“It’s horrible really, what they’re doing”. Between 2013 and 2015, conversations with strangers, once they’d found out I worked in the wind industry, were consistently mournful. “All that stuff the government says about wind farms. It’s just getting worse”. I’d nod along and we’d both trail off, having run out of sad things to say.
Despair feels totally infinite. We wouldn’t despair if it didn’t. We love glancing back at a downward trend and projecting that forward forever. The presumption that the clean energy industry’s woes were eternal was unjustified, in retrospect.
Australian investment in renewable energy has recovered from a major downturn, and there’s a viscous flow of new wind and solar projects coming down the pipeline, alongside some new innovations like battery storage, solar thermal and wind power that can provide grid stability services.
Okay, I know. Long-term policy, post-2020, isn’t looking great. We’re seeing a weird switcheroo of climate policy. Normally, carbon-intensive tech is regulated and replacement zero carbon tech is incentivised. What was meant to be a blueprint for continued decarbonisation, the Finkel Review, is morphing into something where zero carbon tech is regulated, and emissions intensive coal-fired power stations will be incentivised.
You know what? Even this isn’t entirely bad. This is a flip that’s happened in recognition of a parallel inversion: renewable energy is increasingly profitable without subsidies, and coal has become uninvestable without government intervention – this used to be the opposite.
I get a little guilty, looking at the sagged shoulders, and the awkward despair murmured across the tops of beer glasses when we’re all at the pub and someone’s made the profound mistake of asking me about my predictions for Australian climate policy. This really isn’t how I feel. Here are some of the things that I’m optimistic about, when it comes to clean energy.
We’re getting serious about integrating renewable energy using storage
For a long time, it felt like the energy industry expected the closure of coal-fired power stations to be much further in the future than has played out. Basically, we expected a lot more research and planning time before wind, solar, hydro and gas were left to go it alone, but this is now an eminently foreseeable scenario (it’s already happened in South Australia).
The rate of coal’s demise seems to be increasing, and this isn’t all good news – the grid wrapped around these generators is, understandably, designed specifically to suit them, and slotting in wind, solar and other zero carbon technologies into that same grid was never going to be simple.
This is something that’s being taken quite seriously by a bunch of smart people, and there are a few options being explored in South Australia (very much at the forefront of large-scale deployment of wind and solar) for retaining grid stability whilst reducing emissions.
The table below is from the Australian Energy Market Operator’s (AEMO) South Australian Fuel and Technology Report (SAFTR 2017), and it summarises a whole bunch of different grid stabilising options in South Australia. “High RoCoF” is the rate of change of frequency – essentially, how fast changes happen on the grid, and what can be used to the stabilise the system when these changes happen. “UFLS” is cutting off demand when demand is too high (“load shedding”), and “OFGS” is cutting off generation when generation is too high.
Part of this is implementing, on a broad scale, energy storage. The table below is from page 51 of the SAFTR Report – it summarises quite nicely how energy storage, which is popping up in NSW, Victoria and South Australia, plays a big role in stabilising the grid:
These technologies are now being examined far more closely, and once we start really chipping away at this problem, we’ll able to ratchet up the amount of wind and solar that can be safely integrated with the existing system, and reach very high levels of zero carbon energy in the electricity grid.
Emissions reductions software is a thing now
The way we consume electricity is changing from a passive, infrequent experience to a regular and active one. We’ll be making consequential decisions about our consumption, and some of us will be making consequential decisions about our electricity generation (those of us that have solar installed on our rooftops). Instead of thinking about money every three months, we’ll think about it every week, or every day, or even every time we flick on a power switch.
Demand response is a technology that I think is massively under-rated, and something that will be dearly loved by consumers once it really starts to build some momentum. Simply, it’s a way of utilities asking people to turn their power down when it’s beneficial to grid management for demand to be reduced. Here’s a screenshot from the Finkel Report, showing a demand response trial at work:
The benefits of mass adoption of this are huge. People will get money and they might not even notice temperature changes from switching their AC from 18°C to 21°C for an hour. The grid managers might eventually not have to keep as many expensive generators on reserve. The wholesale price will be significantly lower, particularly during periods of high demand (everyone who pays for electricity will see the results of those savings). The probability of blackouts or forced load-shedding massively decreases. Emissions intensive diesel generators, that ramp during extremely high-demand, high-price events, can stay off and avoid emitting greenhouse gases. This is an incredible innovation, and at the heart of it is a simple philosophy of granting control and influence to the people who pay for power.
There’s other stuff, too. Decentralised electricity trading and renewable energy for people who live in apartments, people who rent (my entire generation) and people who own homes but can’t afford to install solar are all important and there are a huge number of clever companies starting up that address these issues.
These software-based concepts are really starting to pick up pace, and they all refocus involvement, participation and power back on the people, whilst also allowing for further integration of large-scale and small-scale distributed zero carbon energy. It’s good stuff.
We’re getting better at betting on new players
For a long time in the energy industry, there’s been a broad assumption that you shouldn’t build a technology until it’s mature and commercial. Pinging back to SAFTR 2017, AEMO shows us the ‘conveyor belt’ of development of energy storage technologies quite nicely:
The NSW expansion of Snowy Hydro (“Snowy 2.0”) is at the green end of that curve, but big new lithium ion batteries and the concentrating solar thermal plant using molten salt storage sit further back.
Seeing technologies that are in demonstration or deployment springing to life as serious players in the grid is a really good thing, and something that wouldn’t happen without an acknowledgement that a transitioning grid comes packaged with risk – not everything that sits on the conveyor belt will make it to the end, and be commercially viable, too.
My former employer, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), plays a big part in clearing space for investigation of technologies that sit earlier along the scale, and its continued existence is something to celebrate, alongside the willingness of state and federal government to see these machines become real, solid things.
The decline of energy identity roadblocks
So many attempts to pull society forward hit a wall because a large number of people link their identity to the retention of a thing that’s overstayed it’s welcome. When others point out that thing is redundant, out of date and annulled by the ravages of time’s bad habit of moving forward, it feels, to them, like a deeply personal attempt to extinguish something they’ve latched their existence to.
It sounds melodramatic, but it’s a thing that’s played a big part in aversion to the emergence of new energy technologies that generate electricity whilst avoiding the harmful impacts of greenhouse gas emissions. Specifically, wind and solar (mostly wind) drew ferocious and strongly-expressed ire from people who see the construction of these machines as a worldview-crushing threat rather than a way of making electricity happen. A few months ago, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott called for the act of converting atmospheric kinetic energy to electricity to be made illegal.
Except, with the emergence of a large range of new things that aren’t wind or solar, including batteries, concentrating solar thermal and a bunch of software and business concepts that result in lower emissions without the construction of new machines, ideology, identity and worldview seem to have less of a stalling effect.
Look at the differences between political columns for renewables, compared to battery technology. This is a significant factor – it means many of the reactions that have served to stifle wind and solar will be less of a drag for new technologies.
Wind and solar will continue to do the heavy lifting of emissions reductions, and reactionary roadblocks for these technologies will continue to have a serious detrimental effect. But there are rivulets of decarbonisation that escape this fate, and it’s worth noticing and realising this – perhaps there’s something to be learned.
None of these things mean the task of decarbonising Australia’s energy system will be easy. There’s still a vast, teeming ecosystem of technical, social, political, economic and psychological challenges.
It doesn’t logically follow that we ought to convert our manner to eternal despair. The good bits move slowly, and the good bits are harder to spot. But they’re there, and they are well worth soaking up as a corrective balm for the daily barrage of bad news we’re so used to.
Header – Crescent Dunes Solar Thermal, America