‘Renewable energy breeding’ can stop Australia blowing the carbon budget – if we’re quick

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The Conversation

Moving to a future powered mainly by renewable energy will be crucial if we are to stay within the global warming limits set out by the Paris Agreement.

But building all of this new renewable energy will initially require fossil fuels to help power all of the necessary mining, construction and decommissioning. This raises the question as to whether the energy transition itself will be pointless.

But new research by a group at UNSW (Bahareh Sara Howard, Nick Hamilton, Tommy Wiedmann and myself) shows that it is theoretically possible for Australia to move to a renewable energy future without blowing its share of the carbon budget.

Actually doing it will require two things: prompt, decisive action, and a reliance on “renewable energy breeding” – the process by which mining the raw materials and manufacturing technologies such as solar cells and wind turbines are themselves powered by renewables rather than fossil fuels.

Already under way

This renewable energy breeding is already under way in some places. Tesla’s solar panel factory in Nevada, known as Gigafactory 1, will itself run on solar power.

In South Australia, Liberty OneSteel, the new owner of the Whyalla steelworks, is planning solar power, pumped hydro, batteries and demand management to reduce energy costs and greenhouse emissions.

In Western Australia, Sandfire Resources’ DeGrussa gold and copper mine and Galaxy Resources’ lithium mine are both going solar.

These are encouraging developments. But will they be enough? The world has only a limited emissions budget left to keep global warming below the Paris Agreement’s 2℃ limit, and an even smaller budget for the agreement’s more ambitious 1.5℃ goal.

As Australia is responsible for about 1% of global emissions and its electricity industry is responsible for about one-third of that, we have assumed that the country’s carbon budget for electricity generation is about one-third of 1% of the global carbon budget.

Overall, then, this gives us a total carbon budget for Australia’s electricity sector of 3.3 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (post-2011) for the 2℃ target, and 1.3 gigatonnes for the 1.5℃ target.

For comparison, Australia’s annual carbon dioxide equivalent emissions are over half a gigatonne (actually 0.55 gigatonnes), so we are only three years away from overshooting the 1.5℃ target.

Even these budgets are generous, because Australia is one of the biggest per capita carbon dioxide emitters in the world and has enormous renewable energy resources.

What’s more, electricity is the easiest part of the energy sector to move to renewable energy – heating and transport are more difficult prospects.

This means that if we are to move to an entirely renewable energy future, most heating and transport will need to be electrified. Therefore, electricity should have a greater emissions reduction target than other sectors.

Making the transition

Our study, which builds on earlier research, looked at 22 possible scenarios for transitioning Australia’s electricity sector to predominantly renewable energy. Some were developed by us, and some by other research groups.

Crucially, our study factored in the “life-cycle” emissions of these energy generation technologies – that is, the total greenhouse emissions including those released during the manufacture of the technologies themselves. And we looked explicitly at renewable energy breeding as part of that analysis.

Our scenarios also assume that overall electricity demand will either stabilise or decline, despite the move towards electrifying transport and heating. This is because Australia is well placed to make huge improvements in energy efficiency.

Rapid action needed

The principal findings of our research include the good news that the life-cycle greenhouse emissions from manufacturing renewable energy technologies such as solar panels and wind turbines are tiny, compared with the emissions saved by using them as substitutes for fossil fuels.

With the help of renewable energy breeding, the overall life-cycle emissions savings can be substantial – more than 90%, in some of the scenarios we examined. Therefore, manufacturers of renewable energy systems should use renewable energy to power their production lines.

The bad news is that, in every scenario we investigated, Australia nevertheless fails to achieve its share of the ambitious emissions reductions needed to limit global warming to 1.5℃ with 66% probability. Furthermore, 9 of our 22 scenarios also fail the more lenient 2℃ target.

Cumulative emissions for 2011-50 for 22 different pathways for a renewable energy transition in Australia. Green shaded area represents pathways that are within Australia’s share of the global carbon budget for 2℃ of warming; red shaded area represents pathways that exceed it. Howard et al., 2018

The main reason for this is the legacy of CO₂ emissions from fossil fuel use before the renewable energy transition. In most of our scenarios, the benefits of renewable energy breeding to the cumulative emissions become significant only beyond 2040.

The scenario (S8a, labelled V in the graph above) that comes closest to achieving the 1.5℃ target involves a 98% transition to renewable electricity and a 35% reduction in electricity demand by 2030 – a very rapid transition indeed!

The scenarios that deliver on the 2℃ target have rapid and high penetrations of renewable energy into the market, and high contributions from energy efficiency.

While it may already be too late for Australia to make a fair contribution to keeping global warming at 1.5℃, our results show that we can stay within our share of the carbon budget for 2℃ – provided we have the political will to move fast.

