I’m absolutely not anti-renewables. I love renewables. But I’m also pro-arithmetic.
Sir David J C MacKay, FRS, FInstP, FICE, Regius Professor of Engineering, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge
There are two considerations which should be coming to the fore by now when promoting solar energy. And now is the time, because Australia finally has operational knowledge of performance and costs at an appreciable scale.
The first is what role it can realistically play in our energy supply mix (i.e. weather-dependent daytime power). The second is honest appraisal of the necessary enhancements involved in expanding that role – the effort and cost of overbuilding generators and storing energy for later use.
It especially behoves groups like the Australian Greens to shoulder such responsibility. In their recent energy proposal, they present photovoltaic solar as a third (approximately 130 million megawatt hours, MWh) of Australia’s supply in 2030. They also state
Energy storage, while not specifically separated out in this generation forecast will play a significant role in managing the network and matching dispatch times to consumption.
By applying the Rule of Thumb, this planned national solar capacity is the equivalent of roughly 540 Nyngan solar farms. With full operation in 2030, and a demonstrated build time of 1.5 years (leaving 12 years to begin commissioning the first farms if we start building NOW) it means the Greens have proposed the construction of an average of 45 solar farms per year.
For South Australia alone, the equivalent of 30 Nyngans by 2030 are demanded – two or three per year, starting today. This would be in addition to rooftop solar installation kept at last year’s rate.
These are the same campaigners who insist no one will want a nuclear storage facility in their backyard. But, apparently, the consen processt to site thirty 250 hectare solar farms is a non-issue?
This is the Alkimos storage project in Perth.
- 1.1 MWh capacity
- Lithium ion
- $6.7 million
Lithium ion storage has a lifespan dependant on depth and frequency of discharge, but suffice to say such batteries will not last as long as the rated 25 year lifespan of the Nyngan solar farm.
It is also being increasingly realised that the economics of storage at grid scale are predominantly determined by arbitrage opportunities and less so as dedicated support for intermittent generators.
So, if groups like the Greens want to replace the electricity supply with a third solar supported by storage, what would that look like?
On a good day the output profile of Nyngan is a symmetrical flattened peak and almost exactly a third of the 24 hour period by area. Intuitively, the battery capacity must be sufficient for the other two thirds – 16 hours. Since Nyngan is rated at 102 megawatts, this would call for 1,632 MWh.
1,632 ÷ 1.1 = 1,483.6
1,483.6 × $6,700,000 = $9.94 billion
It hardly matters that a further two Nyngan-size farms are needed to charge this battery (which would be a yard of nearly one and a half thousand shipping containers) since their extra cost is dwarfed.
As noted by ARENA, there’s no Moore’s Law for batteries but costs may well fall as production increased in large centralised overseas factories. A recent assessment by DNV GL in Europe included a specific estimate for lithium,
PwC calculations and recent market data indicate that battery costs will be reduced by at least around 55% by 2030.
potentially more than halving the price of this solar backup. However, the Greens expect to be finished building these solar farms by then, with scheduled gas capacity retirement clearly laid out in their document. Storage’s “significant role” isn’t really optional while they wait for the cost to drop from astronomical to merely unaffordable.
This model is clearly an idealised attempt to provide 24 hour scheduled supply from solar PV capacity (ignoring bad weather), what many would call baseload supply. This comparison is useful where proponents are simplistically proposing that renewable sources like solar should be replacing fossil fuels like coal, which are inherently dispatchable. However, other proponents categorically insist that baseload is a myth and unnecessary in a renewable energy dominated supply system. Much has been written on the subject over many years, but the willingness of such campaigners to sacrifice the baseload aspirations of alternative renewable energy technologies like geothermal and wave power is a grievous ideological lapse.
But there’s one other matter to examine here: the unspoken assumption that the above approach is sufficiently low emissions to be part of a decarbonised future. There is a terrible dearth of research on this. What was recently estimated by a group at Stanford is that the current combination of solar PV and lithium batteries may have a life cycle emissions intensity approaching 200 grams of CO₂ (or equivalent) per kilowatt hour. This would be well short of decarbonised.
This superficial analysis is just an illustration based on recent real world costs. Independent present value analysis would provide much better information. Solar has a large role to play in sunny Australia, which will only be optimised by getting the sums right. Can we love renewables enough to respect their limitations while making the most of their strengths?
Perhaps proponents of renewable energy mixes critically relying on scaled-up storage technology, like the leaders of the Greens, should consider commissioning such thorough and responsible economic studies instead of waving their hands.
We need a plan that adds up. We need to stop shouting and start talking, and if we can have a grown-up conversation, make a plan that adds up and get building, maybe this low-carbon revolution will actually be fun. Thank you very much for listening.
This blog was not originally intended as a dedication to Sir MacKay, who passed away during its writing. His book Sustainable Energy: Without the Hot Air is an essential reference for energy analysis. It is UK-centric but when I read it the potential for solar in Australia was left unbounded. This blog’s continuing analysis and comms concerning solar energy in Australia is just my amateur effort at supporting the commitment to arithmetic which Sir MacKay taught us is so crucial. As Mark Lynas noted beautifully,
David left us everything we need to figure out for ourselves how to proceed with solving climate change – and other problems, however huge and complex they may appear.