If you plant a wind farm in the right spot you’ll get “amazing outcomes”, says RES Australia head of technical Jeremy Moon. Baring freak tempests which trigger state-wide blackouts, he names South Australia as a great state for harnessing the power of wind. “It just goes through like a freight train,” Dr Moon says. “And when Macarthur Wind Farm [in Victoria] gets up a tilt, there are no issues with market prices.”
But can wind provide baseload power? In concept, perhaps, if there was a magically optimal distribution of farms across the country — but the architecture of the market makes that unlikely.
“If you’re looking at diversity you have to look at it within a state,” he says, offering an example in South Australia of a farm in the Eyre Peninsula on the state’s southern coast and another in Mount Gambier at its south-eastern extremity. “That’s probably about as good as you can get in terms of geographic diversity.”
The design of the market favours the powerful conglomerated retailers over the small guys, Moon says, as their size ensures they will benefit most from arbitrage opportunities available from cross-border price discrepancies. “It’s geared against the independent power producers … [and] it’s probably not an artefact that’s going to assist generation going forward, to be honest.”
It’s not all bad news, because plenty of leverage can be gained from partnering wind with another renewable: solar. RES is already working on it. “We’ve got a site we’re working on at the moment that marries up wind and solar incredibly well,” he says. “That’s where the secret sauce is going to be.” Moon’s not saying where that site is, however.
So far, RES has more than 350MW capacity installed or under construction in NSW and Victoria, including the 242MW Ararat Wind Farm.
Australians’ eagerness to install solar PV on their rooftops is all very laudable but three-quarters of demand for power comes from commercial and industrial users, who need to be serviced with large-scale generation.
But the “dark horse” in the electricity market, he says, is the transition to electric vehicles. If half of Australia’s fleet is replaced by EVs, demand for electricity will increase about 25%, he reckons. “It’s a massive amount,” but the 10% oversupply of thermal generation and 15% of additional renewable generation set to come onto the network will help take up the slack.
The next five to 10 years are going to be busy; investors are warming to wind (and renewables in general), Victoria is planning a significant amount of new capacity and Queensland has good policies in place to attract large generation.
As much as wind generation is a source of good clean energy there is still resistance to it around the world, he says, although it is “less maligned in non-English-speaking countries”. Investment in communities earns RES the “social licence” it needs to balance negative sentiment, says Moon, who is also heading RES Australia’s entry into the local energy storage market.
Solar has its challenges, too. And even a plant where wind and solar were combined would be guilty of intermittent generation from time to time.
The economics of renewables are still improving. Solar gets cheaper and cheaper and efficiencies in wind technology, such as rotor diameters around 140 metres and hub heights topping 150 metres, see turbines twisting out ever more watts. Moon estimates prices for wind generation have halved since 2010. “In the timescale of the renewable energy target, wind is big,” he says, quoting capacity factors of about 40% compared with low-20% levels for solar.
“Wind has been the mainstay of renewable energy targets in Australia; it’s an incredibly powerful resource.”