Renewable energy – all the good news

Most of us know by now that we need to decarbonise the global economy – fast – if we are to have any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Fortunately, the technology to do just that is booming, charging ahead so quickly that merely keeping up with the news is difficult.

Solar and wind power are demonstrating astonishing growth rates, with or without government incentives, now that their costs have dropped below the costs of new coal and (in many cases) gas; some time last year we even began hearing of cases in which it was cheaper to build and run new wind and solar power plants than just to run old coal plants.

Last year, for most of us, was the Year of the Battery. Tesla’s big South Australian battery did something its many little Powerwalls couldn’t, i.e., make battery storage seem like a serious option for the real world rather than just a cool idea. Bloomberg’s 2018 outlook report sees this continuing and allowing electric vehicles to undercut conventional, internal combustion engine cars on both lifetime and upfront cost by the mid-to-late 2020s.

The Green Path facebook page does its best to keep up with all this news but anyone wanting it all, and unfiltered, should bookmark or follow these sites:


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Ergon invests in wind power

Paying electricity bills is never a favourite occupation but the newsletter which came with my most recent account alerted me to good news I had missed: “Our new agreement with the Mount Emerald Wind Farm will increase the amount of renewable energy we’re purchasing by around 170 MW.”

I found an earlier but longer version of the same announcement on RenewEconomy, dated May this year:

Queensland is likely to get its first large scale wind farm after the regional electricity utility, Ergon Energy, offered a 12.5 year power purchase agreement for the 170MW Mt Emerald wind farm.

The wind farm, to be located about 50kms south of Cairns, is owned by Port Bajool and Ratch Australia Corporation, and was one of seven wind, solar and biomass projects short-listed by Ergon Energy in a tender for new renewable energy last December.

The other projects were two solar farms proposed by Spanish group FRV,  another solar farm from Lyon Infrastructure, Infigen Energy’s 75MW Forsayth wind farm, and a biomass project proposing to generate power from chicken pooh.

… The spokesman would not reveal the PPA price, other than to say that Ergon was “very happy” with the deal.

The Cairns Post was upbeat about it then, too …

DEVELOPERS behind Queensland’s largest wind farm expect to break ground on the Tablelands project early next year.

Ergon Energy has announced it will enter into an agreement to purchase all of the electricity generated by Mt Emerald Wind Farm, to be built at Walkamin, through to the end of 2030.

The $360 million project is a joint venture between Ratch Australia and Port Bajool. … Mount Emerald includes up to 53 turbines to potentially generate enough electricity to power 75,000 homes each year.

… apart from a cautionary note that the Queensland power industry (including Ergon) was starting from a very low base:

Of the 3500 megawatts (MW) of wind generation capacity currently in the country, Queensland only supplies around 12MW from wind farms at Ravenshoe and Thursday Island.

The wind farm’s own website has more information including a map.Walkamin is halfway between Atherton and Mareeba, and the wind farm will be just West of it.

The latest report in the Cairns Post was published only ten days ago:

CONSTRUCTION on the Tablelands’ Mt Emerald wind farm is expected to start in Dec­ember, following the selection of preferred contractors for the $360 million project.

Developer Ratch Australia has awarded its wind farm contract to Dutch manufacturers Vestas and the Sydney-based Downer Group. Vestas and Downer will share responsibility for the ent­ire 180MW project, including supply and construction of more than 50 turbines, a substation, cabling to the grid, civil and electrical works, and wind monitoring equipment.

The announcement follows Ergon Energy’s decision to purchase all of the electricity generated by the wind farm through to the end of 2030.

Congratulations to all concerned! It’s great to see our local supplier moving in the right direction. Let’s hope they follow up this project with many more.

Renewable energy in Europe

My holiday in Europe is beginning to fade from memory but there are still one or two subjects relevant to the concerns of Green Path that I would like to discuss. One of them is the visibility of renewable energy production. Rather than follow our itinerary I will work from North to South, so I begin in Scotland.

