Solar and wind power continue to grow at a very fast rate in Australia, and September represented an important milestone for both technologies: their combined energy output surpassed that of natural gas for the first time. While energy generation based on natural gas was 2,186 gigawatt-hours (GWh), solar and wind power achieved a record-breaking 2,363 GWh. This is 8% above natural gas, and represented 21.9% of all generation in September.
Australia is also getting significant environmental and societal benefits from the fast growth of solar power and wind turbines. The clean energy generation achieved in September avoided carbon emissions equivalent to taking 9.3 million cars off the road. In addition, the renewable energy sector was employing over 17,500 Australians as of 2017.
Rooftop solar power is among the fastest-growing sectors of the Australian renewable energy industry, with more than 15,000 new installations in September alone. Their owners are expected to save around $180 million throughout the following decade, by generating their own energy and relying less on the power network. Of the 2,363 GWh generated by wind and solar power in September, rooftop installations accounted for 711 GWh, while utility-scale solar farms only represented 58 GWh. The remaining 1,594 GWh corresponded to wind power.
Back in 2013, natural gas was considered the best solution for Australia to reduce the environmental footprint of its energy sector. Although gas is fossil fuel and it produces greenhouse gases, its emissions intensity is much lower than that of coal. For example, a power plant with combined-cycle gas turbines produces around 60% less emissions that an equivalent power plant using black coal, and almost 70% less emissions that one using brown coal. However, gas became more expensive in recent years, while solar panels and wind turbines are becoming more affordable.
Although network and retail costs represent the largest fraction of the typical power bill in Australia, increased natural gas prices have also played a role in making electricity expensive, especially in South Australia. Two of the world’s largest battery systems are currently being deployed in SA to reduce dependence on natural gas.
Australia currently has over 3,700 MW of renewable generation capacity under development, where wind and solar power represent more than 1,800 MW each. Most of this renewable generation capacity is concentrated in Queensland, with 1759 MW under construction. New South Wales and the ACT are second with 867 MW, while Victoria is in third place with 722 MW.
Overtaking coal is a much more ambitious target, given that it accounts for 77% of Australia’s generation according to the Finkel review. However, innovation in battery technology is driving down its cost, and this will allow solar and wind power to become dispatchable energy sources, with a reliable power supply even in the absence of sunshine or wind. By 2020, batteries are expected to become 30% cheaper, while the cost of solar photovoltaic systems and wind turbines will continue to decrease in the foreseeable future.