100% Renewables is doable, but when will we see it done?

Useful Design
Feb 10, 2016 · 8 min read

In 2009, Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) asked this: if the critical decade starts now, what kind of technology investment would it take to power our entire economy with 100% RE by 2020? Other researchers have studied the 100% RE question for Australia’s National Energy Market − the electricity generation and network grid excluding WA and NT (Australian Energy Market Operator for 2030/50 and UNSW for 2030). All three major studies have found 100% RE for grid in Australia is feasible and that it’s affordable − BZE in fact went beyond just the electricity grid to model for renewable supply to all other energy uses including transport, space heating and industrial processes.

Compelling cost curves (the rate at which any technology becomes less or more expensive over time) for wind, solar and storage make the inevitability of 100% RE seem a given to any enthusiast. But if the past three years in the Australian RE industries have shown anything, it’s that this inevitability doesn’t extend to a meaningful timeline for saving what’s left of our safe climate. #1

Many people are aware of the collapse of large scale renewable investment in Australia over the past few years − an 88% decline in investment in 2014 alone causing Australia to free-fall from 11th to 39th place in the world of large scale RE in a single year.

One of the reasons is that stationary energy, the power provided on the grid, is not something consumers have direct purchasing power over. Large generators and networks are owned by powerful fossil-economy aligned interests (sometimes states themselves) who’ve acted in concert with Coalition governments at both levels and cross-bench Senators to thwart and undermine the RE industry. So the technology adoption curve for large scale RE is very different to what we’ve seen with mass market technology products sold in high volumes to consumers through fairly direct sales channels i.e., PCs, mobile devices, HDTVs. See figure 1. note the acceleration of uptake of new product lines over time; smart phones being steapest.

Figure 1 Thanks @asymco (twitter). Used with permission from Asymco

This is not just due to government attacks on the large scale RE sector. It’s also been the big three power retailers themselves launching a capital strike against RE projects by withholding on new Power Purchasing Agreements (PPA). PPAs are the piece of paper that make wind farms bankable in this country. These contracts underpin most of the RE projects launched in this country by locking down a fixed capacity and/or purchase price for power over the 20 years a project needs to provide a financial return.

Solar PV growth rates

Australia has the highest level of rooftop solar per capita in the world, yet this promising beginning is largely on the back of high growth peaking in 2009/10 (same year BZE would launch it’s 100% RE Stationary Energy Plan mostly relying on utility scale RE i.e. wind farms and concentrated solar thermal). Nationally, growth has plateaued into linear growth for the past four years. Yet internationally the growth rate is exponential and continues at the rate of a doubling in PV deployment every two years; as it has done for three decades. The attendant learning curve says that for each doubling there is a 20% drop in module price. The cost improvements drive more deployment, the exponential growth in deployment spurs greater innovation. Much the same as with high-volume consumer tech-goods like PCs, mobile devices and HDTVs.

Figure 2. Growth in SolarPV Deployed Capacity in Australia by State (it’s almost entirely on rooftops in Australia)

Australia-wide the number of solar PV installations has been falling, and the number of jobs in the industry has been falling. Each state has seen a different surge and decline pattern, suggesting state government energy and feed-in tariff policies significantly impact the installation numbers. The increasing average size of installation serves to obscure the falling install numbers.

Figure 3. State by state deployment in solar rooftop Photo Voltaic systems. Feed in tariffs (FiTs) are determined by States while Federal Government awards small scale renewable energy certificates (SSGCs) at time of installation which are usually surrendered by installer to reduce the ticket price for entire system. FiTs have been progressively withdrawn at the state levels at different times, and the growth rates would suggests senstiviety to price signals from FiTs but also announcements of sunseting FiTs have a ‘rush’ effect on installations at various times.

Is a case for RE boosterism from politicians credible?

Unlikely suspects are today claiming they’re on board with a narrative of consumer-driven RE disruption to the energy utilities. Politicians are dropping their fallacious renewables can’t do baseload power meme and cloaking themselves with some it’s inevitable rhetoric − Greg Hunt talking about grid defection, Mike Nahan talking about his expectation that rooftop solar capacity will meet the bulk of demand in Perth in daylight hours, and Victorian Liberal MP and shadow Spokesperson for Renewables David Southwick talking up the “renewables revolution” #2.

But are such MPs being disingenuous when the deployment data, and more importantly their own policies and tariff changes (not to mention fossil fuel subsidies) are so obviously not driving the country towards mass RE deployment and negative greenhouse gas emissions?

Figure 3. Despite an increasing average system capacity installed thanks to falling module, balance of system and ‘soft’ costs (permits, inspections, government charges), install incidences are falling nationally and the three-year capacity rolling average (dashed lines) shows some states plateauing to linear growth with others declining (including WA).

I’ve mentioned the disastrous government policy and white-anting effects and the motivated resistance to rooftop PV and large scale renewables within our energy markets. The irony is, consistent with being a past director of the most organised and influential climate denial organisation in Australia (the Institute of Public Affairs), while Mike Nahan was WA’s Energy Minister he eschewed wind power and large scale solar and continued the expansion of platinum-plated fossil-fuel energy networks that he now says as Treasurer the state can no longer afford to subsidise. Much as we all look forward to noting the removal of fossil fuel subsidies in WA, his new 82 megawatts (MW) diesel peaking plant at Merredin receives $15m a year in capacity payments without dispatching energy to the grid, ever.

