May 2, 2024

Why The Debate Over The Transition To Renewables Has It Wrong

Australia stands at a pivotal moment in its energy history. The transition from coal power to renewable energy is not just an environmental imperative but an economic one, and it is an issue of keen political concern, too. Much of the campaigning in the leadup to the last election was on sustainability, and climate change was consistently ranked as the #1 issue by Australians. 

We have a solution to this challenge: Shifting Australia to become a nation of connected micro-grids on the edge, supported by a “virtual power station” concept, with consumer and business generation via solar panels and storage via batteries feeding into the energy grid, will deliver a more resilient and sustainable power grid. It will also solve the teething issues that Australia is currently facing, including the high cost of power, concerns around grid stability, and tensions around the closing of coal power plants. 

If only there were political alignment behind this approach.

Coal Isn’t The Answer

Even if there was the political will to maintain coal power, Australia’s coal power plants are closing down because they’re not economical to run. So for all the debate about the ongoing use of coal that is playing out in sections of the media, that’s a non-starter.

Meanwhile, Allegro Energy was recently at a manufacturing summit where the opposition party spoke, and shared its vision for handling the transition. It was, essentially, what the party has been publically talking up to the press: Investment in gas energy while the nation scales to nuclear power.

But this proposed reliance on gas and nuclear is a short-sighted strategy that fails to address the underlying issues. Gas, still contributes excessively to greenhouse gas emissions and is subject to volatile market prices. Nuclear power, on the other hand, comes with high initial costs, long development times, and unresolved concerns about waste management and safety.

And nowhere in this vision does renewables play a key role, despite the clear evidence that renewables are necessary in the present and even more critical to the future.

Some have been talking about placing “micro-reactors” across the country, but there isn’t an electorate in Australia that would actively welcome these, so even the placement of nuclear power would become a political hot potato and mired in hold-ups.

What Australians will have a tolerance for, once it has been proven to work, is the local micro-grid, where the entire community contributes to the generation and distribution of power through a combination of rooftop solar and community batteries. The resistance that is there to this concept lies with misunderstandings about capacity and concerns about keeping the lights on at night. Some claim that the lithium batteries don’t last long enough to account for periods of low generation, but this overlooks the existence and capabilities of long-duration storage, with organisations like Allegro proving that full supply through any conditions is possible. 

In short, the argument that proponents of the nuclear solution make, that renewables cannot support demand on the grid, is increasingly at odds with technological advancements. More batteries are being added to the grid, and long-duration storage is becoming increasingly integrated. These innovations in energy transmission are reducing the need for extensive infrastructure. The notion that renewables necessitate a costly overhaul of transmission lines is being challenged by the concept of virtual transmission, where medium-large batteries can more efficiently distribute stored energy, mitigating the need for new poles and wires.

And, again, this solution will mean that Australian communities across the country don’t need to agree to nuclear reactors in their proverbial back yards. It’s a clear win for everyone.

The Five Steps To Smoothing The Energy Transition

To ease the transition to renewables, Australia doesn’t need a fanciful and poorly conceived shift to gas and nuclear. Rather, we must embrace a multi-faceted approach:

  • Grid Modernisation: Upgrading the grid to handle distributed energy resources will allow for a more resilient and flexible energy system. This also brings with it cost savings, because done right, there is less need in massive wiring projects across the nation - thinner wires mean a lower raw cost in developing and maintaining the grid.
  • Investment in Renewable Technologies: First and foremost, there needs to be more investment in deploying power generation across the nation. Wind and solar have been identified as the cheapest forms of new electricity generation. Investing in increasing the generation through these technologies will not only reduce emissions but also stabilise energy prices in the long term.
  • Policy and Market Reforms: Implementing policies that support renewable energy investment and creating market mechanisms that reflect the true cost of fossil fuels will encourage a swifter transition.
  • Public and Private Collaboration: Engaging both sectors in the development and financing of renewable projects can accelerate the transition while distributing the financial risk.
  • Community Engagement: Ensuring that the transition is equitable and involves local communities will garner broader support and create new economic opportunities.

Underscoring all of this is having a more robust strategy around storage and batteries. Rather than building these micro-reactors around the country, we should instead be deploying storage farms to build up energy generated through renewables during periods where excess power is created (i.e. through the day). With the right mix of long-term storage solutions and decentralisation, supply can be guaranteed.

There’s also an Australian manufacturing story that is being generated out of renewables. As companies like Allegro demonstrate, Australia has the advanced manufacturing capabilities to drive the transition to renewables, resulting in advanced jobs and R & D. Long term, there will be opportunities to export this innovation overseas and assist other nations - particularly those in the global south - with their own transitions. This would support a positive global reputation for Australia and cement our status as a nation of intelligence and advanced manufacturing.

While there is currently a degree of NIMBYism about the potential placement of the battery farms and other infrastructure elements to power renewables that will need to be overcome, a big part of the problem with that is the conversation simply isn’t playing out in the public sphere right now. That political discussion, when it comes time to have it, is going to be far easier than overcoming resistance to deploying nuclear reactors. 

The transition to renewable energy in Australia is not only very feasible, but economically beneficial. Overcoming the short-term pain that is currently felt requires a clear-eyed assessment of the current landscape, a rejection of outdated narratives, and a commitment to accelerating the innovative solutions that are already proving to be so successful.