Wind and solar: Does Australia have a blind spot? | RenewEconomy

Wind and solar: Does Australia have a blind spot?

Wind and solar can power Australia, but many people just don’t want to know, with The Australian newspaper and the Coalition digging in with the fossil fuel industry and their spruikers to downplay the role of renewable technologies.


On Tuesday, in a press conference with Malcolm Turnbull to announce his appointment, the new chief scientist of Australia, Alan Finkel, said something very interesting.

“With enough storage we could do it in this country with solar and wind,” Finkel said. By “doing it”, he meant making Australia’s energy system zero emissions. In other words, 100 per cent renewable.


It’s not the sort of claim you often hear outside of some energy research faculties, environmental NGOs, and the wind and solar industry itself.

The phrase got surprising little play in the mainstream media. Here was the new chief scientist, an electrical engineer among his numerous qualifications, telling the country that it could harness the plentiful resources of the wind and sun and power the economy.

Some people, though, just don’t want to hear.

The Australian trotted out what could be termed as the “anti-renewable” establishment line again in an editorial on Wednesday.

The newspaper described a “class war against the poor”, because some people favour wind and solar over coal. It quoted the usual suspects, the Australian mining lobby and its favourite climate confusionist, Bjørn Lomborg. Both parties like to tell people that wind and solar serve no useful purpose.

“The IEA says that about 0.4 per cent of global energy now comes from solar and wind power,” The Australian said.

“By 2040, and after massive public subsidies, solar and wind power will contribute just 2.2 per cent of global energy.”

The chances are that the IEA is not the source of information, but Lomborg himself. Just seven days earlier, Lomborg wrote on Project Syndicate:

“The International Energy Agency estimates that about 0.4% of global energy now comes from solar and wind. Even in 2040, with all governments implementing all of their green promises, solar and wind will make up just 2.2% of global energy.”

He said much the same thing last year in the Wall Street Journal:

“Yet today, according to the International Energy Agency, only about 0.4% of global energy consumption comes from solar photovoltaics and windmills. And even with exceptionally optimistic assumptions about future deployment of wind and solar, the IEA expects that these energy forms will provide a minuscule 2.2% of the world’s energy by 2040.”

And a year earlier in Slate magazine:

“In the IEA’s optimistic scenario, which assumes that the world’s governments will fulfill all of their green promises, wind will provide 1.34 per cent of global energy by 2035, while solar will provide 0.42 per cent.”

But this is what the conservative IEA, with its history of under-estimating wind and solar, actually does say about these technologies:

“Currently, wind and solar PV account for just about 3 per cent of world electricity generation,” it said in the February, 2014, report on variable renewables, the Power of Transformation. (Electricity is just under half global energy needs, which includes transport and heat)

And in coming decades, it will likely grow significantly. Indeed, the IEA believes that by 2050, if the world is to meet climate targets, solar will become the biggest single source of electricity in the world, providing a minimum 28 per cent of the world’s energy needs (16 per cent from solar PV, 12 per cent from solar thermal).

Combined with wind, that could mean nearly 40 per cent from “variable renewables” – just a little bit less than the current share in South Australia. But on a much, much, grander scale.

Importantly, the IEA says that renewables (primarily wind and solar), and energy efficiency, will likely account for three-quarters of emissions abatement out to 2050.

So, where would Lomborg get the 2.2 per cent wind and solar scenario? Probably from the IEA’s catastrophic 6°C scenario, where the world ignores climate science, goes on to extract as many fossil fuels as it can, and puts the world on a path to 6°C of warming, rather than 2.7°C it has so far narrowed itself down to, if the Paris pledges mean anything.

iea duplicate

The aim of the coal lobby – and many elements of the nuclear lobby, too, for that matter – is to downplay the role that renewable energy, specifically wind and solar, does and can play in the global energy market.

As for Finkel’s remarks, most media focused on his interest in nuclear energy. It is true that Finkel does have some interest in nuclear, but it is heavily qualified: he says it is slow, expensive, and Australia does not have the infrastructure and skills necessary to roll it out.

Finkel’s point is this: If any country in the world can develop a zero carbon economy based around renewables, then Australia is the one.

Turnbull’s response was interesting, describing nuclear as “hugely expensive” to construct, and coming with significant environmental issues.

And, while defending the role of coal in relieving energy poverty in undeveloped countries – seemingly to sate the highly conservative nature of his party – Turnbull also recognised the potential of solar and storage, mainly because of the huge infrastructure costs that centralised generation requires.

