As clean energy generation replaces the polluting varieties, it’s tempting to race ahead and see how fast the world can get to the finish line. In Australia we are hobbled by the murky vision of certain federal politicians, sure, but that hasn’t stopped homeowners, businesses and state governments from powering ahead.

Will we make it there without tripping over? It’s too early to say, because some of the solutions we need are still on the drawing board. Only an orderly replacement of old technology with an orchestrated deployment of the new will guarantee the energy future the Earth and its inhabitants deserve.

Solar and wind provide about 6% of worldwide electricity, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel reminded the audience at the University of NSW-Times Higher Education summit in mid-February, with much of the world still reliant on fossil fuels. “We need to keep the lights on,” he says. “We need the energy and we need it without the emissions.” As clean energy becomes cheaper, the decision to switch becomes easier as it brings economic and environmental advantage. “The trade-off is a false dichotomy that we don’t need to deal with.”

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel: “We need the energy and we need it without emissions.”

As a top-ranking institution, UNSW has contributed an enormous amount to the rise of solar energy as a mainstream generation source worldwide. “We’re in a phase of enormous revolution within the energy industry,” says UNSW Scientia Professor Martin Green, director of the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics.

Bids for solar in international PPAs below $US30/MWh in 2016 and below $US20/MWh in 2017 may have looked “incredibly low” at the time, Green says, but price forecasts for the energy source always look too conservative soon after they are made because the technology is becoming rapidly cheaper. “It’s very hard to find someone who is too optimistic,” he says. “The change has happened very quickly.” Green is calmly confident solar prices will reach $US10/MWh sometime in the first half of the 2020s.

UNSW Scientia Professor Martin Green: “It’s hard to find someone who is too optimistic [about solar energy becoming ever more affordable].”

Green’s team at UNSW is responsible for developing the high-efficiency PERC solar cells and the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics has held the record for silicon solar cell efficiency for 30 of the past 34 years. As solar attracted institutional investor interest and manufacturing shifted to China from the US, Germany and Japan the technology has become a mainstream commodity, he says.

Solar controller

Last year a terawatt of new solar was installed worldwide, Green says, and he expects the trend to continue. It’s great that dirty old coal is being elbowed out of the way by an energy resource that pops over the horizon fresh and new every day, but a massive build-out of solar brings with it a few issues that need to be carefully controlled.

Australian Energy Market Operator CEO Audrey Zibelman says the sheer volume of unmanaged rooftop solar in South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria has sometimes resulted in occasional voltage drops at distribution level, where her team has had to curtail solar to ensure the system remains secure.

AEMO chief executive officer Audrey Zibelman has concerns about the amount of uncontrolled solar energy that can affect system stability.

“We have to start introducing the solutions now in order to make this work otherwise AEMO will be in an unenviable position of having to inform the public that we simply just can’t do any more,” Zibelman says. “That is going to require programs around storage integration and managing these systems at a distributed level. We need to get cracking on things like smart inverters that help us manage inertia and frequency on the system.”

Zibelman says the rapid uptake of solar is leading to a decentralised energy system where system-owners enjoy more autonomy, with the result that market efficiency will rely on output from a vast number of assets being optimised. “We’re hitting this in Australia now,” she says. “How are we going to manage the system to be more resilient as well as cost-effective and carbon-neutral? We need to start moving towards a system that is truly integrated and that we use intelligence in the system. It’s going to require a new toolset to manage a very different power system.

“We’re going from managing roughly 300 power plants to millions of bits of different resources, which means we can’t simply have a system operator look at it – we need different tools.”

The architecture of a utopian energy management future may still be bothering designers but Zibelman is clear it will need to deliver automatic “prices to devices” solutions so that consumers aren’t obliged to exhibit expert skills as electricity day-traders, and it will need to be resilient enough to deal with hazards such as drought, bushfires and extreme environmental events.

“Having the ability to use the diversity in an optimal way so that we can manage through this is going to be essential,” she says. “With technology, we’ll get there.”

Those who go without

Australians take energy for granted, but such a luxury isn’t universal. PNG Power managing director Carolyn Blacklock grew up in rural Queensland and didn’t have access to electricity until she was 20, so she has no trouble empathising with the 7 million of her 8 million constituents who aren’t connected to Papua New Guinea’s electricity system.

Australia’s nearest neighbour has had a yo-yoing relationship with renewables, she says. About 15 years ago 75% of energy was sourced from renewables, but that dropped to about 30% as recently as a year ago as the nation switched to gas generation – a plentiful raw material in PNG. Blacklock has swung the pendulum back to 70% renewables since she’s taken the reins at PNG Power, and she sees potential for more.

In particular she voices admiration and some envy for Tasmania’s hydro capacity. “We haven’t built hydro power in Papua New Guinea because it’s been beneficial to a small minority to burn diesel,” she says.

As for radio static that makes up Australian energy policy, her feelings are straight down the line. “The discussion that goes on in Australia seems a bit like nonsense to us,” she says. “It’s a little bit too much talk and not enough action.”

Blacklock says her work agenda is clear: how to develop PNG by giving locals more access to energy. “And it must be renewable for us because we have dear neighbours and ourselves who are feeling the direct impact of climate change.”

And if you’re worried the slow collapse of coal and gas – primary exports for Australia – will see the nation spiral into recession, Green has a different take on it. Instead, he says, the Australian resources sector will be buoyed once again by demand for the raw materials that go into solar panels and the wiring needed to electrify the world.

“At first sight it sounds like renewables is not great for Australia in terms of the resource industry because of the impact it will make up on the thermal coal export,” he says. “In reality, it’s going to create far more opportunity for our traditional resource exports as well as requiring all this supporting technology such as batteries.”