Renewing the renewable energy debate

July 28, 2015
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Regardless of whether you think that using clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar is the “right” thing to do for our environment, within a few years it’s going to be the smart thing to do financially.

Renewable energy has become a hot topic for both Federal and ACT politicians. The Federal Government has directed the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to stop investing in rooftop solar and wind farms, with Joe Hockey chiming in to the debate with complaints about the aesthetics of the wind farm at Lake George.

Meanwhile, Bill Shorten has just announced that the Federal ALP will adopt a target of 50 per cent renewable energy for Australia by 2030.

Initiatives to increase renewable energy use often face scare campaigns about the high costs of adoption. However, these campaigns ignore the incredibly rapid improvements in renewable energy technology. Just in the last five years wind power generation costs have dropped by more than half, and solar generation costs have dropped by nearly 80 per cent.

Wind power generation costs are now almost identical to coal and in the best case scenarios, substantially cheaper. While rooftop solar installations still require a substantial feed-in tariff to be financially attractive, larger “utility-scale” solar installations are cost-competitive. With innovations like the 1.5MW solar power plant in a box, solar power today is a simple and scalable way for countries to increase their power generation capacity.

The second common objection to renewable power is that it cannot be a base load power source – that is, to provide continuous energy at low cost. However, wind farms spread over a large geographic area are actually a very consistent power supply because there is always wind somewhere. Solar power also works well because the sun shines brightest during peak periods of electricity usage. New technologies such as molten salt thermal storage are also proving to be an effective way to store excess solar power for delivery to properties at night.

The ACT Labor Government is leading the country with its goal of getting 90 per cent of Canberra’s power from renewable energy by 2020. The Government already purchases power from a number of solar and wind power sources, with the locally built utility-scale Royalla Solar Farm opening in September last year.

After a second Australia-wide auction to purchase additional wind energy, two-thirds of Canberra’s energy will come from wind and solar power sources. Even once 90 per cent of Canberra’s power comes from renewable sources, household power bills are only predicted to rise modestly, with household energy-efficiency initiatives helping to offset the impact of price rises.

When it comes to renewable energy, it is now clear that Tony Abbott and the Liberals are on the wrong side of history. Given that the cost of wind and solar power will continue to decrease, within 15-20 years the debate on whether renewable energy is a good idea or not will seem as old-fashioned as anyone who thought the introduction of universal health care was a bad idea.