We're discussing the topic of renewable energy in this episode of the What Happens Next? podcast and how we can solve some of the challenges of getting sustainable energy into the grid.
Despite the abundance of renewable energy resources in Australia, and huge growth in solar and wind farms, along with hydro, getting it into our cities and households is still a challenge. An old, complex energy grid, our island nation status and the complexity of demand vs supply mean we still have some work to do. But Monash engineers and scientists are confident we can solve these problems. Behrooz Bahrani works on grid integration - how we get all the valuable energy produced by solar, wind and waves into the electrical grid and powering our houses. Roger Dargaville is researching pumped hydro and explains how it can help take us all the way with renewables.
"The amount of renewable energies that we've got in a country like Australia, it's just massive, it is mind blowing. If we could, for example, harness, maybe one per cent of that, that would be more than sufficient for the whole nation."
Behrooz Bahrani, Senior Lecturer, Electrical and Computer Systems Engineering.
Susan Carland (SC): Hi, I'm Dr Susan Carland and welcome to our second episode in this series on renewables. Despite the abundance of renewable energy resources in Australia and huge growth in solar and wind farms and hydro, getting it into our homes is a challenge. An old, complex energy grid, island nation status and the complexity of demand versus supply means we still have some work to do. But Monash engineers and scientists are confident we can solve these problems. Behrooz Bahrani works on grid integration. That's how we all get the valuable energy produced by Australia's sun, wind and waves into the grid and powering our homes and businesses. Roger Dargaville is researching pumped hydro and he explains how it can help take us all the way with renewables.
Joining us now is Behrooz Bahrani.
Behrooz Bahrani (BB): My name is Dr Behrooz Bahrani. I'm a lecturer in the Electrical and Computer System Engineering Department at Monash University. My main field of research and expertise is renewable energy integration into the grid, converters, power electronic converters and their control and their application in the wider area of the grid.
SC: Behrooz Bahrani, welcome. Thank you for coming in. Imagine the world continues on as it is with Australia in particular not being very active in taking on renewable energy sources. What do we look like in 50 years?
BB: So if we want to stop now with the amount of renewable energies that we've got, the mix at the moment, I believe for, 2019 was around 20 per cent of renewables, give or take, and 80 per cent of fossil fuel. With that, we will be in, actually, a lot of trouble. What we saw last year and the beginning of this year 2020,massive bushfires in Australia That is one important consequence of climate change for us in Australia. Of course, we are blessed in terms of renewable energy resources but we are one of the most vulnerable countries in the world when it comes to climate change, that we are actually feeling the pain, probably really one of the first countries feeling this pain, you know.? Other countries in the world - well, look at the US. They've got some problems in California. The bushfires in California are probably as catastrophic as ours, maybe ours are worse, but we will be one of the first countries feeling the pain. If you don't do anything, 2050 can be so dark for us. It's not only bushfires, though. We have climate change affecting so many other things. Climate change can affect our agriculture. Climate change can affect temperature. Temperature brings severe weather events, it can cause sea level rise, all sorts of problems. So without having further action, and if wee want to stop at this level that we are today, the future won't be so bright.
SC: There's a sad irony, in it, isn't it? That, as you said, Australia is particularly vulnerable to climate change, and yet we seem to be doing so little compared to other nations in regards to uptake of renewables. Why is that? Is it that renewables just aren't reliable enough?
BB: Well, first of all, I can’t tell that we're not doing very well compared to other countries, depending who we're comparing ourselves with. For example,when it comes to solar energy, we're actually doing good. Solar energy, last couple of years, we've been - per capita, of course - per capita we've been among the top three nations in the world.
SC: That's actually great news!
BB: It is great news. For solar, we are doing very, very well actually. It's only that comparison to other countries - whether what other countries are doing is enough or not, that's another story.
SC: So we could be third in a bad race?
