Could Solar And Wind Replace Fossil Fuels in Australia By 2040?

Originally published on RenewEconomy by Giles Parkinson 

Solar and wind energy could replace all fossil fuels in Australia by 2040 if their recent rate of deployment is maintained and slightly increased over the next 27 years – delivering the country with a 100% renewable electricity grid “by default” as early as 2040.

Rate of solar and wind installations in Australia 2013 - 2040.
Rate of solar and wind installations in Australia 2013 – 2040.

The stunning conclusions come from research from Andrew Blakers, the director of the Australian National University Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems.

It notes that nearly all new electricity generation capacity in recent years has been wind and solar photovoltaics (PV), and overall electricity demand has also been falling since 2008 in Australia.

Blakers says that if this situation continues, then Australia will achieve renewable electricity system by 2040, as existing fossil fuel power stations retire at the end of their service lives and are replaced with renewables.

And the cost will be no greater than having fossil fuels because, as Bloomberg New Energy Finance notes, wind is already cheaper than new coal, or gas-fired generation and solar soon will be.

These are the critical points – because renewables are often painted as expensive when compared to fully-depreciated, 40-year-old fossil fuel plants.

But not when compared to the new capacity required to replace the aging fossil fuel fleet.

Blakers says his scenario works even using the more conservative technology cost forecasts prepared by the Bureau of Resource and Energy Economics. These forecasts are being updated, but they came to similar conclusions as BNEF on technology cost trends, just not quite as quickly.

The 100% by 2040 scenario is probably not that much different in scope to current trends.

Australia was sitting at around 10% renewables in 2010, and will probably end up with at least 25% by 2020, given current trends on rooftop solar and the fixed 41,000 GWh target for large scale renewables.

BNEF this week suggested that could jump to 46% by 2030 as wind and solar replace retiring fossil fuel plant, and the rate of those retirements would likely increase in the following decade.

Some retirements could be accelerated as inflexible fossil fuel generation found itself squeezed out of the market by renewables and the emergence of storage options.

The scenario painted by Blakers includes:

  • The currently-declining consumption of electricity stabilises at 2013 levels
  • New capacity to replace retiring fossil fuel power stations at end of system life is exclusively wind and solar i.e. no new gas or coal plant.
  • All existing fossil fuel power stations have retired by 2040
  • Existing hydro and other renewables is maintained but not increased
  • Capacity factors typical of good sites are achieved for wind (35%) and solar (20%). System lifetimes of 30 years are assumed.
  • Wind and PV installation rates of 1 gigawatt (GW) per year each are sufficient to meet the Government’s 2020 renewable energy target. Note that about 1 GW of PV was installed in 2012 and about 1 GW of wind will be installed in 2013.

In order to reach 100% renewables by 2040 the following installation rates are needed:

  1. Wind: 1 GW per year until 2040
  2. Solar: 1 GW per year until 2020, then growing by 10% per year thereafter.

Blakers notes that South Australia already gets 29% of its electricity from wind and solar PV, and Tasmania gets almost all of its electricity from hydro.

The Australian Capital Territory [ACT] plans to get to 90% renewables by 2020.

This graph shows the rate of deployment out to 2040, with solar increasing by 10% per year from 2020.

Australian solar and wind capacity growth 2013 - 2040
Australian solar and wind capacity growth 2013 – 2040

While this shows total generating capacity as it grows – in the case of wind and solar – and shrinks in the case of fossil fuels. Note the accelerated decline after 2030.

Australia - annual power generation 2013 - 2040 by energy type.
Australia – annual power generation 2013 – 2040 by energy type.

Why are Environmentalists excited about the Natural Gas boom?

Why are Environmentalists excited about the Natural Gas boom? | 18/03/13
by John Brian Shannon John Brian Shannon

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, which is the cleanest fossil fuel of all?

You guessed it! Natural gas is the cleanest fossil fuel – and by significant margins as data from the Environmental Protection Agency illustrates in the chart below.

Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998
Fossil Fuel Emission Levels in pounds per billion Btu of energy input. Source: EPA Natural Gas Issues and Trends 1998

Natural gas, as the cleanest of the fossil fuels, can be used in many ways to help reduce the emission of pollutants into the atmosphere.

Burning natural gas in the place of other fossil fuels emits fewer harmful pollutants, and an increased reliance on natural gas can potentially reduce the emissions of many of the most harmful pollutants. — naturalgas.org

After investigating the externalities associated with conventional sources of energy and cognizant of their commitments towards clean air, many nations have begun to embrace natural gas as a stepping stone towards a cleaner energy future.

In the U.S.A., as far back as 2003 when coal supplied more than 50% of America’s electrical power, coal-fired plants have been retired more quickly than new ones have come online. By 2012, coal supplied only 38% of U.S. electricity.

