Did your power prices go up again this month? Mine have been going up two or three times a year for as long as I can remember.
According to the Australian Green Left Weekly, there is absolutely no reason Australia can’t have 100% renewable energy in less than a decade at sharply reduced prices.
The article refers to a May comment by the vice-president of Sempra Energy, one of the largest utility firms in the US – that there was no longer any technical obstacle to powering California with 100% renewables. “We now have the ability to control the grid twenty times faster than you can blink your eye. The technology has been resolved. How fast do you want to get to 100%? That can be done today.”
The author Renfrey Clarke goes on to point out that most of Australia’s fossil-fueled generating infrastructure is past its design life. Prone to costly breakdowns, it’s extremely expensive to maintain and should be replaced.
According to a recent Australian National University study, it’s far cheaper to replace it with renewables.
Positing the future cost of solar photovoltaic and wind energy at $50 per megawatt-hour (MWh), the team concluded that the “levelised cost of energy” (LCOE) over the lifetime of a balanced, 100% renewable energy system (including storage) would be around $75/MWh. For comparison, the LCOE of electricity from new supercritical black coal plants was estimated last year at $80/MWh.
For energy storage, the ANU study proposes the well-tested technology of “pumped hydro”. This is impressively cheap and its virtues are listed as including excellent inertial energy, spinning reserve, rapid start, black start capability, voltage regulation and frequency control. Australia has numerous good sites for off-river and seawater pumped hydro.
Still greater system security is provided by a combination of pumped hydro with battery storage. Using modern software, utility-scale batteries can be switched into the grid in milliseconds. A recent Bloomberg report states that lithium-ion batteries are expected to fall in price by more than 70% by 2030.
The Switch: How Solar, Storage and New Technology Means Cheap Power for All
Profile Books (2016)
This book was enormously valuable in rectifying many of my prior misconceptions about renewable energy. First and foremost was my erroneous belief that high production costs would make renewable energy far more expensive than fossil fuels – that the renewable energy revolution would require either a) a major reduction in population or b) major sacrifice in terms of lifestyle choices.
Both turn out to be totally untrue. At this point renewable energy (mainly photo-voltaic solar energy) is already cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the world. By 2040 the cost of producing renewable energy will be so low, fossil fuels will be virtually obsolete.
The first section of Goodall’s book focuses on the mathematical explanation of what he refers to as the “experience curve.” Energy economists use these formulae to explain the rapid decrease in the cost of manufacturing PV cells, solar panels and solar batters. The same process can be used to predict future costs of manufacture. Which is one of the main reasons Wall Street financiers are refusing to invest in new coal and gas-fired power plants. They know the electricity they produce will never compete with the low cost and efficiency of renewable energy.
In the past two decades, the main purpose of new gas-fired power plants has been to address power outages during peak demand periods. Because they only power up 10-50 hours a year, they are extremely inefficient and expensive to operate. In a number of regions, power suppliers using smart technology and creative billing schemes are flattening out peak demand periods by encouraging large energy consumers to shift their energy usage to non-peak periods.
Goodall asserts that six billion of the world’s seven billion population could easily switch to 100% solar energy now because they live in hot sunny regions. The other one billion in Northern Europe and parts of the US (and New Zealand) will need to supplement PV solar with other forms of renewable energy (wind, hydro, biofuel, etc) and develop short and long term storage technology to meet their winter energy needs.
The cost of lithium ion storage batteries is also dropping rapidly, though it lags several years behind decreasing PV production costs. As more and more energy consumers invest in solar storage systems, grid-based energy will continue to increase rapidly – with the cost of maintaining energy transmission infrastructure falling on fewer and fewer shoulders. This will only hasten the switch to renewable technology.