Australia’s boom in renewable energy faces an impasse unless more is done to develop infrastructure to complement wind, solar and pumped hydro storage systems, an expert has warned.
The expanding footprint of renewables represents a radical change from traditional large-scale, centralised generation, necessitating more national planning for sending power where it is needed.
Australian National University’s Energy Change Institute director Kenneth Baldwin said the remote locations of present and future renewable facilities meant Australia’s 20th century power grid required reform.
“This is a seismic shift in the way electricity is generated and distributed,” he said.
“In the future it will look much more like the internet of energy, in the same way that the internet developed into multiple nodes and many different interconnecting pathways.
“All these features of the future energy landscape are located in areas that are not necessarily where the demand is, so you have to arrange the electricity network to access the best resources and the best storage.”
Big potential unrealised
Windlab, a major developer of wind energy generators in Australia, is building part of the 64-megawatt Kennedy Energy Park at Hughenden, halfway between Townsville and Mount Isa.
The region known as Big Kennedy, stretching from north of the town to Cairns, is one of Australia’s best for wind and solar energy projects that can combine for 24-hour generation.
Project manager Geoff Burns said the potential existed for more investment in parts of Australia ideal for such energy parks.
“It’s got a massive wind resource, solar is obviously endless — so much opportunity, and government could make this a real hub,” he said.
“What’s missing is the infrastructure, the transmission infrastructure, the grid support.
“If there was some government investment in making the grid stronger and some transmission capacity, the whole of this area would open up.
“That’s probably where the focus could come from, the state-owned entities, Powerlink and so on, and the State Government themselves and AEMO [Australian Energy Market Operator], to actually make this more conducive for investment by private industry.”
Planning uncertainty impacts property owners
Farmer Des Bolton has spent two years contesting a planned high-voltage transmission line through his Gadara Station, a cattle property at Greenvale west of Townsville.
Mr Bolton worries the 275,000-volt line, supplying power from the Genex Kidston pumped hydro facility to the national grid at Mt Fox, will impact his business’s organic certification.
“At the moment the utilities are coming across our land left, right and centre,” he said.
“The power network, we’re simply being bombarded with people wanting to use our land, access our land et cetera.”
With a powerline already running from Kidston to the national grid near Townsville, Mr Bolton wants development to continue along that route.
“There’s a high-voltage corridor already that’s 132,000 volts. The advantage of using that is that we keep all the high voltage lines in one corridor,” he said.
“I guess that’s our biggest issue, that there’s no planning in this, it’s just simply a proponent … who’s proposing to do this work at the expense of agriculture adjacent to it.
“We really need to have some major planning: it’s a point in place for our politicians to stand up and get some major planning on our books.”
A Queensland Government spokesperson said no final decisions had yet been made on the final route of the proposed transmission line.
Pumped hydro future
Storing more electricity through modern battery systems is helping to iron out inconsistent power generation from sources such as wind or solar, but existing dams could prove a larger-scale alternative.
Expanding pumped hydroelectricity as a giant battery source of energy during night time peaks has been explored using reservoirs in Tasmania and Snowy Mountains Scheme infrastructure.
Professor Baldwin said the planning and funding for the new transmission wires was a major sticking point in a system relying on cooperation between the Federal and State Governments.
“There’s a lot of discussion about Tasmania being the battery for the nation, but who’s going to pay for the interconnector to enable that resource to be accessed by people in Adelaide, Sydney, Melbourne, even Brisbane?” he said.
With a number of potential pumped hydro sites across the nation mapped out, Professor Baldwin said strategies for the resulting connections to the grid was a gaping hole in national planning.
“At the moment there is not a clear pathway for determining where those should be, how much they should cost and who pays for it, and this is the problem that we don’t have a truly national market — we’ve got a whole series of state and territory jurisdictions.”
Huge changes happening
Eighteen months on from the announcement of plans for boosting renewable power storage through Snowy Mountains Scheme 2.0, some progress has been made.
Clean Energy Council director of energy transformation Lillian Patterson said the recent move by New South Wales to plan for better connections was positive.
“Governments have an important role to play, as shown by the recent transmission infrastructure strategy launched by the NSW Government, which will help to accelerate the improvement of poles and wires to priority areas of the state with fantastic renewable energy resources,” she said.
“The process of improving our energy networks is complex and requires close collaboration between governments, regulators and the Australian Energy Market Operator.
“AEMO’s first integrated system plan this year was a great first step in helping to coordinate a national approach, by recognising some of these renewable energy zones and the network upgrades that will help to make the most of them.”
Professor Baldwin said renewable power would make up half of total national generation by the mid-2020s at the present rate, achieving Paris Climate Accord goals for emission reductions.
“We are about to become the world-leading example of the new energy system,” he said.
“At present in 2018 and 2019 the total build of renewable energy capacity is of the order of 5 gigawatts a year, every year.
“This is a massive transformation if it’s allowed to continue at the rate it is at the present, and we have to plan very carefully for this enormous transformation.”
The office of federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor has been contacted for comment.
Topics: wind-energy, hydro-energy, solar-energy, electricity-energy-and-utilities, urban-development-and-planning, regional-development, land-management, regional, greenvale-4816, tas, eucumbene-2628, hughenden-4821, australian-national-university-0200