If cheerleaders for renewable energy ever wonder why it is that the federal government just doesn’t seem to get it, they should stop to consider that coal and gas feature among Australia’s top three exports. But how long will that last as the world turns its back on anything that produces carbon as a polluting byproduct? It’s no wonder that in Canberra they are so feverishly loyal to what they know, what they rely on and what pays them today.

You can’t hold back progress, of course, so Australia’s clean energy industry includes a visionary legion that is focused on working out how to export our other natural resources – sunshine and wind – in place of ones found below ground.

Speaking at the All-Energy 2020 Renewable Energy Exports session in early October, Professor Ken Baldwin of the Australian National University’s Energy Change Institute said the target is possible, although the numbers will sound staggering. If ARENA’s Darren Miller said Australia is capable of producing 700% of its needs from clean energy to feed an export transition, Baldwin goes far higher – past 20 times the current levels of generation.

Here’s his logic. The Asia-Pacific region is expected to need 65% more energy in the decades ahead, he said, but as emissions are targeted in the region Australia’s traditional energy exports will be threatened.

Among other things Australia exports iron ore, thermal and coking coal, aluminium ores and LNG, with 96% of it headed to the Asia-Pacific. The bad news for our neighbours is that those imports contribute to nearly 8% of emissions in the region.

Higher and higher

Baldwin says it’s feasible to export the same amount of energy as our coal and gas exports, but as liquified hydrogen (80%) and subsea HVDC exports of electricity (20%). Vast quantities of new solar and wind generation could also see green steel and green aluminium as an alternative to exporting ore.

Would need 6,000TWh of new renewable energy generation to do this, he said, equivalent to about 130,000 square kilometres of wind and solar projects. Five 10GW subsea cables would also help.

All up, that’s about 23 times the current electricity generation of Australia, with the full electrification of industry included in the deal. Storage would obviously be an essential component, but work by his team has shown the levelised cost of energy including storage – which ramps up dramatically as renewables replace dispatchable sources at higher penetration levels – would fall gently as 100% is surpassed, towards 200%, 500%, 2,000% and higher.

There is tremendous potential for jobs in the future scenario, especially in regional areas and among Indigenous communities in remote parts of Australia.

Big prospects invite big questions, he admitted: How do we certify these exports for carbon? What technologies are needed? Which options are best value? What trading agreements are needed? How will global politics affect trade? It’s all on the horizon.

Working day and night

Part of this shift to export green over brown could be covered by CWP Renewables’ Asian Renewable Energy Hub in Western Australia, said development manager Andrew Dickson. The company wants to develop a 6,500-square-kilometre site between Port Hedland and Broome, where it is windy at night and sunny during the day.

Rows of wind turbines about 5km apart will complement enormous solar plants to provide 26GW of potential generation, “the largest power project in the world,” Dickson said, to send out 98TWh a year to power a desalination plant and electrolysers. The resultant hydrogen will be combined with nitrogen distilled from the air to create ammonia, which will be pumped to ships for export to Japan, South Korea, Indonesia and Malaysia.

All up, 16GW wind and 10GW solar will work with 14GW of electrolysers to turn out 1.75 million tonnes of hydrogen and 9.9 million tonnes of ammonia a year.

How it will be used is not yet known, as ammonia is only used today in fertilisers and explosives, but Dickson hopes markets will be developed for its use in coal-fired power stations, where a 2:8 ratio of ammonia to coal in combustion can see a 20% drop in emissions, he said.

Ammonia is also a contender to run gas turbines and to power ships, he said, where ammonia-fuelled ship engines are expected within three years. Dickson said he sees a point where green ammonia will be cheaper than brown ammonia and be chosen simply on economic terms.

At ARENA, investment director Matt Walden admitted the barriers to hydrogen are still evident. It’s all a bit chicken-and-egg, he suggested: to attract investment you must firmly understand the cost of producing hydrogen, and let’s not forget securing export markets. Electrolyser costs are a challenge, he said, but ARENA is backing hydrogen to ease the wheels with funds directed into R&D and small-scale demonstration projects.

It may take a while to replace brown exports with green ones, but it will slowly happen in its own way.