Speeding Up the Roadmap

*only these, but absolutely loads of them

Energy Networks Australia and the CSIRO have released the final version of their roadmap for transforming Australia’s energy supply, to the usual fanfare that these things receive. If you’re not keeping close track, yes it’s different to the efforts from ClimateWorks and from GetUp, amoung various others. Why do there need to be so many anyway?

Anyway, the headline chart illustrates the phase out of coal, then gas, with build up of solar and wind to simply supply all of the terawatt hours we’ll need in 2050 (a terrawatt hour, TWh, is a billion kilowatt hours). Well it certainly looks simple, and at the very least we can seperate out the wedges of renewable energy and take a closer, more critical look.

Analysed the old fashion way: pixels to TWhs.

Large solar PV

In other words, solar farms like the 102 megawatt (MW) Nyngan plant in NSW, which apparently generates about 230 million kWh per year. Judging by the shape of the dark blue wedge, enough of these need to be built by around 2035 to supply 45.6 billion kWh in that year. So that’s roughly 198 farms of that size. We already have Nyngan and a couple of other large solar farms which add up to at least the same output, so make it 196 solar farms in 18 years, or just about 11 per year. Starting now. Then, towards the end of the 2040s, we’ll need to roll our sleeves up again and start replacing these farms as they reach the ends of their expected service lives.

Wind onshore

Again, at around the 2035 mark the light blue share of wind energy is set to begin expanding fast. How fast? To about 183.3 billion kWh through 2050, supplied by the equivalent of 172 windfarms the size of the 420 MW MacArthur wind farm in Victoria (Australia’s largest) at the national annual capacity factor for wind. With 15 years left to build them, we’ll need the equivalent of eleven and a half per year. This is well over 10 times faster than wind has been built in the last decade. Perhaps we can count some of Australia’s existing windfarms at the start of this period, but the fact is most of them will be reaching or passing the end of their rated lifespans in 2035.

Rooftop PV

By the Australian Photovoltaic Institute‘s upper estimate, there was a total national installed rooftop solar capacity of 5,968.341 MW in March this year. Ignoring the need for replacement by 2050 (let’s face it, nobody’s thinking about that anyway) and at the normal 15% annual capacity factor for Aussie rooftops, this is set to grow to 90,650 megawatts (to account for an annual 119.1 billion kWh supply) within 33 years, representing a monthly addition rate of close to 415.5 MW (it’s presently a bit over 60 MW/month) which would look like this:

The arrow indicates today, when we need to start adding rooftop solar capacity almost three and a half times faster than we have in the last year. And not stop for 33 years. Data: APVI

The APVI also keeps track of the current proportion of Australian dwellings with rooftop solar by state. Simply scaling up these figures to roughly 100% for each state (i.e. tripling Queensland and South Australia, up to 10x for Tasmania and so on) yields 25,857 MW. That’s allAustralian rooftops with solar. Obviously we either need more houses or much bigger rooftop systems (probably both), however the CSIRO/ENA’s document is specific about assuming no further subsidies to incentivise addition, so all else being equal it’s not obvious why an individual household would install any more than the kW capacity that covers its own needs.

Two issues are left entirely unaddressed by the headline chart:

  1. A kWh of solar or wind doesn’t serve the same sort of demand as a “conventional” kWh, say from a gas power plant. The hundreds of billions of renewable kWhs appear to more than cover for coal and gas in 2050 at an annual timescale, but week-to-week, day-to-day supply is a different matter. Something more is obviously required when the weather won’t oblige.
  2. Storage of energy is the obvious solution on paper, and CSIRO/ENA foresee a plausible national capacity of 87 million kWh of batteries in 2050. Consider this figure against the 52,000 kWh installed in 2016, and the limited lifespan of these devices (even hoping for 15 years, this would require 5,800,000 kWh worth of battery capacity installed annually till 2050). This is precisely the approach critiqued in the recent review of 100% renewable energy scenarios by Heard and co-workers:

A common assumption is that advances in storage technologies will resolve issues of reliability both at sub-hourly timescales and in situations of low availability of renewable resources that can occur seasonally.

