Can Australia manage the surplus of wind and solar power?

Published: 18 November 2021

This week in solar: surplus wind and solar power, Australia’s first Renewable Energy Zone, big batteries and hydrogen in SA.

The Australian solar industry reached an important milestone last week. On November 10, Minister for Industry, Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor announced that Australia had surpassed 3 million rooftop solar systems. All these solar panels are now producing 7% of the country’s electricity, and they will avoid 17.7 million tonnes of emissions in 2021 alone. 

According to Assistant Minister Tim Wilson, Australia is now installing up to 2,000 small-scale solar systems per day. The Clean Energy Regulator is forecasting a new annual record of 3.2GW of rooftop solar for 2021, with more than 400,000 solar installations qualifying for incentives by the end of the year. You can now find solar panels on 25% of Australian homes, and also many non-residential buildings like schools and community centres.

However, even with the success of Australia’s solar industry, there are still areas to improve. According to a study by the APVI, Australia has the world’s highest solar capacity per capita, estimated above 810W per person. Unfortunately, the country also has the world’s highest coal emissions per capita, according to a study shared at the COP26: 5.34 tonnes of CO2 per person per year. The next four countries on the list were the following:

  • South Korea = 3.81 tonnes of CO2 per capita
  • South Africa = 3.19 tonnes of CO2 per capita
  • USA = 3.08 tonnes of CO2 per capita
  • China = 2.71 tonnes of CO2 per capita

The federal government was criticised at the COP26 for not having a solid emissions reduction target by 2030 while promoting the local fossil fuel industry. However, state and territory governments are taking the lead with respect to clean energy: SA, NSW and the Australian Capital Territory have created the Net Zero Emissions Policy Forum, and they will be collaborating actively to cut their emissions.

According to a recent study led by the University of California – Irvine, wind and solar power have the potential to meet 80% of electricity demand in many parts of the world. The researchers considered 42 countries in the study, and they analysed 39 years of hourly energy consumption data. In many cases, they found that wind and solar power could cover most electricity needs without excessive amounts of storage or drastic oversizing:

  • Under favorable conditions, wind-dominated power systems can provide a reliable electricity supply 72-91% of the time without energy storage.
  • When considering 12 hours of energy storage, solar-dominated power systems can meet demand 83-94% of the time.

The study found that a full conversion to renewable sources is more viable for large countries at lower latitudes, and more difficult as the country size decreases or its latitude increases. Being a large country close to the tropics, Australia has suitable conditions to develop a grid dominated by wind and solar power.

How to manage surplus wind and solar power in Australia?

On Monday, November 15, wind and solar power covered more than 60% of demand in the National Electricity Market (NEM), for the first time on record. This happened exactly at 11:20 AM, according to RenewEconomy. Renewable sources also provided 43.4% of electricity during a 24-hour period, which is also a record.

According to NEMLog, wind and solar power cover 60.5% of demand, and 62.5% if you also consider hydroelectricity. OPENNem reported similar results: 60.2% for wind and solar alone, and 62.2% when adding hydropower.

However, having such a large amount of variable renewable energy in the grid can sometimes become a problem. At times when wind turbines and solar panels are both productive, a region can end up having much more generation than consumption. This is exactly what happened in South Australia and Victoria on Sunday 14, where both states were forced to curtail production. SA was forced to curtail 1,306.70 MW of renewable capacity at the highest point, while Victoria was curtailing 2,180.60 MW. 

In the case of SA, the amount of power being curtailed was almost the same as consumption. In other words, the state was generating almost twice the power it needed with renewables alone. However, there are several strategies and technologies that can take advantage of surplus renewable energy, helping prevent curtailment. The following are some examples:

  • Combining wind turbines and solar panels with larger amounts of storage capacity. This capacity can be distributed in thousands of homes and businesses, or centralised in the form of utility-scale batteries, pumped hydro facilities and other similar projects.
  • Using surplus renewable energy to produce green hydrogen, which has the potential to start an entirely new industry sector in Australia.
  • Using load shifting and other forms of demand response in homes and businesses, taking advantage of surplus renewable power when available.

Even without a strong emissions reduction target, the Australian government is forecasting a major share of renewables connected to the grid by 2030. According to their projections, the NEM will reach 50% renewable power in 2025, and 69% in 2030. They have also provided individual renewable energy projections for the states connected to the NEM, all by 2030:

  • 84% in New South Wales, the most coal-dependent state
  • 61% in Victoria
  • 43% in Queensland
  • 96% in South Australia
  • 100% in Tasmania

This is a positive short-term outlook for solar power and other renewables. However, even clean energy sources must be managed properly to avoid power supply issues: energy storage can be used to compensate for the variable output for solar panels and wind turbines, and the grid’s transmission capacity must be enough to deliver all this power.

NSW has officially created the first Renewable Energy Zone in Australia

The NSW government declared Australia’s first Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) on November 11, located in the Central West and Orana region. This REZ will have 3,000 megawatts of capacity (or more), achieved with a combination of wind turbines, solar panel arrays and large-scale energy storage. This is just the start of a major infrastructure plan to replace coal power with renewables in NSW, and there will be at least five REZs in the state.

According to NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean, this first REZ will be capable of powering 1.4 million homes, while bringing $5.4 billion in private investment to the Central West and Orana region by 2030. The project will also create 3,900 construction jobs. The Energy Corporation of NSW has been appointed as the infrastructure planner for the REZ project.

NSW is the most coal-depending state in Australia, but there are plans to change this in the short term. NSW has the goal of cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Victoria now has the biggest battery in Australia

Last week, there was good news from several Australian states. On Friday, November 12, the Victorian Big Battery (VBB) operated at full output for the first time. Located near Geelong, the VBB has a massive capacity of 300MW and 450MWh, making it the largest battery in Australia as of November 2021.

The VBB uses Tesla battery technology, just like the Hornsdale Power Reserve (HRP) in South Australia, and both projects are owned by Neoen. However, the Hornsdale installation has 150MW and 193.5MWh of capacity even after its expansion. This means the VPP has twice as much power output, and its storage capacity is nearly 133% higher.

There is a 10-year contract between Neoen and the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), which was signed in November 2020. Of the Victorian Big Battery’s total capacity, 250MW and 125MWh will be committed to the AEMO contract. One of the main functions of the VBB will be helping the Victorian grid handle peak demand during the summer months. The VBB will also improve the interconnection capacity between New South Wales and Victoria.

The Japanese government will support renewable hydrogen in SA

South Australia has some of the most demanding clean energy targets in the world, aiming for 100% renewables by 2030. However, SA has an even more ambitious target for 2050: generating 500% of grid demand with renewables, producing surplus power that can be exported to other parts of Australia or internationally. A large portion of this surplus energy will be used to power the hydrogen economy, and SA recently obtained support from the Japanese government for one of these renewable hydrogen hubs.

South Australia has a massive wind and solar potential, and generating five times the power needed locally is viable with these resources. Japan plans to develop one of these clean hydrogen hubs along with Marubeni Corporation and the SA government, exporting this green fuel to the entire Indo-Pacific region. The project was presented at the COP26 by the South Australian and Japanese governments.

Check out last week’s solar update here.

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