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Australia's clean energy experiment

By Tom Biegler - posted Monday, 8 July 2024

As I've been arguing for over five years in previous opinion pieces, Australia's official power generation statistics make it obvious that we have no chance of meeting the clean energy needs of an all-electric fossil-fuel-free modern industrialised economy. Governments crow about progress of "renewable energy targets". But they are irrelevant, applying only to present electricity grids, not to those ultimate, much greater, national energy requirements.

Now AEMO, the Australian Energy Market Operator has confirmed my pessimistic claims. Under this recent headline from The Australian, 26 June 2024 "Put rocket under renewables for net zero" AEMO makes the extraordinary admission that "Australia will need to install 16 times its current capacity of batteries and pumped hydro by 2050, while large-scale wind and solar generation will have to jump six fold, if the country is to deliver its transition to net-zero emissions by 2050".

After many years of overexcited reporting of progress of the energy transition the quango in charge is not happy. How has this suddenly happened?


Let's start with the basics. Clean energy almost always comes as electrical energy, electricity generated with little or no accompanying carbon dioxide emissions. Concerns about climate change have led many nations to decide on progressive closure of their fossil-fuel based electricity generation. Australia is one of them. Power companies must switch to clean energy sources. The choices generally are the ones we call renewables – solar, wind and hydroelectricity. Here we rely on solar and wind for growth as most hydroelectricity sites are already exploited. Nuclear is excluded, by law.

Progress is monitored against clean energy targets. Two kinds of target with different time horizons have emerged. In the shorter term, all existing generation will be clean; that's the target. The longer term aim is to eliminate all uses of fossil fuels. That requires a suite of new technologies running on clean electricity. Such "electrification of everything" is a much more ambitious exercise. It calls for much more clean electricity and many technology innovations.

These are big programs. They need plans with timelines and milestones, even an initial feasibility study to make sure it's all achievable.

Australia has done some of those things. Clean energy preferences are in place. Progressive rollouts of solar and wind installations occur. The two targets have names, "100% renewables" for present electricity grids and "Net Zero Emissions" for future retirement of all fossil fuels by around 2050.

Specific milestones for progress of rollouts against targets seem lacking. And now it appears that AEMO has suddenly discovered the rollouts are proceeding much too slowly. Bad decisions? Bad planning? Bad management? Hard to tell.

Let's look at the plans. Where? They're not easy to spot. AEMO does publish something it calls the Integrated System Plan, which it says is a "roadmap". I look at it later. The present evidence is that until very recently AEMO and the government seem not to have noticed signs of the shortfalls just announced.


I've been looking at slow growth rates and progress of solar and wind generation for several years. Actual clean energy outputs offer the clearest way to see progress and shortfalls. Does anyone take notice? Maybe the general atmosphere of self-congratulation from the industry and excitement about "renewable energy superpower, world class renewables" etc. drowns out any critical analysis.

My latest update of energy data is in the table below, which shows Australia's total annual electricity generation, by energy source. The numbers are units of energy. Note that AEMO tends to communicate in terms of installed capacity (which measures the limit of what can happen), and power (which measures a rate of energy generation, transmission or consumption). Those are all important network parameters. But the ultimate determinant of adequacy of an electricity system for the nation is its electrical energy output. Energy is what must be measured. That's one thing that AEMO needs to fix.

The numbers in the table are energy totals for all Australia. One often sees somewhat smaller numbers for the National Electricity Market, essentially the East Coast grid, which comprises about 75% of national total generation.

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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 Technological Sciences and Engineering.

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