BB: Exactly. It could be third in a bad race. Well, the best country at the moment in terms of energy, solar energy uptake, is Germany, they're doing actually pretty well. We're not very far behind them, though. Again, when I'm talking about the race, it;s per capita. Of course, there are countries like China. It's a massive country, they've got a lot of solar, a lot of ingeneration, but per capita, we're not doing terrible, we’re in the same scenario. We’'re not doing terrible - like maybe for the wind, maybe we're not top three, but maybe I believe, well we can have a look at statistics, but we're probably around in the top 10 or so. So we're not doing terrible, comparatively. But in an absolute measure, yes, the whole world is not doing great.
SC: So why, then, if we are only at 20 per cent with renewables, 80 per cent is still from fossil fuels, why is that? Why has there not been a greater uptake of renewable?
BB: Well, a bunch of reasons. The first one would be financial reasons. Because somebody needs to come and pay for your new installations - installations for solar farms, wind farms, rooftop solar, incentives from the government is required, an appetite from industry, private sector to come and develop these so technology is not really a massive burden at the moment, for some regions - but I'll get to that, where the technology is the barrier as well. So finance is one big problem, that we don't have a lot of incentive for developers to come and develop. Because if you're a developer and if you want to, for example, develop a farm or develop an energy generation plant, you want to earn money, right? Most of the developers, their main incentive is earning money. So if they look at their solar farm project or wind farm project and if they compare it with another investment of any type, they said, ‘Okay, why on earth should I put my money in a solar farm, a wind farm if it;s not going to have a lot of return on investment for me? But that's probably one of the biggest problems.
Now, let's give you one side story here that you will see why developers are not very keen. Last year there were five, I believe, solar plants, solar farms in Australia, which had to cut their generation back to almost half in some particular regions in the Australian network because the grid was not strong enough to take that power and actually send it to customers. So when your grid is not strong enough, you have to cut back energy. Now imagine that you’ve installed a solar farm somewhere, and then initially have invested X million amounts of dollars there. And then you're expecting to have this return on investment because this particular solar farm can generate X amount of energy for you. Now, if it is cut in half by the operator of the grid, and you're mandated okay, you cannot send more than this to the grid, you're losing money, actually, because these farms, they've got a lifetime. They've got around 25 or 30 years, give or take, lifetime. Say, for example, for a given amount of time, you cannot generate the full capacity you're losing money. Future developers won't be that interested. This is actually what is happening at the moment. Back in 2018 we had a very good, nice, steady rise in the amount of investment in this sector. In 2019, it has actually dropped quite a lot for 2019. Investment was not as great as 2018. And all of this goes back to the financial aspect of things. Another point is that whether your grid is actually capable of uptaking this much of renewables and actually using this power or actually -
SC: Sucking it up?
BB - exactly. So it's not always possible in every corner of the grid that you're looking at. In some parts, yes, it is possible. What are those parts? Parts which have access to very good infrastructure, parts which have access to very good transmission lines, high capacity transmission lines and your grid is strong. When I say strong, what do I mean? For example, it’s a very, maybe naive analogy, but maybe you've seen at home when you connect a fairly high power device, let's say your vacuum cleaner, or maybe your iron for example. You connect it and you might notice a flicker in the light. The light might go off for a tiny bit of like, maybe half a second less than that, and then goes back on. It means that your point of connection is not super strong. If a load is connected to it, there might be some fluctuations in the voltage of your grid. It's the same when you look at the massive scale for some parts of the grid. The transmission network, which is responsible for getting all the power from all large generation and sending it to load centres, like cities, it's not great. The weaker your grid, the more difficult it is to get connected to the grid, the more difficult it is to get integrated to the grid.
SC: So not only is it bad financially, ike you said, for the investors, they're losing money, but it's bad, environmentally as well, because all this great natural, renewable energy is being created that is essentially is just being dumped, and we're having to still rely on the old fossil fuel resources. So it's bad in both ways.
BB:Correct. The amount of renewable energies that we've got in a country like Australia, it's just massive, it is mind blowing. If we could, for example, harness, maybe one per cent of that, that would be more than sufficient for the whole nation. I don't know the exact number, but even One per cent of the amount of solar radiance in this country - we are blessed with solar radiance in this country, we're blessed with wind resources. But again, yes, the problem is a lack of infrastructure, so we can actually integrate those into the grid. Now, if I want ot go and talk about the solution for this - the solutions for this, well, we are, already, in the industry and in the research sector, we're talking about some solutions for these weak networks and how we can help to make them stronger.
