Last September South Australia was hit by a state-wide blackout as the result of a massive storm. The state’s main power supply from Victoria was cut which left Adelaide in darkness overnight and some towns without power for up to 3 days. The crisis that succumbed the state sent dire warnings around the nation that our energy grid was vulnerable and in crisis.
On last week’s ABC’s Four Corners, they reported that household energy bills are set to increase in the coming months by up to 30%. They asked the question how did the lucky country, rich in natural resources get to this dire situation. As expected the finger was pointed at politicians who have made short-sighted energy policy decisions over the years.
Traditionally Australia has relied heavily on fossil fuels for its energy with coal and natural gas being a cheap and reliable resource. But with the focus on reducing emissions, ageing coal power stations around Australia have been closed down with renewable energy solutions replacing them. Government and opponents have always challenged the credentials of renewable energy power as a true replacement for coal. This is mainly due to renewable energy’s capacity challenges and its reliance on Mother Nature.
Australians are one of the highest proponents of solar, with 16.5% of households having Solar Photovoltaic (PV) panels on their roofs. The majority of units are between 1.5kW – 5kW. For comparison, the average AC unit consumes 2kW in operation. One of the challenges facing renewable energy has been the storage of power. As Mother Nature can be unpredictable the ability to store power is key. The much-reported Tesla Powerwall 2 battery, which has storage capabilities of up to 14kW is not cheap, costing approximately $10k including installation (not incl the Solar PV panels).
A study published by CME compared the cost of using solar and battery storage vs taking power from the grid, the solar option was ahead. With energy security, such a hot topic and the impending energy cost rises, the above solution is looking even more attractive. However, the cost is beyond most Australian households. We can’t expect the same uptake of batteries, especially after households have forked out several thousands of dollars on solar panels.
Businesses are struggling to deal with the rising energy costs with some facing a doubling of their energy bills in the coming year, on top of the already rising bills. The other challenge is the supply of liquefied natural gas (LNG). We’re one of the biggest exporters of LNG, but the issue is we’re exporting too much and not leaving enough for our local manufacturers.
While Australian households have embraced Solar PV panels, very few businesses have invested and or have the capital to invest in the technology (the size of the project is one challenge). However, community renewable energy projects are now starting to pop up in Australia with investors getting a very healthy 7% return. In just 6 hours $388,000 was raised for a 230kW community solar panel project in Sydney on top of a wholesale bakery. Of course, government red tape is holding up more community invested solar projects.
Having worked in the Solar PV industry back in 2008 in New York City for SES, I’ve watched the renewable energy debate from afar, but have become increasingly interested and concerned with the direction in this country.
Talk of the government doubling the Snowy Hydro scheme to 400MW is impressive, but at a cost of $2 billion and with a 10-year wait, the upgrade is not as attractive as it sounds. Other sustainable energy solutions need to be implemented in shorter time periods. It’s encouraging to see South Australia talking about building a 100MW battery storage facility (they have an urgent need). The CISRO has announced they have found a way to export renewable hydrogen taken from solar and sea energy. This has the opportunity to be as big as the LNG export market with many Asian and European countries moving to hydrogen power.
While there’s no doubting the fact we need a balance of fossil fuels and renewable energy, we just can’t flick the switch to sustainable energy sources. Now is the time to stop the bickering between government, big business and industry, and start investing in renewable energy.