Wind power in Scotland: a view of Ardrossan from the Arran ferry
Wind power in Scotland: a view of Ardrossan from the Arran ferry

The most visible of the renewable energy sources was wind power. As we drove from Ayr to Edinburgh (clear across the width of Scotland but only a couple of hours in the car), a row of windmills was often in view on a hilltop or ridge; sometimes half a dozen of them, sometimes bigger groups as in the photo above. I noticed one rural enterprise (a piggery or chicken farm, perhaps – one huge shed, anyway) had gone it alone, with a two-bladed windmill rather smaller than the commercial units.

house with solar panels
Solar power at Doonfoot, just South of Glasgow

Solar power was obviously not so popular – and for really obvious reasons when you think about variability of day length this far from the equator and then factor in the reputation of Scottish weather. The example above is one of only two or three I saw in a town of several thousand houses.

Generator house
Older renewables – hydro power at Loch Lomond

Hydro-electric power is still in use and we saw two installations – this one feeding into Loch Lomond (1940s) and another at Loch Doon (1930s).

We didn’t spend any time in Holland but wind power was part of the scenery as we flew into and out of Schiphol on our way from Frankfurt to Glasgow.

Wind power in Holland: a neat row of windmills along the canal as far as possible from the neat rows of farmhouses
Wind power in Holland: a neat row of windmills along the canal, as far as possible from the neat rows of farmhouses

A constant complaint about wind power here in Australia is that the windmills “intrude on the landscape” or words to that effect, but after a week or so in Scotland I’m ready to say that’s nonsense: once the first strangeness wore off, they were no more intrusive than buildings or a row of pylons, and they are actually rather graceful.

Germany has invested more in renewable energy than most countries but it wasn’t at all obvious to us in Frankfurt or Heidelberg or on a side trip to a wine-growing region on the Rhine. Local conditions again need to be taken into account, and in Frankfurt we need to consider the nature of the housing stock.

blocks of apartments
Typical residential streetscape in Frankfurt

Most people live in apartment blocks like these, and one consequence is that the amount of roof space per household is one quarter of what it would be in a Australian suburb with its single storey houses. And most people rent their apartments, so they have no reason to invest in a roof-top system, even if they could get permission. Furthermore, Frankfurt is not the best part of Germany for solar power (see map).

Wikipedia’s article on renewable energy in Germany reveals that several technologies are contributing significant amounts of power – as of 2010, wind (about 50 000 GWh) was followed quite closely by biomass, hydro, photovoltaics and bio-waste (about 7 000 GWh). That, to me, is healthy, since (1) we need to take advantage of whatever is most readily available, and (2) a spread of sources will maximise energy security.

Finally, Turkey seems to be in catch-up mode. Again, local solutions will reflect local conditions. Hydro-electric and geothermal power is relatively well developed already, and solar power will be far more attractive than in Scotland but is presently limited; passive solar hot water systems are fairly common but photovoltaic systems are not (see wikipedia again).

Good news on renewable energy

There have been several good-news stories on renewable energy in the last couple of weeks. I haven’t had time to follow them up and write about them, but here they are:

Japan to phase out nuclear power by 2040

Japan has announced it will phase out nuclear power over the next three decades, in the wake of mounting resistance to the energy source after last year’s Fukushima disaster.

Tokyo plans to permanently shut down its reactors by 2040, bringing the country in line with Italy, Switzerland and Germany, which has said it will wean itself off nuclear power by 2022 …

The full story is here.

Gales send turbines into overdrive

While gale-force winds kept emergency services busy across South Australia this week, they also fired up turbines on the state’s wind farms. Figures from the Australian Energy Market Operator show while the winds were howling, more than half the state’s power came from wind farms.

Roughly a quarter of South Australia’s power came from wind farms last year. But the Clean Energy Council’s policy director, Russell Marsh, says when winds topped 90 kilometres per hour earlier this week, that figure was much higher.

“What we’ve seen is over the last couple of days the amount of energy generated from wind power in South Australia has gone through between 55 and 85 per cent since Monday as a result of the very strong winds we’re having at the moment,” he said.

And for a few brief moments in the early hours of Wednesday morning, wind was generating so much power some of it was being exported to Victoria …

The full story is here.

