Renewables offer cheaper and smarter options than fossil fuels across the energy spectrum.
The answers are with us already.
By Renate Egan
There’s no doubt we’re living through some historically difficult times in the world right now. The dire warnings of the most recent IPCC report might feel like we’re living with nothing but bad news.
However, those of us who work at the forefront of renewable energy research and development know and believe that the solutions to the threats posed by climate change can be solved with technologies that already exist.
And we aren’t just trying to make you feel better: this is our life’s work that we’ve dedicated decades of our careers to and knowing that collectively we can act to fend off the worse-case scenarios is what keeps us going every day.
We aren’t underplaying the challenge, because the threat is real—but only if we don’t act.
Through a powerful combination of informed policy, judicious investment in large-scale renewables projects, and personal choices that all add up together, we can drive the changes that we need to make on a systemic level which will ensure the planet is safe and resilient for our future generations, and ourselves.
For us working in solar particularly, we have good reason to be optimistic about Australia’s renewable energy potential.
That potential isn’t only in our vast abundance of sunlight in our ‘sunburnt country’, but in the enormous economic opportunities that we have available to us in continuing to expand our increasingly rapid uptake of photovoltaics (solar PV).
You likely already know that we are the highest per capita installers of solar anywhere in the world, with one in four Australian households running a rooftop system.
That uptake continues to grow by 30% every year. Increasingly, people are able to generate enough solar electricity over a year to cover their entire home’s energy usage, from their air-conditioning to hot water.
On top of this, you can choose for your supplier to provide your electricity from renewable sources, an option available to everyone even if your own rooftop system isn’t possible.
The cost of solar power is the cheapest it’s ever been—far cheaper than coal or gas—and it continues to go down as solar cell technologies become more efficient, and longer lasting and as we develop better ways of deploying and connecting solar.
Through these continuous improvements, we’re modeling for the price of solar to halve again by 2030 to reach $30 per megawatt hour.
We’re also getting better and smarter at using the energy generated. Since 2008, substantial rises in price of conventional energy supplies–fossil fuel electricity and natural gas–has led to electricity demand in Australia staying flat.
This has never happened before; electricity demand in Australia has always grown at 2 to 3% per year.
This change is small but turns out to be significant over years, and means that electricity demand today is 25% lower than it would have been.
Roughly half of this change comes from rooftop solar, the rest comes from more efficient appliances, lighting, and more efficiently built homes and office buildings.
We now need to start switching some of our other energy needs to electricity – away from gas and fuels, because it is both cheaper and cleaner.
Things like heating our hot water and our homes and offices with heat pumps or reverse cycle air conditioning powered by renewable energy is now significantly cheaper than the conventional approach of burning gas for heating.
Over the next decade, we need to start to electrify everything!
The future could be awesome. Solving climate change and improving everyone’s lives in the bargain is possible. But so far it has proven politically impossible. Our climate policies and Green New Deals are frankly not enough to hit the 2030 targets that science tells us are necessary. We will likely lose all the coral reefs, suffer intolerable ocean acidification, and set in place carbon feedbacks such as methane emissions from melting tundra, if we allow the planet to warm any more.
A huge opportunity for the transition away from fossil fuels lies in electrifying our transport systems, from train networks to our cars – and sourcing that electricity from renewables.
Australia’s 10 million households collectively spend $20 billion annually on fossil fuel just for personal vehicles, all of which is oil we import from some of the world’s most war-torn countries.
A $20 billion one-off investment in photovoltaic systems – either rooftop or large scale – would generate enough electricity to charge 10 million electric vehicles to travel 20,000 km every year for the 25-year life of the solar PV systems.
This brings us to another rich opportunity that Australia enjoys: large deposits of the minerals required for the transition to clean energy – such as silicon for solar PV modules and lithium for batteries.
If we were to couple the refining of those minerals for export with solar and wind-powered industrial processing, we would achieve a sustainable closed-loop within manufacturing, eliminating an enormous amount of fossil-fuel powered energy expended in mining and refining minerals and metals of all kinds.
Looking to the rest of the world, there are already countries that are running on 100% renewable energy: Iceland, Paraguay and Costa Rica have all achieved this goal.
Our state governments have each committed to a zero emissions target of 2050 and are investing accordingly to meet that. In Australia, Tasmania and the ACT are already at 100% renewables.
So, how can we achieve net zero emissions in all of Australia with available technology?
To displace the current energy-generation we get from coal powered plants and to meet our needs if we electrify everything, we need to average around 14GW of solar and wind each year for the next twenty years.
In 2020 we installed 7GW, so we are not too far off. Installing and maintaining that scale of renewable infrastructure would deliver us as many as 44,000 jobs, many of them in regional areas.
For another example, when Germany retired its coal-powered plants, it also retrained its workforce for jobs in the renewables sector, without losing a single position.
Facing climate change is an enormous task, it affects us all on a global scale. Its complexity can make it feel impossible to address, but we know we have solutions.
Giving into despair won’t get us where we need to be. Instead, we can collectively act on the knowledge that the answers are with us already, and it’s time for each of us to make the commitments we need to within the next decade to create the sustainable and safe world we all want to live in. It’s right there for the taking.
Renate Egan leads work at the Australian Centre of Advanced Photovoltaics at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. Alistair Sproul is the head of the School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering at UNSW, which is home to the centre.