One way is using the older technology, the older synchronous machines, which are the way that we actually generate fossil fuel, we use synchronous machines along with fossil fuels to generate energy. One way is to have some of these synchronous generators in different parts of the grid, but not really for generating energy, but for maintaining that strength in the grid. So, we don't have the problem of CO2 Emissions, but we do actually have a stronger grid. Then we can add more renewables to that.
That's one way that's the very old proven technology - doable. People are actually doing it in very weaker parts of the network where you have difficulties adding more renewables. People are actually adding these pretty old but proven technologies and put it there. There are problems associated with that, at the same time. One of them is that they are expensive. So if you can afford them, great. If your project is still financially viable with putting these synchronous machines which do not generate any energy for you, and we call them synchronous condensers or, in short, syn-cons. If you can afford syn-cons and you can put it there and your project is still financially viable, of course, people do it.
Another problem with that, though, is the lead time. If you want to order one today, if you're lucky, you'll get it in a year. If you're lucky, if everything goes well. So, two problems with this older solution. This is one solution for if you can live with that, if we can live with the price and the lead time and install in one place in the great. Of course, you can further strengthen your grit and you can have more renewables installed in that particular location.
So another technology which is coming along is another, or new, family of power electronic converters that, as opposed to the previous family that I talked about for renewable energy integration that would require a voltage to follow, this one can create a voltage itself for you. It can create a grid for you, and we call them grid-forming inverters. So you will have the best of both worlds. So you will have a power electronic converter that can connect your wind or solar farms to the grid and reliably generate renewable energy for you.
At the same time, it doesn't require a strong grid, but it itself generates a grid for you. It helps to actually control the voltage and frequency of the grid and have a strong grid for you. So this is a newer technology and coming along, and we're hoping that this technology in future years can help us to integrate more and more renewables more reliably in different parts of the network.
SC: Do you think it's realistic? It sounds really promising because it sounds like it does the job, but it also provides that scaffolding that's needed. Likely?
BB: It is likely, it is likely.
SC: How long?
BB: I'm hoping that this will be the state of the art in the next five years.
SC: Do you think this is the direction the energy market is going? Do you get a sense in an ideal world, the energy market wants to be going there? It's not sort of holding on with the death grip to fossil fuels?
BB: My feeling is that we've got the technology, we’ve got all the resources, everything is available, but it's a matter of time before we can convince ourselves that look, enough is enough, we shouldn't actually rely on these fossil fuels. And at some point, we will realise that they're generating so much trouble for us. Because, of course, yes, renewables might require, but of course, they do require a lot of money, a lot of investment. But at some point, we might stop and ask ourselves. Okay, the price we're paying for fossil fuels. One example. The bushfires - is it really worth it to keep going with fossil fuel generation or should we be more aggressively investing in renewables? Government should be more aggressively … I think government should not be passive or even active in this field. They should be proactive, you know, they shouldn't wait for a crisis to happen ‘oh, what should we do now, how can we for example, mitigate the consequences?’.
We should be proactive. We should actually, we can, plan in advance. And instead of waiting for a crisis to happen to spend money on fixing that problem, I think we should go back to the roots of the problem and replace all of these fossil fuels as soon as we can.
SC: So where do you think the biggest push for change needs to come from? Is it the government, is it the people? Is it the energy market?
BB: I believe everybody, everybody has a role to play in this, it's not definitely a one man show. Of course some players have a bolder role here. Us, as individuals, we also have a role here to play. But if you want to look at the mixture of the generation and the grid itself, of course the role of the government is the boldest and they should play the biggest role here to encourage more developers to come along and invest more in the sector and create the infrastructure for that, maybe like building a new transmission lines - of course not maybe it IS very costly. It is very expensive. But when you look into the future 50 years from now, will we regret the decision that we didn't invest more aggressively in this field? I think, yes, we will regret. If we don't create infrastructure today, 20 years, 10 years, 30 years from now might be very late. You are probably familiar with the story of the boiling frog. You know, I would very much hate if in 30, 40 years we wake up and see that we are that frog.
