Doubling uptake of wind and solar power could set up Australia for net zero emissions by 2040

Australia could wipe out 80% of its greenhouse gas emissions – all of those from fossil fuel energy – in two decades by doubling the pace at which solar and wind power is being rolled out, academic analysis suggests.

The paper by Australian National University engineering researchers found that at the current rate Australia would not reach net zero emissions until well after 2050, the date by which Scott Morrison says he would “preferably” like to get there.

Australia installed about seven gigawatts of renewable energy in 2020, continuing a trend in which new clean energy generation roughly equivalent to that produced by a large coal-fired plant is added each year.

Andrew Blakers, a professor of engineering, found doubling that annual rate to 14GW could put the country within striking distance of net zero emissions within a couple of decades at limited cost.

Under this calculation, the country would have a near 100% clean electricity grid – backed by stronger long-distance transmission, battery and pumped hydro storage and demand management programs – as well as heating and transport systems that ran on renewable energy rather than gas and oil.

Blakers said it could cut all emissions from electricity generation, transport and “stationary energy”, which includes most manufacturing, construction and commercial sectors. There would also be no emissions from coal and gas extraction – assuming the export of those fossil fuels ended.

“The economics of [solar] and wind are compelling,” the paper said. “Australia is demonstrating that rapid deployment of solar and wind can lead to declining emissions and low electricity prices.”

Bakers and his colleagues from the ANU Energy Change Institute, Ken Baldwin and Matthew Stocks, found removing fossil fuel energy would leave about 20% of national emissions to be dealt with, mostly from agriculture, land-fill sites and some industrial processes that are harder to address, such as chemicals manufacturing.

He said the rapid transformation was achievable if the country treated electricity as it would highways or the NBN, and focused on the transmission infrastructure needed between the states and from regional renewable energy zones to cities. He said some states had started to support this change but the Morrison government was not doing enough.

“We just need a trunk route for electrons,” Blakers said.

Not all energy analysts are as optimistic as Blakers and his colleagues about the ease at which the electricity grid can be transformed to run on renewable sources if transmission gridlocks are addressed.

Dylan McConnell, from the University of Melbourne’s Climate and Energy College, said the amount of renewable energy required to replace fossil fuel energy sounded right, but the political and economic challenges were significant.

He said the cost-benefit analysis of new transmission lines was not straight-forward, citing the blowout in the estimated bill for the now $2.4bn EnergyConnect link between New South Wales and South Australia. The cost of infrastructure and turning over the entire vehicle fleet to electric cars in just two decades should not be underplayed.

“[The analysis] is probably technically correct and true for the electricity sector, but it suggests a highly planned economy and that’s far removed from the political reality we live in,” McConnell said.

Blakers said greater government intervention would be required, particularly to support the shift to electric vehicles, which trails comparable countries. He said that could involve short-term tax exemptions and mandating EVs for government fleet, a change that would accelerate the creation of a second-hand clean car market.

But he said he believed the clean transformation would surprise “on the upside, not the downside”.

“The surprise has been on the upside since 2015,” he said. “The cost of solar keeps going down 10% a year.”

The expansion of large-scale solar and wind energy was initially driven by a national renewable energy target, which was filled and not replaced in 2019. It has continued due to support from state renewable schemes and major businesses that have embraced net zero emissions targets.

But the most rapid growth is in household rooftop solar systems. It has continued to surge while the growth of large-scale installations has levelled off.

The pace of renewable expansion is having ramifications for coal-fired power stations, some of which are increasingly financially unviable.

EnergyAustralia last week announced it had signed a deal with the Victorian government to shut the Yallourn coal-fired power station in 2028, four years earlier than officially scheduled, but later than many analysts and workers believed likely due to its financial and operational health.

A separate report released on Wednesday by the Climate Targets Panel said the Morrison government’s resistance to setting more ambitious emissions reduction targets for 2030 and 2050 would create greater challenges for future governments that would inevitably have to slash emissions.

It said the current 2030 target – a 26-28% reduction below 2005 levels – would mean the country would have to cut CO2 by between three and 10 times faster in the following two decades to get to net zero in time for Australia to have played its part.

John Hewson, a member of the panel, said it would put a “huge, unnecessary cost” on people in the future.