Good News and Bad: Australia’s Renewable Energy Future

When we think about China, we think of it as of the world’s leading polluters, and biggest obstacles to keeping climate change to habitable levels. But while it’s the world’s leading producer of power and source of carbon emissions through burning fuel, it’s also leading the world in the production of renewable energy, including wind turbines, solar-photovoltaic cells, and smart-grid technologies.

And as the scale of Chinese manufacturing has grown, costs have correspondingly dropped.

What does this mean for Australia? Most obviously, that we could follow China’s example and make renewable energy a priority. But it also means that China, one of Australia’s biggest customers for our coal exports, is becoming less reliant on our coal, and may import less of it in the future.

China’s ‘mammoth green energy system’

‘While the rest of the world has been fixated on China’s build-up of black, fossil-fuelled energy systems, the country has been quietly building a mammoth green energy system, based on water, wind and solar power,’ write John Matthews and Hoa Tan on The Conversation. ‘China’s renewable power capacity now exceeds that of every other country.’

In Australia, around 75% of our energy is produced by burning coal. This makes us one of the highest polluters, per capita, in the world.

But there is good news, too.

Australia’s opportunity to transition to a ‘decarbonised economy’

An August report by the Australian Energy Market Operator found that, for the first time in history, Australia will need no new coal or gas power capacity over the next ten years. The Climate Council (formerly the government-run Climate Commission, now independent and crowd-funded), has called for Australia to begin phasing out inefficient power stations.

‘A step change in the rollout of wind and solar power, combined with battery storage, will help the renewable sector to begin the heavy lifting in the generation of Australia’s electricity, whilst simultaneously helping to achieve deeper emissions cuts,’ wrote the Council’s Tim Flannery and Andrew Stock.

They believe that we now have the opportunity to transition to a decarbonised economy, without sacrificing our energy security.

Wind and solar capacity grows in SA and ACT

According to Flannery and Stock, South Australia’s wind farms have produced enough electricity to meet a record 43% of the state’s power needs during July of this year, making the state a world leader in wind capacity. (It accounts for 28% of the state’s electricity generation). The ACT is on track to make 90% of its power from wind and solar by 2020. By 2013, 1.1 million solar PV systems were installed across Australia.

‘This growth has been assisted by the falling costs of renewable energy, with wind projected to be 20-30 per cent cheaper by 2020 and solar PV is expected to halve in cost.’

Clean energy future versus support for coal industry

In the US, president Barack Obama has introduced environmental rules that will cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30% by 2030. He has said that ‘a low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth’.

Here in Australia, prime minister Tony Abbott has said he can ‘think of few things more damaging to our future’ than leaving coal in the ground and that the current government doesn’t ‘believe in ostracising any particular fuel … For many decades at least, coal will continue to fuel human progress as an affordable energy source for wealthy and developing countries alike.’

But while the government has committed to supporting the coal industry, the groundswell support for renewable energy is already creating change, slowly but surely – from the crowd-funded existence of the Climate Council to the record-making decline in energy demand. And renewable energy costs are set to continue to plummet – and its technology to improve – driven partly by the rise in its use and investment in countries like China and Germany.

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