Clean Power

Published on March 6th, 2014 | by Giles Parkinson


IEA Dispels Abbott’s Renewable Energy Propaganda

March 6th, 2014 by  

Originally published on RenewEconomy.

One of the most depressing discussions I have ever had as editor of RenewEconomy was with a policy advisor for a state Coalition government. He started off by giving me a lecture about how his minister only acted on “evidence based information”, and then proceeded to quote some of the more outrageous nonsense published in the Murdoch media and some extremely marginal web-sites.

Perhaps, then, this person and all the other advisors who direct (or distort) energy policy at state and federal level with the conservative administrations should sit down and absorb the latest report by the International Energy Agency on the integration of wind and solar energy. It might reduce the ignorance and misinformation that is having a profound impact on renewable policy in Australia.

The IEA is a useful reference point. It is a highly conservative organization that was created after the 1970s gas crisis to ensure the continuation of energy supply. Energy security is its fundamental raison d’etre. And although some people, as we reported yesterday, criticize it for being way too conservative on solar PV costs, for instance, its research into renewables and systems integration debunks a lot of myths seemingly invented by Abbott’s acolytes and perpetuated by the politicians themselves.

wind farmThe first myth, of course, is around the cost of renewables. As any number of studies have shown, Australia’s renewable energy target has added just 3 per cent to electricity bills, and has probably helped reduce them by that amount by helping push wholesale electricity prices down to record lows. And as the IEA notes, the levellised cost of electricity of wind power and solar PV is “close to even below the LCOE of fossil or nuclear options.

But that is not what the latest IEA report is about. It’s about the integration of solar and wind – what it calls variable renewable energy, or VRE – into new and existing grids. And it serves to completely debunk some of the other nonsense about renewables needing “back-up” fossil fuels, and adding huge costs to infrastructure.

The IEA could not be any clearer: “No additional dispatchable capacity ever needs to be built because VRE is in the system. On the contrary, to the extent of the capacity credit of VRE, its addition to the system reduces the need for other capacity.”

As the IEA also notes, since the early days of electrification in the late 19th century, variability and uncertainty have been steady companions of power systems. Indeed, the largest source of uncertainty comes from the failure of plants or other system components, which can cause abrupt and unexpected variations in supply. As Australia’s Energy Market Operator found out in the latest heatwaves, when large coal and gas fired generators suddenly stopped generating.

And, the IEA further notes, there are very few grid-related costs to absorb even high shares of wind and solar.

It points to a European Wind Integration Study, that found wind penetration levels of 10 per cent would require less than $1/MWh to grid costs, and penetration levels of 13 per cent would require around $5.40/MWh. A study in Ireland, an isolated grid, suggested that the grid costs of wind power penetrations ranging from 16 per cent to 59 per cent ranged from just $2.20/MWh to $9.70/MWh.

The PV Parity Project recently assessed grid costs associated with integrating 480 gigawatts (yes, gigawatts, or 480,000MW) of solar PV by 2030 into the European grid, found modest transmission grid costs of up to $4.00/MWh by 2030. Reinforcing distribution networks to accommodate solar PV would cost about $13/MWh by 2030.

The additional costs for accommodating small‐scale solar photovoltaic (PV) generation on the distribution level are as low as $1/MWh for a PV system size featuring 2.5 kilowatt per household – if the grid is planned properly from the onset.

More importantly, there are system benefits that might outweight the cost of generation of wind and solar and so lower the overall cost of the grid. This is borne out in reduced need for peak generation – as Australia found out in its recent heatwaves – and by lowering the overall wholesale electricity cost – as all Australian generators have found out in recent years.

As we mentioned in our first report on the IEA study, wind and solar can carry the bulk of the required decarbonisation of the world’s electricity systems, but the system costs of having 45 per cent wind and solar in the energy mix need only add $11/MWh if the integration is done thoughtfully.

The IEA actually says the system transformation costs would be zero if the LCOE of wind and solar dropped by 30-40 per cent from an average of $90/MWh to a range from $63/MWh to $55/MWh. Given the market forecasts of where the cost of solar is heading, this appears inevitable given the time it would take to bring the share of wind and solar up to 45 per cent.

Part of the problem, the IEA suggests, comes from the fact that many incumbent utilities view renewables as an “addition” to the grid, and therefore a complication, rather than as a path to transformation of the whole system.

As IEA secretary general Maria van der Hoeven says: “The classic view sees (wind and solar) integration as an addition to what is already there, assuming that the rest of the system does not adapt.

“This “traditional” view risks missing the point. The challenges and opportunities of (wind and solar integration lie not only with VRE technologies themselves, but also with other system components. Consequently, a system-wide approach to integration is required. In short, integration of VRE is not simply about adding VRE to “business as usual”, but transforming the system as a whole.”

