This article was originally published by The Guardian Australia in January 2018.
Not since the invention of the steam engine have we seen the pace of change occurring in energy systems around the world. In Australia our electricity system is changing rapidly, from new technologies and business models to changes in policy and perhaps even regulation. As the year begins, here are five energy trends you should expect to see in 2019.
1. More action towards 100% renewable energy
Last year was a boom year for renewables. Despite rhetoric from some political quarters talking up coal and talking down renewable energy, we installed more solar panels and wind turbines than ever before. There are at least 40 large-scale wind and solar projects in construction in Australia, totalling over 6000MWs of new generation capacity. This means renewables will continue on a steep growth curve as analysis by the Melbourne University Climate and Energy College shows.
This rapid growth in renewables and soon battery storage is at least in part driven by a corresponding reduction in cost. Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis reveals a compound annual reduction in cost of battery storage of 21% over eight years. Facts such as these are the engine driving us towards 100% renewables at a pace much faster than most pundits think.
At a political level California has just legislated a move to 100% renewables, while at home South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT are on track to be net 100% renewables in the next few years. With everyone from tech billionaires to school students demanding 100% renewables, pressure for a more rapid shift to renewables is likely to continue to build.
Many still think that 100% renewables can’t be done. In 2017 ANU, Energy Networks Australia and CSIRO joined the ranks of Australia’s leading institutions on energy that have now done their own plans to show Australia can reliably achieve 100% renewables. This takes the number of 100% renewables plans for Australia to more than 10.
In the corporate sector, global initiative The RE100 has arrived in Australia. This initiative which encourages companies to commit to 100% renewables has seen global companies headquartered outside of Australia such as Carlton United Breweries and Ikea lead the way. In late 2018 Commonwealth Bank became the first Australian company to join, signing a large power purchase agreement in the process.
2. Solar for renters and other locked-out energy users
The coverage of rooftop solar hit two million roofs in 2018 — a huge achievement considering a decade ago there were less than 100,000 roofs with solar panels on them. However, while households and businesses that own a sunny roof can now benefit from greater energy independence, lower electricity bills and that good feeling of lessening their climate pollution, there are at least 30% of households that cannot put solar on their roof. These households rent, live in apartments, cannot afford the upfront cost or have shaded roofs. Research by startup incubator Energy Lab found that only 4% of rental properties and 4% of apartments have solar on the roof, compared with 29% of owner-occupied households and 38% of owner-occupied standalone houses.
For a long time these households have been in the too-hard basket for policymakers and industry alike. However, there are signs that in 2019 this could be changing. The Victorian and South Australian governments have announced policies to support 50,000 rental properties to access solar, and for South Australia, batteries also. In NSW the government is trialling a program of solar for 15,000 low-income energy rebate customers. These are small steps, but if scaled could start to change the current trend towards solar energy haves and have-nots.
3. Community energy going gangbusters
Communities are also taking matters into their own hands, developing innovative community-owned clean energy projects and implementing plans to move to 100% renewables. Despite a lack of interest from mainstream energy players and little policy support, Australia’s community energy sector has grown to more than 105 groups and 174 operating projects. Most famously the communities of Yackandandah and Daylesford.
Last year Totally Renewable Yackandandah in independent Cathy McGowan’s electorate of Indi set up a community retailer Indigo Power to help it on its way to 100%. In Daylesford, flagship community energy enterprise Hepburn Wind is planning a solar farm and received a Victorian government grant to help them progress.
4. A battle between good and bad hydrogen
Hydrogen fuel is not a new idea, yet in 2019 hydrogen is likely to make significant strides towards becoming a major part of our global energy ecosystem. Last September, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency funded 16 renewable hydrogen projects to the tune of $22m, aimed at helping to drive down costs and create a supply chain. Renewable hydrogen could be huge, using excess wind and solar to split water, create hydrogen and export it to sunshine- and land-constrained countries like Japan and South Korea as a renewable fuel for industry and heavy transport.
However, hydrogen has also been latched on to by the coal and gas industries. Hydrogen fuel can be created from coal, but generates carbon pollution in the process. Hydrogen can also be injected into the gas grid, up to a certain level (with upgrades), which could help prevent gas pipelines become stranded assets as households and industry increasingly electrify.
The question is will hydrogen become yet another lifeline for the polluting coal and gas industries or will it become something that is genuinely used to expand renewables and reduce climate pollution?
5. Clean energy elections
No 2019 trend article is complete without mentioning the upcoming elections. According to researcher Rebecca Huntly climate change is a top issue with the electorate and as such both the NSW and federal elections are going to have a focus on climate and energy policy whether politicians like it or not.
The federal ALP recently announced its energy policy. Their plan does just enough to show they want to do something, but no more than they have to, given they are so far ahead in the polls. At this point, future announcements are likely to focus on climate and clean transport rather than clean energy. It’s true that sectors other than electricity do need attention to reduce climate pollution. That said, refraining from further renewables commitments would be a missed opportunity to capitalise on the popularity of clean energy in the electorate.
The federal Coalition meanwhile looks like it will double down on coal and an electricity price scare campaign if Barnaby Joyce’s diatribe this month is anything to go by. It remains to be seen whether increasing public pressure on the government and the popularity of acting on climate and renewables will lead to a last-ditch course correction as the federal election gets closer; it’s possible, but don’t hold your breath.