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The Inconvenient truths behind Renewable Energy Sources


Siddharth Kumar

By

March 22nd, 2017


Worrying environmental events have incited governments to assume responsibility over emissions and to increase investment in renewable energy. However, the transition to renewables is far but smooth. Siddharth explores.


2017 is shaping up to be quite a year for renewable energy sources. In this year alone, the volume of sea ice around Antarctica has melted to their lowest historical levels,[1] sections of the Great Barrier Reef suffered from arguably their worst bleaching event[2] and a number of states around Australia endured through some of the most severe heatwaves.[3] And we’re not even a quarter of the way through the year.

With such alarming environmental events occurring in a short time frame, political ‘action’ against climate change has ramped up drastically here in Australia…well at least the debates have.

The Turnbull government has taken the position that investment in new coal plants must form part of Australia’s energy plan, to avoid repetitions of events such as the prominent blackouts experienced in South Australia last year. This will take the form of a so called ‘clean coal’ solution, which involves deploying what are known as ‘High Efficiency, Low Emissions’ [HELE] coal fired plants.[4] On the contrary, the Labor party has strongly condemned investing in new coal plants, suggesting that they will simply detract from renewable energy targets and are not economically viable due to their multi-billion-dollar price tag and lack of investment interest.[5]

Unfortunately, as has become a trend with this pressing global issue, embittered political debate can be expected to continue for some time, with little legislative progress. What is clearly not slowing down however, are rising global temperatures. As the graph below shows, 2016 ranked as the warmest on record, with ten of the warmest years ever recorded having occurred since the year 2000.[6]

 

Source: NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)

 

These are all facts that are widely known. The majority of the scientific community agree that we now have the technology to reduce our carbon emissions drastically and curb our effect on climate change. In addition, neither of Australia’s major political party leaders are climate change sceptics. As such, it does seem frustrating that renewable energy sources still only contribute to roughly 15% of Australia’s Electricity generation.[7]

 

The Subsidy Problem

Inconveniently, a major problem with transitioning to renewables lies within the market for energy itself. During the second half of the 20th century the market for energy was heavily privatised so that market forces could determine the supply and demand for products and services naturally. However, with growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions, governments have been forced to intervene and this has brought the market into a state of disruption.

In an effort to tackle climate change, in 2001 Australia introduced the ‘Renewable Energy Target’ scheme, which provided financial incentives to those willing to invest in renewable energy technology.[8] Subsidies were introduced with the objective of helping renewable energy technology ‘take off’ in the market and one day become ‘self-funding’. However, as of 2016, these subsidies are still amounting to $5 billion dollars a year and the burden of this is being felt by the federal government and taxpayers.[9] Further, as energy retailers are being forced to increase their prices to cope with higher wholesale costs, partially caused by subsidies, energy prices have been driven up for consumers.

This is contrasted to countries such as Germany, where heavy subsidies have meant that the renewable energy sector has expanded so extensively that there is occasionally an oversupply of energy, which can congest the energy grid and in turn reduce revenue. Last year the German government had to pay wind farms a reported $548 million dollars to ‘switch off’ their wind farms due to them overloading the electricity grid.[10]

 

The Intermittency Problem

Another issue with renewable energy sources is their intermittent nature. Wind turbines and solar panels can only generate electricity effectively during certain periods of time and are heavily reliant on favourable weather conditions. Therefore, in a society which requires energy 24/7, we are heavily reliant on fossil fuels to generate our electricity during our ‘darkest’ hours, at least until our energy storage capabilities have increased. The 2016 blackouts in South Australia, which were partly blamed on South Australia’s heavy reliance on renewables, added some fuel to this problem back home.[11]

 

The Silver Lining

The signing and ratifying of the Paris Agreement in 2015 marked a significant step in nations assuming responsibility for global temperatures and committing to carbon emission targets. Unfortunately, recent years have continued to present some worrying environmental events which have not gone unnoticed and some of the difficulties of transitioning to renewables have also been uncovered.

However, advancements in technology continue to create solutions to some of our problems. Smart home-stylised batteries by Sonnen and Tesla, which allow renewables to work at night, are helping solve the intermittency problem. Upgrades to electricity grids, making them more capable of handling fluctuating consumer demands and supply by renewables, are now entering political deliberation. And whilst prices remain high, global trends indicate that investments in renewables are continuing to rise. Ever so slowly, renewable energy sources are gaining ground in the energy game to win the ultimate job of ‘keeping the lights on’.

 

Image source: http://www.solarreserve.com/en/global-projects/csp/likana

 

[1] Nunez, C 2017, ‘Antarctica’s Sea Ice Shrinks to New Record Low’, National Geographic, viewed 14 March 2017, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/02/antarctica-sea-ice-hits-record-low-global-warming/

[2] Hannan, P 2017, ‘”Significant Event”: Coral bleaching returns to Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Morning Herald, viewed 12 March 2017, http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/significant-event-coral-bleaching-returns-to-the-great-barrier-reef-20170224-gul2fp.html.

[3] Stock, A & Steffen, W 2017, ‘Angry Summer 2016/17: Climate Change Super-Charging Extreme Weather’, Climate Council, viewed 19 March 2017, https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/angry-summer-report.

[4] Lewis, R 2017, ‘Turnbull backs cleaner coal for reducing emissions’, The Weekend Australian, viewed 13 March 2017, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/mining-energy/turnbull-backs-cleaner-coal-for-hitting-renewable-target/news-story/9821be4952d73c78124f727d03efeb58.

[5] Coorey, P 2017, ‘Labor to fight the Coalition over ‘clean’ coal’, The Australian Financial Review, viewed 9 March 2017, http://www.afr.com/news/labor-to-fight-the-coalition-over-clean-coal-20170205-gu5q1x.

[6] National Aeronautics and Space Administration, ‘Global Temperature’, viewed 14 March 2017, https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/

[7] Clean Energy Council 2017, Clean Energy Australia Report 2015, prepared by the clean energy council, Melbourne, Australia.

[8] Department of Environment and Energy, The Renewable Energy Target (RET) scheme, Australian Government, viewed 18 March 2017, http://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/renewable-energy-target-scheme

[9] Moran, A 2017, ‘Time to pull plug on destructive energy subsidies’, Herald Sun, viewed 17 March 2017, http://www.heraldsun.com.au/business/time-to-pull-the-plug-on-destructive-energy-subsidies/news-story/d050d6ea664384f0cc9045af6efad811

[10] Follett, A 2017, ‘Germany paid wind turbines $548 million to sit idle’, The Daily Caller News Foundation, viewed 15 March 2017, http://dailycaller.com/2016/04/29/germany-paid-wind-turbines-548-million-to-sit-idle/

[11] The Economist 2017, ‘Wind and solar power are disrupting electricity systems’, The Economist. Viewed 1 March 2017.

 

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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