Who would have thought that, scarcely five weeks after Treasurer Scott Morrison, paraded a chunk of coal in parliament, planning for Australia’s energy needs would be dominated by renewables, batteries and hydro?
For months now, the Coalition has been talking down renewables, blaming them for power failures, blackouts, and an unreliable energy network.
South Australia was bearing the brunt of this campaign. The state that couldn’t keep its lights on had Coalition politicians and mainstream journalists vexatiously attributing the blame to its high density of renewables.
But this sustained campaign, which would eventually hail “clean coal” as Australia’s salvation, all came unstuck when tech entrepreneur Elon Musk came out with a brilliant stunt: to install a massive battery storage system in South Australia “in 100 days, or it’s free”.
The genius of the stunt was not to win an instant contract to…
That’s a lot of crises to handle at once, so lots of solutions are being put forward. But what do people and businesses actually need? Do they need more gas, or cheaper prices, or more investment certainty, or all or none of the above? How do we cut through to what is really important, rather than side details?
The first thing to note is that what people really care about is their energy costs, not energy prices. This might seem like a pedantic distinction, but if homes and businesses can be helped…
In its latest move on energy policy, the Turnbull government has unveiled a plan to boost generation from the Snowy Hydro scheme by 50%.
The government says the expansion, which it has labelled the Snowy Mountains Scheme 2.0, would add 2,000 megawatts of renewable energy to the National Electricity Market. This would be enough to power 500,000 homes.
Claiming the upgrading would be an “electricity game-changer”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said that in one hour it would be able to produce 20 times the 100 megawatt-hours expected from the battery proposed this week by the South Australian government, but would deliver it constantly for almost a week.
Turnbull flew to the Snowy early Thursday to formally announce the plan. The commonwealth is a minority shareholder in the Snowy Hydro, with a 13% stake. New South Wales and Victoria have 58% and 29% stakes respectively.
The government, through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), would examine several sites that could support large-scale pumped hydroelectric energy storage in the area, Turnbull said.
Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg said the cost would run into “billions of dollars”. It is being suggested it would be around A$2 billion. Frydenberg avoided being tied down on when it would be completed.
He said three new tunnels were being looked at, stretching 27 kilometres for the pumped hydro-facility. It would not involve new dams, but connect existing reservoirs and recycle water.
The plan had the potential to ensure there would be the needed renewable energy supply for those on the east coast at times of peak demand, Frydenberg said.
Tony Wood, energy program director at the Grattan Institute, cautioned that the plan would involve technical and economic issues, including whether it could make money, and to what extent it could contribute to solving the short-term power crisis.
“This isn’t some sort of magic panacea,” Wood told the ABC. Some hard-headed thinking was needed on what it would do and how it would work.
Turnbull said: “The unprecedented expansion will help make renewables reliable, filling in holes caused by intermittent supply and generator outages.
“It will enable greater energy efficiency and help stabilise electricity supply into the future,” he said – adding that this would ultimately mean cheaper power prices.
He said successive governments at all levels had failed to put in place the needed storage to ensure reliable supply.
“We are making energy storage infrastructure a critical priority to ensure better integration of wind and solar into the energy market and more efficient use of conventional power.”
Turnbull said an “all-of-the-above” approach, including hydro, solar, coal and gas, was critical to future energy supplies.
Snowy Hydro already provided back-up energy to NSW and Victoria and could extend to South Australia when expanded, he said. The expansion would have no impact on the supply of irrigation water to NSW, South Australia and Queensland.
The feasibility study for the expansion is expected to be completed before the end of this year, with construction starting soon after, he said.
Households and businesses can take greater control of their energy future and slash their power bills in a range of cost-effective ways. Solar panels and battery storage are among the most obvious strategies. But not everyone can afford them, which is why we are seeing the rise of community projects that aim to give more people access to clean energy.
Australia now has more than 1.6 million solar roofs. Last year 6,750 battery storage systems were installed, up from just 500 in 2015.
Yet many households and businesses are still effectively “locked out” of this energy revolution. Many renters, apartment-dwellers and lower-income households face a series of market barriers that make these options hard to access.
Renters often find that their landlord does not want to invest in solar. Those living in apartments can have the same problem with their strata or body corporate, with the added problem of not always having access to their own roof.
