29 October 2015
by Giles Parkinson

Wind and solar: Does Australia have a blind spot?

On Tuesday, in a press conference with Malcolm Turnbull to announce his appointment, the new chief scientist of Australia, Alan Finkel, said something very interesting.

“With enough storage we could do it in this country with solar and wind,”

By “doing it”, he meant making Australia’s energy system zero emissions. In other words, 100 per cent renewable.

It’s not the sort of claim you often hear outside of some energy research faculties, environmental NGOs, and the wind and solar industry itself.

The phrase got surprising little play in the mainstream media. Here was the new chief scientist, an electrical engineer among his numerous qualifications, telling the country that it could harness the plentiful resources of the wind and sun and power the economy.

Some people, though, just don’t want to hear.

The Australian trotted out what could be termed as the “anti-renewable” establishment line again in an editorial on Wednesday.

The newspaper described a “class war against the poor”, because some people favour wind and solar over coal. It quoted the usual suspects, the Australian mining lobby and its favourite climate confusionist, Bjørn Lomborg. Both parties like to tell people that wind and solar serve no useful purpose.

“The IEA says that about 0.4 per cent of global energy now comes from solar and wind power,” The Australian said.

“By 2040, and after massive public subsidies, solar and wind power will contribute just 2.2 per cent of global energy.”

The chances are that the IEA is not the source of information, but Lomborg himself. Just seven days earlier, Lomborg wrote on Project Syndicate:

“The International Energy Agency estimates that about 0.4% of global energy now comes from solar and wind. Even in 2040, with all governments implementing all of their green promises, solar and wind will make up just 2.2% of global energy.”

He said much the same thing last year in the Wall Street Journal:

“Yet today, according to the International Energy Agency, only about 0.4% of global energy consumption comes from solar photovoltaics and windmills. And even with exceptionally optimistic assumptions about future deployment of wind and solar, the IEA expects that these energy forms will provide a minuscule 2.2% of the world’s energy by 2040.”

And a year earlier in Slate magazine:

“In the IEA’s optimistic scenario, which assumes that the world’s governments will fulfill all of their green promises, wind will provide 1.34 per cent of global energy by 2035, while solar will provide 0.42 per cent.”

But this is what the conservative IEA, with its history of under-estimating wind and solar, actually does say about these technologies:

“Currently, wind and solar PV account for just about 3 per cent of world electricity generation,” it said in the February, 2014, report on variable renewables, the Power of Transformation. (Electricity is just under half global energy needs, which includes transport and heat)
And in coming decades, it will likely grow significantly. Indeed, the IEA believes that by 2050, if the world is to meet climate targets, solar will become the biggest single source of electricity in the world, providing a minimum 28 per cent of the world’s energy needs (16 per cent from solar PV, 12 per cent from solar thermal).

Combined with wind, that could mean nearly 40 per cent from “variable renewables” – just a little bit less than the current share in South Australia. But on a much, much, grander scale.

Importantly, the IEA says that renewables (primarily wind and solar), and energy efficiency, will likely account for three-quarters of emissions abatement out to 2050.

So, where would Lomborg get the 2.2 per cent wind and solar scenario? Probably from the IEA’s catastrophic 6°C scenario, where the world ignores climate science, goes on to extract as many fossil fuels as it can, and puts the world on a path to 6°C of warming, rather than 2.7°C it has so far narrowed itself down to, if the Paris pledges mean anything.

The aim of the coal lobby – and many elements of the nuclear lobby, too, for that matter – is to downplay the role that renewable energy, specifically wind and solar, does and can play in the global energy market.

As for Finkel’s remarks, most media focused on his interest in nuclear energy. It is true that Finkel does have some interest in nuclear, but it is heavily qualified: he says it is slow, expensive, and Australia does not have the infrastructure and skills necessary to roll it out.

Finkel’s point is this: If any country in the world can develop a zero carbon economy based around renewables, then Australia is the one.

Turnbull’s response was interesting, describing nuclear as “hugely expensive” to construct, and coming with significant environmental issues.

And, while defending the role of coal in relieving energy poverty in undeveloped countries – seemingly to sate the highly conservative nature of his party – Turnbull also recognised the potential of solar and storage, mainly because of the huge infrastructure costs that centralised generation requires.

Even the IEA says so: Last year, it said if coal was to be used to address energy poverty, it would have to include carbon capture and storage, which apart from not being commercially available in power stations, would be very expensive.

The best alternative, it says, is solar.

“By 2050, although population growth will concentrate in cities, hundreds of millions of people will still live in sparsely populated rural areas where off-grid solar systems would likely be the most suitable solution for minimum electrification,” it says.

The IEA says that by 2030, around 500 million people with no access to electricity could enjoy the equivalent of 200W of solar PV capacity. This would be equivalent to 100GW, not far short of the total solar PV deployment to date, and would be entirely in mini-grid and off-grid situations.

But that’s not what the fossil fuel industry wants to tell you. Sadly, it’s not something that most Australian media consumers are likely to hear.