Australia’s electricity grid could be entirely run by renewable energy by 2030, proving to be cheaper and less risky than building new coal-fired power stations, according to new research by the Alternative Technology Association.

This target could be achieved by accelerating the installation of wind and solar power by 80 per cent, and backed up by pumped hydro energy storage facilities and extra transmission lines, the 100% Renewable Grid by 2030 paper says.

Australia is in a transition as coal-fired power stations are retiring, and the country should prepare a proper plan for 100 per cent renewable energy, and quickly, lead author and ATA energy analyst Andrew Reddaway said.

The urgent message comes as Australia’s energy ministers prepare to debate the suitability of the National Energy Guarantee at the COAG Energy Council meeting in Hobart on Friday.

Renewables already the cheapest option, and that’s with storage

ATA’s paper is based on research by the Australian National University, concluding that electricity from new-build coal-fired power stations would likely cost between $81 and $182 a megawatt-hour. However, once the hidden costs from health and climate impacts are added, the range increases to $102-$203.

On the other hand, electricity from a full renewable gird would cost about $93 a megawatt-hour, which already includes the cost of building energy storage and extra transmission to manage intermittency.

Mr Reddaway said that renewable energy costs would continue to fall further in the future.

The report said the most economic combination for a fully renewable grid included:

  • wind farms (45,000 MW)
  • solar farms (23,000 MW)
  • rooftop solar (17,000 MW)
  • existing hydroelectric and biomass generators (10,800 MW)
  • pumped hydro energy storage
  • extra transmission lines

In order to meet these standards for complete renewable energy by 2030, large areas of wind and solar farms need to be installed.

A total of 15,000 turbines would be needed to accomplish 45,000 MW from wind farms. Australia currently has 3000.

Solar farms totalling 23,000 MW would require about 70 million panels, but research shows it is “clearly achievable” given the installation of more than 23 million panels on rooftops in Australia by December 2015.

 Energy storage growth needed

Despite the progress that has already been achieved, there has been no growth in energy storage.

In a grid dominated by wind and solar, energy stores must be able to be conserved for use at the end of a cloudy week, and extra transmission lines would be needed to transport electricity from areas experiencing sunshine and wind to the rest of the country.

ANU research found that the most economical form of energy storage was pumped hydro.

The Snowy Hydro 2.0 is a proposal under study to develop pumped hydro energy storage in the Snowy Mountains. Proposed generating capacity is 2000 MW of power and energy storage capacity is 350,000 megawatt-hours, which means that Snowy Hydro 2.0 could generate at full power for a whole week before it was depleted.

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