Wind now accounts for about three per cent of power generated in Eastern Australia and significantly more in South Australia which is a part of the Eastern grid, but there may be real problems in expanding that capacity.
For developers are not building enough green energy projects to expand the sector at anything like the rate demanded by those who are concerned over emissions, or to meet tough, government-mandated renewable energy targets. For those, including this writer, who believe that wind power is a total waste of time that is of no particular concern, expect that substantial fines may result, and consumers (that's us) may foot the bill.
To explain. The original target for the amount of alternative energy to be supplied to Australia's energy grids, set in August 2009 was for 45,000 gigawatt hours on top of the existing renewables, mainly hydro electricity from the Snowy River scheme plus some biomass. At the time that target was equivalent to 20 per cent of the forecast demand for 2020, hence the often quoted figure of 20 per cent. A part of that target was later allocated to small scale projects (roof top photovoltaics and solar hot water systems), but that still left a target of 41,000 GWh worth of generation which has to come from large scale projects by 2020, with the whole scheme, including intermediate targets set for each year, to be monitored by the Clean Energy Regulator.
A curious feature of this exercise is that, through no fault of the government, the target is now closer to 26 per cent. Back in 2009, electricity demand was expected to increase as it had been doing for the previous decades. Instead demand has grown very little in the past few years (see the graphs on electricity demand in the Australian Energy Market Operator annual report), with the prime suspect in that lack of growth being the sharp increase in electricity prices. These have increased by perhaps 30 per cent on average in real terms since 2007 for various reasons which to date have not had much to do with green energy or the carbon tax, although those two factors have not helped.
With even well-heeled consumers blanching at bills for $1,800 (one colleague received such a bill) there are reports by the various services that consult with consumers on energy use that consumers of all income levels are changing their behaviour. They are taking more care with their power use by, say, turning off heaters in rooms they are not using in winter. There has also been speculation that the spread of subsidised roof-top solar systems has contributed to the flattening in demand and there may be some truth in that, but no one really knows because there are few statistics on those systems, and no proper study seems to have been made about their affect on demand.
Whatever the reason for this flattening of demand that is good news for those who are concerned about carbon emissions, with high energy prices seemingly doing more to save carbon than any amount of preaching by activists and earth hours. However, another result of the subdued demand for electricity has been to increase the set targets as a proportion of supply – perhaps up to 26 per cent, although all depends on what demand for electricity does over the next few years.
Efforts to get the government to change the targets have come to nothing. The newly formed Climate Change Authority reviewed the targets, but declined to change them. This is far from surprising. The authority would be filled with activists and as far as activists are concerned, the higher the targets the better. But if the targets are kept it is difficult to see how they will be met.
One problem is that all the other technologies aside from wind are not going to contribute much. Major projects such as the 150 megawatt Moree Solar Farm in NSW involving an enormous number of photovoltaic arrays and the 250 megawatt Solar Dawn project involving solar concentrators with gas backup in Queensland have come to nothing. A few pilot projects in those non-wind technologies (pilot is up to 100 megawatts of installed capacity), will go ahead but will not add up to much installed capacity. That leaves wind as the only technology that can be built on the scale required in the time set.
A few calculations. Wind farms have a capacity factor – an average output – of around 29 to 31 per cent in Australia depending on various factors. Let us say 30 per cent. So a wind farm with an installed capacity of 1,000 megawatts (a very large farm) has an average output of 300 MW. If it runs a whole year, then its total output is a touch north of 2,600 gigawatt hours. So to meet the target perhaps we would need about 18 of such farms, with the equivalent of perhaps two already online and the non-wind pilot projects adding the equivalent of another major wind farms That doesn't sound so bad. It is certainly possible for developers to build them at that rate, and make it look like whoever is in government is actually doing something about the supposed problem of emissions. Irritating questions such as whether wind power actually saves carbon can be brushed aside as misinformation.
The trouble is that these farms are not being built, or at least not in nearly the numbers required, particularly as 2020 is only eight years away. A 1,000 megawatt farm has been proposed for Silverton near Broken Hill in NSW but construction has been deferred. A count of projects under construction in a report by the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics "Energy in Australia 2012", February 2012 indicates that 125 megawatts worth of wind towers will be built this year and 754 megawatts will be built next year, with that total to include the 420 megawatt Macarthur Wind Farm in Western Victoria which is to be completed early next year. But the Macarthur project will have taken 2½ years to build by the time it is completed, with few other major projects on the horizon.
One major reason for the dearth of new wind projects is that they are starting to hit substantial opposition in the communities in which they are to be located, particularly over the issue of noise. Planning guidelines brought in by the Victorian government last year, among other requirements, state that turbines cannot be sited within two kilometres of a home without written consent of the home owners. NSW has draft guidelines with similar requirements. Another problem cited by those in the wind industry is uncertainty over government attitude to the renewable energy targets. Although the existing government is not about to change those targets, the government may change entirely at the next election. The Federal opposition never opposed the renewable energy targets, but it would certainly not object to trimming them back, particularly if the move could be seem as saving a few dollars for consumers on their power bills.
As with almost everything else in this business of saving carbon, the details of building green energy projects are proving far more complex than anyone first imagined. The dream of a decarbonised economy was always that, a dream with no hope of realisation. In fact, the practical realities of green power mean that despite extensive forcing by government green energy projects are still not being built in the numbers required to make any real difference to emissions – assuming, of course, that they have any effect at all.
Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review, who has recently launched a book, A Guide to Climate Change Lunacy - bad forecasting, terrible solutions, published by Connor Court.