With Solar Citizens and others championing rooftop solar’s growth you’d be forgiven for thinking that solar PV in Australia has never seen it so good. Certainly if growth in solar PV was matching the two decade long global trend of a doubling in deployed capacity each two years then, yes, we could smash very ambitious RE targets like 100% RE before 2025 in every state of Australia. Ray Kurzweil − a futurist with something most futurists lack: an impressive track record − points to the fact that solar modules are on track to be delivering virtually free energy by 2036, and with another six doublings (~12 years) we will be meeting the world’s current energy demands with PV capacity. #3

Similar to wind farm growth, solar PV is not going to be adopted rapidly to saturation point where our entire economy is powered directly from renewables without reforms in government policy and tariffs that set positive incentives for an orderly but rapid transition. There’s too many vested interests in mining and in the three big energy retailers who are protecting the status quo.

If we look at the solar installation data from the past decade what is evident is that solar is not going to meet anything like maximum demand on current trends — however virtuous the solar PV learning curves. And however much of a rhetorical about-face from WA Treasurer Nahan, on current trends his prediction falls way outside the bounds of current trends. Indeed if we are to (generously) apply the national linear trend of the past four years to growth in WA’s rooftop solar it would take until 2032 to meet 2014’s yearly maximum demand peak of 3,702 MW with nameplate capacity of PV. #4 But given the peak was 5:30–6:00pm you’d be needing to turn those panels west facing and you’d need still more of them. Safer to say it could be 2050 before a late afternoon peak was met without very significant levels of distributed storage. Global trend-matching exponential growth in rooftop PV would see a much healthier 7,112 MW deployed by 2023.

Victoria, currently considering 2020 and 2025 targets for it’s reintroduced VRET, saw a 8,067 MW maximum for peak demand in 2014. Similarly to WA, linear growth on national average would see 7,969 MW of PV deployed by 2055, while two-year doublings would see 4,900 MW PV then 26,121 MW deployed by 2020 and 2025 respectively.

Figure 5. Starting at 445 GW deployed capacity of WA 2015 using average yearly increase from last 3 years as linear growth (purple line) and exponential doubling every two years (yellow line). Peak demand maximum for the SWIS grid 3,702 GW during 5:30–6:00 PM period thanks to existing PV inverting the historical midday peak. Output from PV panels in early evening is of course low so time shifting of generation with distributed storage or massive oversizing of panel installations would also be required to meet present day peak demand with rooftop solar that WA Treasurer Natan claims (sans references) will be the case within a decade. Doubtful full sun rooftop capacity is even available to do it without large scale RE assets being deployed to augment rooftop PV. Data and references for VIC and WA growth and chart here.

When the potential is there for massive growth in solar power, when it’s happening all over the world, when it was happening in Australia up to 2010 but has backed off since, it’s regressive in the extreme for governments to withdraw policies supporting exponential solar PV growth until we have met in the order of 80% daily maximum demand from RE sources. With that kind of support 100% RE will be assured in a time frame that actually might make a difference for life-on-Earth as we know it.

There’s a moral imperative and urgency that says we all must do as much as we can to save what’s left of a safe climate. In a democracy, our governments in particular don’t get a pass on ensuring we deploy RE as soon as policies measures can deliver it. The invisible hand of our energy market is hindering the rapid deployment of solar and wind power. If it’s not government’s job to fix this failing, then whose?


#1 Our climate is already less hospitable and major tipping points have been crossed, both known ones, like the irretrievable Western Ice shelf of Antarctica and unknown tipping points that we can’t be certain of due to the lag between atmospheric heating and slow climatic processes, and ultimately their effects in terms of a theoretical equilibrium. www.nocarbonbudget.info

#2 RenewEconomy recently reported: “At Melbourne’s recent AllEnergy Conference, David Southwick, the first Shadow Renewable Energy Minister at any level of government, declared “The renewables revolution starts here in Victoria”. This is a considerable shift from an Opposition that just 12 months ago presided over the world’s worst anti-wind laws in government.” http://reneweconomy.com.au/2015/former-liberal-senator-and-renewable-energy-veteran-elected-wwea-president-43349

#3 Ray Kurzweil isn’t suggesting inconsistencies with the second law of thermodynamics just that it will become so trivially cheap to manufacture modules and the volume will have become so enormous it will power the entire world if we want it to. (Others citing more recent years only claim cost curve falling at ~20% p.a.) http://bigthink.com/think-tank/ray-kurzweil-solar-will-power-the-world-in-16-years www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2014/09/19/the-coming-era-of-unlimited-and-free-clean-energy/

#4 Peak demand for 2013–14 on the SWIS grid was 3,702 MW, which occurred in the 5:30−6:00pm trading interval on 20 January 2014. Sourced from SWIS: www.imowa.com.au/docs/default-source/Reserve-Capacity/soo/imo_2014-swis-electricity-demand-outlook.pdf?sfvrsn=0

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Many interests, many concerns, one practice, one eightfold-path. Australian born and bred.