Why don’t we just transition all electricity production to renewables right now? Well, it’s not quite that simple. We explain why.

In Australia, electricity production is responsible for about a third of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is because we currently rely on fossil fuels to generate roughly 67 per cent of our electricity. To meet our emissions goals, we must move towards renewable, low-emissions energy sources.

Encouragingly, our GenCost report showed that solar photovoltaics and wind continue to be the cheapest sources of newly built electricity.

So why don’t we just switch all electricity production to renewables right now? Well, it’s not quite that simple.

Australia’s transition to renewables

When it comes to embracing renewables, Australians aren’t being left in the dark. We have a world-record one-in-four homes with rooftop solar panels.

Australia leads the world with rooftop solar on one-in-four homes.

Electricity from renewables increased by almost five per cent last year. Now it accounts for nearly a third of total electricity generation across the country. In fact, South Australia has at times seen electricity generated by renewables meet 100 per cent of demand!

So why don’t we just switch all power to renewables right now? Well, it’s not that simple.

Preparing our power system

We are connecting more and more renewables (like large-scale wind and solar farms) and distributed energy resources (like rooftop solar) to the electricity grid. At the same time, we are phasing out fossil fuel generators.

This means we need to make sure we have the right amount of energy available, at the right times and in the right places.

This is a very complex situation. Sometimes we may not generate enough electricity. Sometimes most of the electricity will be supplied by renewables and in a very different way to fossil fuel generators, requiring new sorts of operational mechanisms. There are quite a few challenges.

For example, when we use fossil fuels to produce most of our electricity, it is relatively easy to match the supply of electricity to the demand we predict. Traditionally, electricity demand peaks when everyone gets home in the evening and switches on the lights and television. When everyone switches off and goes to bed, demand is low.

Looking up at electric powerlines to represent their ability to help with the renewables transition
Our research is exploring ways that the electricity grid can support the transition to renewables.

But energy supply from renewable sources varies with wind speed and sunlight intensity. This makes it more difficult to match supply with demand, securely and reliably.

That’s why, along with Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), we’re part of an international research consortium, to understand and prepare our power system for these challenges.

Storing electricity while the sun shines

One way to address the variability of renewables is to store excess energy produced when it’s windy or sunny, to meet demand when it’s not.

So, we’re developing energy storage technologies that use thermal energy, batteries and ceramics to manage the variability of renewable energy. Our new Revolutionary Energy Storage Systems Future Science Platform will up the ante on scientific solutions to will take us beyond the limitations of today’s technology.

Energy storage and an integrated electricity grid are two major components of our electricity system of the future.

15 comments

  1. I’d like to see an analysis of why community batteries could not provide a bit of an interim solution while we transition away from fossil fuels. Nearly half the houses in our street have solar panels, and mostly people are out at work all day, so they’re exporting most of this power for virtually nothing. There are about 100 houses in our street and 8.3 million households. If we bought 83,000 battery/inverter/chargers from China, we would probably be able to get them at a very good price, and it would almost certainly be cheaper than everyone buying their own battery. These batteries would charge up whenever there was an excess on the grid or from local solar panels if that made sense. Later, when we all come home from work and put the kettle on, we’d draw power from our local battery, and we wouldn’t need to buy so many big transmission lines. I realise this might have one or two regulatory hurdles, but is there something basically wrong with this idea?

    1. I should have said 8.3m million households in Australia

    2. As I understand it, what you are describing is called ‘virtual transmission’. Rather than upgrading a transmission line, you add a battery to cope with the few hours of peak demand. The battery can be charged from local solar or the transmission line at times when demand is lower than its capacity.

  2. Even with a fossil fuelled grid we still had excess energy in the late evenings as it’s hard to wind back the steam plants. This excess energy was made available as off peak power for things like hot water heating as a form of load shifting and used to pump water back up the hill in the snowy scheme for years. In a lot of ways the energy shift problem for renewables should be less challenging as human activity tends to follow the daylight hours and we only need to cover the evening demand. The mix will be important so I dare say we will see a lot more hydro and wind turbines as these are less reliant on sunlight. The advent of EV’s adds an interesting dimension if we enable two way power between EV’s and the grid. I also expect the grid will end up being redesigned along the lines of the modern internet using an interconnected cellular structure that moves a lot of generation and consumption locally.

    1. It’s not clear to me that BV manufacturers are going to be happy providing warranties for their batteries if they are being used to top up the grid. In Tesla’s case it would be cannibalising its home battery business, plus, I assume the installation is less trivial than putting the charger in the garage. It’s export feed would need to be coordinated with the smart meter. New builds maybe.

  3. Right. So running the country on wind+solar is not an ENGINEERING problem, it’s a RESEARCH problem. All the claims about nuclear being too expensive and too slow are being compared to a hope. To be sure to phase out fossil fuels we should put nuclear baseload where the fossil fuel baseload plants are, and do it as soon as possible. The power lines are there. The people there need jobs. Note that France and Ontario decarbonised their electricity in little more than a decade, and long ago.

    CSIRO and the ABC need to reevaluate their anti-nuclear position,

    1. Nuclear is very very expensive, and nobody wants it in their backyard

  4. Nuclear power is the clear answer, ideology aside.

    1. Nuclear is twice the firmed cost of solar.

    2. And cost….

    3. Perhaps (dodgy at best) but WHEN? Fusion research started in the 1940s; Tokamak has been worked on for 60 years; HB-11 the laser/fusion option still uses 10,000 times more energy than it produces for the microsecond only, that it’s working. The SMRs have licences but are still in planning stages, not even construction! None in operation! Hinckley C is 2-3 years over start time, now 2027 and estimated cost increased to £26bill. And “….by the time it eventually starts working, it may have become obsolete. Nuclear power is facing existential problems around the world, as the cost of renewable energies fall”… 🤷🏻‍♀️

  5. It’d be nice to see an estimate of the cost of our new renewable energy world. I doubt it will be cheaper than what we’re currently paying, contrary to the hopes of certain politicians.

    1. Why would that matter when we’re running out of oil?

      1. I thought we still had a century of oil left. However the planetary impact is the bigger issue.

        Regarding cost, like everything first runs are pricy, but as it develops and improves there will be efficiencies.

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