SC: We are that boiled frog.
BB: Yes, because it happens so gradually. Climate change happens so gradually, you know, it is far beyond our understanding of phenomena in terms of timescale. It happens very gradually and catastrophic events, they build up very gradually. Next year, unfortunately, if we have a bushfire, maybe half of the size of what we had this year, we probably won't be very much surprised because we saw this one and we're getting used to these catastrophic events. And that's the danger - getting used to these catastrophic events and reaching a point that there isn't any return imaginable.
SC: Are renewables 100% reliable enough for us to go to them entirely?
BB: Well, yes. With the right technology? Yes. With a mixture of different technologies? Yes. Well, some people say that, for example, what if the sun doesn't shine? What if the wind doesn't blow? What if this, what if that? So of course, there are these scenarios that you can imagine, But the thing is, if you put all of them together - a mixture of hydropower, of which we have some in Australia, a mixture of solar, wind and, of course, a little bit of fossil fuel as a reserve just in case things go wrong. Of course, you can keep them as a reserve just to use them if everything else goes wrong. Twenty years from now, we could have a fully renewable grid. If we, of course, invest massively in this area. We can have a fully renewable grid with battery energy storage, solar, solar, wind and hydro, and in an unlikely scenario that the wind doesn't blow for a couple of days and the sun doesn't shine for a couple of days -
SC: It’ dark and still for four days/
BB: Exactly - so you could then rely on a reserve fossil fuel generator sitting there and will only come into play if you really need it. But it is doable. It is possible, and we can do it.
SC: Behrooz, this has been really interesting. Thank you so much.
Let's hear from Roger Dargaville
Roger Dargaville (RD): My name's Roger Dargaville I’m a senior lecturer in renewable energy in the civil engineering department at Monash University. My research focuses on designing optimal renewable energy systems, trying to work out how to minimise the variability in the output of wind and solar when they are aggregated over very large geographic regions
SC: Roger Dargaville, thank you so much for coming in.
RD: It's a pleasure
SC: If we continue to adopt renewables at the rate that we are in Australia, is that gonna be a problem?
RD: It's not a problem. In fact, it's important that it does happen. We're currently installing renewables at a pretty good rate. So rooftop PV is going in about a gigawatt per year. A gigawatt is about the size of a decent sized power station. Hazelwood Power Station, which shut down a couple years ago, that was 1.6 gigawatts, to put things in context. So we're putting up on the nation's rooftops, the equivalent of a medium sized, coal-fired power station every year. So if we keep on doing that, at current rates, we will decarbonise the energy sector by 2040 or so.
SC: And is that fast enough?
RD: No. That's not fast enough. So we need about, um, 100 gigawatts altogether. So we've got about 20 gigawatts of renewable so far, so we need to build about another 80 and we need to do it by - well depends on what your target is. If we want to decarbonise rapidly and have it done by, say, 2035. So we've got 15 years. Then you’ve got to do about three or four gigawatts a year.
SC: And is that realistic?
RD: It's very realistic. We've done six gigawatts of renewables in one year. So 2017 was a really good year for renewables. We had the rooftop PV of a gigawatt, we built three gigawatts of utility-scale photovoltaics, so the big fields full of the PV modules, and we did just under two gigawatts of wind power as well. So all those things added together was pretty close to six gigawatts.
SC: So it sounds like you're actually quite optimistic. Things are going pretty well.
RD: Things are going in the right direction. That they do need to go faster. 2017 was a special year because we had the end of the renewable energy target coming up, and so there was an incentive for the investors to get those projects done before the carbon certificates, the renewable energy certificates. ran out or were no longer available, so there was a big uptick in investment for that particular period. So it's settled back down to a more typical level, and that's not enough to get us to where we need to be quick enough. But if the right policies are in place and the right financial incentives are there, there's no technical reason why we can't do the transition in the time frame required.