Poorer households typically can’t afford solar panels or batteries, even if they would save money over the longer term. On top of the expense, buying solar panels and other clean energy products can be complicated and confusing.
The good news is that there are several initiatives around Australia that aim to get around these barriers. One example is Darebin Solar $avers, a collaboration between local government, community and industry that has installed solar panels on 300 low-income households in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. There was no upfront cost to these households, ensuring they were financially better off from day one.
Another example is the community solar gardens model, which has become popular in the United States. Solar gardens work by installing a central solar array, generally near a population centre. Energy customers are invited to buy (or subscribe to) a share in a handful of the array’s solar panels. The electricity generated is then credited on the customer’s electricity bill. Often, poorer households are offered discounts to be able to participate.
One issue with these kinds of schemes, however, is that they are complicated to set up. They usually involve many partner organisations – at least one of which has to have an interest in ensuring that users are better off. It is hard to see how the market can deliver these schemes on its own.
Where markets fail, it is typically governments’ job to step in and help. So how can governments go about helping people get access to affordable clean energy?
In the United States, the Obama administration set a national target of 1 gigawatt of solar panels to be installed on low- to moderate-income homes by 2020 as part of the Clean Energy Savings for All program. The National Community Solar Partnership brought together 68 organisations to help set up community solar gardens and make them easier to access.
This week, Australia’s second national Community Energy Congress in Melbourne will hear from Barack Obama’s climate and energy adviser, Candace Vahlsing, who will outline how these policies can help ensure wider access to green energy.
In Australia, a proposal to establish a network of 50 Regional Energy Hubs is gaining traction. The federal Labor Party, Greens and Nick Xenophon Team all made commitments in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election.
The Regional Energy Hubs proposal is modelled on the Moreland Energy Foundation, a non-profit organisation in inner-north Melbourne set up in 2000 in the wake of Victoria’s energy privatisation. The foundation has a team of energy and engagement experts working with households, businesses, community groups and governments on innovative approaches to implementing sustainable energy supply – the Darebin Solar $avers program being one example. The idea would be to set up dozens more similar organisations, all linked together across the nation.
The program can be thought of as like Landcare but for clean energy. Landcare is a nationwide network of volunteers who care for our land and water, with the aim of boosting both environmental protection and agricultural productivity. Similarly, energy hubs would aim both to make energy more environmentally friendly, and to make clean energy more affordable and accessible.
This is why we have to move past just talking about “costs” and start thinking about investment. Modelling by Marsden Jacobs and Associates shows that every dollar of government investment in community energy can leverage A$10-17 of community investment. At the same time, this delivers many other benefits to communities: closer connections between neighbours; opportunities to learn new skills or access new income streams; easing social inequity; and improving health.
Given the myriad possible solutions to our energy challenges, we need to nut out what works best, and where. The best way to do this is by putting all of our heads together – local government, state government, federal government, private enterprise, innovators in the clean energy sector, and the communities that stand to benefit. That way we can make the clean energy transition fairer and more accessible to all.
Climate change activists under the ‘Rising Tide’ banner conducted what was called on the day the ‘People’s Protest’ in Newcastle yesterday. The protest was an attempt to shut down the Port of Newcastle in Australia, which is the largest exporter of coal in the world.
Despite the protesters claim that they had successfully blockaded the harbour, the authorities had previously arranged for there to be no shipping movements on the day in the interests of safety. The protesters used kayaks and various home-made ‘boats’ to form the blockade near Horseshoe Beach. About 500 people took part in the protest.
A police presence was very active during the protest to ensure safety and to prevent any form of crime.
Rising Tide is preaching a message of anti-coal and pro-renewable energy for our future.
NSW Greens MP Lee Rhiannon took part in the protest.
The project aims to set up recharge stations for electric cars at workplaces, homes and shopping centres. It is thought that some 250 000 recharge stations will be built in the project. Such projects have already been set up in Israel and Denmark.
Macquarie Capital is to raise $1 billion to build the recharging network, with AGL to supply renewable energy for the project. Better Place will actually build the network.
Should the project go ahead and the infrastructure be built, motorists will be able to dump petrol and diesel vehicles and move to electric ones. This will of course be a great relief from rising fuel costs and help protect the environment from further greenhouse gas emissions.