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  • he Acciona windfarm near Gunning NSW, Thursday, July 20, 2011. The $147m farm will produce 46.5MW of power a year. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt) NO ARCHIVING (AAP)Source: AAP
The Australian Energy Regulator says 73 per cent of Australia's electricity is produced from coal-fired power stations, generating a third of our greenhouse gas emissions. What then does Australia's energy future look like?
Amy Chien-Yu Wang / SBS Radio

21 Sep 2015 - 3:57 PM  UPDATED 23 Sep 2015 - 1:19 PM


Australia is still mostly powered by coal.

The Australian Energy Regulator says 73 per cent of Australia's electricity is produced from coal-fired power stations, generating a third of our greenhouse gas emissions.

Energy and environmental experts are urging the government to accelerate the development of clean energy sources to meet international temperature rise targets.

However, efforts to transition to renewables are challenged by a lack of financial incentives; coal is abundant and cheaper.

What then does Australia's energy future look like? Amy Chien-Yu Wang reports.

Three-quarters of Australia's electricity is powered by coal while clean energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal comprise thirteen per cent of the energy mix, according to the Clean Energy Council's 2014 report.

Director of the Grattan Institute's energy program Tony Wood says our energy landscape will need a significant change to avoid the dangerous consequences of climate change.

"We are faced with an increase in global temperature that's something closer to 4 degrees celsius. That is going to be a world where things would become increasingly intolerable for human existence as we currently know it. Obviously that would vary across the world but the consequences would be very serious indeed. There is a fundamental conundrum there that the world wants cheaper and reliable energy but at the same time the world needs to address climate change and Australia can be part of the solution or as some people might suggest we could be part of the problem."

Hydropower currently dominates the renewable energy sector, providing 45 per cent of Australia's renewable energy followed by wind at 30 per cent and solar cells at 15 per cent.

CSIRO predicts that wave energy, a relative newcomer in the sector, could power 11 per cent of Australia's electricity by mid-century.

Tim Sawyer is the project development officer of Carnegie Wave Energy based in Western Australia.

The company operates the world's first wave farm, connecting to the electricity grid powering the HMAS Stirling naval base at Garden Island.  

"So wave energy is 24 hours a day. 365 days of the year. We are extracting energy from waves generated by local wind events, storm events or sea breezes, but we are also using waves generated thousands of miles away, swell waves, so they'll always roll into the coast which means we have a consistent resource, and it's very predictable 3-4 days in advance as opposed to how it's like in advance for other sources."

The Garden Island wave farm can power up to 2000 homes.

But the Grattan Institute's Tony Wood doubts wave energy's potential to become a competitive energy source.
"The ocean is a very vigorous and hostile environment and so the situations in which people have been trialling and doing pilots and development and technologies to do with things in the ocean is still proven quite difficult. So I am not sure we will see widespread use of those technologies as a major source of electricity generation."

Hydropower's role in the clean energy sector looks set to flatline or gradually decline.

"We don't have many more big mountains that we'd put dams on so we are not likely to see large increases in hydro as a source of electricity or energy."

Wind energy is gaining momentum as the most affordable source of large-scale renewable energy.

The Clean Energy Council reports 68 wind farms powered 1.3 million homes in 2013 forming four per cent of Australia's overall electricity.

Solar generated two per cent.

It's expected to play a bigger role with 1.5 million Australian homes already connected to a solar photovoltaic (PV) system.

But Mr Wood says the search is still on for other reliable energy sources as Australia's population doubles over the next sixty years.  

"I think we will see continuing evolution of solar both more at the commercial level and maybe at the household level and solar will continue to come down in cost and of course storage as it becomes affordable will be one way of overcoming the intermittency of electricity generation from solar. I think we will start in the not too distant future to see a limit on how much wind power we can generate economically in Australia because we've probably already taken advantage of many of the available relatively low cost and high wind portential sites for wind power in this country but we're in that space."