What’s more, if we implement policies that incentivise renewable energy breeding, there is no reason to suppose that moving to 100% renewable energy would necessarily entail a large increase in emissions to produce the necessary technologies.

But the overriding message is that time is of the essence, if we want to come anywhere close to limiting dangerous climate change.

Our various scenarios suggest that even if we implement a rapid, effective response, we are likely to have to take CO₂ back out of the atmosphere in the future, to compensate for the likely overshoot on our share of the global carbon budget.

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.  

  • Joe

    …”political will”…it doesn’t exist with this current mob. They have to be gone ASAP.

  • Peter F

    There is good news.
    Soil carbon, heat pumps and electrified transport
    1. In many parts of Australia, not only have we cleared the surface vegetation but depleted up to 90% of the soil carbon as well. Widespread replanting of mallee and salt bush on degraded grazing land can reduce both erosion and evaporation, rebuild soils improve water absorption and rapidly increase soil carbon by up to 10 tonnes per Ha per year. A national soil restoration project combined with regenerative farming and slow reafforestation of marginal farmland could easily capture our excess emissions while the transition in energy supply and efficiency takes effect
    2. Something like 60% of all heating demand is for applications are below 100 C. This is well within the range of heat pumps and even where higher temperatures are required pre-drying and preheating can be done with heat pumps. Of the remaining high temperature applications, much of the final finishing can be done with inductive or radiant resistive electric heating which are often more efficient. At a gas cost of $9/GJ resistive heating becomes cheaper if solar/ wind power can be delivered at less than $30/MWh.
    The remaining applications where FF are still required at scale are cement manufacture, steel making and some forms of metal processing. However even in those industries alternatives are being developed which result in much lower carbon emissions
    3. a) Electric busses, short range delivery vehicles and rubbish trucks etc are already economical when considering full life costs. They are more comfortable, quieter and don’t spew fumes everywhere so it is quite conceivable that within 5 years very few FF powered vehicles in those classes are purchased.
    b) Electric passenger vehicles will take longer but each bus uses about 40 times the annual fuel of a car so do the busses, rubbish trucks etc first.
    c) In 6-7 years the Tesla Semi and its equivalents will start a slow takeover of long distance transport.
    d) Battery electric trains and trams can allow extension of electrified passenger rail on low intensity routes at a bit half the cost of overhead supply
    Therefore one can see that in 12-15 years public transport and most metropolitan delivery and service transport could be 80%+ electrified.

    • PacoBella

      Hi Peter F. I am really interested in your comments about soil carbon. I am trying to put together a training course for landform rehabilitation and would appreciate some further input. If you can help, can you please contact me through Giles?

      • Peter F

        I am a second hand expert on soil carbon but my source informs me that there is 380 m Ha of agricultural land in Australia. If we can get 1/4 of it managed according to modern practice and achieve 1/2 of best practice sequestration on that, it is 470 m tonnes of carbon per year plus above ground mass in trees and scrub. i.e. pretty much all Australia’s current carbon emissions.
        This is also a 15-20 year project but running in parallel with renewable energy it can be a powerful transformation

      • My_Oath

        Peter’s suggestion about landform rehabilitation is appropriate when talking about the pastoral sector. Not so much the mining sector.

        The reason is scale. Take Western Australia for example. Known as a mining jurisdiction, but the fact is the amount of land disturbed by mining is less than the amount of land disturbed by hotel car parks.

        Agriculture and pastoral activities are orders of magnitude larger in impact than mining,

    • solarguy

      Evacuated tube solar is cheaper for residential and some commercial for low temp heat under 150c. Heat pumps have their place, but use electricity in much higher amounts in comparison.

      • Peter F

        You are right and there is a good fraction of heating demand between 100 and 160 C which works well with evacuated tube technology. Beyond that parabolic trough can get to 650 C.The difficulty with solar thermal for higher temperature applications is the consistency of supply as many of those applications are continuous cycles.
        All in all even more opportunities to kick the FF habit

  • IT67

    whilst Australia is ‘only’ responsible for 1% of worldwide emissions it only makes up 0.32% of the world population – according to this article it three times more polluting in CO2 terms than the average – will a one third reduction in energy CO2 emissions really cut it? Hmmmm…..

    Most other ‘Western’ Countries aren’t much better – or in some cases much, much worse. There’s definitely a correlation between low cost of fuel (=big engines) vs high tax fuel (=50+mpg or <5lt/100km). Pretty much the same as USA and Canada – as well as Venezuela of course.

    Incentives have made a massive difference to the baseline over the years – improvements on appalling are all very well and good but if the baseline has been historically distorted by low fuel prices in the first place (i.e. more big inefficient engines) it will make for an interesting comparison.

  • My_Oath

    Errrrr…. Gigafactory 1 doesn’t make solar panels. It makes batteries and will make cars. Gigafactory 2 makes the solar panels.