How to get carbon-free power in Australia

March 6, 2010

When it comes to avoiding the most catastrophic impacts of global warming then whatever the financial cost, the price is still worth paying. But new research by Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) shows Australia could meet 100% of its stationary energy needs from renewables in a decade and stimulate the economy at the same time.

With a projected yearly cost of 3% to 3.5% of gross domestic product (GDP) over 10 years it's a plan that won't cost the earth — but it may help save it from dangerous climate change.

And when compared with Australia's military spending in 2006 (2.4% of GDP) or its estimated public debt for 2009 (18.6% of GDP) it becomes clear that the lack of serious action on climate change is not primarily a financial issue, but a political problem.

Nor is technology a barrier to move rapidly to 100% renewable electricity. The clean technologies cited in the plan are commercially available right now.

BZE, a non-profit climate research and advocacy group, released a preview of its executive summary of the stationary energy report on February 17. The full stationary energy report will be released later this year.

The report summary concluded: "There are no technological impediments to transforming Australia's stationary energy sector to zero emissions over the next ten years.

"The costs of transformation are adequately offset by savings made from shifting away from the business as usual scenario. No resource constraints were identified.

"With adequate societal and political commitment and regulatory support, the goal of an efficient and competitive zero-emissions stationary energy sector is well within Australia's reach."

The energy plan is the first part of BZE's broader Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Project.

When finished, the project aims to give a blueprint for a 10-year transition to zero-emissions for the whole economy. BZE estimates the cost of the entire project would be less then 10% of GDP over 10 years.

Future reports will investigate fully-costed, sustainable pathways for Australia's transport, buildings, industrial processes, forestry, land use and agriculture. Another report will plan how to replace the lost revenue from phasing-out Australia's coal exports.

BZE executive director Matthew Wright told Green Left Weekly that the group's goal, "is to make the clear, technically robust arguments that there are a number of blueprints available for a transition to decarbonise the economy, starting today. And that it can be done with clean, safe, renewable energy".

The energy report summary says Australia's energy needs could be met with concentrated solar thermal power with molten salt heat storage (60%) and wind power (40%). Backup power could be provided by existing hydroelectric power and special power plants that burn currently unused crop residue.

Big gains in energy efficiency would also be needed. The extensive insulation of all commercial and residential buildings and the rollout of heat pump space heating are two important measures. Also, about $90 billion would be needed over the decade to upgrade Australia's aging electricity transmission system.

In this way Australia's natural gas-fired and coal-fired power stations would be phased out completely.

"The most important thing is that [these technologies] are commercially available now", said Wright. "So there is no more research and development that needs to be done on these renewable energy sources. We could pretty much roll out what we are suggesting now.

"Of course, there is research and development happening that, over time, could bring the costs down. But because they are commercially available now there is no room for wheedling out.

"It then becomes a political question [for the government] of, 'are you going to do it, or aren't you going to do it? Are we going to solve the climate crisis or aren't we?' Our plan is about solving it."

He said the mainstream political debates about what kind of mechanism should be used to reduce emissions (such as emissions trading schemes or carbon taxes) are unproductive unless they are grounded in reality.

"First you have to decide what the science is saying. Then you need to work out what to do technically to fix it and then [decide] what different mechanisms are you going to use. That's been our approach."

Wright said the 10-year timeframe is central to the transition plan. "We have to go and see what the climate scientists, the experts and researchers, who have spent years on the subject, are saying. And they say there is too much carbon in the atmosphere already today.

"We are already seeing the effects of dangerous climate change. So effectively, that means we should be at zero carbon emissions today. But we need a plan and we need a timeline that is not too disruptive to people's lifestyles. You need enough lead-time to be able to achieve your goal and I think 10 years is a good planning horizon."

He noted that moving to a zero-emissions economy is only the first step towards a stable climate. Ways of drawing down carbon out of the atmosphere must also be developed.

Wind power is familiar to most Australians, yet concentrating solar thermal plants are less widely known. However, the report said Australia has the best conditions for solar power in the world and solar thermal plants are being built in some countries.

Concentrating solar thermal plants worth $20 billion are being built in Spain, to be brought online over the next three years. There are also billions of dollars worth of plants that are going to break ground in the US by the end of the year.

As more solar thermal plants are built, the cost of each new plant comes down. "Spain is kind of doing a service to the world — you could call it a kind of foreign aid really", said Wright. "They are investing public money towards bringing the costs down and so future plants will be cheaper.

"There is a clear cost reduction trajectory that has been identified by the US department of energy in a report verified by one of the world's leading power engineering firms, Sargent & Lundy. It says that [once about 9000 megawatts of] solar thermal with storage [is installed] globally, it will come down to the price of a new conventional coal-fired power station."

Furthermore, solar and wind power will be much cheaper in the long-run. "The thing about fossil fuels is that the price of the actual fuel itself always rises over time", said Wright. "But there is no way you can say that the cost of the fuel for a solar plant or a wind plant is going to rise over time.

"The cost of building materials and things like that could go up, but even then just about everything used to make solar and wind facilities is totally closed-loop recyclable. So the input costs for the replacement infrastructure is going to be a lot lower.

"We're not talking about an economic retraction like some major economies suffered in the financial crisis. We're talking about allocating 3% of GDP to a purpose that is actually very productive and is job-rich.

"So it's not the same as a 3% downturn. This is allocating 3% of our productivity to our future. And it's going to look after us now, and look after our children."

However, Wright also explained that the 3% to 3.5% figure for the stationary energy plan relies on inputs from other sectors. So there will be added costs related to the electrification of transport and the decarbonisation of other sectors of the economy.

In the debates about how to shift away from fossil fuels, some have argued that 4th generation nuclear power provides a good low-carbon alternative. Supporters, including the renowned climate scientist James Hansen, have said governments should back the new reactors, which promise to use only existing stockpiles of nuclear waste to produce emissions-free power with minimal nuclear waste.

However, a big drawback is that the technology is not commercially available anywhere in the world. Wright told GLW that nuclear power is not a good alternative to renewable energy.

"James Hansen has a very nuanced position on this issue", said Wright. "He says that 4th generation nuclear technology needs research dollars in order to be a backup plan. As far as I know, he is not advocating for nuclear power plants to be built right at the moment but supports building renewable energy projects.

"However, by lending his [support] to the nuclear cause [it has an impact] because he is quite a well-known person. He is an expert in climate science, but not necessarily in energy.

"But with Australia, the debate is a no-brainer. Australia has the most renewable energy available per capita of any country in the world. There are commercially available renewable solutions right now to re-power this economy.

"Hansen cites India and China as countries that might need to use nuclear power. But something like 3% of [China's] Gobi desert could theoretically re-power China on 100% solar.

"And of course China is developing masses of wind power and has some hydro resources as well. So China can be dependent on solar and wind as well. So there is really no strong argument for nuclear energy."

A feature of BZE's stationary energy report summary is that moving to a zero-emissions energy system will create thousands of green jobs. It expects more than 15,000 jobs will be created at construction peak. At least 50,000 ongoing jobs will be created in operating and maintaining the new infrastructure.

[More details of Beyond Zero Emissions Zero Carbon Australia Project. The stationary energy report executive summary is available for download.]

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