Environmental scientist Barry Brook proposes that an ideal energy mix should consist of nuclear power as a low cost, reliable, base-load energy source.  
"Nuclear is as renewable as any other renewable energy source that we might harness. So wind and solar energy are renewable in the sense that the sun will keep on shining for another four billion years or more and keep generating. It'll keep renewing that energy essentially. But when you recycle nuclear fuel you get 150 times more energy out of it than if you don't recycle it. We've already mined enough uranium that if we fully recycle the fuel we can run the whole world on recycled nuclear fuel for well over 500 years."

Is nuclear power in our future?

Australia is the world's largest holder of uranium deposits and third largest  exporter, but bans nuclear power generation.

Environmental groups like Greenpeace argue nuclear reactors are dangerous and radioactive waste remains poisonous for hundreds of thousands of years.

Professor Brook is a scientist at Ruhr University in Germany.

He's investigating methods that could reduce the lifespan of the waste, but argues, no energy source is completely safe.

"If you have solar panels, occasionally you got to go on the roof and clean them, people fall off and die. People fall off wind turbines maintaining them. You have to decommission solar panels maybe every 25 years and that contains imbedded heavy metals and other waste you have to get rid of that never naturally decays. There's no free lunch. Any of these energy sources have their problems as well as their benefits."

Until renewable energy becomes more reliable and affordable on a large-scale, fossil fuel is set to remain as Australia's main power source.  

A Geoscience Australia 2014 report says our brown coal reserves can last another 465 years at the current rate of production.

Grattan Institute's Tony Wood says reducing emissions will be the catalyst for change.

"Fossil fuels, particularly around coal and natural gas, it's going to be many decades before in actually are seriously in Australia anyway we are facing a shortage of those fuels. So a change towards a cleaner source of energy will be driven not by the availability of the resource but more by the need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions to respond to climate change as Australia and the rest of the world have already recognised."

The Government says it's committed to reducing Australia's emissions by five per cent below 2000 levels by 2020.

Tony Wood says the government needs to create a long-term plan to honour its 2009 commitment to limit global warming to below two degrees Celsius.

"The current government policy really only addresses meeting our current target of 2020 which is to reduce our green house gas by somewhere between 5 to 25 per cent by 2020. So the first thing that has to change is governments have to get serious about putting in place policy structures and targets in place to meet that global situation.  Once you do that the world changes significantly, then you can start to see it creates incentives for people to invest in technologies large scale solar or nuclear energy or carbon capture and storage."

Tim Sawyer from Carnegie Wave Energy agrees.
"You need consistent policies that don't change as frequently as they do. The industry as a whole needs certainty. It needs to know what the price is on carbon. It needs to have a cost of energy that covers the whole life cycle so that you can compete on level terms. Then the market can decide what technologies make sense."

The independent Climate Change Authority says a five per cent reduction by 2020 is not enough to keep warming below two degrees.

Its July 2015 report recommends that by 2025 our emissions need to be 30 per cent lower than they were in 2000.

And they say, by 2030 emissions need to be 40 to 60 per cent lower.

The Coalition for Community Energy develops small-scale renewable energy projects.

It has over 45 projects in development across the country, including community-funded solar panels, wind farms and solar-thermal plants.

They say over 21 thousand people are supporters of community energy.

Tony Wood says this challenge to the existing electricity model will change the way people use power.  

"In particular in a country like Australia where we have many people living in regional and remote parts of the country, then the opportunity for individual homes or communities to have their electricity provided locally would not just be a good idea for the environment but would also almost certainly commercially more attractive than the centralised grid is today having all these wires and poles strung across country. The idea of that becomes interesting. To what extent you can do with solar PV and battery storage without some form of backup generator I don't know yet but that's where it becomes exciting and interesting."

In early August, the Federal Government proposed a 26 to 28 per cent emissions reduction target by 2030.

This is the policy they are taking to the Paris 2015 global summit in late November.

The aim of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meeting is to agree on an international plan to keep global warming below 2 degrees.