Battery storage is undeniably wrapped in buoyant optimism these days, even though recent large scale operational experience in California points to serious limitations. Additionally, the issue of lifecycle (generally only 10 years for lithium ion) emissions is almost universely neglected in “net zero carbon” scenarios which rely on battery storage. And ultimately, as recently stated by no less than Lazard:

Even though alternative energy is increasingly cost-competitive and storage technology holds great promise, alternative energy systems alone will not be capable of meeting the baseload generation needs of a developed economy for the foreseeable future. Therefore, the optimal solution for many regions of the world is to use complementary traditional and alternative energy resources in a diversified generation fleet.

To be entirely fair to the authors, the document contains some useful assumptions about future energy usage in Australia. It’s certainly worth a flick through. And they do try to account for the required build rate, however it isn’t quite as clear as starting a major new solar farm or wind farm virtually every month for the next three decades, and beyond, like I’ve elucidated here.

Is the future of 2050 sufficiently far from foreseeable? How close do we get before we critically and honestly examine our progress, or lack thereof, and potentially reconsider other energy resources we initially chose to exclude? And how ambitious is 2050 anyway – when including all low carbon resources now may well significantly speed things up?


8 thoughts on “Speeding Up the Roadmap

  1. A couple of years ago CSIRO had an online energy cost simulator that included nuclear. It seems the new look CSIRO knows just what the right energy mix should be. The uptake of home batteries is implausible. The curve should be sigmoid with an inflection point. Factors that could slow battery uptake could include new safety rules like enclosures, overheating mishaps, increased daily connection fees, hacking of control networks and exhausting the number of people who both own ground level homes and have spare cash.

    And post coal we’ll still need 30 GW of open cycle gas on standby with spot gas perhaps $20 a GJ in 2030. Imagine getting your grid connect power bill after a rainy 3 months the same week your batteries need replacing. The 52 Mwh installed in 2016 is only 7 homes worth of consumption at 7.2 Mwh average annual use.

  2. Your critique doesn’t take into account the speed of progress in renewable technology and the rate of decrease in cost or the speed with which renewable plants can be built.
    Companies building new power plant in Australia are now only looking at renewable plus storage, because all other forms of generation are no longer cost competitive going forward.
    The logical conclusion of this is that Australia will be 100% renewable powered when existing fossil plants have reached the end of their economic life. All existing plants will be redundant by 2050.
    It may seem like a big task but investment will drive the change. And it will be all over for fossil fuel well before 2050.

  3. Rather than taking into account assumptions and hopeful estimates about how rapidly solar, wind and battery storage can be built in the future, my critique explicitly relies on historical performance. Readers are again encouraged to see Cao et al. for the best levelised addition rates of climate-friendly electrical energy, in units which directly matter to the climate and economy – kWhs per year per capita.


    Opening my tweet to ENA will display a chart which shows that Australia’s best ever 5 year stretches of solar and wind addition were equivalent to Germany’s. Germany’s annual additions have now dramatically decelerated. Quantitatively supporting any assumption that Australia can breeze past Germany is *crucial* to calls for majority renewable energy shares.

    “It may seem like a big task” – exactly what I say about removing Australia’s arbitrary prohibition of nuclear energy.

    “but investment will drive the change.” – in the 70s, investment in last century’s less efficient nuclear technology drove concrete, demonstrated change, specifically emissions intensities – gCO2/kWh – of electricity in a handful of countries at levels around what we need now. Exclusion of an historically proven method supports no logical conclusions.


  4. It’s incredible to think that in just a few months SA will build a battery 3X larger than the world’s second biggest (120 Mwh) in California. That’s for 300 MWp PV and a 4 hour x 100 MW battery. That’s much faster than any recent nuclear build. Will it prevent SA blackouts without help from gas and interstate power imports? If for some reason it doesn’t get built by summer or fails to prevent blackouts we might need to curb our early enthusiasm for batteries.

    • That’s 330 MW PV but 400 Mwh storage still stands apparently. There’s about 200 days left to build it by Xmas which could be another scorcher. SA led the world showing what dry rock geothermal could do now it will have by far the world’s biggest battery. Let’s hope they do it and we can see the results.

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