Wind and solar PV have won the race – it's too late for other clean energy technologies | RenewEconomy

Wind and solar PV have won the race – it’s too late for other clean energy technologies

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PV and wind will be dominate the renewable energy transition because there isn’t time for another low-emission technology to catch them before they saturate the market.

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The Conversation

A supplied image obtained Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016 of the newly completed Nyngan solar plant. Constructed by energy providers AGL and solar developer First Solar, newly completed plants covering 390 hectares at Nyngan and Broken Hill will collectively produce 155 megawatts of electricity and power more than 50,000 homes. The sites are the largest and second largest solar plants in Australia. Federal environment minister Greg Hunt joined NSW energy minister Anthony Roberts and executives from AGL, First Solar and ARENA at the opening of the Nyngan solar plant on Wednesday morning. (AAP Image/Australian Renewable Energy Agency) NO ARCHIVING, EDITORIAL USE ONLY

Across the world, solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind are the dominant clean energy technologies. This dominance is likely to become overwhelming over the next few years, preventing other clean energy technologies (including carbon capture and storage, nuclear and other renewables) from growing much.

As the graph below shows, PV and wind constitute half of new generation capacity installed worldwide, with fossil, nuclear, hydro and all other renewable energy sources making up the other half. In Australia this dominance is even clearer, with PV and wind constituting virtually all new generation capacity.

Moreover, this trend is set to continue. Wind and PV installation rates grew by 19% in 2015 worldwide, while rates for other technologies were static or declined.

PV and wind dominate because they have already achieved commercial scale, are cheap (and set to get cheaper), and are not constrained by fuel availability, environmental considerations, construction materials, water supply, or security issues.

In fact, PV and wind now have such a large head start that no other low-emission generation technology has a reasonable prospect of catching them. Conventional hydro power cannot keep pace because each country will sooner or later run out of rivers to dam, and biomass availability is severely limited.

Heroic growth rates would be required for nuclear, carbon capture and storage, concentrating solar thermal, ocean energy and geothermal to span the 20- to 200-fold difference in annual installation scale to catch wind and PV – which are themselves growing rapidly.

Both wind and PV access massive economies of scale. Their ability to saturate national electricity markets around the world severely constrains other low-emission technologies. Some of the other technologies may become significant in some regions, but these will essentially be niche markets, such as geothermal in Iceland, or hydro power in Tasmania.

Around 80% of the energy sector could be electrified in the next two decades, including electrification of land transport (vehicles and public transport) and electric heat pumps for heat production. This will further increase opportunities for PV and wind, and allows for the elimination of two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions (based upon sectoral breakdown of national emissions data).

Storage and integration

What about the oft-cited problems with the variable nature of photovoltaics and wind energy? Fortunately, there is range of solutions that can help them achieve high levels of grid penetration.

While individual PV and wind generators can have very variable outputs, the combined output of thousands of generators is in fact quite predictable when coupled with good weather forecasting and smoothed out over a wide area.

What’s more, PV and wind often produce power under different weather conditions – storms favour wind, whereas calm conditions are often sunny. Rapid improvements in high-voltage DC transmission allows large amounts of power to be transmitted cheaply and efficiently over thousands of kilometres, meaning that the impact of local weather is less important.

Another option is “load management”, in which power demands for things like domestic and commercial water heating, and household and electric car battery charging, are moved from night time to day to coincide with availability of sun and wind. Existing hydro and gas or biogas generators, operated for just a small fraction of the year, can also help.

Finally, mass power storage is already available in the form of pumped hydro energy storage (PHES), in which surplus energy is used to pump water uphill to a storage reservoir, which is then released through a turbine to recover around 80% of the stored energy later on. This technology constitutes 99% of electricity storage worldwide and is overwhelmingly dominant in terms of new storage capacity installed each year (3.4 Gigawatts in 2015).