Even the IEA says so: Last year, it said if coal was to be used to address energy poverty, it would have to include carbon capture and storage, which apart from not being commercially available in power stations, would be very expensive.

The best alternative, it says, is solar.

“By 2050, although population growth will concentrate in cities, hundreds of millions of people will still live in sparsely populated rural areas where off-grid solar systems would likely be the most suitable solution for minimum electrification,” it says.

The IEA says that by 2030, around 500 million people with no access to electricity could enjoy the equivalent of 200W of solar PV capacity. This would be equivalent to 100GW, not far short of the total solar PV deployment to date, and would be entirely in mini-grid and off-grid situations.

But that’s not what the fossil fuel industry wants to tell you. Sadly, it’s not something that most Australian media consumers are likely to hear.

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  1. john 5 years ago

    To me this is a replay of the first motor vehicle

    Because the horse and buggy was the mode of transport and had been in use for a considerable time these new fangled clacking noisy smoky transport vehicles that were under .01% of transport had to have a person with a red flag in front of them when on a road.

    So today we have this new fangled zero energy input technology with limitations; which can be overcome; that represent a tiny proportion of the market.

    However this presents the in place energy industry with a huge problem they know that the system is going to move and will put every kind of obstacle in place to hinder it
    .As to Bjørn Lomborg who has a degree in {” Political Science “} hardly qualified to comment on energy matters being regarded as some believable person please give us a break.
    There is going to be a change that will be of benefit to the majority of people and those in the 100 year old technology area had best transform into the new age or be like saddle makers a small part of the market.

    • lin 5 years ago

      The problem here is that while the horse and buggy industry 100 years ago was numerically dominant, it was not controlled by small handful of individuals and their corporations, worth trillions between them, with significant ownership of “democratic” governments and control of propaganda machines that would have made Goebbels green with envy. You are right that things will change, perhaps even quickly. The question is whether it can be done fast enough to leave a world worth inheriting to our children with these arsehats at the wheel.

      • john 5 years ago

        No when the first car when on the road actually no road then the horse was dominant and the industry resisted the car just like now the industry the carbon burning industry is resisting the new player in the field the RE player

        • Coley 5 years ago

          Thousands of individual saddle makers, livery stables, farriers etc didn’t own whole tranches of government.
          There were no ‘dobbin corporations’ controlling the media etc.

        • lin 5 years ago

          Roads suitable for the horse and cart, oxen with wagons or cars (had they been invented) have been around since before the Romans.

    • pat 5 years ago

      Just a thought on Wind Power. In Europe a lot of Wind power is actually offshore which solves the two often quoted problems: wind turbines detracting from the scenery and any noise pollution.
      Apparently, it also means the winds are higher and less variable than on the landscape.
      So when we lobby for solar and wind, remember to lobby for off-shore wind power as well.

      • john 5 years ago

        Hi Pat

        “and any noise pollution”

        I have been down the infra and extra high noise frequency road.

        Hear is the take out; in fact we as in you and I have been exposed to very high over 110 db noise in both areas above and below our threshold of audible hearing for over 60 years or how many years old you are without any knowledge.

        If you were to do a noise generated survey on that car you drive you will find it puts out very high noise levels outside the ordinary hearing range.

        Because the ordinary person has absolutely zero knowledge of this the industry as in the present industry can spread heaps of FUD.

        Please get a reputable noise attenuation company to do a audit on your car and you will be not very pleasantly surprised.

        However just look at that very young baby screaming in front of the TV.

        Why because the noise level for its very sensitive ears is hurting her/him we are oblivious because we do not have that level of frequency perception.

        • Miles Harding 5 years ago

          Culdn’t agree more!
          Once outside that noisy tin box, there is this omnipresent rumble that pervades the suburbs. Cars and trucks on highways are noisy and can be heard several kms from the roadway.

      • Jonathan Prendergast 5 years ago

        Hi Pat,
        We are lucky in Australia to have great onshore wind resources away from population centres. In fact many great quality wind projects have been designed and received planning approval, and are just waiting for PPAs so they can reach financial close and get built. However, we currently have an oversupply of generation in the market and wholesale prices are very low, so these wind projects are not getting PPAs and not getting built.

        It is cheaper to build wind on land, but certainly once all these back log of great onshore wind projects are built, we can start building off shore.

  2. Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

    The key words from Finkel are “With enough storage”. This can be batteries or dispatchable energy sources. Battery storage is very expensive.

