Energy Ink

Australian academics bet big on renewables

100 per cent renewable power is not a fantasy, but it's not cheap, either

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August 25, 2010

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Academics in Australia – the world’s largest exporter of coal – have big plans for renewable power. In a hulking 294-page report, researchers at the University of Melbourne have sketched out a road map for converting the country’s energy mix to 100 per cent renewable, baseload electricity in 10 years at a cost of $8 per household per week.

You heard that right. Not a drop of oil, ounce of coal or puff of natural gas. Think electric cars, concentrated solar-thermal plants, wind and biomass. Sound ambitious? Well, it is.

Fully 54 per cent of Australia’s current greenhouse gas emissions stem from stationary-power generation. Another 16 per cent are from agriculture, and 15 per cent from transportation.

The authors project electricity demand will top 325 TWh per year in 2020, more than 40 per cent higher than current levels. To meet that demand, they propose a mix of 60 per cent – 42,500 megawatts – concentrated solar-thermal power, 40 per cent wind, and two per cent biomass from crop-waste. This would be combined with energy efficiency schemes and demand-management.

Employing molten-salt-heat storage in conjunction with the solar-thermal setup is a key ingredient in the proposal. The technology allows the sun’s energy to be stored as heat rather than electricity. That in turn allows utility-scale baseload electricity to be generated to meet forecast demand peaks.

Currently, 90 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions from energy generation come from the combustion of coal. The zero carbon plan proposes installing a whopping 48,000 megawatts of new wind turbine capacity. Half of that amount would be baseload power because the wind farms would be dotted across 23 geographic regions, the academics predict. Five gigawatts of existing hydropower and an additional 15,000 megawatts of biomass would offset prolonged periods of cloud-cover and low wind in the winter.

The cost? Building a national renewable grid – there are currently three separate ones – across Australia’s vast topography would run in the neighborhood of $92.4 billion Australian dollars. The total cost, including technology investments, runs closer to $353 billion. Factor in off-grid installations and you’re looking at $370 billion. That’s $37 billion, or three per cent of Australia’s GDP, each year over 10 years.

Read about the plan here. Find the report here.

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