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Tech & Science Solar power contributes to cheaper energy but also 'critical' grid instability, warns ESB

05:20  24 february  2020
05:20  24 february  2020 Source:   abc.net.au

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The security and reliability of Australia's power grid is now at a "critical" status, according to a report out this morning from the Energy Security Board (ESB), even as power prices start falling.

In its annual health check of the grid, the board said extreme weather over the summer and the strain on ageing coal-fired power stations have stretched the capacity of the system.

ESB chair Dr Kerry Schott told the ABC's AM program that the surge in wind and solar generation has been an added complication in the grid's ability to handle new energy sources.

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"The difficulty that we've had with reliability has been with the very severe temperature events over the summer and high temperature days concurrently in a number of states," Dr Schott said.

"The last resort is to start shedding load, which cuts demand involuntarily, which did happen two or three times over the summer."

Dr Schott said climate change was a factor in the extreme weather events and has warned of more to come.

"Particularly over the summer, it has certainly been an issue and that's appearing to be more likely than it once was," she explained.

"The weather events are expected to continue to become extreme [though] not necessarily consistently. There's no doubt that temperatures are going up and that is a stress."

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While climate change is expected to worsen, the ESB report also highlights "remarkable growth" in renewable energy generation driven by falling technology costs, government programs and consumer preferences, with rooftop solar now accounting for 5 per cent of energy production.

In its annual health report on the national energy market, the ESB forecasts that renewable generation will expand from 16 per cent of the market in 2018-19 to 27 per cent by 2022, before surging to 40 per cent in 2040.

Gridlock on renewables investment

However, this forecast is threatened by a recent slump in renewables investment.

Spending on large scale renewable energy projects fell by more than 50 per cent in 2019 — from 51 projects worth nearly $11 billion to 28 projects worth $4.5 billion.

"With the slowdown that is underway in new renewable energy investment then certainly our existing commitments to Paris, let alone our ability to go beyond that into the future, certainly becomes much more difficult and quite questionable," Kane Thornton, the chief executive of the Clean Energy Council, said.

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A major disincentive to newcomers is Australia's national electricity grid.

It is struggling to cope with the rate of development of renewable energy, leading to many solar and wind plants having their output slashed, while other new projects have experienced long waiting times to get connected in the first place.

"The grid is congested, it's weighed down and it's not coping with the rapid change that's occurring across the energy system at the moment," added Mr Thornton.

Dr Schott warned that the surge in renewables also posed a return threat to the grid and its ability to consistently keep the lights on.

"The system wasn't built for it [renewables], but neither was anyone else's system in the world and everyone is going through the same type of change," she said.

Policy uncertainty weighing on investment

However, there is also another threat to both renewable energy and the national electricity grid.

The chief executive of Pacific Hydro Australia, Rachel Watson, said that this was a lack of certainty about which technologies would receive Federal Government backing.

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"We need to have a whole of system plan and we need to have the policy that underpins that," she said.

"So the market will bring the technology once we know what we need to deliver."

Federal ministers and members of the Coalition Government have ruminated about a myriad of energy sources.

Energy Minister Angus Taylor has talked about plans to pursue dozens of other technologies, including carbon capture, sapping investor confidence in renewables.

"There's been incentive for investment in this country for years without central planning," Mr Taylor told RN Breakfast.

Ms Watson said the possibility of government subsidies for other technologies is holding back investment in renewables.

"They want to know they're operating on a level playing field," she argued.

"So the moment the Government starts intervening, whether its coal or whether its nuclear, and throwing money around that actually can be a disincentive for others to invest."

Others argue the renewables sector is a victim of its own success.

Many more homes have solar panels generating electricity, and people are using energy more efficiently, meaning electricity demand has flattened out since 2010.

"If you've got flat demand and not a lot of need for energy in general there's not going to be a lot of need for renewable energy," Matt Harris, head of Renewables and Climate Change at Frontier Economics, observed.

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The renewable energy sector wants the Federal Government to increase its energy market mandate by lifting the Renewable Energy Target to prepare for the phasing out of coal plants.

"They are going to retire," said Ms Watson.

"They do need massive refurbishment costs to be found. They are struggling with financing. They are struggling with insurance so it's inevitable that our coal fleet is going to disappear."

The ESB report forecast that, by 2042, almost all of the ageing coal fired power stations will be replaced by wind and solar combined with pumped hydro and battery storage.

ESB predicts falling power prices

While there are concerns about energy security, the ESB's report paints a more positive picture around pricing.

After recent years of surging power prices, the report found energy affordability has "improved slightly" for retail customers, especially in Queensland and South Australia where the penetration of rooftop solar is high.

A downward trend in retail prices of 7.1 per cent is expected in 2021-22 which could reduce average bills by around $100 a year.

The Energy Security Board was established by the COAG Energy Council and is charged with coordinating a reform blueprint produced by Australia's chief scientist Dr Alan Finkel.

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