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South Australia Reaches 100% Renewables Electricity Supply If Only For a Day

On the day when the Australian government announced it had reached a deal on curbing climate-warming gas emissions from industry here is a glimpse of a renewable energy-powered future for the continent already in development in the state of South Australia.

An artist's impression of the finished Tonsley advanced manufacturing precinct adorned in solar panels

An artist's impression of the finished Tonsley advanced manufacturing precinct adorned in solar panels.

Australia reaches historic compromise on emissions reduction

Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced on Wednesday that an agreement had been reached with independent senators and a key opposition party, the Palmer United Party (PUP), to secure support for a A$2.5 billion ($2.2 billion) fund to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

The PUP was formed by billionaire mining magnate Clive Palmer 18 months ago. One of its chief policies is that an emissions trading scheme for Australia would only be established after other countries – US, China, EU, Japan and Korea – also establish such a scheme.

Australia as a whole has had a politically tumultuous relationship with climate change in recent years. In July this year the government repealed an existing carbon tax and trading scheme put in place by the previous government.

The Australian government is still committed to reducing emissions by 5 per cent from 2000 levels by 2020, although the Climate Change Authority, among others, argues that this is less than required for Australia to meet its fair share of the international effort.

The new Emissions Reduction Fund agreed this week will see the government pay big polluters to cut their emissions. A "safeguard mechanism" will be put in place, the details of which will be thrashed out later, to ensure companies comply with the scheme's requirements, facing penalties if they do not comply.

Giving in to pressure from the Palmer United Party, the government will launch a review of climate policies in other big-emitting nations, but not until January 2016, after the crucial Paris U.N. climate conference where it is hoped that a new international, legally-binding climate treaty will be agreed.

According to Andrew Blakers, director of the Centre for Sustainable Energy Systems at the Australian National University, Australia could achieve 90 per cent renewable energy by 2040 by replacing coal and gas fired stations that are due to be retired over the coming decades.

Blakers is also suggesting Australia implement "pumped hydro" for energy storage, under which water is pumped up to a reservoir when there is spare electricity from renewables and then run downhill through a turbine when needed.

An American study, puts Australia 10th out of 16 OECD countries in overall energy efficiency and last in transport. Under the Abbott Government, it "has dramatically reduced its investment in efficiency and has rolled back its efficiency incentive programs, causing its score to decline."

But South Australia is showing the rest of the continent what the future could be like. The state - 'a place with the population of West Virginia' - announced the other day that it had been powered by 100% renewable energy for an entire working day.

In 2009 Mike Rann, the state premier at the time, laid out a plan to turn South Australia into a clean energy hub for the eastern seaboard of Australia, announcing a target of 33% renewables by 2020. The state just about reached that goal in September of this year, six years ahead of schedule. Current premier, Jay Weatherill, has since increased the target to 50 per cent by 2025 – a goal some argue will be reached with government assistance or not.

The fourth largest of Australia's states and territories, it covers some of the most arid parts of the continent, with a total land area of 983,482 square kilometres.

According to its state government, only a fraction of South Australia's renewable energy resources are being used at present. There is general agreement that the quality of these resources is such that they can be used to produce much more renewable energy at competitive prices. It is an energy-blessed state. In the north is the biggest single deposit of uranium on earth with 30 per cent of the world's total resource – even though Australia has no nuclear energy facilities.  Gas and oil are plentiful, and there's low-grade coal to be found.

But  the land is awash in solar and wind energy ready to be tamed. It also boasts potential in the novel applications of geothermal and wave energy. With the 100% supply figure being reached for an entire day, here is proof that a fully renewable future is possible for the continent. 

According to the Federal Government's Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), "solar energy is a vast and largely untapped resource. Australia has the highest average solar radiation per square metre of any continent in the world."

South Australia's solar dominance started when the Rann government introduced feed-in tariffs and subsidies in 2008 for households installing panels and solar hot water systems. Combined with high energy costs - which according to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) where "largely driven by transmission and distribution network price increases,"  - it was the perfect set of conditions for solar uptake in the state.

Solar proves useful during heatwaves, when the grid is ill-equipped to meet demand from air conditioners and failing infrastructure. Available solar energy scales up ahead of demand, shifting and cutting peaks in the grid. The AEMO released a report after the January 13-17 2014 South Australian heatwave. It recorded the first ever five-day period above 42 °C, the hottest five-day maximum temperature on record, the hottest maximum five-day average temperature (at 43.6 °C) and the fourth hottest day measured in South Australia (45.1 °C).

Spark Infrastructure, which owns SA Power Networks, agreed that rooftop PV reduced stress on the network and introduced stability to the grid during the heatwave.

