Renewables, Solar, Transition to Renewables

More work needed to sustain renewable energy growth in Australia

It was a mixed report card for clean energy in 2022, with rooftop solar leading the charge and record levels of large-scale projects under construction, but a slowing in new commitments is cause for longer-term concern, writes Clean Energy Council chief executive Kane Thornton.

The rate of new large-scale renewable energy projects slowed in Australia in 2022 compared to the highs of 2021. However, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the growth of the sector, thanks to record levels of construction activity and the unrelenting uptake of rooftop solar, all backed by increasingly positive political sentiment around the country.

Rooftop solar continues to lead the charge

As revealed in the Clean Energy Council’s “Clean Energy Australia 2023” report, rooftop solar is the driving force behind Australia’s clean energy transition in terms of capacity added, with 2.7GW added in 2022. Although that figure is down from 3.3GW in 2021, it still represents the highest contribution in the renewables sector.

We know rooftop solar is the feather in Australia’s clean energy cap, and we saw more evidence of that recently when it was announced that rooftop solar systems supplied more of Australia’s energy than brown coal during the recent Australian summer – a period that was notable for enjoying less sunshine than in an average year.

Rooftop solar provided a record 14 per cent of Australia’s electricity needs during summer and dispatched more energy to the grid than all other renewable sources, including grid-scale wind and solar farms.

Australia really is a world leader in rooftop solar.

Large-scale running to catch up

The large-scale sector contributed 2.3GW in 2022, down from 2.9GW in 2021. The number of large-scale projects completed in 2022 (20) was also down on the previous year (27). However, while those figures may be reduced, the Australian renewable energy industry commenced construction on more than 5000MW of wind and solar farms in 2022 – the highest year for new renewable construction on record.

The final quarter of 2022 also saw investment in financially committed large-scale generation and storage projects reach $4.3 billion – the highest quarterly investment since Q3 2018.

Overall, renewable energy accounted for 35.9 per cent of Australia’s total electricity generation in 2022, up from 32.5 per cent in 2021. That figure has more than doubled since 2017, when renewable energy accounted for just 16.9 per cent of generation.

But while these figures are promising, we must not take sustained growth for granted. A lot more work is needed at government level to encourage the investment and development needed to reach the Federal Government’s stated target of 82 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Political greenslide

This time last year, we were concerned about the Federal Government’s continued backing of coalfired power. Now, following on from Labor’s resounding federal election victory in May 2022, we are focused on how we can accelerate the transition, accepting there is more widespread support for the clean energy transition than ever.

At the time of writing, there has been a great deal of media interest in the closing of the coalfired Liddell Power Station, in the NSW Hunter Valley, after five decades of operation, as well as the planned closure of Australia’s largest coalfired power station, Eraring, at Lake Macquarie, NSW, in 2025 – the latter of which has been brought forward by seven years.

The planned closures of fossil fuel power plants such as these will always raise the question of whether the grid has enough energy capacity to ensure supply continues uninterrupted. There are no supply losses projected for these closures, but significant changes to the grid highlight the importance of grid security and network reform, which the Clean Energy Council is consistently and strongly advocating for.

Accepting we are not yet bringing on utility-scale renewable projects at the rate needed to meet national energy targets, it is at least encouraging we’ve seen so many investment commitments made since the election. Bringing renewable energy capacity online before high-profile closures such as Liddell and Eraring will be essential as we accelerate the transition, to ensure energy consumers’ supply is not broken and their energy prices remain reasonable and steady.

The 2022 federal election sent a clear message to the world – not just through Labor’s victory, but through the election of so many Greens and Teal independent candidates running campaigns focused on climate change and renewables – that Australia intends to be a global force in the clean energy industry.

We have myriad challenges to face both domestically and internationally as the rate of renewable energy growth begins to scale. But there are positive signs across the country that we’re ready to embrace these challenges.

Next steps for the transition

The important thing now is we don’t take the growth of our industry for granted. We’re making progress, but there is much work still to be done.

With that in mind, why not join us and Australia’s clean energy leaders when we host the Australian Clean Energy Summit (ACES) in Sydney, in July 2023. The two-day conference brings together heads of industry, government and finance to share the business models and explore the challenges and opportunities that will drive the clean energy transition.

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