Spanish firm to build ACT solar farm

The ACT Government has announced Australia’s largest solar farm supported by a feed-in tariff will be built in the Territory’s south.

Spanish-based company Fotowatio Renewable Ventures (FRV) will build the facility on 50 hectares near Royalla just off the Monaro Highway in Tuggeranong. The 20 megawatt facility will be made up of 83,000 photovoltaic panels and produce enough renewable electricity to power 4,400 Canberra homes.

The project will cost ACT households an extra 25 cents a week or $13 a year. That is expected to decrease to around $9.50 by 2020.

FRV chief executive officer Rafael Benjumea says the company has extensive experience in solar power farms. “We have built more than 350 megawatts all over the world, investing more than 2.5 billion Euros ($AUS 3 billion) in solar panels,” he said.

Construction is due to begin next year and is expected to be finished in 2014 …

The full story is here.

Going solar: lots of Aussies

The news headlines a couple of days ago were, “35-fold increase in solar power,” which I thought was pretty good, but there is more to it than that. Here’s how the ABC saw it:

A new report released at climate talks in South Africa overnight has found the number of solar panels installed in Australian homes has grown 35-fold in the past three years.

The Clean Energy Report says more than 1 million Australians now live in homes powered by solar panels and the nation is on track to meet its target of a fifth of its energy from renewables by 2020.

While state feed-in tariffs helped increase the popularity of solar energy, the report found uncertainty over whether a carbon tax would be introduced stalled larger projects like the construction of new wind farms.

They were reporting on a publication of the Clean Energy Council, working primarily from this press release (pdf) about a bigger report which is available from their site.  Its biggest numbers are:

  • Renewables generate 10% of Australia’s electricity.
  • Hydro generates two thirds (67%) of that, with wind next at 22%, followed by bioenergy at 8.5% and solar PV at 2.3%; other technologies are all less than a tenth of solar PV.

So solar PV is still tiny but it is no longer insignificant and is growing really fast.

The other domestic solar technology, passive solar water heating, is not mentioned amongst the electricity generation figures but actually saves three times as much fossil fuel as domestic PV: “The energy saved from solar water heating is equivalent to 7.2% of the clean energy generated in Australia.” That said, the growth of solar hot water has slowed over the last couple of years after a big spike in 2009. The Clean Energy Council thinks that is because, “The generous government support available for solar PV systems has led many customers to choose PV over solar hot water, despite the excellent energy savings available from the latter technology,” but that, “a national ban on the replacement of electric hot water systems from 2012 is expected to give the solar hot water industry a welcome boost.”

Back to electricity generation:

The growth of solar power was one of the stories of 2011 following a record year in 2010, when 380 MW of solar power was installed. As at the end of August 2011, 1031 MW of solar power was installed across the country, representing more than half a million household systems. This is more than nine times the amount of solar power installed as at the end of 2009 and more than 35 times the total installed just three years ago in 2008. More than 230,000 of these systems were installed in the eight months from January to August 2011.

Nationally it is estimated that 8% of all suitable homes are fitted with a solar photovoltaic (PV) power system. … The cost of solar PV continues to fall rapidly and is expected to reach the cost of grid electricity towards the middle of the decade.

And if you need another reason to feel good about your own solar PV installation (or another reason for installing one soon), here it is:

Electricity prices in Australia have risen about 30 per cent over the last four years. 

There are several factors behind the recent price rises. By far the largest is the need to replace and upgrade the ageing poles and wires of the national electricity grid, some of which have been in service for more than 40 years. Recent estimates suggest that more than $130 billion will be necessary to upgrade the network over the next decade, growing to $220 billion over 20 years. Research indicates that these network costs will cause price rises of up to 66 per cent in NSW and Queensland by 2015. Similar increases are likely in other states and territories. [my emphasis]

That, of course, will reduce pay-back time for solar installations considerably.

No-one can do anything about suppliers’ need to replace ageing poles and wires, but growth in solar PV will reduce the concurrent need to increase the capacity of the distribution  network, as well as postponing the need for new baseload power stations. If we try hard enough, perhaps we can put off major new power stations long enough for wind and solar technology to have become the automatic first choice.