Transmission Challenges – Australia’s Slow Green Energy Integration Threatens Grid Stability

27 February 2023

According to a leading energy expert in Australia, the pace at which renewable energy is being implemented is insufficient to replace the retiring coal-fired power plants, and achieve the country’s 2030 climate goals, falling short by more than 50%.

The University of New South Wales has issued a warning to state and federal governments, pointing out a discrepancy between Australia’s renewable energy goals, and the actual progress being made.

This warning follows a significant year in which the closing dates for numerous coal-fired power plants were moved up by decades. Dylan McConnell, a senior research associate at UNSW, noted that there was a consensus among politicians and investors regarding the necessity of transitioning away from fossil fuels. However, the key concern now is the pace of this transition.

According to him, Australia is significantly falling behind the necessary pace of adding and linking new renewable energy capacity to substitute the coal power that is about to exit the system.

Adoption ‘Needs to Ramp Up’

“On an energy basis, we have pretty much been adding the same gigawatt hours of energy for the last five years,” Dr McConnell said. The rate of adding renewable energy in Australia has been relatively steady over time. However, Dr McConnell emphasised that this rate needs to escalate considerably to reach the necessary targets.

Dr McConnell’s research indicates that renewable energy generation has been growing by an average of 7.5 terawatt hours annually since 2018. This is roughly four per cent of the demand in the national electricity market catering to the eastern states. The growth rate needs to exceed double this amount to reach 15.7 terawatt hours by the end of the decade, as per the Australian Energy Market Operator’s (AEMO) central plan.

However, Dr McConnell noted that activity in this sector seems to be slowing down, despite this urgency. For instance, only one renewable energy project had reached financial close in the September quarter last year, according to Clean Energy Council reporting. He recommended policy changes to align the AEMO’s plans with reality.

Goals ‘Ambitious but Achievable’ 

Chris Bowen, the Federal Climate Change and Energy Minister, believes that the government’s 2030 target of meeting 82% of Australia’s energy requirements through renewable sources is a feasible, yet ambitious goal. Mr. Bowen acknowledged that the government is trying to rectify the effects of stop-start energy policies that have complicated and delayed the transition. As he puts it, there is much ground to cover, and this is why the government is investing in new storage and transmission initiatives, such as the Rewiring the Nation project, to facilitate the integration of more renewable energy into the grid.

Moreover, these projects will create additional employment opportunities in the areas of storage, transmission, and adaptation. Nevertheless, there are challenges to be overcome, including opposition to critical transmission projects necessary for connecting large-scale volumes of new solar, wind, and hydro energy capacity.

Rebecca Tobin, who owns a cattle breeding farm located in Darlow, approximately 420 km southwest of Sydney, has been opposing the construction of a high-voltage power line referred to as HumeLink, which would pass through her property. Ms Tobin expressed concerns regarding the heightened risk of bushfires due to the proposed HumeLink power line. She referred to the Dunns Road fire, which broke out a few kilometres away from her property during the black summer of 2019, as an example of the potential dangers.

Community Concerns Mount 

Rebecca Tobin is part of a group of landowners affected by the HumeLink power line project, who are urging for the project to be built underground where possible to mitigate the risk of bushfires. The project, estimated to cost $3.3 billion, is being led by Transgrid, and is required to fully connect an expanded Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro plant.

However, the cost of placing the line underground is expected to be up to three times higher than building it overhead. Tobin supports renewable energy, but is concerned that transmission lines built in areas prone to bushfires could further increase the risk in a warming climate.

New Capacity – Really Not Optional

According to Dr McConnell, Australia needs to quickly build renewable energy capacity not only to reduce emissions, but also to keep the electricity system stable. He stated that there is a need to invest a lot of capital, and build a lot of capacity, which is necessary for a reliable electricity system. If Australia fails to build these things fast enough, there will be challenges with reliability and keeping the lights on.