Australia already has several PHES facilities, such as Wivenhoe near Brisbane and Tumut 3 in the Snowy Mountains. All of these are at least 30 years old, but more can be built to accommodate the storage needs of new wind and PV capacity. Modelling underway at the Australian National University shows that reservoirs containing enough water for only 3-8 hours of grid operation is sufficient to stabilise a grid with about 90% PV and wind – mostly to shift daytime solar power for use at night.

This would require only a few hundred hectares of reservoirs for the Australian grid, and could be accomplished by building a series of “off-river” pumped hydro storages. Unlike conventional “on-river” hydro power, off-river PHES requires pairs of hectare-scale reservoirs, rather like oversized farm dams, located in steep, hilly, farm country, separated by an altitude difference of 200-1000 metres, and joined by a pipe containing a pump and turbine.

One example is the proposed Kidston project in an old gold mine in north Queensland. In these systems water goes around a closed loop, they consume very little water (evaporation minus rainfall), and have a much smaller environmental impact than river-based systems.

How renewables can dominate Australian energy

In Australia, if wind and PV continue at the installation rate required to reach the 2020 renewable energy target (about 1 GW per year each), we would hit 50% renewable electricity by 2030. This rises to 80% if the installation rates double to 2 GW per year each under a more ambitious renewable energy target – the barriers to which are probably more political than technological.

PV and wind will be overwhelmingly dominant in the renewable energy transition because there isn’t time for another low-emission technology to catch them before they saturate the market.

Wind, PV, PHES, HVDC and heat pumps are proven renewable energy solutions in large-scale deployment (100-1,000 GW installed worldwide for each). These technologies can drive rapid and deep cuts to the energy sector’s greenhouse emissions without any heroic assumptions.

Apart from a modest contribution from existing hydroelectricity, other low-emission technologies are unlikely to make significant contributions in the foreseeable future.

Source: The Conversation. Reproduced with permission.The Conversation


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  1. Dennis Kavanagh 4 years ago

    So if that’s a realistic and doable plan then why doesn’t somebody with influence just stand up and do it? Looks like we are going to fall further behind such goals with the Coalition ahead in the polls!

    • howardpatr 4 years ago

      Because, at this stage, Cayman Turnbull is controlled by the right wing religious conservatives in the LNP who have demonstrated their contempt for the needed renewable energy future.

      What progress is being made is despite of these people.

      • juxx0r 4 years ago

        When did Turnbull turn into an awesome Bavarian two door sports car?

  2. Farmer Dave 4 years ago

    Andrew, it might be too late for electricity generation, but what about larger part of our current energy mix which is not based on electricity? Your “Australian renewables by 2030 graph” is surely about electricity, not all forms of energy.

    I would like to put in a fervent plea to all contributors to this excellent site to always use “electricity” when that is what is being discussed, and to only use “energy” when all forms are being discussed. Renewable electricity is the easy part of the energy transition, the other parts are harder, and no good comes from glossing over that distinction.

    • Rusdy Simano 4 years ago

      True. Electricity is quite a ‘small’ pie of the energy game. The best review I’ve ever read to date regarding our current plight (and future reality check) about energy is this one: and the book is available for free to read (I encourage to buy, of course):

      • Brian 4 years ago

        Your link is to an article by Richard Heinberg: Our Renewable Future – & I agree it is one of the most realistic assessments I have come across. Its conclusion is very much in line with the views of Ted Trainer (Australian social scientist) and Nicole Foss (Canadian economist). Recent ‘cradle to grave’ analyses confirm their view that the energy return on energy invested ratio is not high enough from Wind (with storage) and PV to support an economy such as ours. There will, of necessity, be a hit to our life style expectations.

        • Rusdy Simano 4 years ago

          Thanks for mentioning those names. The more I read about it, the more I’ve found that there are many sustainability experts since ages ago. My guess it’s not really known into public realm due to ‘hippie’ factor. Even Kyoto protocol started in 1998!

