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The Australian federal government’s love affair with coal has reached new levels in recent years, with federal ministers bringing chunks of the mineral into parliament and donning high-visibility mining vests as pro-coal publicity stunts. Yet against this backdrop, one Australian state has managed to break global records in the renewable energy space.
Recently, South Australia’s state government has announced not one but two record-breaking renewable energy projects: the world’s largest solar thermal power plant and the world’s largest lithium ion battery installation. Together, these projects will help the state surge well ahead of its already ambitious renewable energy targets while delivering a clear challenge to its coal-obsessed federal counterpart.
Bust and boom
In recent years Australia has been taking giant strides away from renewables. In 2014, it repealed its nascent carbon tax. The Renewable Energy Target has been slashed, coal is being championed, and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation — the government’s “green bank” — and Australian Renewable Energy Agency have both teetered on the brink of annihilation due to funding uncertainties and cuts.
South Australia’s state government, on the other hand, has invested heavily in renewable energy over the past decade, particularly during the reign of incumbent premier Jay Weatherill, who came to power in 2011. This trend is largely thanks to an abundance of wind and sun that has supported a boom in wind and rooftop solar, says Richard Webster, principal advisor in the Low Carbon Economy Unit in the South Australian Department of the Premier and Cabinet.
It’s also come about because of South Australia’s unique network challenges.
“South Australia has always been a little bit disadvantaged as far as energy is concerned, because we’re at the end of the NEM [National Electricity Market] and we’ve also got a long spindly transmission network,” Webster says. But wind and solar can be generated close to where they are consumed, with the added attraction of enabling the state to become more self-sufficient in its electricity supply. The South Australian government has also made it easier for new wind farm projects by simplifying the developmental approval process, he says.
As of 2016, 48% of South Australia’s power came from renewable energy — bringing it close to its 2020 goal of 50%, which it set in 2014. In March this year, the state government also launched an AU$550 million energy plan for the state, with the aim of ensuring “more of the State’s power is sourced, generated and controlled in South Australia.” The plan includes an AU$150 million renewable technology fund, a new gas power plant and an energy security target.
South Australia no longer has any coal-fired power plants providing a stable baseload of power since the in Port Augusta closed in 2016, with its owner Alinta Energy saying it had become increasingly uneconomic. Following the closure, a local community group began lobbying for the plant to be converted into a renewable energy facility, not only for clean energy but also for the jobs that such a project might bring to the town.
The campaign attracted the interest of U.S. renewable energy company Solar Reserve, which in August 2017 won the contract to supply all the South Australian state government’s energy needs with a solar thermal plant. The solar thermal plant proposal beat a variety of competitors, including natural gas.
“It’s turning the corner for solar thermal in that we believe we can now compete head-to-head against conventional energy projects and provide not only clean energy projects but also be cost-competitive,” says Solar Reserve CEO Kevin Smith.
The 150-megawatt Aurora Solar Energy Project, the largest of its kind in the world, will deliver enough energy to power more than 90,000 homes and meet 100 percent of the state government’s own energy needs.
The power plant will consist of a large field of around 12,000 heliostats, or sun-tracking mirrors, that focus the sun’s heat energy on a receiver at the top of a central tower up to 240 meters (790 feet) high. The receiver is essentially a tank whose walls are lined with tubes filled with a molten salt solution — potassium and sodium nitrates — that is heated to around 560°C (1,040°F). That heat will be exchanged and used to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity in much the same way as the coal-fired power plant it replaces. Smith says Solar Reserve plans to make as much use as possible of local skills and resources, including workers who lost their jobs when the coal-fired power plant closed.
The advantage of solar thermal over photovoltaic or wind power is storage, Smith says.
“Typically, you look at battery storage as 10 minutes or 30 minutes, or maybe it’s an hour or two of storage,” he says. “We’ve got 8 to 10 hours of storage, which means we can continue to run 8 to 10 hours after the sun goes down or after the cloud cover comes over.”
Leadership in renewables comes at a cost, Webster says. “There are also some challenges associated with having a lot of renewables in the grid: intermittency, so reliability issues, and also security issues associated with how do you manage frequency and voltage issues within the network.”
Battery storage is one way to address the intermittency issue. That’s why the South Australia state government is also investing in the world’s biggest lithium ion battery, built by Tesla near Jamestown, in the mid-north of South Australia. The battery will be paired to a wind farm under construction by French company Neoen. Webster says the 100-megawatt battery is meant to provide stability for South Australia’s energy grid.
“One of the great things about the battery is it will be able to provide an extra bit of energy when needed for a short period of time,” Webster says. This stabilizing effect will be particularly valuable during South Australia’s hot summers. A heat wave resulted in blackouts earlier this year when electricity demand outstripped a supply that was reduced by lower-than-forecast wind generation and forced outages at some diesel and natural gas-fired power stations.
Poster child or case study?
South Australia’s commitment to clean energy is highlighting the lack of a coherent energy policy at the federal level while setting an example for other states, says Amanda McKenzie, CEO of Climate Council, an independent, not-for-profit information source on climate change.
“It has put a lot of political pressure on the federal government to do more,” she says. “It’s also about a learning curve, so if we’re going to have many more batteries in Australia, other states will be looking at South Australia to see how it’s going to work.”
It’s not necessarily going to be smooth sailing for South Australia as it transitions from conventional energy to renewables, warns Alex Lloyd, project manager of the Energy Storage Knowledge Bank at the University of Adelaide, noting the policy and logistical challenges the government has to navigate.
“We privatized the electricity industry, and it’s de-aggregated, so [the] generators and the transmission companies and the distribution companies and the retailers are all more or less separate companies,” Lloyd says. South Australia also has some of the highest electricity prices in Australia.
“South Australia really is at the pointy end of the change that could well be experienced across the rest of the world sooner rather than later,” Lloyd says. “It makes the way that South Australia solves these problems particularly interesting and I just hope that Australia can become the poster child for solving these problems correctly as opposed to a case study in what to avoid.”
Bianca Nogrady is a freelance science journalist.