The Impossible Dream Or 100% Renewable Energy by 2020?
A collaborative project involving a collection of engineers, scientists and other professionals with industrial and academic experience – working entirely pro bono – has come up with a detailed and costed blueprint for the transformation of the Australian energy system to become 100% renewable by 2020. This is the word from Beyond Zero Emissions.
Matthew Wright in Climate Spectator (21 July 2010):
Last week the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy plan, a collaboration between the University of Melbourne Energy Institute and climate solutions think tank Beyond Zero Emissions, was launched at the Spot Theatre at Melbourne University.
Usually, talks about energy draw a fairly specialised crowd, but this event filled the 500 seat venue and around 300 people had to be turned away. So what is it about this project that has captured the imagination of so many people?
The answer is that this collaborative project – between a collection of engineers, scientists and other professionals with industrial and academic experience, working entirely pro bono – provides a detailed and costed blueprint for the transformation of the Australian energy system to 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020.
One of the perceived blocks to a wholesale shift to renewable energy is the idea that renewable energy can’t supply baseload power. Electricity is difficult and expensive to store and, as a result, needs to be produced to meet demand at any given moment. For this reason, in a fossil fuel-based system, ‘baseload’ coal plants run at a pretty much constant output, while gas peaking plants are brought on and off line to meet demand.
The argument run relentlessly against renewables by the carbon lobby is that, because ‘the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t shine at night’, renewable energy can’t provide the constant, or ‘baseload,’ electricity we need to meet demand around the clock.
In fact, technology developed in the 1980′s overcame these limitations. While wind power output is variable, a combination of large-scale concentrated solar thermal plants with molten salt storage (otherwise knows as ‘baseload solar’) and wind farms can power this nation 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Baseload solar thermal is the game-changing renewable energy technology, developed by
the US Department of Energy between 1980 and 2000. It is now commercially available from SolarReserve of California, and Torresol Energy/SENER of Spain, and many other solar thermal companies are upgrading to this technology, including solar thermal industry leaders Acciona and Abengoa of Spain, Brightsource of Israel and Solar Millennium of Germany.
Solar thermal plants use many mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto a receiver, generating heat to create steam and power a turbine. The heat is safely stored in insulated tanks of high-temperature molten salt, just like a thermos-flask stores a hot liquid. At any time of day or night, the hot liquid salt is used to generate steam for the turbine, creating zero-emission, baseload solar electricity.
According to US DoE projections, solar thermal will be cost-competitive with coal and gas power, as the solar thermal industry scales up to an installed capacity of thousands of megawatts
around the world. Even the conservative International Energy Agency, to whom the world’s major economies turn for advice on energy, says that solar will make up 25 per cent of the world’s energy by 2050.
In Spain, where the solar resource is roughly on par with Victoria, plants using molten salt storage have been operational since 2008. Torresol Energy is building Gemasolar, a solar thermal power tower with 15 hours of storage, to be complete around the end of this year.
Meanwhile, US company SolarReserve has three Baseload Solar projects on the go: one 50 MWe plant in Spain, and two plants in the US – 100 MWe and 150 MWe respectively. In total, the booming concentrating solar thermal industry is currently building billions of dollars of plants globally, including $20 billion in Spain and more than $20 billion breaking ground this year in the south-west of the USA.
Under the ZCA2020 Plan there would be 12 solar regions across the country, consisting of 3,500 MW of power tower units. These would supply 60 per cent of Australia’s electricity in 2020.
The other 40 per cent of Australia’s electricity would come from wind. 6,400 gearless Enercon 7.5 MW turbines are specified and and would be distributed to 23 sites across the country.
The rapid uptake of wind power in other countries is in stark contrast to Australia. Denmark, for example, with 5.4 million inhabitants crammed into an area twenty times smaller than New South Wales, is aiming for 50 per cent of its power to come from wind by 2025.
In China alone, the installed wind capacity has doubled every year for the past five years. “Wind power is vital,” says Shi Lishan, deputy director of renewable energy in China’s National Energy
Administration, “as it is the cheapest form of renewable energy. It is advantageous to put as much wind energy as you can harness in the grid because it’s cheap.”
Detailed modelling has been carried out based on wind speeds measured half-hourly for a two-year period and solar data from the 12 proposed solar sites. With a demand model based on data from the current National Electricity Market (NEM), we show that 100 per cent renewable
electricity supply can be delivered 24 hours, seven days, every day of the year matching Australia’s demand profile. The specified wind and solar system requires just 2 per cent backup from existing hydro and a small amount of co-firing with waste biomass for rare periods with less sun or wind than required.
A national grid is costed into the plan, to allow the renewable generating mix to be shifted from point of supply to demand, and to take advantage of geographical diversity. This would link WA’s two grids in the South and North with the eastern seaboard grid, the NEM. This is based on commercially available and costed High Voltage DC and AC transmission lines. The design of the grid was completed in conjunction with the advice and review of leading engineering firm
Sinclair Knight Merz.
Sound like a big task? All those wind farms and solar plants? Could we do it?
Australia has a huge and powerful industrial economy that is well up to the task. At the peak of construction, by 2016, we’d need an 80,000-strong construction workforce building the infrastructure.
That’s only about 8 per cent of Australia’s existing construction workforce of one million people, and in the resources boom from 2003-2008 the construction industry was growing at 50,000 new jobs per year, every year.The ZCA2020 Plan requires a ramp rate about 20 per cent of this. The manufacturing to build all the components? We’d need about one decent-sized car manufacturing plant to produce all the mirrors we’d need. We already have three of those.
There is a focus on detailing the kind of industries and jobs that will grow from the construction and manufacturing of the solar and wind plants and the modernised electricity grid. A vibrant renewable energy sector can be built in the current powerhouses of the Australian economy the Hunter and Latrobe Valleys, and the Bowen basin in Queensland.
We know we have the technology, the industry, the workers, the engineers, the money and the materials to do the job. Now we need the leadership to step forward.
To go to zero emissions, we do not just throw on a carbon price and rely on the ‘unlocking’ of innovation to do the job. Instead we get ourselves a plan. The Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Plan is a detailed, pragmatic and costed plan to get on with the job and deal decisively with these crucial issues – and to achieve 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020.
Matthew Wright is an executive director at climate change solutions think tank Beyond Zero Emissions