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The need for renewable electricity

By Mike Pope - posted Friday, 7 October 2016

In response to the September State-wide loss of electricity in South Australia (SA), the Australian Prime Minister (Malcolm Turnbull) and Environment Minister (Josh Frydenberg) both blamed that event on a severe climate event. Both attempted to conflate the loss of power with the rate SA had adopted renewable energy (40%), particularly generated by wind, resulting in closure of all coal-fired power stations in that State.

They asserted this left SA with inadequate back-up for its overly rapid adoption of renewable energy and that the outage should be seen as a salutary wake up call for retention of fossil fuelled electricity generation. Mr. Turnbull went further, declaring that the SA power failure demonstrated the need to retain use of coal as an energy source, pointing to the importance of coal mining, employing 10,000 people and earning the country important income.

He went on to criticize the renewable energy targets of Queensland (50% by 2030) and Victoria (40% by 2025), describing both as ideologically driven and incapable of being achieved without risking the loss of energy experienced by SA. He described State targets as grossly in excess of Commonwealth emissions targets of 26-28% by 2030. He had asked his Environment Minister to negotiate with all States to ensure that their targets were consistent with achieving the Commonwealth Renewable Energy Target (RET) of 23% by 2020.


For the Turnbull Government there are 3 problems: (1) Unless Queensland and Victoria meet their targets, the Commonwealth RET is unlikely to be achieved. (2) Climate conditions in Australia, particularly the southern half, are likely to become more extreme, more often. (3) Commonwealth emissions target (26%-28% below 2005 emissions by 2030) may not be achieved or provide a fair, effective, contribution to achieving an average global temperature of no more than 1.5°C above the pre-industrial average by 2100. These things matter.

The RET calls for an additional 6,000 MW of new electricity generation to come from renewable sources by 2020, in less than 4 years time. The Clean Energy Regulator estimates that projects with a 9,000 MW capacity are shovel ready but that less than a third of these will commence in 2016 – and the majority of those are located in South Australia, Victoria and Queensland, the States Mr. Turnbull criticises most, particularly Queensland which he tells us presently has less than 5% of its electricity generated from renewable sources and has an ideologically driven RET target.

What Turnbull did not tell us was that Queensland's Palaszczuk Government has undertaken detailed planning before committing itself to a RET of 50% by 2030. Nor did he seek advice from Queensland before making his statement. In fact, at least seven large-scale renewable energy projects are scheduled to commence construction in Queensland over the next 6 months. In addition, government is taking a range of mitigating action to reduce demand for fossil fuelled electricity generation such as encouraging households to invest in PV arrays.

South Australia, the State most criticized by Mr. Turnbull has long had a RET of 50% by 2020 and recently praised for its target and efforts - by Mr. Turnbull. It has already achieved 41% and could exceed its target by 2020. The State government has undertaken careful planning to ensure that throughout this period, there has always been ample back-up from gas powered generators and its neighbor, Victoria.

Average global temperature has risen 1.3°C above pre-industrial and is now close to the maximum temperature reached during the last interglacial period – the Eemian – around 128,000 years ago. During the Eemian maximum sea level was 6m - 9m higher than at present. Sea level could rise this much over the next 100 years, unless atmospheric carbon is reduced.

Average global temperature is likely to exceed 1.5°C within a decade and many climate scientists believe it will continue rising, exceeding 2.0°C before 2100, a level at which climate is likely to become so severe that it threatens destruction of food crops, infrastructure and human survival.


The only way of avoiding these outcomes is to curb the rise in greenhouse gas emissions by reducing our use of fossil fuels and do so as rapidly as possible. Yet Prime Minister Turnbull urges us to do exactly the opposite and calls for continued use of coal for generating electricity, even though coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.

If Mr. Turnbull had his way on continued use of coal, government would fail to realize its Paris commitment to reduce Australian carbon emissions 26% - 28% below 2005 levels. Irrespective of government policies, advances in technology and market forces will ensure the demise of coal. Both will conspire to ensure that the domestic and international markets for coal will rapidly decline over the next 5-10 years with demise of the domestic market likely by 2020.

Lithium-ion technology has already provided us with large-scale electricity storage capacity able to meet the needs of solar power stations, domestic premises and vehicles. That technology is large and expensive. It is in the process of being replaced by carbon (graphene) technology with even larger, denser storage capacity likely to become commercially available before 2020.

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About the Author

Mike Pope trained as an economist (Cambridge and UPNG) worked as a business planner (1966-2006), prepared and maintained business plan for the Olympic Coordinating Authority 1997-2000. He is now semi-retired with an interest in ways of ameliorating and dealing with climate change.

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