Wind power is the only electricity supply technology that could make a large additional contribution to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions before 2020. Coal power with carbon capture and storage is a technologically unproven system that could, at best, begin to make a significant contribution in the 2020s.
Nuclear power is a very slow technology to implement, especially in a country without the necessary infrastructure, and will become a significant carbon dioxide (CO2) emitter within several decades when high-grade uranium ore is used up and low-grade uranium has to be mined and milled with fossil fuels.
Solar power, both photovoltaic and solar thermal, has huge potential, but needs time to lower its costs.
Hot rock geothermal power has big potential in Australia, but needs development time.
Globally, wind power is booming. Total installed capacity at the end of 2007 was 94 gigawatts (94,000 megawatts) and the annual growth rate over the period 2003–07 was 25 per cent. In order of installed capacity, the leading five wind power countries were: Germany (22.3GW), the US (16.8GW), Spain (15.1GW), India (8GW) and China (6.1GW). In terms of economic value, the global wind energy market in 2007 was worth about US$37 billion in new capacity.
This boom is driven by a range of incentives, including feed-in tariffs (Germany and Spain), renewable portfolio standards (US states), production tax credit (US federal) and carbon taxes (some European countries). The European Union has also set a legally binding target of 20 per cent of energy to come from renewable sources by 2020. This is an average over the 27 EU countries. In addition the EU has a greenhouse target of a 20 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions below the 1990 level by 2020.
These incentives can be justified as a means of compensating for the unpriced environmental and health costs of burning fossil fuels and as partial offsets for the huge subsidies that have been paid over decades to fossil fuels and nuclear power.
In Australia, wind power experienced a modest boom from 2001 to 2006, driven by the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) and to a lesser degree by Green Power. However, the tiny MRET of 9500GWh (gigawatt hours) a year for renewable energy in 2010 was reached in 2006 and the boom collapsed, with two factories that had been set up by Vestas to manufacture wind turbine components closing down.
At the end of 2007, Australia’s installed wind power capacity was only 824MW and its annual electricity generation was about 0.5 per cent of Australia’s total. However, at the time of writing there are proposals for an additional 5GW of wind power in various stages of development, all awaiting appropriate government policies.
Over the next few years the main driver for wind power in Australia would be the promised expansion of MRET to about 20 per cent of electricity (see below). This would operate at least until the carbon price in the proposed emissions trading scheme (ETS) reaches a sufficiently high level to bridge the gap between conventional power and wind power. At present prices, this would be in the range $40 to $50 per tonne of CO2.
In Australia the new Labor Government followed the lead of the previous Coalition Government, and delayed implementation of all its excellent election promises for renewable energy. For example:
- in the May 2008 budget not a single dollar was allocated from the promised $500 million Renewable Energy Fund for development and deployment;
- furthermore, renewable energy received no research funding from the promised $150 million Energy Innovation Fund;
- Labor’s promised expansion of MRET was delayed until 2009 and meanwhile the new government set up the Wilkins Inquiry to pronounce on whether such ‘complementary measures’ were necessary once an ETS is operational; and
- the Government’s Green Paper on climate change ignores or waters down several of the key recommendations of the draft Garnaut Review. In particular, the Green Paper’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) offers free emission permits to the big greenhouse gas polluters. However, as Garnaut pointed out, for an effective ETS, it is essential to auction all permits. The revenue could be used to assist low-income and other householders to reduce their emissions and to fund new infrastructure such as public transport.
Apart from the reluctance of governments, both Labor and Coalition, to implement appropriate policies, one of the barriers to a rapid deployment of wind power is the misinformation about its potential contribution, technical characteristics and environmental impacts that are being circulated widely by vested interests.
My book and paper cited below refute these fallacies. In brief:
- wind power from geographically distributed sites is a partially reliable source of electricity. It can be made as reliable as coal by installing a little additional peak-load plant (gas turbine or hydro) into the grid. For 20 per cent wind energy penetration, this back-up is only operated occasionally and adds little to the cost. Thus wind power can be operated as base-load (24-hour per day) power;
- very few of the thousands of wind farms installed around the world are significant hazards to birds;
- nowadays, noise is a rarely a problem and is generally covered by licence conditions;
- the annual electricity output of a 1000MW coal-fired power station can be generated by 2600MW of wind power; and
- wind farms (towers plus access roads) occupy only one to two per cent of land area. Farming continues on the rest. The land actually occupied by 2600MW of wind farms is five to 20 square kilometres, which is less than the area of a typical open-cut coal mine for an equivalent coal-fired power station.
Australia has a substantial wind energy resource in its southern states. Given appropriate government policies, feasible targets for wind power are 10 per cent of Australia’s electricity by 2020 and 20 per cent by 2030. For comparison, wind power reached 20 per cent of Denmark’s electricity in 2003. A recent report by the US Department of Energy identified 20 per cent as a feasible wind power target for 2030 in the US.
The key policies needed to achieve these wind power targets are:
- Federal Government to implement the expanded MRET immediately and allocate generous amounts for expenditure in financial year 2008-09 from its Renewable Energy Fund and Energy Innovation Fund;
- Federal Government to implement CPRS in 2010, with a cap on emissions that is sufficiently tight to achieve an initial CO2 price of $40 per tonne and 100 per cent auctioning of emission permits;
- Federal and State Governments to upgrade the transmission links between South Australia and Victoria and between SA and NSW, in order to fully tap SA’s huge wind-power potential; and
- grid management policies should allow the inclusion of 24-hour wind forecasting data to permit greater wind power penetration into the grid.
Dr Mark Diesendorf teaches at the Institute of Environmental Studies, at the University of NSW. Previously, at various times, he has been a principal research scientist with CSIRO, Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Technology, Sydney, President of the Australia New Zealand Society for Ecological Economics, Vice-President of the former Australasian Wind Energy Association and Director of Sustainability Centre Pty Ltd. He is co-editor with Clive Hamilton of the book Human Ecology, Human Economy: Ideas for an Ecologically Sustainable Future and author of the new scholarly book Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy.
Diesendorf M (2007) Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy, UNSW Press, Sydney, especially Chapter 6
Diesendorf M (2007b) The Base-Load Fallacy, www.energyscience.org.au, briefing paper No. 16
Editor's Note: This article was first published in Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering's (ATSE) Focus Magazine issue 152 (Green Power). This article is under copyright; permission must be sought from ATSE to reproduce it.