This report is more than a year in the making, and is written with a very simple intent. It canvasses technology options for the rapid decarbonisation of the electricity grid that lights up the South West of Western Australia.
The scenarios drawn here describe our state in the year 2029, a year in which the final legacy fossil fuel generators are decommissioned, forever eliminating our reliance on depleting coal, oil and gas. Instead, we set our course by the colossal abundance of the sun and the wind, the swells of the ocean, the regenerative potential of our wheatbelt and the heat of deep geology.
These are just scenarios: they are a description of the financial costs, benefits, drawbacks, compromises and potentials of following different courses of action in pursuit of a singular goal. Whether we like it or not, the task of this present generation is to eliminate the unregulated combustion of fossil fuels in concert with peoples around the world, in time to prevent the worst of the gathering consequences of climate change.
This study is a project that we should not have had to undertake. It was born out of the realisation that the Western Australian Government is fundamentally disinterested in confronting the damage caused by our ever increasing dependence on fossil fuels, imagining perhaps that these costs will be picked up by someone else.
We undertook this study because the State Government has abolished the agency with responsibility for renewable energy left to it by the previous government, instead ploughing resources into the Department of State Development with a mandate to exploit Western Australian fossil resources as rapidly as technology allows.
The document you are reading has therefore not been prepared by a well-resourced public sector agency with a big budget and backing from a senior Minister in State Cabinet. It has been coordinated by my office, with the assistance and technical guidance of a network of volunteers and practitioners from industry and civil society. In particular we are indebted to Sustainable Energy Now, a Western Australian research and advocacy organisation who combine a depth of engineering expertise with a spirit of inquiry and innovation. At our request SEN undertook to model the quantitative scenarios presented here. Their full technical paper is available at greenswa.net.au/energy2029
A debt is also owed to Professor Ray Wills, former CEO of the WA Sustainable Energy Association whose well-informed enthusiasm for the sector he represents is utterly infectious.
This report takes the following structure. Chapters 1 and 2 outline the scope of this work and then offer a blunt analysis of the Western Australian energy sector and the size of the challenge. Chapter 3 details the greatest potential for carbon reductions available, the assortment of energy efficiency and demand reduction techniques and innovations.
Chapters 4 through 9 walk through the fast-moving world of renewable energy: the runaway uptake of rooftop solar, the astonishing solar concentrator fields of Andalucia and Nevada, and innovations in wind, wave, geothermal and bioenergy.
There are surprises here: metropolitan Perth is now the State’s largest renewable energy generator; we can build solar plants that run for hours without sunlight; restoring the ragged ecosystems of the wheatbelt can also provide a sustainable energy crop.
Chapters 10 – 12 summarise the scenarios developed by Sustainable Energy Now to lay out alternative pathways to a 100% renewable energy network, using only technologies available today. They present costs, labour force requirements and thumbnail sketches of plant locations based on load, infrastructure and best fit for local renewable energy resources.
There is no doubt that these are approximations, that errors and assumptions will see reality diverge from these highly educated guesses before long. The sheer speed with which innovation in the renewable energy space is occurring make any predictions haphazard. We have reached a tipping point, the same threshold reached when personal computers began their exponential ascent in speed and capability past the lumbering mainframes of the mid-20th century.
There is no place in this study for the obsolete failures of the nuclear industry, or for the scramble of the unconventional gas explorers whose endeavours threaten to compromise our water resources and farming country. Get this transition right, and we liberate ourselves for the most part from the concept of fuel itself. Some of the initial capital costs are high, albeit falling fast, but the fuel costs are zero, forever.
Perhaps people who come across this document deeper into the age of climate change will shake their heads at the degree to which we have to contend with the monetary costs of the transition.
If you presently believe we can’t afford to make this transition, we can only invite you to contemplate the costs of not making it; the financial, ecological and human costs of rolling the dice with something as violent and capricious as the climate itself.
The transition to a renewable economy is well underway elsewhere in the world; it is long past time we got serious on our home ground in Western Australia.