This week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sent a shock-wave around the world when it released its special report into 1.5 °C of global warming. For some in Australia’s political class, perhaps the most confronting statement made was that, if there is to be any chance of saving the world’s most vulnerable places like the Great Barrier Reef, we must all get out of coal by 2040.
The question is can we do it? Can Australia kick its coal habit in the next 20 years?
The quick answer is yes — absolutely we can.
Over the past decade at least 10 expert reports from organisations such as the Australian Energy Market Operator, CSIRO, UNSW and the Australian National University have said that Australia can move away from coal and all other fossil fuels in electricity generation. One report by the University of Technology Sydney* found that it was possible to shut down all coal generation by the end of 2030.
That’s right — Australia can power itself with 100% renewables, using currently available technologies. What are these technologies? Ones that we are already familiar with in Australia — solar PV, wind, hydro and pumped hydro, batteries, sustainable bioenergy, perhaps concentrating solar thermal and importantly energy efficiency and demand management.
In fact, Australia may be one of the easiest places in the world to transition to 100% renewable electricity, from a technical perspective.
We have the means
Firstly, Australia has some of the best renewable energy resources in the world. We are one of the sunniest countries on Earth and windy too, especially in southern Australia. This means for every solar panel we install, we get more electricity out. We also have a large landmass, low population and, compared to other countries, a low total electricity demand (though currently we use it inefficiently).
Secondly, we have an ageing coal fleet. We have had 13 coal-burning power stations shut down in the last eight years and much of our fleet is reaching its use-by date and needs to be replaced in the next 20 years. Indeed, an increasing number of coal and gas units tripping are causing reliability concerns, especially in summer when demand is highest.
Further, given the economics of new coal power stations, unless a government is prepared to provide billions of dollars in taxpayer funds, we will not see any new coal power stations built in Australia.
Thirdly, the momentum behind renewable technologies is so great that it can only be slowed, not stopped. Technologies such as solar, wind and batteries are on an exponential growth curve, similar to the rise of computers. If we’d asked politicians in 1990 to set a target for how many computers there would be by 2010, most of us would still be using typewriters.
Exponential growth creates a future quickly that we can’t even imagine now. Futurist Ray Kurzweil notes that the installed capacity of solar PV globally is doubling every two or so years. So while it currently accounts for 2% of global electricity generation, it would only take six doublings or less than 15 years to power the whole world with solar. That’s how powerful exponential growth is. And when policy makers assume linear growth, it’s unsurprising that their projections are wrong.
Global cumulative installed solar PV capacity (Source: Meister Consultants Group)
Now that doesn’t mean we can all head to the beach because exponential growth in renewables has us covered. That’s only possible if we remove the roadblocks and put the right incentives in place.
Finally, the overwhelming weight of public opinion is on the side of renewables and climate action, making it politically and practically easier to transition rapidly away from coal. More than 1.8 million households and businesses have solar on their roof and more than 90 community energy groups and 100 councils are developing their own clean energy projects.
Overcoming the challenges
While the move away from coal power in Australia is necessary, possible and popular, it will not be without its challenges. There are technical challenges, such as re-engineering our electricity system for a new fleet of zero-emissions technologies — challenging, but with smart engineers who are already on the job, very surmountable.
There will be economic challenges — modernising an essential service be it health, education or electricity costs money. The good news is that new renewables technologies are cheaper to build than coal and transitioning more quickly positions Australia to capture new business opportunities in a decarbonising global economy.
We also need to address the social challenges to ensure no one is left behind, be they renters, low-income households or coal communities.
However, perhaps the biggest challenge of all is political, demonstrated by the fact that our federal government has rejected the IPCC report out of hand, without even reading it.
The technology trends mean the transition to a coal-free Australia is inevitable. But, without government support it will be extremely difficult to achieve this within the time-frame that the IPCC says is necessary.
Our federal government has to decide on a course of action and doing nothing is not an option. Our coal fleet is aging, our electricity prices are high and the country is already experiencing the effects of climate change — most recently through extreme drought. The good news is that the solution to all three of these policy problems is to rapidly transition to renewable energy.
As everyone knows, if you’re going to kick a habit, the best time to start is today.
*Nicky Ison is also an author of the UTS report.