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Australia swallows renewables, passionately

By Tom Biegler - posted Wednesday, 14 February 2024


Many key leaders in the energy transition, like politicians, financiers, industrialists and technologists, openly express their "passion for renewables". Is passion a hindrance to sound judgment? This analysis of energy policy performance for both Australia and the world suggests it is. With standard policy assumptions about clean energy sources (renewables), statistical energy data for growth (solar and wind), and evidence-based targets for clean electrical energy requirements for replacing fossil fuels, the analysis yields a rigorous renewables growth performance indicator "time-to-target".

The results are starkly at odds with popular glowing commentary on clean energy growth. Australia's present policy uses "percent renewables" goals, the renewables contribution to total electricity supply. Historically, policy targets are consistently reached and progressively raised. They flatter true performance through omitting consideration of the fossil fuels used elsewhere than generating electricity.

This new "time-to-target" metric for Australia is 63 years. For global growth assessed the same way the "time-to-target" metric is 139 years. 63 years for Australia and 139 years for the world reflect the current realities of renewables growth rates. "Passion for renewables" leads to sloppy energy accounting. This is inexcusable from those responsible for securing the future of energy, so vital to global prosperity. They must adopt a more traditional sentiment: "Irrational passion for dispassionate rationality".

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The energy transition, driven by the threat of global climate change, is probably the longest, slowest, most expensive, policy-driven infrastructure development program the world has ever seen. Some plans suggest it could take six times longer than World War 2, which lasted six years. And projected costs are huge. According to data from leading energy transition research and analysis business BloombergNEF, investment over the past decade has amounted to $US8.1 trillion.

The length of the energy transition has political ramifications. Just as in military conflict, there's an ever present need to drum up public and political support. Major transition stakeholders, like governments and the renewables industry, must continually express enthusiasm, confidence and a winning mindset. They exaggerate, they obscure. They make it hard to follow the transition's true progress. Even the usually cool calm scientists, technologists, engineers and business communities involved catch the mood. They seem to enjoy expressing their enthusiasm and "passion for renewables".

Is this a healthy situation? It raises doubts about objectivity and reliability in assessing policy performance. This is important. Energy is the single most critical input to global prosperity. Everything we own, everything we do, relies on energy. Proper objective analysis of energy policies is vital.

Let's start with Australia. For several years energy policy has been heavily based on government-set renewable energy targets and related stimuli and subsidies. Targets get raised and met. Now, early in 2024, we seem headed for a new target, 82% renewables. How will the electorate react? Here's a prediction. A typical response will be: "82 per cent! Wow, the end is in sight!". Targets have always been met. Policy success seems automatic. Surely we're on the right path. The end of fossil fuels is in sight, right?

Not quite. The steady drip of good energy news stories fed by governments and the renewables lobby is readily swallowed by receptive Australians. But they don't understand their true significance.

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It's not just Australia. The whole world is "swallowing renewables". For example In January 2024 the International Energy Agency released its own exuberant version of global renewables news. Australians are in good company.

How does energy news look under cool scrutiny? I have looked at this before. Now there's an even greater need to get it right and develop valid objective measures of progress of the energy transition.

First, a brief background. Fossil fuels are to be phased out and replaced with clean energy delivered and used in the form of electricity. That electricity comes from so-called clean sources, defined by zero or low levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted along the full generation chain. Australia has decided to base its clean energy policies on a group of clean sources commonly called renewables. The name refers to the contrast with the progressively declining resources of "non-renewable" fossil fuels. Australia's main renewables are solar, wind and hydroelectricity.

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About the Author

Dr Tom Biegler was a research electrochemist before becoming Chief of CSIRO Division of Mineral Chemistry. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.

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All articles by Tom Biegler

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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