emissions by between 45-65 per cent.

The Federal ALP picked the lower bound of this target range, so 45% emissions reduction, it is the very least we need to do.

We all know that the cheapest and easiest way to reduce emissions in our economy is in the electricity sector – energy efficiency and renewable energy replacing a carbon intensive coal-burning power stations makes economic and environmental sense.

Should the ALP win the Federal Election in May as polls currently suggest, their commitment to both 50% renewables and 45% emissions reduction will soon become untenable. To achieve 45% renewables the electricity sector must do the heavy lifting.

That means working towards more than 50% renewables by 2030. Indeed, the 2018 report by the IPCC into 1.5 degrees suggests that countries like Australia need to get out of coal by 2030, which means we are talking about a target in the order of 100% renewables by 2030.

Secondly, 50% renewables equates to a significant contraction in the renewables industry.

Modelling suggests that 50% renewables by 2030 is now business as usual, as all it requires is for us to maintain a rooftop solar industry installing 1GW per year and then building a few large-scale solar and wind farms each year – a far cry from the current industry scale of 5-6GW per year.

This contraction would mean a loss of jobs and a continuation of the solar coaster.

Finally, if we are serious about decarbonising the economy and the world, electrification of industry, transport and renewable exports are critical pieces of the puzzle.

All these sectors rely on the decarbonisation of our electricity sector. That means we need to be planning for a much larger uptake of renewables than currently projected in the ISP.

As has become evidently clear with the changes to marginal loss factors, the biggest practical barrier to getting to high levels of renewable energy is the grid.

So if we are to have a hope of moving beyond 50% renewables by 2030 we need a grid plan and that means updating the ISP. Ideally this update would include three additional scenarios:

  • A 100% renewable electricity scenario, which would in practice mean updating the 100% renewables modelling conducted by AEMO in 2013.
  • An electrification scenario, that looks at what rapidly electrifying transport and industry would mean for electricity demand and the grid.
  • A renewable exports scenario that looks at what would be needed to deliver renewable hydrogen and potentially direct exports at scale.

So how could this happen?

Well, AEMO could chose to do this off their own back (with encouragement from the clean energy industry), a government (state, territory, or federal) could fund AEMO to do this (like the Gillard Government did with the 100% renewables modelling) or the COAG Energy Council could request it.

This is where the renewables industry comes in.  We have a significant role to play not only in delivering 100% renewables, but normalising and advocating for it by actively and publicly calling for 100%.

Using your access to policy makers, politicians and energy market bodies to secure more ambitious scenarios in the ISP is a small and simple step renewable companies could make in helping to support young people and make the most of this moment.

Nicky Ison is a Founding Director of the Community Power Agency. To directly support the Student Climate Strike please donate to their Crowd-funder.

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