    • Giles 5 years ago

      And battery storage is also very valuable. Ergon Energy is installing a series of 100kWh lithium ion battery storage installations in its network. Yes, it’s expensive, but Ergon says that even at this cost it will – without subsidies – cut their local network costs by one third. This storage will also mean more renewables, at no extra cost, in fact a cost saving. And battery storage costs are tipped to fall by at least one half in next 5 years. That’s why it is important to look at the value chain of storage, not just the up-front cost. This is something that has been made clear by IEA, RMI, Stanford, NREL and others.

      • Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

        Completely agree. But remember that the value of nuclear power to reduce CO2 emissions should be consider not just the up-front cost. A nuclear power plant has a 60 year life to provide emission free energy. What is the life of a wind farm and lithium ion batteries?

        • MaxG 5 years ago

          As always: forgot to mention the clean-up cost and storage afterwards, and it does not look that great any more, doesn’t it?

          • Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

            Max you have to amortize that clean-up cost across 60 years. It turns to be a few cents per kWh generated – it’s noise not decision critical.

          • MaxG 5 years ago

            Must be a new thing 😉 so far all I’ve seen is that the public had to come up with the dollars…

          • suthnsun 5 years ago

            A ‘few cents’ ? Not ‘decision critical’?
            This is the clean up cost only?
            Martin, what economy do you inhabit?

          • Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

            It’s called discounted cash flow.

          • suthnsun 5 years ago

            So you inhabit a zero dimension economy, Martin?

          • Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

            Sorry, I don’t understand. Do you understand discounted cash flow?

          • suthnsun 5 years ago

            As I understand it, it’s a number ie a dimensionless entity, used for comparison of cash flow projections. Let’s start again, why do you think a ‘few cents’ is noise, not decision critical? AEMO shows current wholesale prices at 3 to 6 cents.

          • suthnsun 5 years ago

            Yes, just as I said. Back to the question, how is a few cents a kWh noise?

          • nakedChimp 5 years ago

            I can hear … crickets!


          • Gary 5 years ago

            30 years or 60 years. Doesn’t make much difference to the annual cost (if you understand financing).

          • Giles 5 years ago

            Whoah? A few cents a kWh. Considering that solar is now a few cents a kilowatt hour, you are defending nuclear because the clean up costs alone are a few cents a kWh. Back to nuclear PR school with you, my friend.

          • dashpool 5 years ago

            The appropriate rate of discounting for risk free investments is close to the real rate of return on government bonds: at the moment this is about 0%. So if the company had to set aside assets upfront in low-risk, low-yielding investments, to pay for later cleanup, then discounting doesn’t help you much.

            This is a bit like pension fund savings: you want to make sure the money is still there when your reactor retires.

            Actually, this is an insurance-like calculation, so you should account for the risk that cleanup would cost more in the future (which is possible if nuclear regulation gets tighter, or future labor force is not that willing to work cutting up a radioactive reactor shell).

            To give you an idea of how much nuclear cleanup can cost, the Sellafield cleanup cost bill is now estimated at 53 billion pounds Sterling.

          • Coley 5 years ago

            And rising, with no end in sight.

          • Coley 5 years ago

            Discounted to the taxpayer as are the insurance costs.

        • Alen T 5 years ago

          Emissions for nuclear power are low at point of generation, but the embodied emissions of the power plant and ongoing emissions with mining and transport of uranium are substantial and dwarf wind & solar + any storage associated emissions.

      • john 5 years ago

        Ergon with its huge network knows the value of storing energy to reduce the cost of buying at high price this is a very good example of a company both reducing its cost and the consumers cost

        • hydrophilia 5 years ago

          Actually, they are getting far more benefit than the simple buying and selling of energy. As Amory Lovins has pointed out, they can also reduce the peak load on the network, saving the need to invest huge amounts on that. Grid-tied storage also can provide “reserve capacity, peak shaving, demand charge reductions, and ancillary
          services such as voltage control and frequency regulation.”

      • Alen T 5 years ago

        Pumped storage hydro is an easily overlooked or forgotten technology. Large-scale storage (100s’ MWh rage) with dispatch capability of 30 seconds (0% output to 100% capacity) will be cheaper than Li-ion batteries. It has a long and proven history, thus in theory banks will lend yo project more easily and at better rate. I believe ANU is currently doing some work in mapping the potential in pumped storage hydro.
        Also, considering the GW-scale solar farm proposed near Toowoomba, QLD, and its location to the Great Dividing Range, I would be interested to know if anyone is looking at pumped hydro there.

        • Miles Harding 5 years ago

          It’s also relatively efficient at about 70% round trip, so nearly as good as batteries, but with a 50+year service life and easy scaling to utility size. All that is needed are suitable landforms, not too far from the generators and consumers.