SC: And are the right policies in place for this to happen?
RD: There aren't any policies in place.
SC: So that’s a no?
RD. Yes, that’s a no.
SC: What would you like to see? What kind of policies would you like to see? But also do you think are actually realistic for our government and our nation?
RD: So by far the best policy is the policy that actually targets the problem, and the problem is carbon emissions. So we want a price on carbon. So a disincentive for emitting carbon to the atmosphere. So pricing every tonne of carbon that goes into the atmosphere is the best way to disincentivise that. Now, from a realistic point of view, that might have been, that’s become too much of a poisoned chalice for the politicians to touch, so we might need other other ways of doing it. A renewable energy target is a good way of doing it, but the objective is not to build renewable energy. That's the solution to the problem. We need to reduce our carbon emissions. That's first and foremost. So you can actually envisage a perverse scenario where you might build more wind and solar, but it might actually displace gas fired or hydro power technology and leave the coal fired generators running, in which case you haven't really reduced your emissions very much at all. So the policies really need to be targeted at the carbon emitters and not at the green technologies.
SC: So by targeting the carbon emitters, we want them to pivot to renewables, or we just want them to shut down?
RD: So, depending on what kind of company you are, you may have the opportunity to change your business model and to move away from fossil fuels and become a green energy company. If you're just a coal miner, then it's probably quite difficult to do, but, or example, one of the universities, key research partners, Woodside, at the moment, is a fossil fuel company, but they have the ability to switch to the hydrogen as being their energy vector
SC: As in and being entirely hydrogen and moving away from coal eventually?
RD: Yes. So that's the goal. It's one of the research projects we do with Woodside looking at how they would completely redevelop their business to be a hydrogen exporter rather than an LNG exporter.
SC: We're living in strange times. You might have noticed. Do you think there will be any impact of Covid19 on the desire for renewables, the role of renewables? I don't know, a lot of people are working from home now. Is there gonna be a shift in energy needs?
RD: Possibly. Definitely transport requirements could go down - driving in this morning the roads were pretty quiet.
SC: Everyone's working from home. Does that make a difference? Generally homes, during the day, there's not a lot of energy required of a house because people are out, but with people working from home. Now does that change anything?
RD: I guess your home energy use might go up. So when you know the house might have been vacant before, now people are using it, and having hundreds of thousands of homes being used as offices, rather than office buildings, might not be the most efficient use. If you’re in office space you can put lots of people in that same space and not have to heat multiple rooms or cool them or have lights on. It’s hard to say. I don't expect a big shift in the way we use energy because of Covid19.
SC: Do you think they'll be a shift in the conversation around renewables specifically because after the bushfires, there was a lot of talk about climate change and the impact, and this little window may have opened up where government and industry may have been a little more - and even the public who may have been skeptical about climate change - might have been a bit more receptive to conversations about ‘we really need to do something, that was terrible’. With Covid19 happening, it's almost forgotten. The attention has shifted so significantly. Do you think that will have a positive or a negative impact on our discussions around renewables when at the moment everyone's just thinking about virus and economic shutdown?
RD: I think it's definitely detracting from the renewable problem in the climate change problem and probably rightly so. It should be front and centre for our attention because it's a very in-your-face kind of problem. What it might do is shift the way that we look at scientific evidence for addressing global challenges like climate change and for adopting renewable energy.
There's been a lot of problems with the climate change problem, especially that people don't accept the climate science. They find it difficult to understand. Perhaps they don't like the consequences of having to acknowledge the science and so they prefer not to. If, with the bushfires and now the Covid19 disaster, if people realise that science is actually really important and that the scientists are doing the right kind of work for the right kind of reasons and we're not trying to, you know, have a global conspiracy to take down capitalist governments.
SC: Aren’t you?
