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Issue #1555      11 July 2012

Moving towards 100% renewable energy in 10 years

Peter Castaldo *

About six months ago I went to a talk presented by a group called Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE). They spoke about a plan to repower Australia with 100% renewable energy in 10 years. I’d always been interested in renewable energy and wondered why we don’t use it more. By the end of the talk I felt like they’d simplified this great big complicated topic. I was inspired by their ambition and vision and now have a much greater understanding of the big picture on renewables, C02 emissions, and how to solve the climate change problem.

The talk was so refreshing in a world that’s squabbling about achieving 20% C02 reductions by 2020 and here was a plan to show how we can have 100% reductions. So I bought their first book Stationary Energy Plan and started reading then cross referencing on the internet to check it all made sense. It all stacked up! So I felt I had to get on board with this amazing organisation. It took me a while before I felt I had a basic grasp of the subject and couldn’t wait to go out to speak to others about it. Today is my first presentation to the general public. It’s also the first time I’ve spoken in front of an audience about something that’s really important and I’m passionate about.

Beyond Zero Emissions

Beyond Zero Emissions is a not-for-profit organisation focusing on research and then communicating it to the public. The first major report produced is the Stationary Energy Plan (or otherwise known as the Electricity Grid Plan). This is the first of six plans that are currently being produced and cover: Buildings, Transport, Land Use, Industrial, and finally, Australia a Renewable Energy Superpower.

Normally we struggle to deliver the full talk in one hour, with plenty of pictures, so I’ll do my best today to give you a broad overview. The Zero Carbon Australia Project is collaboration between BZE and Melbourne University and is largely volunteer run with as many as 600 volunteers, including myself.

Climate change

BZE’s research started by accepting the need to act now towards a carbon neutral economy before we cause catastrophic and irreversible damage to the environment by hitting dangerous climatic tipping points. This is why we’ve chosen to head for such a bold vision of 100% renewables in 10 years. We have to act now using only existing, commercial, fully tested and working technology to get things going.

Traditionally we’ve used fossil fuels to generate the vast majority of the electricity on the grid. And, of course, burning this coal for our power results in millions of tonnes of carbon emissions that are accelerating dangerous climate change.

So we need a renewable zero emission process to replace the way we create our energy. The research at the BZE has shown that the two standout technologies that can avoid all the pollution of the current dirty fossil fuel power plants are concentrated solar thermal power with storage, and wind.

Concentrated solar thermal (CST) power plants


A concentrated solar thermal power plant.

These are the most exciting thing to happen in renewable energy and are the big game changers that absolutely makes 100% renewables possible.

Does anyone know about concentrated solar thermal with storage? Basically it’s a way of collecting the sun’s rays in a field of mirrors, all reflecting it into a giant tower in the middle of the field that has molten salt that is heated to over 500° C from the sun’s rays.

I don’t know if any of you have experimented with the power of the sun’s rays. I have, with a small magnifying glass and the poor ants in my garden. Well, these mirrors are 10 metres by 12 metres in size. That’s big! Then imagine nearly 18,000 of them all concentrated on the molten salt in the tower. Now that’s a lot of energy.

This molten salt is then collected in a giant tank that stores the heat energy. The molten salt is then used to make steam in the same way as is done at a coal power station, but with no pollution. I don’t know if any of you have worked in a coal mine or coal power plant. They release many fine particles and other toxins that cause a whole range of respiratory and health problems. I guess they are a little like giant cigarettes. I’d much rather think that the people supplying the energy I use in my house every day don’t have to work or live near such places. Interestingly, the union did a poll and found 90% of coal workers would prefer to work in renewable energy if they had the same entitlements.

History

Solar thermal power towers with molten salt storage were proven in the 1990s by the US Department of Energy. This was ready to be ramped up to larger scale systems when unfortunately, in the early 2000s, funding for the solar program of the US Department of Energy was almost completely stopped.

However, a number of companies bought the rights to the solar thermal technology from the US and began rolling out this technology in Spain.

One of the main criticisms of renewable energy has been that it is unable to supply base load electricity or the bulk of energy we use every day consistently.

Currently operational in Spain is a plant that has enough storage for 15 hours of power when the sun isn’t shining that would provide power even in the middle of winter continuously. This is renewable electricity that can be dispatched at any time of the day or night, as needed, which is in fact of far higher value than inflexible baseload fossil fuel systems which take many hours to power up or down.

Spain is spending more than AU$20 billion on a variety of concentrated solar thermal plants due to be completed by 2013. Spain is serious on renewables and is on track to achieve more than 42% of their electricity from renewable energy by 2020.

In the US they’ve started building a number of these CST fields and China and Africa have started working on very significant plans for the future. This is such a wonderful, safe, pollution-free solution, it just seems too good to be true ... except they’ve already built them and they work, supplying many thousands of homes with electricity ... so why not here in the sunburnt country?

