Australia stands to benefit in so many ways from the energy transition, according to a panel discussion during a webinar hosted by the Clean Energy Council.

The panel:

  • Kobad Bhavnagri, global head of industry and building decarbonization, BloombergNEF
  • Anna Freeman (moderator), policy director energy generation and hydrogen, Clean Energy Council
  • Anna Skarbek, executive director, ClimateWorks Australia
  • Tim Washington, founder, JET Charge

There has been terrific progress over the past decade as Australia builds clean sources of generation to replace polluting ones. The 4GW of utility-scale solar generating today simply didn’t exist 10 years ago and wind has grown fourfold to 7.5GW over the period.

But there is a long way to go if we are to decarbonise the grid, let alone go all out in fulfilling the dreams of developers who say we should pitch for 700% renewables and become a clean energy exporting superpower.

In early September the Clean Energy Council hosted the webinar It’s Electrifying: The Power of Clean Electricity to Supercharge Australia to test whether some dreams may materialise as reality.

Following a blizzard of slides from Saul Griffith, founder and chief scientist of advocacy groups Rewiring Australia and Rewiring America, that showed the dramatic impact on energy prices and emissions as households went entirely electric, Kobad Bhavnagri of BloombergNEF tipped the balance the other way only slightly by saying he expected the degree of electrification likely to occur would be lower than Griffith’s ambitions. “Electricity can go very deep, but it’s a question of how deep does that go,” he said.

Eliminating all emissions

ClimateWorks Australia executive director Anna Skarbek described electrification as one of the four pillars of decarbonisation, alongside prioritising clean energy, the avoidance of energy waste and fuel-switching. “It’s about eliminating all the emissions that can be eliminated and regenerating nature,” she said.

Transport accounts for about 17% of emissions and Tim Washington’s company JET Charge is among a handful of local operations working on installing the gear required to charge tomorrow’s fleet of EVs. He’s watching a slow replacement of petrol vehicles take place, holding out for the EV bug to catch on.

“Think about a world where EVs are merely thought of as an output of kilometres or kilowatt-hours”

Tim Washington, JET Charge

What’s more interesting than that is the possibility for a connected critical mass of EVs called upon to discharge into the grid when it needs support. “It can be done at a micro scale into a home,” he said, where solar is stored in the car and drawn down at night. Or it can be at grid level, where entire neighbourhoods of wheeled-gear are tapped to support the grid in times of need, such as supplying contingency FCAS support. (JET Charge is involved in a study with the Australian National University on how 50 Nissan EVs can do just that.)

Going further, he suggested EVs might one day “become the grid”, providing a “legitimate alternative to poles and wires” supplied by autonomous EVs and local micro-generation. “Think about a world where EVs not only transport you from A to B but … where vehicles are merely thought of as an output of kilometres or kilowatt-hours and at any given time the algorithms are determining whether they should be transporting people or electrons.”

Very big business

Electrification is the key to decarbonising transport but heavy industry may be harder to convert, said Bhavnagri from BNEF. Today, electricity supplies about 25% of energy used in heavy industry, which is constituted roughly of steelmaking, aluminium smelting, cement and chemicals (including plastics and fertilisers) and often requires lots of extreme heat or fossil fuels to catalyse chemical reactions.

With the right technology (once proven and commercialised), he said electricity could account for about 75% of energy used in heavy industry. Whether electricity is “the winner” depends on stiff competition from hydrogen (which he said is “really good for chemistry … it is clandestine electrification”) and carbon capture (“although a lot of people are sceptical … but in industrial processes it still probably is one of the leading contenders to help decarbonise things”).

“It crushes the business model of the fossil fuel generators … which is the real reason we are talking about reliability today”

Kobad Bhavnagri, BloombergNEF

That’s all very well, the CEC’s Anna Freeman said, but how do we reassure politicians who say that heavy industry is too important to be supplied by unreliable renewable energy?

“Reliability does matter,” Bhavnagri said, “but the problem is overstated.” Modelling by BNEF, the Australian Energy Market Operator and ClimateWorks has variously shown wind and solar could meet 60%, 70%, maybe 80% of demand in Australia without compromising reliability. “But it crushes the business model of the existing fossil fuel generators,” he said. “They won’t be making much money, which is the real reason we are talking about reliability today.”

Real reliability

Batteries will be able to provide daily smoothing as they are connected to the grid, Bhavnagri said, “minute to minute, hour to hour, morning to evening – batteries can do a really good job.” They make money, they work, and they are popping up in households, on networks and in electric cars. But it is the last bit – supplying peak energy demand on a winter night when there is no wind – that is the really hard part “where we have to deploy different solutions” such as pumped hydro, hydrogen-fired turbines (which he admitted will be expensive until the cost of hydrogen comes down) and gas generation with carbon capture.

“Until China, Japan and Korea all decarbonise, none of us are safe on this planet”

Anna Skarbek, ClimateWorks Australia

“We’ve got the tech to do it,” he said. “Yes, we could have other tech such as small modular nuclear reactors and long-duration batteries, which still have to be proven and commercialised, but they can do it.”

Work by ClimateWorks and the CSIRO has shown electrification of the economy would roughly double demand in the NEM by 2050, Skarbek said. In a scenario where Australia exports hydrogen made using renewables, demand would be about five times higher than it is today, she said, citing data used in AEMO’s latest Inputs, Assumptions and Scenarios report.

The “opportunity story” for Australia is to manufacture the green hydrogen that China, Japan and Korea do not have sufficient solar or wind resources to produce. “Until they all decarbonise, none of us are safe on this planet.”

Main image courtesy of Nextracker.