The 2019 / 2020 Australian wildfires that burned 27 million acres (the area of Portugal) and caused as many as one billion animal deaths were an ominous shock to the system for many Aussies. Australia has always been a hot place, but these fires and the decay of the country’s prized Great Barrier Reef (both exacerbated by global warming), have started to galvanize opinion around taking action on climate. Renewable energy is not a new concept Down Under. In 2019, Australia generated 24% of its electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydro. The “outback” of Australia boasts some of the best solar irradiation in the world and its vast coastline has prime wind conditions. But Australia is also one of the world’s largest exporters of coal, providing over 30% of global supply of the pollutive energy source. Will the Aussies continue to promote their coal driven energy legacy or will they embrace the future of renewables? Several recently announced projects show that Australia may be going “all in” on green energy.
The Sun Cable project has some epic aspirations. It aims to combine the world’s largest battery, the world’s largest solar farm, and a 2,800 mile high voltage direct current (HVDC) undersea transmission system from the solar / storage facility near the far northern city of Darwin to Singapore and eventually Indonesia. It would provide dispatchable renewable electricity to the Northern Territory and will supply up to 20% of Singapore’s electricity demand. The 10 GW Tennant Solar Farm will be equivalent to 10 massive coal plants and the undersea cable would be one of the world’s deepest and longest. While the $14 billion project has been fast-tracked by the Australian government, it is still in the planning and capital raising stage, with construction not expected to begin until 2024. But once completed, the Sun Cable project would be a prime example of shifting large amounts of renewable resources long distances, from barren sun-drenched land to high-density energy demand centers.
The Asian Renewable Energy Hub, a separate project, will produce sustainable, or green, hydrogen that will be shipped to Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan. Located in Pilbara, Western Australia, the Hub will use 15 GW of wind and solar capacity to create this so-called green hydrogen through a process called electrolysis. Wind and solar will power electrolyzers that split water molecules into their components, releasing the oxygen and storing the hydrogen to sell. Note that traditional “brown” hydrogen is produced through a process called steam methane reforming, which uses natural gas as a feedstock and is thus a high emitter of carbon dioxide. The green hydrogen sold to these energy demand centers can fulfill a variety of applications from creating fertilizers to heating for industrial production to creating electricity with the use of fuel cells.
Australia already has the world's largest battery, a 100 MW cluster of Tesla Megapack lithium ion batteries located at the Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia. The “Tesla Big Battery” is adjacent to the 315 MW Hornsdale Wind Farm and has already provided immense savings through grid stabilization services. But the project, which is being expanded by 50%, is set to become an even more valuable asset as technology enables the batteries to mimic the spinning inertia of traditional power plants, stabilizing the grid and bridging the gap to intermittent renewables. TheSnowy Hydro 2.0 project will also add to Australia’s pioneering position in energy storage. Located in New South Wales, the project involves retrofitting an existing hydropower plant into a massive “water battery”, by using excess renewable electricity during off-peak times to pump water into large raised basins, later to be released during peak energy times.
These world leading clean energy projects are a huge step forward for an economy in which coal has been King for decades. At $69 billion annually, coal is Australia’s largest export and the country’s prosperity has long been heavily reliant on these exports of natural resources to Asia. Indeed, before the fires in 2019 / 20, Australia approved the massive new Adani / Carmichael coal mine project, which is still proceeding despite heavy protests. The Australian conflict between fossil fuel and clean energy is reminiscent of the situation in the US where we have abundant oil and gas reserves but plentiful sunshine and wind in the Southwest. However, we do not need a 2,800 mile undersea cable to transport green electricity to US population centers. Houston, Texas, the target of devastation from Hurricane Harvey, already receives over 90% of its electrical power from the wind and sun. Made in Texas by Texans. If Australia rises from the ashes of its recent wildfires, puts its history of political division on climate and reliance on fossil fuel exports behind it, it could become a renewable energy superpower and quite an example for the rest of the world to follow.