The technology, and new thinking, needed for 100 per cent renewable grid

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We already much have the technology we need for 100 per cent renewable energy. We just need to think differently about how we produce and consume electricity.

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Infigen Energy's Lake Bonney wind farm.
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For much of this decade Ivor Frischknecht was CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and saw thousands of proposals for the development of new renewable energy technologies and new energy business plans that crossed his desk.

Some of them were brilliant and inspiring, some of them a little bit weird and whacky, and some looked they might be attractive, but just didn’t stand up to scrutiny. Some of them got funded and most of them didn’t.

It has, however, given Frischknecht a unique perspective on Australia’s inevitable clean energy transition, and of the technologies and new thinking that are needed to take Australia to a 100 per cent renewable energy future.

Late last month, Frischknecht delivered the annual Solar Oration at the Australian National University on this topic, and talked to RenewEconomy soon afterwards on what such future would look like, what it would take to get there, and some of the biggest challenges.

What’s most striking from the discussion with Frischknecht is that the technologies that we need are largely already here. Yes, some of them will fall further in price, and will need to in the case of batteries.

But it’s not so much which technologies that will dominate the future energy system – wind, solar and storage – but how we use them that could be the biggest challenge.

Baseload blues

The first is the attachment to the concept of “base-load” and the idea that we must have demand matched with coal-fired power generation. The federal government has hijacked this thinking by referring to it as “fair dinkum power”, at least until the intervention of billionaire Mike Cannon-Brookes, pointing out that renewables and storage are fair dinkum power sources too.

“We have society and industry that’s been designed to consume baseload, but there is no reason for them to do that necessarily,” Frischknecht says.

“We put all this effort to create demand to match the output of coal. Now we say that renewables must match that demand profile.”

But that’s not necessary, he says. Soar households understand how they can switch demand to the day time, and industries are too. “Many industrial users are already getting better at using electricity when it is cheap, and there is no doubt now that that is when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing.”

To be sure, for some industries this will be a slow process. It is difficult, for instance, for a decades-old aluminium smelter to radically change its equipment and usage patterns. But there is huge potential for this to happen, and as ageing equipment is retired, it will be replaced by more flexible machinery and operational systems.

Storage

The second big issue is the level of storage that is required of a renewables-based grid. This need for storage and the claimed lack of back up capacity has often coloured and stymied discussion around the Labor targets of 50 per cent renewable energy at state and federal levels.

This is just not needed, and certainly not at the levels of renewable energy penetration in Australia now, and contemplated by 2030, thanks to all the back-up and flexibility already introduced into the grid to support inflexible coal generation and to cope with swings in demand.

“Until you get to 50 per cent renewables, bugger-all is required,” Frischknecht says. And even at 76 per cent, the need is only 100GWh, less than a third of what would be delivered by a project such as Snowy 2.0. More storage will come through batteries, other pumped hydro schemes and solar thermal. and by the time the country gets towards 100 per cent renewables, from batteries in electric vehicles.

The graph cited above includes the highest level of storage for 100 per cent renewable of any study that he has seen. And Snowy 2.0 gets much of the way there. “They are fairly conservative, and sensible assumptions,” Frischknecht says. “None of them assume anything whacky.”

On the other hand, capacity needs for the grid – the need for firming capacity and peaking capacity to meet peak demand for short periods of time – is significant. “We are talking a lot of capacity,” he says. But inverter-based technology could provide much of this. The peaks only last for short periods.

Demand management

The third key element is demand management. Because if the demand is flexible – and in many industries it already is – then the amount of storage and flexible capacity referred to above is greatly reduced.

“We say that we need all of this new capacity, but if it can be in the form of long term demand response, then we can change this significantly,” Frischknecht says.

Household solar

Another significant component is the role of decentralised solar. Right now, about 2 million homes have around 8GW of rooftop solar -that represents about 20 per cent of all households and 4 per cent of total generation.

Frischknecht says that Australia could get to 80 per cent solar penetration, and with the size of the systems getting bigger – currently an average 6.8kW from 1.5kW just a few years ago – that is a lot of additional capacity that could be exploited through new systems and retrofits.

That could take the total contribution of distributed energy to between 40 and 50 per cent, with storage also included.

Here, though, it is important that the market operator has visibility over these installations, firstly so it knows what is going on, and secondly how to incorporate it into the system. Right now there is no capacity to reduce load in some areas of the grid because the operator is flying blind. This means that one key tool is missing.

The networks aren’t much better off and one of the current results is that many households and businesses are not able to install solar, or are unable to export it. This is because the capacity of the networks and the overall system to incorporate solar is unknown and so everyone takes a conservative approach.

“The old paradigm is that the system ends at the meter, and everything behind it is not visible, not relevant,” Frischknecht says. “Now we’ve got to change that paradigm so customers are visible, they are known and we can get them to participate. That experience can be quite passive. But at least it can be enabled to provide that capability.”

Energy Efficiency

One of the biggest frustrations for many in the energy industry has been the lack of focus on energy efficiency this past decade, and even before, despite its long known status as the cheapest and most efficient tool at our disposal in trying to reduce costs and emissions.

In California, the economy is two and a half times bigger than Australia and it has a higher income per capita, and one of the world’s strongest economies, but its energy use is around 200 terawatt hours, about the same as Australia’s main grid.

“We could easily double energy efficiency, which would halve everyone’s energy bills,” Frischknecht says. Countless governments have looked at the issue, and there have been numerous reviews, but little has been done about it. He notes that Labor has promised to act if elected.

Network spending

Frischknecht notes there are a range of views on the need for new network investments from zero to massive mounts. He feels we should be thinking about micro-grids and using them to achieve “grid independence” in some areas for short periods of time.

“If we can get 100,000 microgrid-connected users to go off the main grid for 15 minutes (because they have, say, a local or community solar farm or some other form of generator, plus a battery or other storage), then widespread blackouts are a risk of the past, and will not happen any more.

This is exactly the strategy that New York has adopted in response to Hurricane Sandy. South Australia is making its first moves towards that on the Yorke Peninsula with the Dalrymple battery.

The end game and 100 per cent renewables

So, how does this all take shape and what does it look like in the end? Basically, a lot of new equipment and a lot of new thinking.

The amount of wind and solar required is put at more than 80GW, there will be a fair amount of storage (200-500GWh) and flexible capacity (35GW), some targeted network investments, and a lot of this will be “decentralised”, i.e. in homes and businesses.

But that is just the start. It will change the nature of electricity, and electricity will then become a major part of primary energy use – through the electrification of transport, manufacturing and the replacement of gas use in homes and businesses.

What can the consumer do? Be efficient, add solar, go digital (smart meters and monitors), consider a battery, and tell your politician you want policies that focus on the long term.

Note: Tune in here to listen to our recent episode of the Energy Insiders podcast (done before the Solar Oration).

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