Wind power

The other key commercially available technology is wind power. Right now wind power is the cheapest, most technologically mature renewable energy source. There has been global wind power growth of 30% a year for the last decade. China, USA, Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and Germany all have massive projects underway.

Demand

So now, to design the system, we need to know how much energy we might need in 2020. We expect good energy saving in many areas but we also plan to convert cars, heating of buildings and industrial processes from fossil fuels and get their energy in future from the electricity grid. So the total amount of electricity required will rise by around 40%.

System

So we’ve looked at the key technologies used and how they work together to create 100% renewable energy for Australia.

Three main components are:

  • concentrated solar thermal power
  • wind power
  • upgrading the current electricity grid to bring the power to where it’s needed.

CST60%

Concentrated solar thermal with storage has been chosen to supply 60% of Australia’s 2020 electricity demand. And when we build them you don’t just build one. We’re suggesting 19 of these towers all linked together to form a 3500 MW plant or solar region. That’s 30% bigger than the biggest coal power station in Australia. There would be 12 of these solar regions dispersed across Australia to supply 60% of Australia’s energy.

Wind power 40%

The other 40% of Australia’s energy in 2020 would be supplied by wind. Wind power has the lowest cost, so the plan utilises as much wind power as possible. This would require around 6,400 of the biggest wind turbines dispersed across Australia in 23 of the best wind regions for good geographical diversity.

Risks

So now that we’re suggesting that wind and solar are used, we need to be confident that there’s enough. So detailed modelling was analysed over a two-year period using half-hour wind and solar measurements from the Bureau of Meteorology. That shows us roughly how much solar and how much wind can be expected at each of the chosen sites and the design works for 98% of the time.

For the short times where there isn’t enough solar or wind resource, a combination of existing hydro and a small amount of crop waste bio-mass is used to ensure 100% demand is met. This is 100% renewable zero emissions technology meeting Australia’s full energy demand for an entire year.

I think when you break it down like that, 12 solar fields and 23 wind regions, it all sounds very achievable, so then what about other resources required?

Resources

In terms of total resources, how much steel and concrete do we need? Only 7% of the concrete produced every year. And 20-30% of our domestic steel production or only 2% of the iron ore that we export.

How about the labour requirements? The plan would create 40,000 new jobs in operations and maintenance that would continue for the life of the wind and solar plants. This would be more than enough to replace the 20,000 jobs in today’s domestic fossil fuel industry. Secondly, manufacturing half the required wind turbines and solar thermal mirrors in Australia would create another 30,000 jobs. Thirdly, to build everything we’d need a peak construction workforce of 75,000.

So there are a lot of jobs there.

Economics

The next question you might have is how much is it going to cost? The projected cost of wind and solar thermal power is another good news story. The first-of-a-kind plants of any technology are always going to be expensive but the more you build the cheaper they get. This is due to the effect of mass manufacturing and supplying a large industry. This is basically the same effect that has made solar panels on our roofs, big screen televisions and mobile phones much cheaper than they were ten years ago.

In looking at the total cost of building the plan, we see ensuring a safe climate future as a bargain at only 3% GDP (Gross Domestic Product) for 10 years. Over the 10 years we would invest $370 billion to make this a reality. This is $37 billion/year in a $1,200 billion economy. In comparison, each year Australia spends around $40 billion on insurance and almost $20 billion on gambling.

And remember, this would be a mixture of public and private money – we’re not suggesting that taxpayers fund the whole project. Renewable energy in the short term needs a price support policy like the one used to help lower the cost of solar power panels to make it viable for private companies to invest capital. This needs to be seen as a nation-building project like the Snowy Mountains Scheme. When you then start to think about all the free fuel provided by the sun and the wind, the real benefits start to be seen and the massive savings start to build up over time.

Right now Australia is on track to spend $1.2 trillion on importing foreign oil over the next 30 years. That’s three times the cost to create 100% renewable energy. Burning oil is like burning our hard-earned savings away and creating continued carbon pollution.

Conclusion

We believe Australia should now move to zero emissions, 100% renewable energy to secure our climate, our energy supply and our future.

The plan shows it’s technically do-able using technologies like solar thermal that are commercially available. The transition has been fully resourced and will provide tens of thousands of new, secure jobs for Australians.

And it has been fully costed.

Our choice

So it comes down to a choice Australians have to make. Do we continue down the same path with the future dangers of peak oil and ever more pollution of our environment until we are forced to change our ways? Or do we look to the skies, harnessing the wind and sun that they provide free of charge, causing no pollution or resource shortages?

*A talk given at the Melbourne Unitarian Memorial Church

The Beacon   

Next article – A rationale based on lies – Funding cuts to TAFE

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