Australia – renewable energy superpower

| November 20, 2015

We identify as a fossil nation whose revenue still depends significantly on coal and gas. Petra Liverani from Beyond Zero Emissions says the reasons to embrace renewables are compelling.

I mentioned in my last post that renewables are distributed more democratically across the globe than fossil fuels. However, some nations, particularly Australia, are more blessed than others. Beyond Zero Emissions recently launched their fifth plan, Renewable Energy Superpower, which addresses our renewable advantage.

If we look at solar and wind potential across the following metrics: per square km, total land area and unutilised land area, Australia ranks uniquely in the top three countries while it ranks first for rural land area. This gives us all the more reason to embrace renewables: we have far in excess resource to supply ourselves which allows us to profit from export.

We identify as a fossil nation whose revenue depends significantly on coal and gas. However, there are compelling reasons to transform that identity. Large coal customers such as China and India are rapidly reducing their imports of coal. And although our revenue from coal and gas was $70 billion last year, we imported $40 billion worth of oil. When you deduct $20 billion of revenue that went offshore, we netted only $10 billion from fossil fuels. Switching to electric transport and renewables means we will not have to depend on others for our transport fuel nor on a shrinking market for our fossil export.

It’s estimated we have about 3,000 exajoules (EJ) remaining of fossil energy but only about 1,300 EJ can be used to keep us below the runaway climate level of 450 ppm of CO2. However, we have an estimated 5,000 EJ of marketable wind and solar making our renewable resource 75% greater than our exploitable fossil reserve. Impressive, no? The resources cover the land in a relatively complementary fashion. High-intensity solar covers the whole of the country apart from the south-eastern and south-western coasts and Tasmania while wind favours those areas strongly.

How, you may ask, can we export renewable energy? There are various possibilities, some of which are in the development phase. A simple “export” avenue is hosting of energy-intensive industries. As a large holder of fossil reserves, we are already experienced in this area, however, for various reasons including rising energy costs we’ve lost our competitiveness. We can regain the edge we’ve lost in coal and gas with the provision of renewable energy from our abundant resources. Not only are they abundant but research shows that the greater the renewable resource, the lower the cost to produce.

An exciting energy source in development is biofuels made from algae. Unlike other biofuels, algal production does not displace arable land for food production, does not consume food products, grows much faster than plant biomass, is less water intensive and can even use brackish water. A few challenges remain and a big global effort including in Australia is underway. The advantages for algal production in Australia are its abundant space and the solar resource required for both photosynthesis and processing.

Another exciting area is hydrogen. It is at an early stage in development and its potential as a source of electricity is hard to specify at the moment. However, whether or not it will be established in that area, it has other very important applications such as a feedstock in industrial processes. The attractions for producing hydrogen in Australia are much the same as for algal biofuels: abundant space and solar resource for the electrolysis process required to produce hydrogen.

Electricity demand in South East Asia is set to rise by five times by 2050. Meeting this rising demand is already proving a challenge. An ASEAN ‘super-grid’ has been slowly developing to interconnect the isolated electricity networks and energy sources in the region. Australia’s ample solar resource could provide energy to the region by the connection of an undersea cable from northern Australia to the super-grid. There are obvious challenges, both physical and political, but there is a great economic opportunity if these problems can be overcome.

Although the pathways to being a renewable energy superpower are not quite clear at the moment, we can be confident that they will emerge. We certainly have the resources and innovation in all aspects of energy are developing very quickly and urgently. Recognising that we can be an even greater renewable energy power than we were a fossil one will lead us there more quickly than limping along with a quarry vision.

Beyond Zero Emissions’ plans including Renewable Energy Superpower are for sale as hard copies or free as downloads here: