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Living Lightly column

Renewable Energy

By Bruce Key, Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health (WATCH)

A modern economy needs a reliable supply of low-cost electricity. In Australia at present our electricity is expensive when compared to other countries.   This raises the question of whether renewable energy is more or less expensive than electricity produced by fossil fuels, predominantly coal.

Renewable energy enthusiasts claim that renewable energy is cheaper than electricity produced using coal, but they never explicitly say whether the price of renewables depends on subsidies and more importantly, whether the cost of storage (pumped hydro and/or batteries) required to ensure a 24-hour supply is included in the price.

Coal enthusiasts on the other hand dismiss renewable energy because they claim it is unable to guarantee a 24-hour supply, regardless of the price.

What most people would like is a definitive answer on whether renewable energy is economically viable and technically feasible.

Fortunately, a reliable answer has recently appeared. The Australian Electricity Market Operator (AEMO), the body charged with the overall management of Australia’s electricity system, was asked by the federal government to produce a plan showing the way forward for the next 20 years.  In July its Integrated System Plan (ISP) was released.

The ISP is explicit about several things.  The first is that its recommendations are for the least-cost path. Next, that existing coal-fired generators should continue operating until the end of their operational life. Finally, that coal-fired generators can be most economically replaced with a portfolio of large-scale wind and solar, pumped hydro, battery storage, rooftop solar, gas-fired generation, and transmission investment.  According to the plan more than 98% of all generation should be renewable energy once the existing coal-fired generators retire.

When the government commissions an expert report and that report concludes that the cheapest way of producing reliable round-the-clock electricity is to use renewable energy and that there is no place for coal once the existing generators are retired, logic would suggest that the government should take notice.

However, it is a great mystery why the present government continues to paint renewables in a bad light and is almost fanatical in its support for coal-fired generation even though it will be more expensive and emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. Could the government’s lack of logic be related to political donations?