RD. No, no, too busy. So it might change the perspectives on how we deal with global problems and climate change again -iIt's very much a global problem in the way that Covid19 is very obviously a global problem, and an individual country on its own can't solve anything and what Australia does in terms of Covid19 makes very little difference to what the rest of the world does in much the same way that climate change - it doesn't matter if Australia reduces its emissions very much in terms of what happens globally - but every country, cumulatively their response makes a difference. So we have to think globally, act locally and tackle these problems as a global community. And, you know the tragedy of the Commons, when one country or one jurisdiction doesn't pull its weight, it has a really big impact for everybody else on the planet.
SC: And it also gives other countries permission themselves, to opt out.
RD: We’re often one of the naughty parties that side with countries like Saudi Arabia and argue against stronger action on climate change. We - as a very vulnerable country to climate change and we've seen that with the bushfire disaster - we should be one of the countries begging the big movers like China and the U.S to do as much as they can to reduce their emissions, and the only way we can do that is by reducing our emissions ourselves. So it should be, it's very much in our interests for us to maximise our efforts to reduce our emissions so that we can go to the rest of the planet and say, ‘can we all work together to make this really important goal?’
SC: Do you think there is a bit of political foot dragging in the area, or is it just really complicated, and maybe politicians are doing as much as they can?
RD: I've struggled to understand why politicians don't address this problem with the seriousness that it requires. I think there's a mix of things. There is a lot of money involved. So the fossil fuel industry is obviously very wealthy, and there's a lot of sunk investment in power stations and coalmines and infrastructure that, if you move away from that, companies will lose money. But the politicians that shouldn't affect them too much, except they get political donations. And there’s employment opportunities for politicians when they leave Parliament to go and work for these companies. A lot of the people working in politics actually have come from the fossil fuel industry as well, so there's a bit of a rotating door there. It's not outright corruption, at least I hope it's not. Who knows.
SC: Do you think maybe there's a role for states to start doing their own thing and not wait so much for federal government intervention?
RD: So a reason to be optimistic again, is that the states actually are doing their own thing. And every state now has a 100 per cent renewable energy target by 2050 at least in promise and in legislation in some states. And so the states were actually the main driver. So Victoria has reverse auctions, New South Wales is in the process of formulating how they're going to hit their targets…
SC: What’s a reverse auction?
RD: So, rather than providing a penalty for emitting carbon, the Victorian government provides a financial incentive, or, I guess it's a cost recovery guarantee, for building a new renewable energy plant. So they'll say, ‘we want a gigawatt of wind. All the wind farm builders tell us what the cheapest is that you can build a wind farm for’ and then they'll pick the cheapest option. So it's a reverse auction because you go from cheapest to most expensive and the companies are bidding downwards. So they're saying, ‘Look, I can build it for $100 a megawatt hour’, which is the way we measure how much it costs to produce renewable energy. And then their competitors will say ‘Okay, we can do it for 90’ and then they go back to the drawing board and say ‘Well, we've tweaked it a bit. We think we can still be profitable at $80 a megawatt hour’ and so forth until no one can go any lower and the government says, ‘Okay, well, that's the cheapest. You get the contract to build that wind farm, and we will guarantee that you get a return on your investment’.
SC: Do you think that is smart? Is there a risk with pushing industry to go as cheap as possible that perhaps it's not necessarily the best.
RD: It's the way markets work. Whoever can provide a product at the cheapest rate, will get the business. So it's entirely consistent with the way industry works anyway, so I don't think there's a problem. The only risk is that when governments pick and choose which technology to build, where and when, that they may not pick the most optimal combination of technologies. And so, for example, if you had a centralised decision making process where you pick where and when you build wind farms and solar farms, the answer might be the best thing to do is build wind farms in Tasmania and solar farms in Queensland. And yet Victoria will say, Well, we're Victoria so we want to have wind farms and solar farms built in Victoria, so you might end up with a sub optimal solution. But honestly, at the end of the day, suboptimal is a lot better than no solution. So we don't worry about that too much.
SC: Roger. Thank you so much. That was really interesting. It sounds like we're on the way. Let’s hope we can get there fast enough. On the next episode we’ll have all the expert advice and tips on how to make renewables part of your life. Thanks to our guests today Behrooz Bahrani and Roger Dargaville. That's it for this episode. More information on what we discussed today can be found in the shownotes.
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