Nine gigawatts of U.S. coal-fired power generation was shut-down in 2012 alone, and replaced by an almost equal amount of natural gas power generation. Emission levels from those comparably-sized replacement natural gas power plants are less than half of those retired coal-fired plants!

Many more U.S. coal-fired power plants are scheduled for complete shutdown, or conversion to natural gas over the next few years totalling 35 GigaWatts (GW) according to the experts.

Chart courtesy of the U.S. Energy Information Administration — shows carbon emissions dropping as a result of switching from coal to natural gas,  2005-2012.

U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration
U.S. Carbon Emissions by Sector. Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Carbon emissions of all end-use Sectors have decreased since 2005 in the United States.

The largest reductions appear to be due to the Electric Power and Transportation sector’s emissions, followed by the Industrial, Residential and Commercial sectors.

[Of all sectors] “the largest reduction to carbon emissions is due to coal-to-natural gas ‘fuels switching’ and construction of higher efficiency power plants. 

Expansion of renewable power, overwhelmingly due to expanded wind power, has been the second largest factor to reduced Power Sector carbon emissions.” – theenergycollective.com

Many expert studies show CO2 emissions dropping as a result of the combined effects of many countries switching from coal to natural gas and/or renewables, 1990-2100.

Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell 'New Lens Scenarios'
Chart depicts probable CO2 levels, depending on the energy choices we make. Image courtesy of Royal Dutch Shell ‘New Lens Scenarios’

The change-up to renewable energy will vary by country as OECD nations continue to take the lead in renewable energy between now and 2100. Even so, total worldwide emissions will drop dramatically and the switch from coal to natural gas is one big step towards a cleaner environment.

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Energy & Climate: The regulatory climate is changing too!

by John Brian Shannon

For several decades, U.S. environmental regulators have been the tall, silent type.

These highly-educated people worked for the government, but alongside industry, to craft energy regulations reflecting the ecological notions of their particular era. For most of the 20th century politicians favoured regulations which worked to promote the rapid growth of the economy and to advance the use of energy – particularly fossil-fuel energy.

But now, a new generation of regulators are actively contributing to the debate and they are doing so in significant ways. So much has changed and with little media coverage considering the scope of the changes which are now becoming apparent.

Such are the recent regulatory changes in the U.S.A. that people are now openly wondering if another coal-fired powerplant will ever be built in the United States!

Coal, which produced a majority of America’s electrical energy in 1997,  has since dropped to 36% of total electrical energy production.

The average share of electricity generated from coal in the US has dropped from 52.8% in 1997 to 45.0% in 2009.[1] In the first quarter of 2012, the use of coal for electricity generation has declined substantially more, declining 21% from 2011 levels. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 27 gigawatts of capacity from coal-fired generators [are] to be retired from 175 coal-fired power plants between 2012 and 2016.[8] Coal’s share of electricity generation dropped to just over 36%. – Wikipedia

The explanation for this sea-change is both simple and complicated. EPA regulators attempted to enforce the new for 2011 Cross-State Air Pollution Rule regulations (read other important CSAPR information here) due to go into effect on 7/7/11, but that act was struck down in appeals court on 21/8/12 for contravening another set of regulations called The Clean Air Act. Happily, another act (but with lower standards) called the Clean Air Interstate Rule automatically resumed as the prevailing regulatory framework until the CSAPR could be re-written so as not to contravene The Clean Air Act.

In the meantime, EPA bureaucrats set to work on changing the regulations for natural gas extraction, including fracking, which helped to make electricity produced by natural gas much cheaper than electricity produced by coal — and as a result, coal-fired plants are closing down far faster than if the CSAPR had been enacted and not struck down. (Moral: Never argue with the bureaucrats).

Yet more changes lay ahead due to upcoming proposed regulatory changes. A good example of this is Tina Casey’s post “Texas Wind Power Up, Nukes Down” which describes how the nuclear powerplant operator Exelon is shifting away from nuclear to wind energy.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune last week, the CEO of energy giant Exelon, Christopher Crane predicted that the influx of low cost wind power would lead the company to start shuttering its nuclear plants.

Though wind and other renewables only account for about three percent of the company’s capacity now, that could change pretty fast.

Exelon’s first commercial wind farm only started operating in January 2012, and the company already has 44 wind projects operating in 10 different states. Tina Casey (Cleantechnica.com)

Coal is now being undercut by lower priced natural gas-fired electricity — and nuclear power is being undercut by lower priced wind-powered electricity, causing a historic shift in America’s energy makeup. We are just at the beginning of that road.

What happens if regulators decide to drop the huge subsidies the government pays to both the coal industry and the nuclear industry?

