It’s not by chance that the two states in Australia with the most ambitious renewable energy policies – Tasmania and South Australia – are the ones without a coal industry in their backyard.
And that probably explains the second, more surprising observation, which is that both the Tasmania target – 200 per cent renewables by 2040 – and the South Australia target – net 100 per cent wind and solar by around 2030 – have been set by state Liberal governments. Both states have grand ambitious to be significant exporters of excess renewables output.
It would be nice to think that the federal Liberal Party could share a similar vision. But whether clouded by the interests of ideologues or donors, or the fossil fuel industry, the federal Coalition won’t contemplate the idea that a renewables based grid could be made to work. Like a petulant child struggling with Lego blocks, it can’t imagine what the finished product might be.
South Australia is happy to show them, Having closed down its coal plant in 2016, and supported the introduction of the country’s first big battery in 2017, the state has arguably the country’s most reliable grid, and in the last six months one of the cheapest on the wholesale market. And it is producing well in excess of 50 per cent of its electricity consumption from wind and solar.
Pretty soon, it might be providing the equivalent of close to 100 per cent of its electricity consumption from variable renewables, even allowing for the times when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine.
The state Liberal government aims to reach “net 100 per cent renewables” – effectively producing the annual equivalent of its consumption with wind and solar, and using a new link to NSW to help it export the excess, and import when needed – by around 2030.
The latest report from the Australian Energy Market Operator, however, indicates that it might reach that target by 2025/26, five years earlier than planned. (The South Australia government, be it Labor or Liberal, has a long history of setting aspirational renewable targets that will likely be easily met).
As we reported on Monday, the latest AEMO generation forecasts suggest that the proposed Project EnergyConnect – a new 800MW link from South Australia to NSW – will be something of a game-changer, and in its step-change scenario (one of three contemplated in the report), it sparks an almost immediate boom in large scale wind and solar projects, along with storage.
Within four years, as we wrote, the share of wind and solar in the generation mix balloons to 87 per cent, and the share of gas falls to a range of 5-15 per cent, depending on the scenario – slow, central and step change – and the amount of imports or exports on the new link.
Closer inspection of the AEMO forecast data suggests that the net 100 per cent renewable energy target could be met by 2025/26 in the step change scenario – and this scenario is crucial if the state is not to suddenly find itself becoming a net importer rather than an exporter of electricity.
The AEMO data shows that in this step change scenario – which combines infrastructure spending, digitalisation, and consumer innovation – wind and solar and stored power – in big batteries and household virtual power plants – will contribute more than 15,800GWh a year, a 60 per cent increase from this year,
Gas will provide around 1,888GWh, a fall of more than two thirds – so even if all the imports from NSW were deemed to be “fossil fuel”, they would be more than offset by South Australia’ net exports of 2,111GWh.
That’s going to be an extraordinary achievement, and one that will change the conversation around energy in Australia, and the world. Let’s remember, it was around a decade ago that energy analysts insisted that a 10 per cent share of wind and solar was impossible. Some till claim that it must not exceed 50 per cent at any point in time, even though that already happens nearly every day in South Australia.
Credit for this achievement will have to go to the Labor government that set the plan in motion (although it continues to fiercely dispute the wisdom of a new interconnector), and the Liberal government that succeeded it which looked at the science, the engineering and the maths, ignored its federal colleagues, and said: “Let’s do it!”.
State energy minister Dan van Holst Pellekaan is not getting too carried away.
“AEMO’s report shows that on a range of future scenarios South Australia is making huge progress towards our aim of net-100% renewables as close to 2030 as possible,” he said in a statement emailed to RenewEconomy.
“The SA-NSW interconnector will be critical in driving a step change in renewable energy to secure clean, affordable, reliable power for South Australian households and businesses.”
“There is strong interest from energy companies considering investing in renewable generation in South Australia on the back of the interconnector.”
These projects are not specified by AEMO (apart from the more immediate completion of the much delayed 110MW Bungala 2 solar plant and the second 230MW stage of the Lincoln Gap wind project, both near Port Augusta), but the queue of potential projects are not hard to find and are already jostling for position.
There is Alinta, the owner of the state’s last coal plant near Port Augusta, which has already signed a contract to take the output of the proposed 200MW Solar River solar and very big battery plans near Robertstown.
That project will be surrounded by other big projects ousting for position near the western end of the proposed new link, including the even bigger Robertstown solar farm, and other projects such as Neoen’s Crystal Brook (combing wind, solar, batteries and a hydrogen fuel cell), and its massive Goyder South wind, solar and battery project, along with Sanjeev Gupta’s ongoing plans for the Cultana solar farm and Playford big battery.
There is also the 280MW Bungama solar plant, also with a big battery, proposed for near Port Pirie, while Spanish energy giant Iberdrola has teamed up with DP Enegy for a 320MW hybrid wind and solar plant near Port Augusta, which already has its finances lined up.
All in all, AEMO expects some 1,200MW of large scale solar, along with a slightly larger amount (1270MW) of new wind capacity, will be built and ready for action, or well under way, by the time the new link to NSW is completed and connected in 2023.
And households and business will contribute too, with an increase in it already high levels of rooftop solar, and a big increase in battery storage, with “virtual power plants” – technologies that can link and aggregate the household and other distributed energy resources – playing an increasingly prominent role – likely significant more than big batteries.
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