For that reason, she says, a power system featuring a share of 45 per cent of (wind and solar) may come at little additional long-term cost over a system with no variable renewables at all. Australia has a long way to go to even approach that level. It’s got a lot of learning to do as well. The message from the IEA is clear, the government needs to start planning for the future, not deploying some ideological claptrap that locks it into the past.

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About the Author

is the founding editor of, an Australian-based website that provides news and analysis on cleantech, carbon, and climate issues. Giles is based in Sydney and is watching the (slow, but quickening) transformation of Australia's energy grid with great interest.

  • Will E

    Energy security, is its fundamental -raison d etre-
    What about a war scenario. Solar and Wind is war secure.
    what happens in Europe with natural gas from Russia.
    energy secure is Solar and Wind

    Ministry of Defense should pay for Solar and Wind.
    as best defense and security for any country.

    • Matt

      What part of the US fed government is the biggest installer of PV/wind. Why it is, wait for it, the defense department.

  • Bob_Wallace

    “Very large quantities of wind are being used by several grid operators with virtually no increase in the need for operating reserves,” AWEA Transmission Policy Manager Michael Goggin. “The Midwest System Operator (MISO) has over twelve gigawatts. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has over ten gigawatts. Xcel Energy subsidiary Public Service Company of Colorado (PSCo) has had well over 50 percent wind at times.

    Renewables opponents, Goggin recalled, “have said for years that costs would go up and the grid would fall apart. They have been proven wrong.”

    In ERCOT’s calculations for 2011, Goggin said, “the total cost for integrating wind came out at about $0.50 per megawatt-hour.” And, he added, without 2011’s anomalies in July and August that accounted for 80 percent percent of all costs, the total costs in 2012 for the necessary balancing reserves and other expenses associated with the integration of large amounts of wind are expected to be even lower.

    “Newer research suggests systems can go to 40 percent renewables with no problem,” Goggin said, “using the very efficient grid operating practices being applied by MISO, ERCOT, the California Independent System Operator (CAISO) and others.”

    “They do very fast interval dispatch of all energy resources,” Goggin continued. “because load is continuously changing, the output of fossil-fired plants is continuously changing, and, of course, wind is continuously changing, too.” The closer system operators are to real-time dispatch, he explained, the more effectively supply and demand can be balanced without the use of reserves.

    “They also have pretty large balancing areas,” Goggin added. “If one wind project is going off, another is probably going on somewhere, providing an overall more stable output. Larger areas also simply have more resources to accommodate variability. In MISO, wind’s variability is just something in the noise. It is not showing up in their reserve needs.”

    ERCOT’s data is similar, Goggin said. “The areas of the country that have efficient grid operating practices have shown it is possible to integrate very large quantities of wind very reliably at virtually zero incremental cost. The areas of the country that don’t have efficient grid operating practices, namely, much of the West outside California, are seeing increased costs and challenges.”

    Studies show nuclear and large fossil plants actually have “far higher integration costs than renewables,” Goggin said. “Contingency reserves, the super-fast acting energy reserve supply required of grid operators in case a large power plant shuts down unexpectedly, are a major cost. Comparing the incremental cost of wind to those costs that ratepayers have always paid, the wind cost looks even more trivial.”

    The fundamental issues are more or less the same with integrating solar, Goggin, who specializes in wind, said. “Relative to wind, solar has more minute-to-minute variability, which increases the cost. But forecasting the sun is easier because it is clear when the sun will come up and go down and when the peak is, and that reduces the cost. But grid operators who use efficient operating methods are finding it is no more of a challenge or cost than wind.”

  • sault

    “The IEA actually says the system transformation costs would be zero if the LCOE of wind and solar dropped by 30-40 per cent from an average of $90/MWh to a range from $63/MWh to $55/MWh. Given the market forecasts of where the cost of solar is heading, this appears inevitable given the time it would take to bring the share of wind and solar up to 45 per cent.”

    It’s already there, for wind power in the USA, at least. The AVERAGE price for wind power in 2012 was 4 cents per kWh:

    Some contracts in the Midwest are even going for 2.5 cents per kWh! Also, lumping wind and solar together doesn’t tell the whole picture because they generate fundamentally different kinds of power. Solar can generate at the point of load, providing peak, retail electricity. Wind power usually generates wholesale electricity that varies on seasonal and short-term weather patterns. As such, prices for solar power can be higher wiile still allowing the technology to be viable and even competitive. And of course, if the IEA or any other official body began to include the costs of pollution into their price comparisions, fossil fuels wouldn’t even get a second look!

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