          Obviously, now with the looming climate emergency, it starts to get more attention. From what I understand to date, in order for one to grasp the full gamut of ‘sustainability’, one must be a polymath, or at least have a basic understanding of physics, finance (economy), politics, and so on.

          Hence, I applaud that book very much as it has been very good in conveying all these idea at once. Lots of other sustainability experts I’ve read so far, either to ‘numbery’, or don’t have the skill to convey these heavily interconnected concepts into the average ‘joe-blo’.

    • Andrew Blakers 4 years ago

      Most energy can readily switch to electricity via electrification of transport and electric-driven heat pumps for space and water heating. Electricity is 3-4 times more efficient (energy per unit of service) for urban heat (via heat pumps) and electric cars (compared with petrol cars).

      • solarguy 4 years ago

        Andrew, why would you use heat pumps to heat domestic water? When solar water heaters do the job, up to 97% of the year for no cost.

        • Andrew Blakers 4 years ago

          Because they are cheaper. Roof mounted SHW is expensive for some reason.
          Also, those with limited roof space can use electric heat pumps .

          • solarguy 4 years ago

            The difference in price will be long forgotten, when the running costs of a H/P out strips that of a SHW investment, 5yrs down the track.
            If one wanted to use PV to run a 1kw H/P compressor, they would need 1.5kwp PV, taking into account losses and irradiance fluctuation. That would take up to 9.9sqm of roof area, where an Evacuated Tube SHW only requires 2.4sqm for a typical family of 4.
            Plenty of my customers weren’t happy with their H/P’s, but were very happy with their SHW systems power bill saving. They would never go back to a H/P!

          • Andrew Blakers 4 years ago

            Well, I guess the market will sort it out. I don’t hate solar thermal – I’ve got one on my roof!

            One point: excess PV in summer and during holidays has value, unlike excess hot water.

          • solarguy 4 years ago

            Well we could charge the neighbours for sauna and a shower and give them a complementary free cuppa.

          • Andrew Blakers 4 years ago

            Does the spa come with the solar collector?

          • solarguy 4 years ago

            Ah, no sorry. But they do come with free passive sun tracking.

  3. Brunel 4 years ago

    Can the existing grid be converted to UHVDC?

    So if you transmit electrons from QLD to SA, there is minimal loss – 3.5% per 1000km.

    And of course extend the SA grid to WA.

  4. Brunel 4 years ago

    What Elon Musk does is look at base level physics and works up from there.

    Pr Sadoway looks at base level chemistry and tries to work up from there.

    If boffins at ANU looked at the base level physics of wave power – I bet they will conclude that it is not worth it. Plus there are the issues of rust and waterproofing.

    No matter how much scale wave power is given, it will never be as cheap as solar PV.

    Solar panels in footpaths/roads. A lot of areas cannot be bothered to paint the roads properly so how can solar panels in roads ever be viable!!!

    • Baronmax 4 years ago

      Wave power is a challenge certainly but your assertion is not correct.
      You’ve not considered energy density. Rust and waterproofing are not insurmountable issues, otherwise we wouldn’t have ships or offshore oil and gas installations.

      • Brunel 4 years ago

        What energy density.

        You would also have to transmit the electrons via undersea cables.

        Maybe they could have underwater wind turbines to make electrons.

        But would have to make sure that boats do not hit them.

  5. Blue Gum 4 years ago

    Solar is going to reign, due to large efficiency advancements in the pipeline(Eg; UNSW), low entry level costs(v wind) and for Australia specifically we have plenty of sun and land to go around.

    Having said that, I strongly believe Australia needs to have 1 nuclear plant close to every capitol city, due to both redundancy and to contribute to nuclear R&D and investment.
    This idea that nuclear is some bogey man is utterly ridiculous, anti-science and illogical.
    With more research and time the problems with nuclear will be solved, leaving us with a significantly more reliable energy source.

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