How Australia could have already transitioned to 100% renewable energy

Photo: Christian/Flickr

Released in 2010, The Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan (ZCA2020) — a joint collaboration between Beyond Zero Emissions and the University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute — set out to demonstrate that Australia’s economy could be powered by renewable energy within a decade.

The first report of its kind in the world, it outlined a detailed and meticulous plan for how to get there and how to pay for it, with the entire plan being independently costed by industry consultancy firm Sinclair Knight Merz.

Countering the right-wing talking point that “there will always be times when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine”, ZCA2020 demolished the idea that renewables could never power the country’s entire energy needs. Instead, it revealed that the only barriers to 100% renewable are political, not technical or economic.

Plan

The report models available annual wind and solar resources across the continent and balances these against proximity to cities that require large supplies of regular energy. The resulting design is a viable example of how to optimise output from clusters of wind and solar plants to pay for the expensive but necessary cost of grid upgrades required to link these plants to cities.

ZCA2020 seeks to minimise not only the financial, but also the upstream environmental costs of technologies used in the transition. It specifies the use of annular generator wind turbines that, unlike older turbines, do not require gearboxes, thus lowering maintenance costs, nor rare earth minerals, the extraction of which leaves behind a toxic ecological and social footprint.

The report also specifies the use of dispatchable concentrating solar thermal (CST) plants rather than lithium-based battery storage, such as the Tesla big battery recently built in South Australia. CST plants rely on storing heat from the sun in huge insulated vats of molten nitrate salts that can generate steam for electricity-generating turbines when required.

Apart from being a more environmentally-friendly form of energy storage, it has benefits in terms of grid stability: it uses conventional electric steam turbines to produce AC electricity, eliminating the need to convert DC current from batteries into AC.

The report cites economic modelling commissioned by the United States government-owned National Renewable Energy Laboratory to argue Australia could deploy CST plants on a mass scale. Doing so would deliver economies of scale while hugely reducing the cost of this technology.

In the early to mid-2000s, Germany implemented a feed-in tariff program to promote the mass uptake of solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, with the effect that solar PV panels went from being an expensive niche technology to an affordable, globally-available, mass-produced item. ZCA2020 makes the case that Australia would do the same for CST.

ZCA2020 was not intended to be a rigid blueprint. Solar PV panels, for example, were intentionally left out of the report, as this was too complex to model. But the uptake of PV panels by households in the decade since has been strong and can be expected to continue.

Battery technology, toxic and problematic as it is, is far more common today than in 2010 and new forms of thermal storage are under development.

ZCA2020 instead sought to prove that 100% renewables is possible.

It also showed that a large number of long-term operations and maintenance jobs, particularly in rural areas, could be created in the process.

Though the report steers clear of making overt political statements, its modelling of the plan’s rural employment footprint is politically significant, presenting an opportunity to build alliances between people in cities and the countryside.

Cost

ZCA2020 refutes right-wing arguments that exaggerate the cost of renewables by providing quite specific and concrete estimates of what it would cost to take Australia to 100% renewable energy, including the quantities of some of the key resource inputs required, such as concrete, steel, aluminium and glass.

The plan estimates that the transition would have cost $370 billion based on 2009 prices. Some costs have fallen since then, for example wind turbines, while others, such as construction costs, have risen. A 2013 report released by the Australian Energy Market Operator projected a price tag of $220-340 billion for moving to 100% renewable energy.

The urgency of embarking on a rapid project to decarbonise the economy cannot be overstated as capitalism pushs us ever closer to environmental catastrophe. Unfortunately, a precious decade has been wasted in the time since ZCA2020 was released.

The fact Australia only generates about 20% of its energy needs from renewables is sobering evidence of just how far the climate movement still has to go to assert its demands for real climate action. It is also an indictment of the utterly suicidal and destructive path Australian capitalism is on.

In the US, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America are promoting a Green New Deal (GND) for the country: an ambitious raft of public works projects priced at about $16.3 trillion — the equivalent of the entire annual gross domestic product of the US economy.

An equivalent-sized GND for Australia would entail public investment in the vicinity of $1.5 trillion.

ZCA2020 remains very relevant to this day because it analyses, in great detail, how to carry out the central plank of a GND-type project for Australia and what it would cost. It provides an invaluable compass as to where we could be heading, if not for the political barriers in our path.

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