Blistering sun beats down on miles of dusty orange desert, while the wind blows above waves that crash against 25,760km of uninterrupted coastline – on the face of it, Australia is the perfect place for arenewable energy revolution.
Yet polluting coal still accounts for 63% of the country’s energy production and carbon-free renewables make up a meagre 13.7%, according to the Department of Energy and Environment. These statistics include energy generation for all of Australia, including off-grid and generation by industry and household PV systems.
In 2015, the government signed the Paris COP21 Agreement, pledging to reduce its carbon emissions, and subsequently updated its Renewable Energy Target programme.
New targets state that by 2020, 23.5% of Australia’s electricity generation should come from renewable sources. Some states are more ambitious, for instance, in South Australia the target for renewable energy is set at 50% by 2025, while Victoria is 40% by 2025.
For now, however, Australia is still reliant on coal. This is primarily because it is a cheap generator of electricity, and as the third-biggest producer of coal in the world (even though 90% of this is exported) the country has it in abundance.
The average wholesale prices of electricity generated by coal in Australia are around A$50-A$60 per MWh. Comparative costs of renewable energy are around A$70-A$120/MWh and for gas, around A$70-A$120/MWh.
Rather than fully focus on renewable energy projects such as solar or wind, many in government are focused on the potential for ‘clean coal’, also known ashigh-efficiency low-emission coal (HELE).
HELE coal-fired power plants are a “key first step along a pathway to near-zero emissions from coal with carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS)”, according to theWorld Coal Association. It adds that, once deployed, HELE technologies can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 20%.
“Clean coalis a perfectly viable way of producing electricity,” agrees Rennie, “There has always been a home forcoal-fired powerwithin the generation stack because it provides cheaper electricity to large numbers of people.”
Investment in HELE power stations, incorporated with the latest carbon capture storage, seems an obvious choice for a country that has an abundance of coal reserves and a long-term interest in keeping itscoal mining industry in business.