SOUTH AUSTRALIA AND SUSTAINABILITY FEATURE SERIES, No 1: Past investments in renewable energy has given South Australia’s new premier, Peter Malinauskas, a great starting point for making his state green. But have renewables distracted the state from other forms of energy efficiency?

Back in March, Labor leader Peter Malinauskas was elected as South Australia’s new premier, ousting the one-term Coalition government led by Steven Marshall.

In the lead up to that election, a number of planning, energy and sustainability policies were major campaign issues. These included the recent privatisation of South Australia’s rail services, the construction of new hydrogen facilities and the future of the state’s planning laws.

In the first part of this short series looking at planning and sustainability of the built environment in SA, The Fifth Estate is taking a deep dive into the strengths, challenges and opportunities facing the state and its recently elected premier.

In some ways, the state leads the nation, particularly in the amount of renewables running across its “Stobie” poles, which has now opened the door to the state becoming a clean energy exporter.

(For the uninitiated living outside SA, the next time you’re in Adelaide, you might notice most of the street lights and power poles have a layer of concrete sandwiched between two steel beams. This unique design is known as a “Stobie” pole, named after inventor James Cyril Stobie.)

However, while the electricity grid is a major source of emissions in the built environment, it’s far from the only source. 

A major risk that comes with focusing too much on renewables is that they can become a distraction from the need for energy efficiency in buildings, or other sources of emissions, in areas such as embodied carbon in building materials or transport. 

With the recent steep hikes in power prices, there’s never been a more poignant time to focus a business on these issues – at the very least from the point of view of the bottom line, let alone our net zero challenges.

To delve deeper into these issues, The Fifth Estate delved into the data and spoke to three experts from the University of South Australia:

  • Dr Andrew Allan, senior lecturer in transport, urban and regional planning
  • Dr Johannes Pieters, program director of urban and regional planning
  • Dr Sadasivam Karuppannan, senior lecturer of urban and regional planning

Renewables in the grid

The good news story out of South Australia on the sustainability front, and one where it has a lot to teach the rest of the nation, is its speed in moving off coal and adopting renewables. 

Over the past 15 years, SA’s electricity mix has shifted from below 1 per cent renewables to around 65.7 per cent of the energy generated in 2021, according to OpenNEM. The state closed down its last coal power plant in 2016.

Around 40 per cent of all SA households have photovoltaic panels on their rooftops, according to the Clean Energy Regulator.

As a result, 17 per cent of the power generated in the state came from rooftop solar in 2021, a further 5.1 per cent from solar farms, and a very impressive 43.6 per cent from wind farms. Most of the remainder came from either gas or diesel. 

This places the state behind only Tasmania in terms of the share of its electricity that comes from renewable energy sources. 

By contrast, just 24.6 per cent of the electricity generated in NSW came from renewables last year and 73.9 per cent came from black coal, while in Victoria 31.6 per cent came from renewables and an astounding 66.5 per cent from brown coal.

The state also led the nation by building Australia’s first grid scale battery storage facility, the Hornsdale Power Reserve, with the first 100MW/129MWh completed in November 2017, and a 50MW/64.5MWh expansion in 2020.

Impressively, during 2021, the state was powered exclusively by wind and solar for a 93 hour period.

A majority of the power flowing across these Stobie poles now comes from renewable sources. Image credit: Roo72 on Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Dr Allan senior lecturer in transport, urban and regional planning at the University of South Australia told The Fifth Estate South Australia’s strong performance on renewable power didn’t come about by accident – it was the product of concerted state government policy.

“The previous Labor government under Mike Rann and Jay Weatherill pushed very hard on the environment in their early years, in water and energy. That’s a very impressive legacy that puts the Malinauskas government in good stead going into the future,” Dr Allen said.

Premier Malinauskas has committed to adding to this legacy by a 250MWe hydrogen electrolyser facility, along with a 3600 tonne hydrogen storage facility and a 200MW hydrogen power station.

Interestingly, in discussing these hydrogen projects, Premier Malinauskas has focused on how it’s improving the economy, rather than their environmental benefit.