    • Peter F 5 years ago

      Storage takes many forms and probably the least important is batteries.
      For example if we required the average hot water storage cylinder to be 10cm larger in diameter and 20cm taller most people would have 3 days hot water storage. If the hot water was provided by direct solar or grid controlled heat pumps or rooftop solar then peak demand for hot water heating almost disappears.
      Cold storage also works, many large commercial air conditioning systems and cold stores are storing cold water or ice because they can buy power cheaper at low demand times and the chillers are much more efficient in the cool of the early morning .
      There is also scope for load shifting for example pool pumps, air conditioners fridges and washing machines and even Aluminium smelters can be turned off or on by the grid to suit supply availability. Experiments in the US show 10-20% reduction in peak demand

      Batteries used simply as storage are very expensive but when they are installed at the end of high peak load feeders they can save large amounts of money in grid upgrades, they can respond in milliseconds to large swings in load therefore reducing the need for and operating cost of large spinning reserves. On premises they can shave peak loads and reduce demand charges which are a feature of many commercial tariffs, so in more and more cases batteries will be installed throughout the grid whether or not we have renewables, but they will be there to support renewables

      Finally the biggest storage opportunity is hydro/pumped hydro which can be both relatively cheap and supply very large amounts of power very quickly

      • Jacob 5 years ago

        3 days worth of water. Maybe bacteria would grow if water is stagnant and it would be unhealthy to drink.

        Perhaps the water could be put through a nano-filter to ensure it is free of disease.

        • nakedChimp 5 years ago

          Get it over 60 deg Celsius and you’re pretty safe from any harmful bacteria to prosper.. every 24-48hours ramp the temp up to 80 deg and you’re super safe.
          Biggest worry are legionelles which are kept in check that way.

          Also, the water body that stores the heat doesn’t need to be the water that you shower/brush your teeth with.. there are heat exchangers for that.

          And last but not least.. if you want very safe water (drinking quality) get a house filter + uv sterilization system.
          You need a 2-3 stage filter (sand, 20-10 micron, activated carbon) and the UV germicidal lamp after (the less particles, the higher the chance the uv radiation hits any bacteria and kills them).

          • Jacob 5 years ago

            Heat exchanger?

            The solar thermal power stations use molten salt to provide electricity after sunset.

            If hot water was a cheaper store of heat, then I think CSP stations would use water instead of molten salt.

          • nakedChimp 5 years ago

            My reply was about home warm water storage, not about large scale thermal solar power..
            At least that is how I understood Peter F’s initial post and your reply.

    • johnnewton 5 years ago

      At the moment. The price is coming down almost weekly.

    • Miles Harding 5 years ago

      I have the impression that Alan Finkel sees this as a transformative path, so there’s no need to initially worry about the 100% renewable end point and the storage issues it brings. For now, the problem has been identified and a solution will be required, but not until renewables are causing the problem that storage solves. As the transformation proceeds, the need for storage will be incremental, so it is a problem that can be solved incrementally.

      I would be very happy to simply see non-fossil fuels making substantial progress in the energy and transport sectors.

      The transport sector is one that concerns me more than power generation. We can continue to burn locally sourced coal for some time, but are almost totally dependent on imported transport fuels.

      • Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

        I agree Miles. Eventually, the transport sector has to be redeveloped. Today that solution is electric vehicles (double B trucks could be a challenge). So in the end it is a clean electric generation problem whether its industry/domestic consumption or electric vehicles.

    • Paul McArdle 5 years ago

      The “how much is enough storage” question was one I tried to think through here, based on existing consumption and intermittent (solar and wind) production patterns:

      Because of potential CAPEX-deferral (or OPEX reduction) on the network side, batteries (or other forms of distributed storage) would also have other potential benefits. I suspect these:
      1) Will be very location-dependent
      2) Will also decline with each additional MWh of storage added.
      Hence a tricky optimisation challenge.

      • Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

        I agree Paul. Storage has a place in maintaining reliability of the grid. Today batteries looks pretty expensive per MWh. Seriously, we need to compare the CAPEX of building a fully dispatchable GW nuclear power plant to wind/solar CAPEX with fully balancing storage amortised over the life of a nuclear power plant ~ 60 years.

        • Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

          Fortunately for us, the UK has already investigated how much electricity from new nuclear power will cost. Power from the Hinkley C reactors will cost about 19 Australian cents a kilowatt-hour. That’s in today’s money. It will be adjusted upwards each year. And just in case you thought that was an exceptional case, the cost estimate for its proposed North Anna 3 reactor in Virginia now about 24 billion Australian, which will make electricity from it about 24 cents a kilowatt-hour, which is even more expensive than power from Hinkley C.

