SOUTH AUSTRALIA GOES ALL OUT ON RENEWABLES DESPITE FEDERAL FOCUS ON COAL
A massive solar thermal plant and world’s biggest lithium ion battery are making this down-under state a renewable energy powerhouse
October 13, 2017 — The Australian federal government’s love affair with coal has reached new levels in recent years, with federal ministers bringing chunks of the mineral into parliament and donning high-visibility mining vests as pro-coal publicity stunts. Yet against this backdrop, one Australian state has managed to break global records in the renewable energy space.
Recently, South Australia’s state government has announced not one but two record-breaking renewable energy projects: the world’s largest solar thermal power plant and the world’s largest lithium ion battery installation. Together, these projects will help the state surge well ahead of its already ambitious renewable energy targets while delivering a clear challenge to its coal-obsessed federal counterpart.
Bust and Boom
In recent years Australia has been taking giant strides away from renewables. In 2014, it repealed its nascent carbon tax. The Renewable Energy Target has been slashed, coal is being championed, and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation — the government’s “green bank” — and Australian Renewable Energy Agency have both teetered on the brink of annihilation due to funding uncertainties and cuts.
South Australia’s state government, on the other hand, has invested heavily in renewable energy over the past decade, particularly during the reign of incumbent premier Jay Weatherill, who came to power in 2011. This trend is largely thanks to an abundance of wind and sun that has supported a boom in wind and rooftop solar, says Richard Webster, principal advisor in the Low Carbon Economy Unit in the South Australian Department of the Premier and Cabinet.
It’s also come about because of South Australia’s unique network challenges.
“South Australia has always been a little bit disadvantaged as far as energy is concerned, because we’re at the end of the NEM [National Electricity Market] and we’ve also got a long spindly transmission network,” Webster says. But wind and solar can be generated close to where they are consumed, with the added attraction of enabling the state to become more self-sufficient in its electricity supply. The South Australian government has also made it easier for new wind farm projects by simplifying the developmental approval process, he says.
As of 2016, 48 percent of South Australia’s power came from renewable energy — bringing it close to its 2020 goal of 50 percent, which it set in 2014. In March this year, the state government also launched an AU$550 million energy plan for the state, with the aim of ensuring “more of the State’s power is sourced, generated and controlled in South Australia.” The plan includes an AU$150 million renewable technology fund, a new gas power plant and an energy security target.
South Australia no longer has any coal-fired power plants providing a stable baseload of power since the Northern Power Station in Port Augusta closed in 2016, with its owner Alinta Energy saying it had become increasingly uneconomic. Following the closure, a local community group began lobbying for the plant to be converted into a renewable energy facility, not only for clean energy but also for the jobs that such a project might bring to the town.