A renewable energy future yes we can garry jenkin blog electricity deregulation choices and challenges

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But a renewable future seems out of reach in countries like the US and the UK. My own country, Australia, is rich in renewable resources and has the money to invest, yet only around 15 percent of electricity is sourced from renewables. This is one of the many reasons Australia’s energy is now costlier, less reliable and more damaging to the environment than ever.

There are many contributing factors to this. Among them is a troubling combination: The closure of coal stations and huge amounts of gas exportation have caused a deficiency in traditional power, but, as in the case of the US and the UK, the government hasn’t yet committed to renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydro power.

Historically, hydropower has been the cheapest way to source renewable electricity. But that’s changing. Wind and solar (also called photovoltaic solar, or PV) have become the most economic forms of electricity. They are the renewables of tomorrow.

Solar energy for a long time was a nonentity, but exponential growth means a bright future. For the past four decades, solar energy has grown 37 percent each year on average, according to Matthew Stocks, a research fellow at Australia National University. That equals a doubling in solar production every three years, a trend that’s not expected to stop.

But that’s the future. Right now, solar panels around the country have a combined installed capacity of just over 7GW. Germany, despite being smaller and with less sun exposure than Australia, has an installed capacity of 41GW in solar energy.

Solar can be implemented in two ways. Panels can be installed on the roofs of houses and buildings of all sorts, which absorb and convert sunlight to electricity that’s then stored in a battery. Then there are solar farms, where huge panels occupy a large swath of land, absorb the sunlight and funnel energy to the electricity grid.

At the moment, wind is a greater contributor of electricity than solar. Farms are set up in a similar way. Huge turbines flow either with or against the wind. Wind spins the turbines, which are connected through a rotor and gear boxes to a power generator. As the turbines spin, power is generated.

Solar and wind electricity are inexpensive and reliable, but they’re also variable. Everything is aces when the sun is shining on a breezy day, but a night with no wind means no new energy. And while excess solar and wind power can be stored in batteries, batteries big enough to hold more than a day’s worth of energy are still pricey. That’s where water comes in.

Pumped hydro, pictured below, is a little different. It’s the battery of the hydro world. Water is pumped from a lower reservoir to an elevated one, where huge quantities of it are stored. When electricity is needed, the floodgates of the elevated reservoir open, shooting through turbines and creating electricity.

"We’ve been looking at something on the order of 10 to 30 of these systems spread around Australia in order to balance out the variability of the wind and the PV," he said. There are over 22,000 eligible locations for such stations, according to ANU’s research.

Historically, hydropower has been the go-to renewable way to create energy. But while the economics of wind and solar power are quickly outpacing hydro, pumped hydro stations offer a type of storage that’s difficult to achieve with those power sources.

"We’ve simulated up to six years using real data on sun and wind and electricity demand, and in our peer-reviewed paper we’ve shown we could have operated the national electricity market if we’d installed enough [infrastructure] entirely on renewable energy with the same reliability as the same existing system," he said. "This is not science fiction, this is for real."

"The wind, the PV, the high-voltage transmission lines, pumped hydro, batteries are all sitting there ready to go," said ANU’s Stocks. "It’s just a question of how do we transition from a system that is dominated by coal to one that is dominated by renewables."

Energy has been a hot political topic in Australia over the past decade. A carbon tax, which penalized companies that were big carbon emitters, was enforced in 2011 by the federal Labour government and became one of the most controversial policies of the decade. Some believe it may have lost Labour the 2013 election.

Many of Australia’s members of parliament aren’t sold on climate change, according to the Institute of Public Affairs think tank, which makes pushes for renewable energy tough. This isn’t just an Australian problem: Around half of the US Congress denies climate change, too.

"Some politicians are beholden, [they have] too close a relationship to the fossil fuel industries, particularly the coal industry," Diesendorf said. "Sadly we have politicians spouting nonsense that they know is nonsense. Our ministers are not stupid, they know they’re talking nonsense, but they think, wrongly, that their future in politics is best assured by sticking to the most powerful industries, which in this case are the mining industries."

Part of the reason Germany’s solar push was so successful was that its government subsidized citizens who bought panels and batteries for their homes. But if a government is unwilling to commit to renewable energy, it’s not just citizens who shy away.

"We’ve had a very extended period where division over clean energy has been a political process," said Stocks. With the division comes uncertainty for businesses, he explained, who need to know their 20- or 30-year investment in wind, solar or hydro energy is a safe one.

The first hydrostation in Iceland was built in 1904, with a few more popping up in the following decades. These were relatively small projects set up by enterprising farmers and local technicians. There was great debate about how and when to use hydro power.

It wasn’t until 1947, over 40 years later, that the government started getting serious about hydropower. It built a station with an installed capacity of 10MW. The National Power Company (Landsvirkjun) was set up in 1965, and that’s when hydro started to become an electrical bedrock for the nation.

The average US household uses 114 kilowatt-hours a month, according to Inside Energy. Today, Icelands biggest hydroelectricity producer is the Kárahnjúkar Hydropower Plant — it creates around 4,600 gigawatt-hours of energy a year. In total, Iceland’s hydropower stations generate roughly 13.65 terawatt-hours a year, says the International Hydropower Association.

Australia currently has more modest aims. The federal government hopes to have 23.5 percent of energy come from renewable sources by 2020. In the US, a country that Stanford University sayshas more than enough resources to run entirely on renewables,the goal is 30 percent by 2025.