          And note both these countries have the advantages of building new reactors at brownfield sites and having existing nuclear power industries, which are advantages Australia does not have, which will building nuclear power reactors here even more expensive.

          Here’s the article I got the information about North Anna 3 from, kindly supplied by Bob:

          • Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

            Thanks Ronald. In Australia, Hinkley C is used as a very high cost NP – 19 cents/kWh. In NSW where I live, we pay 27 cents per kWh.

          • Ronald Brakels 5 years ago

            Martin, the 27 cents you pay per kilowatt-hour in NSW is the retail price. The 19 cent cost of electricity per kilowatt-hour from Hinkley C is the wholesale price. In comparison the wholesale price of electricity in NSW averages around 3 or so cents a kllowatt-hour, so electricity from Hinkley C would be about 6 times more expensive.

            You can see the wholesale price for electricity for Australian states in the NEM at the AEMO site. It’s the graph on the right. Looking at NSW you can see that wholesale prices today ranged from under 2 cents a kilowatt-hour to 5 cents:

          • nakedChimp 5 years ago

            Hey, I can hear those crickets again! Lovely.

          • Giles 5 years ago

            Martin, do you understand the difference between wholesale (hinkley price) and retail prices (what you paying)?

          • hydrophilia 5 years ago

            Isn’t the $0.19/ wholesale while the $0.27 retail? I don’t know what your markups are for transmission etc, but I bet the consumers will see at LEAST $0.40 on their bills.

            Re solar for 3rd world:

            I’ve spent time off-grid for months at a time and found that a single battery and 100watt panel makes a huge difference in lighting & costs…. and runs under $50/year. Will ANY utility build power plants and a grid in Africa for that sort of market? I doubt it…

          • john 5 years ago

            Hinkley is possibly the most expensive producer of power in the world lets bring that on NOT.

          • Jacob 5 years ago

            They should build a HVDC line from Iceland to Scotland.

            They must be so corrupt to persist with nuclear.

          • Coley 5 years ago

            Good idea and the supply would be as cheap as chips, but then again, compared to Hinckley, any supply is cheap.
            Can’t believe with their resources, Australians are even thinking about Nuclear.

      • Gary 5 years ago

        You don’t even need storage if you are prepared to use a bit of gas (or biogas or biodiesel). Gas and diesel generating capacity is very cheap to build.

        A distributed wind/gas baseload supply in Australia would cost $90-$120 / MWh and wind would be at least 70% of that supply:

        Wind / Gas baseload cost:

        Wind variability:

        • Miles Harding 5 years ago

          While all energy will have to be 100% renewable at some point, there is a lot to do before getting there.
          We should be viewing all of the options as variable parameters in the transition of the energy mix. Currently, the dials are set hard over at ‘fossil’, a situation that must change if civilisation is to survive this century.

          Small scale (community and household) storage is valuable today, as it
          is very good as lopping peaks and can be used to avoid costly and
          ultimately unnecessary network upgrades.

          I see gas turbine peakers as a valuable step in the transition. They are relatively inexpensive and, while not very efficient, are only needed a few days a year and for a few hours at a couple of dozen other times. Importanly, these units already exist in the networks.

          One great impediment is the pathological obsession with optimisation of assets that has gripped the business world as of late. This is a response to competition and, while making the businesses operate more efficiently, severely compromises resilience.
          We have to get over the idea that just because a piece of infrastructure is only needed a few times per year, it is still valuabe and isn’t inefficient. Nobody questions firemen sitting around playing cards on a quiet day.

  3. Edward Borland 5 years ago

    The mainstream media certainly don’t want you investing in that or talking about renewables in a postive way. But it seems there are people who favour Australian renewables as some renewable shares are up 50% in the past few weeks (Dyesol and Infigen for example). It’s a bit like voting for Bernie Sanders – disruptive of the establishment. Perhaps the ship is finally turning with Paris around the corner.

    • john 5 years ago

      go Dyesal
      cripes I got into that as soon as it was launched.

      • Edward Borland 5 years ago

        Good stuff! The fossil fuelled media have put an incredible amount of energy into disinformation and dampening the public’s enthusiasm for clean energy. Fortunately for us, including the planet, that dam is about to burst ?

  4. JeffJL 5 years ago

    I feel sorry for Martin. You people are so unkind to him using facts.

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