Australia continues its rapid growth in wind and solar, reaching an average of more than 30 per cent renewables in the 12 months to the end of July, but the country’s emissions cuts in the electricity sector still trails that of other major economies.
A new edition of The Australia Institute’s National Energy Emissions Audit finds that despite the rapid growth in wind and solar generation in recent years, Australia’s resulting reduction in emissions for electricity generation has been lower than reductions in the US, Japan, the UK and the EU from 2011 to 2019.
For all other energy combustions emissions, Australia and the United States have significantly increased their emissions while Japan, the EU and the UK have all achieved emission reductions.
“It’s concerning that the electricity sector, Australia’s highest emitting sector in our economy, is not transitioning to clean energy at the same pace as US, UK, Japan and the EU,” said Dr Hugh Saddler, author of the Audit.
“This is unforgivable when you consider the land area and solar resources we have compared to these countries.”
Even worse, the emissions reductions in electricity that have been achieved have been offset by the commissioning seven new Liquified Natural Gas plants in Australia between 2016 and 2018, which is estimated to have increased Australia’s annual emissions by up to about 15 Mt CO2-e.
The report puts a sobering counter to the federal government rhetoric that it is installing wind and solar at a faster rate per capita than any other country, and that its overall emissions have fallen by 20 per cent over the last 15-20 years.
But those emissions cuts disguise an accounting trick on land use, without which Australia’s emissions from industrial activity have barely moved, despite the achievements gained through the uptake of rooftop solar by households and the growth of large scale wind and solar.
“The latest IPCCC report makes clear that there is an urgent need for countries like Australia to significantly reduce their emissions this decade,” Saddler said.
“It is hard to see how this can possibly include expanding gas production, consumption and exports which are undoing much of the progress we are making thanks to renewables.”
Richie Merzian, the climate and energy program director at The Australia Institute, says the fall in transport emissions caused by the Covid restrictions will be shortlived because there is no national climate or transport policy.
“It’s only a matter of time until the pollution from our cars, trucks and planes will overtake emissions from electricity, currently the highest emitting sector,” Merzian said.
He said that if Australia wanted to respond to growing international pressure ahead of the UN climate conference in Glasgow in November, there were numerous opportunities such as advancing the retirement of gas and coal power stations, setting targets for electric vehicles, and setting CO2 emission standards for vehicles.
The federal government, however, has shown no interest in such policies, and instead is pushing for changes in market rules that most analysts say will result in coal and gas generators staying in the market for longer than they would otherwise.
The National Audit report highlights the pressure facing coal. For the year ending July, 2021, the share of renewables was above 30%, for the first time ever on an annual basis. On a month-by-month basis, it was above 30% in every month from September 2020 to March 2021.
The percentage levels would have been even higher were it not for the changing dynamics of the market. As the share of rooftop solar increases, coal generators are being driven to bid at prices around zero or below to ensure they do not have to switch off.
Wind and solar farms often choose to curtail their own output to dodge negative pricing events. Some have to do so as a condition of their supply contracts, or on the orders of the market operator for issues relating to the grid.
What it does mean is that the levels of wind and solar would be significantly higher if there was no economic curtailment.