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Australia’s Plan for a Zero-Carbon Economy by 2020

RP Siegel | Monday January 10th, 2011 | 1 Comment

In response to a recent post which described the likelihood that natural gas will overtake coal as our primary means of electrical power generation, I received a comment that said, “Actually gas is a diversion not a shortcut. Gas is dirty, dangerous and deadly. We need to leapfrog gas and go Wind, Solar Photovoltaic and for firming power pumped hydro storage and Solar Thermal Power Towers w/Molten Salt Storage. These are all commercially available now technologies and ready to roll.”

I was intrigued by the comment, especially the sense of certainty it conveyed. Of course I would like to see us leapfrog gas and go directly to renewables, but, is that really possible? I decided to investigate. The comment was from Matthew Wright from Melbourne, Australia. He is the Executive Director of a group called Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), which is affiliated with the University of Melbourne. I got in touch with Matt and he sent me some fascinating info regarding the Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationary Energy Plan and we later spoke. According to the plan, “a combination of energy efficiency, fuel switching from gas and oil to electrified energy services, then using a combination of commercially available off-the-shelf renewable energy technologies, Australia’s energy needs can be met with 100% renewables,” by 2020 in an economically feasible manner. The study estimates the incremental cost per household to be $8 per week. Achieving this will require a substantial commitment, $37 billion annually or 3% of Australia’s GDP. But look at what they would have as a result: energy independence and security, substantial isolation from any price shocks associated with the risk-laden oil and gas industry and the politics of the regions from which the fuels are extracted, as well as an entire country powered by an energy system that is essentially inflation-free and whose only expense lies in the maintenance of the equipment and any interest charges associated with their initial construction.

But perhaps most import of all to the folks at BZE, this will provide a fighting chance to bring down the risk of catastrophic climate change to a manageable level. It should be noted that the study is focused specifically on stationary energy requirements and does not directly break down transportation and other sectors. However the report does address the migration to electric vehicles by assuming a 40% increase in overall electric demand to offset the use of oil and gas. That assumption includes transportation, as well as water heating and cooking. This should be enough to meet the stated goal of a 100% renewable economy considering the fact the 31% of the country’s energy is currently met with oil and gas plus the fact the electric cars tend to be more efficient than gas-powered ones. These numbers will continue to be refined as BZE completes additional studies on transportation, buildings, land use planning forest and agriculture, industrial processes and replacing fossil fuel export revenues. But to a reasonable approximation, this analysis shows a carbon free economy.

BZE’s goal, as the name suggests, is to go beyond zero emissions, by eliminating all fossil fuel usage and then drawing down excessive carbon in the atmosphere through the use of bio-char. They anticipate that this approach could potentially drop the atmospheric CO2 level down to the range of 280-320 ppm

One might argue that this is a level of security that Americans might not ever know, unless we too find the collective wisdom to pursue such a course.

How did they come up with the ten-year time frame? The rationale was based on the ‘The Budget Approach’ from the German Advisory Council, which states that in order for average worldwide warming to have a fighting chance (67%) of remaining below 2 degrees Celsius, the US would have to reach zero emissions by the year 2020. Since Australia has the same per capita energy consumption as the US, they decided to apply that target to themselves.

In order to meet this aggressive time frame, they decided to focus entirely on technology that is commercially available today. What they came up with is the following:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Wind
  • Concentrating Solar Thermal (CST) with Molten Salt Storage
  • Contingency backup from biomass and existing hydro.

A concentrating solar thermal plant is shown in the enclosed figure. In essence it is the same as a conventional power plant, except for two things:

1. The steam which drives the turbine is produced by concentrated sunlight instead of fossil fuel

2. Molten salt is used to store heat to allow 24-hour operation

A molten salt power tower is far more cost effective than solar-photovoltaic, once the question of storage is factored in. And storage is necessary if you need power at night and during cloudy periods.

The study, which has been validated by a third-party engineering firm, goes on with detailed analysis of demand on a 30-minute time scale and the transmission capacity of the electrical grid both of which are found to be achievable. In addition, the transition to renewables is estimated to create 150,000 new Australian jobs.

The report closes with a quote from US President Barack Obama which states, “The time has come to aggressively accelerate that transition… The time has come, once and for all, for this nation to fully embrace a clean-energy future.”

America has spoken, but talk is cheap. Australia at least has a plan. When will it be our turn? Given the recent flooding and deadly brush fires, some folks Down Under seem to be taking the threat of global warming more seriously than we do here, though sadly, their government  is still in the deny or delay phase as coal exports continue to be a major part of their economy.

RP Siegel is the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, which is focused on the implications of America’s energy quagmire. Like airplanes, we all leave behind a vapor trail. And though we can easily see others’, we rarely see our own.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  1. January 12, 2011 at 7:24 am PDT | Nick Palmer writes:

    Australia has a lot of sun. They could do it but most of the rest of the developed world couldn’t quite get there. The Desertec initiative to harvest Saharan sun is one way for Europe to get around the cloudiness aspect. Perhaps the US should concentrate on the Arizona, New Mexico, California deserts. Maybe even a Desertec like scheme in Mexico?

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