Australia's carbon emissions set to peak next year as wind and solar energy soars

Mount Majura Solar farm in Canberra, Source: AAP

Australia's carbon emissions are set to peak next year, but they could start rising again if insufficient transmission chokes the renewable energy pipeline.

Australia's carbon emissions are set to peak as early as next year before dropping from 2022 on the back of rapid wind and solar energy deployment, new research has predicted. 

But the Australian National University researchers have warned emissions could start rising again if the roll-out of renewable energy proposals is choked by a lack of transmission and storage. 

In the ANU policy briefing, released on Thursday, experts suggest solar and wind farms will soon be able to compete directly with coal power stations, leading to emissions drops by up to four per cent a year from 2022.  

"Australia’s elderly coal fleet can be largely retired over the 2020s at low or zero net cost," the report states. 

Report co-author, engineering professor Andrew Blakers said solar and wind energy offered a cheap way to make deep cuts in emissions. 

"This is a message of hope for reducing our emissions at low cost," Professor Blakers said.

However, the ANU report calls for more government support to increase transmission and storage to ensure large-scale projects can pump the energy they generate into the grid.  

A view of a wind farm amongst electricity pylon.
The roll out of renewable energy projects could be choked without more support to build power lines.

Professor Blakers said existing power lines were built to service coal-fired power stations in areas with low levels of sunlight and wind. 

"We need to build more power lines to go to areas which do have good wind and sun and that is difficult for private companies to organise." 

While private companies are willing to pay for the new transmission lines needed, Professor Blakers said the government needed to reform the "outdated" rules and approval process set up to oversee a coal-dominated industry. 

Emissions could rise again

They're calling on state or federal governments to designate "renewable energy zones" and facilitate the construction of a 2-4 gigawatt power line to the area. 

“If the renewable energy pipeline is stopped or slowed down because of insufficient transmission and storage, then emissions may rise again from 2022.”

Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor agreed there was a need for more investment in storage and transmission. 

He pointed to the government's $1.42 billion investment in the expansion of the Snowy Hydro scheme and support for a second Bass Strait interconnector to increase the amount of hydro energy Tasmania can export to the mainland.  

Minister for Energy Angus Taylor delivering the keynote address at the Financial Review National Energy Summit in Sydney.
Energy Minister Angus Taylor said more transmission would be built "at the right time".

But Mr Taylor has concerns about the reliability of renewable energy. 

"Supporting storage technologies that provide back-up power for intermittent renewables is vital to ensure energy is available when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining," Mr Taylor said. 

He said the government wants to ensure that transmission infrastructure is built "at the right time, at least cost to consumers".

"We have also committed $3.2 million to develop a comprehensive strategy and assessment framework to accelerate the delivery of time-critical transmission project," Mr Taylor said. 

The ANU researchers say the continued construction of solar and wind farms means Australia could achieve its commitments under the Paris Agreement without resorting to the controversial use of Kyoto credits. 

Earlier this week, Clean Energy Regulator chairman David Parker told Senate estimates that the high levels of investment in renewable energy projects would likely be a record this year. 

"There's still a very, very large pipeline of projects which are passed the financial closure or are under construction," Mr Parker told the committee. 

Professor Blakers said Australia's reputation on tackling climate change would suffer further if the renewable energy pipeline was choked by government inaction. 

"They'll point to Australia and say 'you had a solution and you turned it off, why?'"

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