“It’s seen us transitioning from just generating renewable energy for domestic consumption towards exporting energy from South Australia, which they see as critical to underpinning the future economic wellbeing of the state, but it also has an environmental benefit,” Dr Allan said.

Hitting the pause button on zero carbon housing

While SA has made great inroads into reducing its emissions for energy, there is still a lot of work to do on making its built environment more sustainable. That includes improving energy efficiency, reducing embodied carbon in construction materials, increasing sustainable transport, and removing gas appliances from buildings.

For example, around 57 per cent of South Australian homes, around 427,000 in total, are connected to the gas grid. While this is lower than the ACT (85 per cent), Victoria (80 per cent) or WA (75 per cent), it is far higher than NSW (42 per cent). 

In theory, this could lead to situations where most of the energy on the electrical grid is coming from renewables, and yet thousands of South Australians are burning methane gas for cooking, hot water and heating.

“When you look at a lot of domestic housing, with a lot of the development that’s been approved, in isolation those projects are not anywhere near zero carbon. So I think that probably needs to be looked at,” Dr Allan said.

“We shouldn’t just be relying on electricity generation power utility companies to get to zero carbon. There’s still a lot of households out there that, for example, could install photoelectric solar panels, and even solar hot water heaters, which very few homes actually have.”

The Hornsdale Power Reserve.

The early indicators on this front from the Malinauskas government are a little concerning, with the 2022-23 budget marking the end of the state’s Home Battery Scheme, as well as its Switch for Solar program.

“There’s nothing that’s actually going to get us to zero carbon living with the built environment at the moment.  We might get some pathway there, but I didn’t see any policies that are really pushing it very hard to really get to zero carbon housing,” Dr Allan said.

“There were some very good inroads made into that issue about 10 years ago under the Rann/Weatherill governments but it kind of it’s a bit like we’ve hit the pause button, the past four or five years. 

“It’s almost as if we’ve got there and we don’t need to do too much more. I think that needs revisiting. How are we going to get to zero carbon living by 2050?”

Dark roofs

Limiting the ability for the state to move ahead of the rest of the nation is the fact that South Australia follows the National Construction Code for its building code.

This is a major limiting factor in terms of, for example, the state mandating lighter coloured roofs for new residential homes.

“So it’s not a SA specific code. It used to be, but now the national code has been adopted. And whatever the national code prescribes, if you meet that code, your building is going to be approved,” Sadasivam Karuppannan, senior lecturer of urban and regional planning at the University of South Australia said.

“Light coloured roofs, which reflect a lot of heat, versus dark roofs, has been discussed on and off, but not in a very serious way. In South Australia, the last heat wave we had, it was getting up to 50 degrees Celsius. So really, that’s a debate we should look at.”

There are some signs of progress on roofing, with the City of Adelaide recently partnering with the University of Adelaide to trial the use of a ceramic cool roof coating called Super Therm, which is distributed in Australia by South Australian company NEOtherm.

The NSW’s government recently abandoned Design and Place SEPP planning policy, which mandated light coloured roofs.

Industry sources say this was being watched closely by Victoria and Queensland bureaucrats and industry people to see what progress would be. Its cancellation is seen as setting back the agenda for cooler homes and suburbs nationally.

In South Australia, according to Dr Johannes Pieters, program director of urban and regional planning, the concern is missing.

“A lot of consultants here do work in the rest of Australia and are very much on top of that, but I in terms of just chatting with people in industry from time to time, I can’t say I’ve heard many people talking about that. Maybe they should be,” he said.

In future instalments of this series, we’ll take a closer look at South Australia’s planning codes, and the battle that’s brewing over transport privatisation.

Heritage or higher density: Peter Malinauskas’ big dilemma over South Australia’s planning laws

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  1. Stobie poles are a great idea an example of recycling.
    Originally they were made from worn out railway tracks bolted together and the gap between filled with concrete. Not sure if they still use old railway tracks, but for a state with few trees and lots of termites they are a good use of resources.
    Do not hit one in a car, they are impressive durable and very strong.