Even if regulators decided to bring subsidy levels for sustainable energy up to the same levels that coal and nuclear now enjoy – the changes we have seen thus far will seem microscopic.

fossil-fuel-subsidies

In the U.S.A., Oil and Gas receives 13 times more in historical subsidies than clean energy.

Over the first 15 years of these energy sources’ subsidies, oil and gas got 5 times what renewables got (in 2010 dollars) and nuclear energy got 10 times as much.

“Nuclear spent an average of about $3.3 billion a year, oil and gas about $1.8 billion, and renewable energy just under half a billion,” DBL Investors Managing Partner Nancy Pfund and Ben Healey recently wrote in “What would Jefferson do?” – Cleantechnica

energy-subsidies-percentages

The energy regulatory climate is changing in the U.S.A., and we have only seen the beginning of these changes. By 2020, America’s energy regulations will have changed significantly to reflect what a large percentage of voters want. Clean energy, delivered on a (subsidy) level playing field.

us_fuel_subsidies

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JOHN BRIAN SHANNON

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Clean Energy: How To Get There From Here!

by John Brian Shannon

Everyone knows more electricity is needed in developed nations and electrical needs in developing nations are skyrocketing. No problem there — everyone deserves to live a good lifestyle and enjoy our modern technology to the fullest.

The problem occurs in the means used to generate that electricity. Some kinds of electrical power generation cause huge billowing clouds of pollution 24-hours per day, every day of the year.

All of this adds up to astronomically high costs for electrical power producers and users, which can be measured in several different ways.

For instance, new conventional nuclear  power plants can cost up to $20 billion dollars each. Added to that cost, is the cost incurred to store thousands of tons of (so-called) spent nuclear fuel. Some spent fuels must be stored in air-conditioned bunkers for up to 20,000 years, with never more than 36 hours of A/C interruption. The costs of that are so high, they can’t even be calculated.

New coal plants cost about $250 million dollars/per hundred megawatts. A hundred megawatts isn’t much, by the way – enough to power 16,000 power-hungry A/C homes in the U.S. or about 29,000 homes in China. Some coal-fired power plants cost upwards of $1 billion dollars. The cost of the coal must be added to the equation from day one – the price of which rises and falls typically between $80.00 and $160.00 per ton, plus the significant transportation costs. It may interest you to know that China burned 3 billion tons of coal last year, emitting 7.2 billion tons of CO2 and other toxic gasses. Approximately 410,000 Chinese people die every year as a result of pollution-related deaths.

Natural gas power plants are clean, they cost a little more than comparable coal plants and the only real drawback is they emit huge volumes of CO2. Unlike coal, they emit little in the way of other toxic gasses or soot. Again, a costly and continuous and supply of natural gas must be available every day of the year.

No matter which choice is made, the construction of electrical generation power plants incurs high costs to nations — and the cheapest options come with the highest fuel and health-care costs.

In the United States, nuclear power receives significant subsidies on the order of $3.50 billion per year on average and oil and gas receive $4.86 billion subsidy dollars per year on average.

fossil-fuel-subsidies-490x407

We can see from the chart above that in the United States most forms of electrical power generation are heavily subsidized. Who could afford electricity otherwise?

If solar, wind and geothermal energy were subsidized at the same per kilowatt rate as Oil & Gas, Coal, or Nuclear — total U.S. emission levels would drop dramatically and Americans would be breathing much cleaner air.

National health-care costs would drop, acid rain damage would decrease to near zero, crop damage from power plants would become a thing of the past and meeting international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol would become boringly simple.

To have the enjoyment of breathing clean air and the other benefits listed above, all governments should calculate the highest subsidy they pay per kilowatt hour and then begin paying ALL electricity providers that same per kilowatt hour subsidy.

Solar power, wind power and geothermal would then become ultra-competitive with coal, N-power and Oil & Gas. Every large rooftop area, such as big box retail outlets like IKEA stores for one good example, could assist national power production and air-quality goals by lowering demand on the grid and potentially adding power to it, while helping to enhance the health of citizens.

One nation has already begun such a program and is right on schedule. Denmark has decided that all energy, including transportation energy(!) will come from renewable sources by 2050 and they have made substantial progress in only a few short years.

Even with the patchwork and grossly unlevel subsidy regimes in place in the United States, this transition is already occurring. Organizations from the U.S. Navy, to IKEA and WalMart, some cities and towns, the Big Three auto manufacturers and many more businesses and organizations, are converting their unused rooftop spaces and vacant land into clean power stations — thereby tapering the need for behemoth, pollution-spewing power plants.

If governments standardized the subsidies they already pay for Oil & Gas, Coal and Nuclear power (instead of paying billions of dollars to some power providers — whilst paying pennies to others) we would all breathe a lot easier.

