Climate change

June 3, 2009

SA sets a 33% renewables by 2020 target

Today I attended a press conference at the University of Adelaide, at which Premier Mike Rann delivered a pre-state-budget announcement of support, to the tune of $800,000 pa for two years, for a new centre focused on RD&D in hot dry rock geothermal energy (HDRGE). There was also a broader target on renewable energy announced, summarised by the Government as follows:

Premier Mike Rann today announced that this week’s State Budget will outline plans to create an even greater renewable industry in South Australia, and to increase the state’s renewable energy production target to 33 per cent by 2020. The first project to be funded from the Renewable Energy Fund will be the South Australian Centre of Excellence for Geothermal Research at the University of Adelaide, which will receive $1.6 million over two years.”

A PDF of the 2-page media release is available here. Below are snippetts describing some of the key features:

Mr Rann, who is also Minister for Sustainability and Climate Change, and Economic Development, announced a new $20 million Renewable Energy Fund to accelerate investment in this sector…

So we’re now announcing an even tougher target of 33 per cent by 2020 which will keep us at the forefront internationally of jurisdictions supporting renewable energy…

South Australia is home to 56 per cent of the nation’s wind power, 90 per cent of its geothermal investment and nearly 30 per cent of its grid-connected domestic solar systems, by far the highest in Australia…

Recommendations on the application of remaining funds will come from the new RenewablesSA Board lead by Bruce Carter, the Chair of the Economic Development Board.”

For reference, South Australia’s current target of 20% of the state’s electricity generation sourced from renewables by 2014 looks set to be met a year early, in 2013.

This is a really interesting set of policy announcements, given the recent discussion we’ve had on this website about likely upper limits to the capacity of renewable energy to deliver substantial fractions of a modern society’s total power needs. In this context, I’d be very intrigued to hear people’s views on how realistic they think this state target is, and by what means (energy sources) it will be achieved. There is also the issue of complementarity with the national mandatory renewable energy target of 45,000 GWh of renewable energy to be generated in Australia by 2020.

Will South Australia, by adopting this target, just make the job of the other states easier? It is not clear to me, in reading the draft MRET legislation, on whether each state will itself have a quota of x-GWh per annum (Mr Rann implied this in his press conference speech, but it may have simply been an assumption on his behalf), or whether (in theory) just one state could generate the entire allocation (this was my understanding). This obviously makes a big difference, because if the latter is true, SA could simply end up carrying the load for the other states. I suspect the view of the SA state government is ‘lead and others will follow’, and I hope that’s the case, but with a target as large as 33% by 2020, I suspect there’ll be some major laggards instead…

Anyway, to set the framework for discussion, here is my brief take on what it means. Feel free to disagree…

The funds for HDRGE research are great news. This is an immature technology (the recent well blow out at a Geodynamics rig was an example of early deploment teething problems), but it is also an attractive source of clean energy because of its potential to provide ‘baseload’ power. It warrants serious further development, to sort out issues such as ability to achieve consistent rock fracturing, the  capacity for recycling water through the system without significant net losses [important for desert regions], avoiding overly rapid local cooling and mineralisation of fractured rock strata, and, like other desert renewables, getting power from generation site to point of use. Technically of course, HDRGE is not a renewable energy source, but then technically, no energy source can be considered ‘renewable’ and still abide by the 2nd law of thermodynamics. It’s a source of energy dervied primarily from the natural decay of uranium in the earth’s crust and there’s plenty of it, if we can tap it economically and at sufficient scale. I suspect that the use of HDRGE will always be limited by the accessibility of the resource globally — for some places, such as South Australia, it could well be a major source of future energy. The IPCC Working Group III (chapter 4, pg 277-278) give a crisp overview of the state of play and potential development, and note that “Deeper drilling up to 8 km to reach molten rock magma resources may become cost effective in future“. An intriguing prospect — if this becomes technically and economically feasible, the sky is ultimately the limit.

And what about that bold 33% of the state’s electricity generation sourced from renewables by 2020? If realised, that would be as high as any juristiction has so far achieved, worldwide. Is this possible?

South Australia’s electricity usage, averaged over the year, is currently around 1700 MW — most of which comes from thermal gas (using steam turbines) and coal, with a rapidly increasing contribution from wind (see above). At a growth rate of 2% pa (realistic, even given increased energy efficiency, because of the growing population), demand might rise to around 2100 MW. Around 50 MW of that might come from the Port Stanvac desalination plant. Add in the Olympic Dam expansion and its estimated 570 MW additional draw, and we’re up to about 2700 MW. A third of this is 900 MW.

Let’s say 70% of this 900 MW comes from wind, 25% from solar (hot water system RECs, rooftop PV, and concentrating solar power [CSP]), and 5% from HDRGE, in 2020. Give these capacity factors of 33%, 20% and 90% respectively. That comes to a peak installed capacity of about 1900 MW wind, 1100 MW solar and 50 MW HDRGE, rising from a current (2009) level of 390 MW (wind), say 50 MW solar (mostly hot water, some PV, no CSP), and 0 MW from HDRGE. That’s 630 large (3 MW) turbines and some novel build outs of the other techs (largely CSP and HDRGE).

With its vast potential renewable energy resources, my view is that this is an achieveable regional goal for a place like SA. It is most likely to be realised if UHVDC lines can be strung out to the Eyre Peninsula (abundant wind resources) and/or the interior deserts (for CSP and HDRGE). This will require some serious government investments and a re-evaluation of current regulatory problems that causes first-mover disadvantage. It will also require that SA continues to lead the other Australian states in providing the most attractive incentives for renewables deployment. A (potentially large) caveat is that managing the relatively low quality (fluctuating and periodically pulsing) electrical inputs derived from wind will be a big challenge for the utilities, if a 33% contribution is achieved. This makes it tough to maintain a standard and constant electrical frequency and demands micromangement of spinning reserve in order to to dispatch the constant load we expect.

Is a 33% renewables by 2020 achieveable as a national Australian target? In my humble opinion, not a snowflake’s chance in hell.

SA has a relatively small electricity demand compared to the national total, an already well developed renewable energy infrastructure, and some of the best resources in the world to tap into. The other states are way behind in build out, as some of the figures in the press release indicate. But most importantly, SA can reach a 33% level with no requirement for large-scale energy storage, and potentially no further fossil fuel backup. The state is connected to the large east coast grid, powered predominantly by coal, and can draw on this abundant supply via the Murraylink interconnector when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining (being generalised here, but basically, when delivery is well below the nominal 33%). We can also sell to the east coast grid when delivery is near peak. We’ll be the Denmark of the south — with both the admirable and dubious energy connotations that this brings.

For Australia’s total electricty supply, it’s a whole ‘nuther ballgame. Enter nukes.

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