Renewable energy to surpass coal for first time in the US – but why not in Australia?

Wind power in Texas, USA Source: Getty Images

America's renewable energy is set to surpass coal for the first month ever, and Australia is slowly following suit.

New data from the United States shows renewable energy, such as wind and solar power are, for the first time this month, set to surpass coal.

Research analyst, Dennis Wamstead said the news, published by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, was phenomenal.

“The data is pretty astounding,” he told SBS News.

“It’s an indication of the massive transition underway in the US electricity industry, where the share of coal generated electricity is declining steadily, and the share of both, natural gas generation and renewable generation, is increasing."

US energy generation
US energy generation

According to Mr Wamstead there was an insatiable appetite among the US population for renewable energy and many policy makers and business people had listened and taken action.

Wind power in Texas
Wind power farms in the US state of Texas
Getty Images

He said Texas was a key example, because the state government invested heavily in wind generation in a less populated area and transmitted it to more inhabited parts.

Wind power, which is mostly generated in the evenings, Mr Wamstead said, now amounts to 20 per cent of the state’s energy creation.

“The interesting thing is, in a lot of the areas, wind blows the strongest in the evening, and now they are starting to build solar capacity in the same areas, which generates all of its capacity during the day, so the transmission lines are being used for dual purposes," he said.

The issue divided the political landscape in the US – the Republicans, headed by President Donald Trump, have pushed for a coal revival, while many Democrats, among them former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and former President Barack Obama, favored renewable energy.

Mr Wamsted said while Mr Trump had a strong interest in coal, “the market tells a different thing”.

Trump coal
US president Donald Trump supports coal

Situation in Australia

In Australia, the issue has also caused a divide, not just along political lines and market lines.

A boom in wind and solar has taken place in this country – more than 20 per cent of Australia’s energy was generated by renewables last year.

Coal is still the dominant energy source in this country, although output over the summer was below last year’s levels.

The rise was mostly attributed to new renewable projects launching over the past year.

Coal mine
Wikipedia commons

Most wind farms are located and planned in more windy, coastal regions, particularly in Tasmania, Victoria, Canberra and South Australia.

Queensland and New South Wales, favor a mix of solar- and wind power, while solar is more popular in the sun-drenched parts of northern and central Australia.

A wind farm near Canberra.
A wind farm near Canberra

Professor Frank Jotzo, the director of the Centre for Climate Economics and Policy at ANU's the Crawford School, said that with massive investment in both, wind and solar power currently underway, Australia will ultimately end up with an electricity system that runs largely on renewable energy.

“Coal used to be the cheapest form of energy in Australia, the country has an abundant coal resource, and mining costs in many mines are relatively low, so up until just recently, renewable energy was much more expensive than coal-fired energy,” he said.

“The expansion of the renewable industry was limited and largely driven by policy."

But he said Australia was now at the cusp of a new development, “where renewable energy is becoming the cheapest form of energy and we are seeing that reflected in very rapid investment in renewable energy parks that will continue, unless policy gets in the way, and we will see renewable energy overtaking the production of fossil-fuel based energy”.

Professor Jotzo said many of the country’s active coal plant are about 30-years-old, and with an average mine's life span of about 40 years, they are becoming costlier to maintain and sustain. 

The issue was also a hotly discussed topic in the election debate.

Labor plans to hit a 50 per cent renewable energy target by 2030, while the Coalition proposed lower cuts and no specific renewable target.

Protesters on both sides took to the streets recently in support of and against the Adani coal mine.

Adani coal mine
Adani coal mine protest

It comes as many Australian voters worry about climate change according to a recent IPSOS poll, with the summer drought, severe bushfires and flooding on many voters' minds.

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