We need oil & gas, coal, natural gas and conventional nuclear power to feed our grids, what I’m  advocating for is directly comparable subsidies for all electricity providers, including green energy — and there are no real reasons why such subsidy levelization couldn’t soon happen in every country.

ABOUT JOHN BRIAN SHANNON

I write about green energy, sustainable development and economics. My blogs appear in the Arabian Gazette, EcoPoint, EnergyBoom, Huffington Post, United Nations Development Programme, WACSI — and other quality publications.

“It is important to assist all levels of government and the business community to find sustainable ways forward for industry and consumers.”

Green Energy blog: http://johnbrianshannon.com
Economics blog: https://jbsnews.wordpress.com
Twitter: @JBSCanada

The Economics of Green Energy

by John Brian Shannon

Back in the old days of sustainable energy, circa 2000, the cost of switching to solar or wind was so expensive that only the well-intentioned considered it — and only the wealthy could afford it.

How times have changed!

Nowadays, utility-scale solar power and wind power are cost-competitive with utility-scale coal-fired and nuclear electrical power generation.

And obviously, solar and wind are much better for the environment.

solar-coal-power_thumb[3]

That’s not to knock coal, which has provided reliable power for decades and still has a great future in Coal to Liquid fuels — that is, coal processed into extremely pure transportation fuels. Gasoline for your car, diesel for cars, trucks and ships and jet fuel are all created from coal using CTL technology.

South Africa’s SASOL have been using CTL technology successfully since 1955 and 30% of all the transportation fuels in that country are made from domestically-sourced coal. No alterations to vehicle engines or aircraft turbine engines are required to use fuels which are made from coal — as the CTL technology produces almost laboratory-quality fuels when using the Fisher-Tropsch catalytic process.

However, electrical power generation which burns raw coal releases billions of tons of CO2 and carbon monoxide, along with huge amounts of hydrogen sulfide, arsenic, lead, cyanide, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other toxins into the atmosphere every year — all of which easily cross state lines, national boundaries and even the oceans before settling in both populated areas and farmland.

One brand new coal-fired plant per week is completed and goes into service in China these days and this has been the case since late 2008.

In 2010 for example, China operated 620 coal-fired power plants which burned over 3 billion tons of coal per year. Just the CO2 emissions alone from coal-fired electrical generation in China surpassed 7.2 billion tons in 2010.

Which leads to higher health care costs in both the developing world and the developed world. According to CLPmag.org

“China faces a number of serious environmental issues caused by overpopulation and rapid industrial growth. Water pollution and a resulting shortage of drinking water is one such issue, as is air pollution caused by an over-reliance on coal as fuel. It has been estimated that 410,000 Chinese die as a result of pollution each year.”

In addition to being cost-competitive with coal, solar and wind are also cost-competitive with nuclear. In the case of solar and wind power there is no need for very costly nuclear spent-fuel storage — as some types of nuclear fuel rods must be stored in terrorist-proof bunkers and be constantly-cooled 24 hours per day/365 days per year for up to 20,000 years — without any interruption lasting longer than 36 hours. The cost of just one failure here would be catastrophic.

solar-less-expensive-nuclear_thumb[3]

Nuclear power has been statistically safe – with only one serious incident about every ten years on average. However, we have seen deaths caused by exposure to radioactive emissions from nuclear power plant accidents and indirect adverse health effects on population centres near nuclear disaster sites. Some particles remain radioactive at toxic levels for many decades.

Which leads to higher health care costs in many nations as the wind can carry radioactive particulate thousands of miles — just as it can carry toxic gasses and soot from coal-fired power generation for thousands of miles.

For the most recent example of the cost to clean up nuclear accidents, the Fukushima disaster had been estimated at between $15 – 45 billion dollars, but more recently a $50 – 100 billion dollar price-tag has appeared and full decommissioning may take until 2030 to complete. The Japanese government is covering all the costs of decommissioning the Fukushima nuclear site — which means Japanese citizens will end up paying the full cost through taxation.

From the perspective of taxpayers everywhere who bear the brunt of health care costs and disaster mitigation, the full cost of a given kind of fuel must include the costs of all adverse health effects, deaths, damages and lost productivity caused by each kind of fuel.

Which is why solar, wind and biomass are still the better deal by far – even at the same per-gigawatt price.

John Brian Shannon writes about green energy, sustainable development and economics from British Columbia, Canada. His articles appear in the Arabian Gazette, EcoPoint Asia, EnergyBoom, the Huffington Post, the United Nations Development Programme – and other quality publications.

John believes it is important to assist all levels of government and the business community to find sustainable ways forward for industry and consumers.

Check out his green energy blog at: http://johnbrianshannon.com

Check out his economics blog at: https://jbsnews.wordpress.com

Follow John on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/#!/JBSCanada