A decentralised network of power supply also means there's some failsafe during extreme conditions; another admission was that many of the traditional power generators were in high-risk fire areas during the heatwave. There is a social payoff too; a lower risk of blackouts ensures that the state's most vulnerable citizens during a heatwave, such as the elderly, are kept cool and healthy.

Solar energy during heat wave in southern Australia

The blue represents demand during a 2009 heatwave, before solar was widespread. The red line represents demand during the 2014 heatwave. The gold line shows solar power ramping up and feeding in to the grid slightly ahead of the rise in demand in 2014 - pushing the peaks later in to the day and cutting their length. 

 low-income households are more likely to install solar energy

Households in lower income areas are more likely to install rooftop solar systems. Source: REC Agents Association.

Industries in South Australia have strongly taken to renewable energy - partly in thanks to the feed-in tariffs and payback that homes enjoyed but also for the green credentials that comes with a strong environmental profile: 'Premium Food and Wine from our Clean Environment' is a South Australian marketing tagline and one of the state's priorities.

Export markets such as China and Europe are increasingly prepared to pay more for the benefit of sustainable, cleanly sourced food and products. Australia can't be the food bowl of Asia, but it can find significant opportunities in supplying premium products to its growing middle class.

The well-known Jacob's Creek Winery in the Barossa Valley has heavily invested in low-waste practice and renewable energy. Their visitor's centre is flanked by two large solar arrays that produce all the energy the winery requires, selling the excess back in to the grid. Brett McKinnon, Global Operations Director at Pernod Ricard Winemakers, owners of Jacob's Creek, says that the panels are part of their responsibility as a business.

One of the state's largest industry infrastructure projects, the Tonsley advanced manufacturing precinct, is also becoming one of the greenest.  it is to install what could potentially be the largest solar installation in the state to date, putting out a tender for up to 25,000 square metres of solar panels to line the distinctive saw-tooth roof of the old plant. (see illustration at the top of this article)

"The rooftop of the main assembly plant has the capacity to generate the equivalent of electricity required to power up to 770 South Australian homes a year," State Premier Weatherill said in a statement. "There are hundreds, if not thousands of SA jobs in the renewable energy sector – these are the growth areas we should be supporting, not undermining."

The Tonsley TAFE Sustainable Industries Education Centre also won the Creative Re-Use Category at this year's World Architecture Festival Awards in Singapore for reusing 90% of the original steel structure.

The solar sector is a major growth area in the state. Suntrix, a South Australian owned and operated solar installation company, was recently named one of the country's fastest growing companies by Business Review Weekly.

Suntrix's inclusion - due to its 66% growth in the past year - follows their 2013 Telstra South Australian Business of the Year award. Managing Director Jenny Paradiso was also named South Australia's Entrepreneur of the Year for 2014. Tindo Solar are the only manufacturer of solar panels in Australia. They currently run a highly automated 60MW production line.

Wind power

South Australia is also the largest producer of wind energy in Australia. The state's 1.5 GW of wind energy make up almost half of the country's capability. Of the two coal powered plants that were operating in South Australia, one has shut down and the other operates at reduced capacity for six months of the year.

During the recent 100% renewable energy working days in South Australia, wind energy was responsible for generating the majority of the state's power.

Wholesale prices have been historically low - particularly so for regional areas - largely due to wind.

According to a submission to the AEMO from Tim O'Loughlin, former Commissioner for Renewable Energy, Its success in attracting so much wind investment is "largely the result of a confluence of factors such as: world class wind resources; a land use planning system which is regarded by investors as the most competitive in the nation; access to power lines and siting away from population centres."

The most recently completed major wind project is the $439 million Snowtown II, an array of 90 Siemens wind turbines of 3 MW each - for a total of 270 MW. They're expected to pump out an annual output of 985 GWh.

A massive wind project with 197 wind turbines generating 600MW of power has just been approved on the Yorke Peninsula. The $1.5 billion Ceres Project would feed enough energy to power 225,000 homes through an underwater connection in to Adelaide's power grid.

Hot Rocks

South Australia has been described as the country's "hot rock haven". A number of companies are exploring the potential of the state's geothermal energy - mostly in the proof of concept phase.

The South Australian Centre for Geothermal Research was established at the University of Adelaide in 2010 as part of the state government's Renewable Energy Fund. It received $3.6 million in funding to research and develop technology for the fast growing field.

The contrast between this state of affairs in South Australia and the rest of the country in its attitude towards climate change has to be explained. It is not difficult to find the explanation. You just have to look at their lobbying power of the mining and coal sector.

But at least with this week's decision on emission reduction, Australia still seems to be taking two steps forward for every one step back.