Solar Beats Coal For One Brief Moment In Australia

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It only lasted for a few minutes, but for a brief time last Sunday, electricity from solar provided more electricity to Australia’s national energy grid than electricity from coal-fired generating stations. Just after noon, 9,427 megawatts (MW) of electricity came from solar, while only 9,315 MW came from burning coal.

Granted, there were several factors that had to align to make that happen. First, it was a sunny day in Australia. Second, it was a Sunday when demand is typically lower than during the week. Three, it came during a time of year when demand for heat or air conditioning is low. But whatever the reason — or combination of reasons — it was a milestone and a portent of things to come in the Land Down Under, where electricity from coal has been king since 1890 when the Yallourn Power Station began operating in the state of Victoria.

Dylan McConnell, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s climate and energy college, told The Guardian that for those few minutes, renewable energy represented 57% of national electricity generation. “This is what I unofficially call ‘record season’,” McConnell said. “It’s actually still pretty early in the season [to get these numbers] but in spring or the shoulder seasons you have the combination of low demand, because there’s no heating or cooling, and then nice weather on the weekend. Those factors combine and you get these giant shares of renewable energy that generally push out coal.” He added the event was only “fleeting” and that “Australia was a long way from peak renewable energy.”

From 8:30 am until 5:00 pm on Sunday, energy prices in Australia went negative. Although the exact price differed by jurisdiction, it meant energy consumers were being paid to use electricity and energy producers were paying to keep their generators spinning. Unlike solar and wind producers, coal generators are particularly hard hit when prices turn negative. The costs associated with shutting down and restarting coal generators are prohibitive, meaning operators choose to keep them running even at a loss.

According to data tracking service NEMlog, South Australia had 100% of its energy needs met by wind and solar, while Victoria would have met 102% of state demand had operators not been forced to switch off during the period of negative prices. Energy analyst Simon Holmes à Court said the overall proportion of renewable energy — solar, wind, and hydro — would have been higher in the energy mix, but wind producers chose to shut down to avoid the price hit.

“There was a significant amount of curtailment,” he said. “What it shows is that there’s already more renewables that could have gone into the grid if the coal plants were more flexible and transmission was upgraded.”

A Tipping Point For Australia?

The Clean Energy Investor Group — an 18-member body that advocates for investors in large-scale renewable energy projects — is advocating for financial reforms to “align Australia with international markets” and unlock new investment.

Simon Corbell, chief executive of CEIG, said governments and regulators should bring Australia’s investment guidelines into line with global markets. “Clean energy investors currently face significant risks in the NEM, which is holding back the capital needed. To unlock an investment pipeline worth $70 billion, we need effective market reforms and policy certainty, which could also save up to $7 billion in capital costs or up to 10% of the cost of Australia’s clean energy transition.”

Modelling conducted for CEIG by Rennie Partners found that Australia needs 51 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy generation by 2042 if it is to meet its commitments under the Paris Climate Change agreement. So far, only 3 GW of new wind and solar projects have been committed, leaving a significant shortfall of 48 GW.

The sclerotic federal government led by fake Christian Scott Morrison has hardly lifted a finger to bring more renewables to the Australian continent and shows zero signs that it even understands, much less cares about, the advancing global warming crisis that is bringing fires, floods, drought, and heat waves to Australia and large sections of the rest of the world. Perhaps someday Australians will elect a real leader, one who will deal with reality rather than religious fantasies.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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