Is a renewable energy boom in Australia's future?

Wed, 2018-01-31 10:13 -- Doug Peeples

Australia's energy situation hasn't been a pretty one, and that's surprising because the country has vast coal and natural gas reserves and an abundance of sun and wind. But an earlier attempt to move the country from coal to clean energy was handled poorly and misfires in climate policy managed to double power prices over 2016 rates, according to a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF). The country's coal-fired power plants are generally old and in disrepair and blackouts have been common, including a 2016 event that left 1.7 million residents without power.
But things are looking up. South Australians, who pay the highest power prices in the world, saw the installation and December commissioning of Tesla's 100 MW grid-scale energy storage battery which has been balancing load on the electric grid, adding reliability and resilience to power supplies — and has already mitigated what would otherwise have been at least two major outages. With more of the same to come and additional investment in renewable energy, Australians and the cities they live in may be able to look forward to cleaner, more reliable, more secure and less expensive power supplies. — Doug Peeples

Investment in renewable energy in Australia topped $11.3 billion last year, an increase of 150% that means the country is now ranked as seventh in terms of renewables spending.

And Amanda McKenzie, CEO of Australia's Climate Council, a climate change communications organisation, is thrilled about it. "Australia is one of the sunniest and windiest nations in the world, so when it comes to solar and wind energy — it's a winning combination.

"Australian states have embraced renewables, with South Australia, Queensland and the ACT leading the charge. 2017 alone was also a record-breaking year for rooftop solar in Australia, with enough energy to power almost 250,000 homes brought online around the country." Her comments were based on BNEF's New Energy Outlook 2017, an annual long-term economic forecast of the global power sector.

The future looks bright, but there's a catch
While BNEF attributed the growth in investment to the Renewable Energy target and utility customers pushing for lower power bills, it also said a proposed National Energy Guarantee could undo the upward trend in investing. And political support for coal and spending to upgrade coal plants still remains at the top levels of government. McKenzie said a "…credible and serious Federal climate and energy policy is crucial to encourage investment in renewables and slash our rising pollution levels."

Still, the indications for Australian renewables look good

Neoen, the French renewable energy company that worked with Tesla on the South Australia battery storage installation, is looking at building another larger facility in Queensland. And battery prices have dropped by almost half in the past three years, which has encouraged investment in energy storage projects.

Despite support for coal in the Federal government, Australia's states are showing strong support for renewables and increasing concerns about climate change. Warren Hogan, an economist interviewed for an ABC News article, said the country's energy woes and the high prices of electricity and natural gas have drawn interest from offshore investors willing to make big capital investments in Australia.

Doug Peeples is a writer specializing in technology and energy. Follow @smartcitiesanz on Twitter.