Build It And They Will Come: Transmission Key To 100% Renewable Energy

Build It And They Will Come: Transmission Key To 100% Renewable Energy

transmission lines

ANU’s Professor Andrew Blakers says we need to build out transmission lines urgently.

If you wanted to block the expansion of renewable energy, a good place to start is to put bureaucratic roadblocks in the way of new, long distance electricity transmission infrastructure.

Discussing his participation in last week’s 100% renewable energy workshop at ANU, the university’s Professor Andrew Blakers told SolarQuotes transmission is the biggest short-term problem facing renewables in Australia.

Getting power from eastern Australia’s most favourable solar energy zones is neither difficult nor expensive, he said, but:

“there’s effectively been a strike by the federal government on new transmission”.

The “archaic” approval process for new transmission is geared to the timelines for developing a new coal power station, he said.

“A coal power station takes five-to-ten years to construct, and the [approval] process goes along that timeline.”

Wind and solar power developments, on the other hand, can get up and running in one or two years.

The absence of renewable energy zones from the approval process ties approval to the old paradigm, where new transmission is approved according to demonstrated demand. For renewable energy zones, he said, proof of demand should be waived because solar, wind, and pumped hydro facilities will be “rapidly saturated” in today’s environment.

Blakers was talking to SolarQuotes about two presentations he participated in at the workshop:

  • his “100% renewables = 85% emissions reductions” here (PDF),
  • and as a co-author of Anna Nadolny et al’s “100% renewable transport via EVs, (PowerPoint) here.

In his 100% renewables paper, Blakers wrote that integration – the transmission infrastructure – is the bottleneck preventing Australia from hitting 50% renewable electricity by 2025.

It’s a bottleneck we need to get rid of fast, because reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 requires the “deep electrification of nearly everything” – electricity generation, land transport, heating/cooling, and heavy industry.

The Plan

Dividing the time between now and 2050 into ten-year chunks, Blakers said the tasks in front of us look a bit like this:

First ten years: Generation should reach 70-80% renewable (hence the importance of sorting out transmission as soon as possible); land transport should reach 50% electrification; and low-temperature heating and cooling (anything below 100℃) should using heat pumps to reach 100% electrification, to push gas out of household and commercial markets.

Professor Blakers told us this delivers 25% emission reduction by 2030, while electricity consumption will rise by 50%.

Second ten years: “The task for the 2030s is to push all oil out of land transport,” he said, and “all heating goes 100% renewables, and electricity is 100% renewable”.

This will lead to a doubling of electricity consumption compared to today, delivering a 75% reduction in emissions.

Third ten years: “The task for the 2040s is to eliminate carbon emissions from aviation and shipping, and from industrial processes like iron, steel, cement, and the like. Getting there will triple electricity consumption over today’s levels, and get the world to 85% emissions reduction. To take care of the other 15%, agriculture will “hopefully … get its act together”.

To-do items kept for the last ten years include some of the toughest challenges, such as replacing aviation fuel with synthetics created using renewables, and using hydrogen on a large scale for high-temperature heating – but we’ve got more than twenty years to put R&D into those issues.

Not knowing how to reach the destination is not a reason not to start, Blakers warned: the media line that we shouldn’t start until all the problems are solved is nothing more than a denialist’s delay tactic.

“We have enough to get on with now”, he told us.

One hopeful sign is key states are starting to work around the Federal Government’s inaction on transmission infrastructure.

“The Victorian government seems to have gotten tired of the slowness and is planning to bypass the NEM transmission rules,” Blakers said, adding that “every other state government needs to do the same”.

He said each state needs to nominate two or three renewable energy zones, and build multi-gigawatt transmission to those zones.

There are two NSW electorates which would be ideal homes for renewable energy zones: Calare (MP: Andrew Gee, National Party), and Hume (MP: Angus Taylor, Liberal Party).

Both are ideal for wind and solar power and pumped hydro storage, and both have good transmission corridors (for example, the Mount Piper coal power station is within Calare and has existing transmission links).

“We’re talking about tens of billions that could come into those electorates,” Blakers told us. “It’s unbelievable that the local federal and state members aren’t all over this”.

Professor Blakers said the other hopeful sign is there’s “nothing to invent” to switch the energy grid to 100% renewables:

“batteries can get better, but it’s all there – wind, solar, pumped hydro, batteries, and demand management”.

That led to discussion of the Anna Nadolny paper, because Professor Blakers said EVs represent the most important new load in the pipeline.

EVs: The Perfect Interruptible Load

While EVs add about 35% to electricity generation requirements, they are “a wonderful demand management tool”. Vehicles are stationary most of their lives, and EVs can be plugged into the grid when they’re not moving, so “the utility can choose when to add electrons”.

“It’s a wonderful interruptible demand, just like hot water, but it will be much bigger,” Blakers added.

And, of course, when to draw down on that storage, because so few drivers need the full battery range to be available at any given moment. You only need enough to get you to the next period the car will be plugged in.

The typical commuter will get home and plug the car in at 7pm, and no matter what happens in the next twelve hours, the car will probably be at 100% charge in time for the morning commute.

As with solar, wind, batteries and pumped hydro, there’s pretty much nothing to invent to make use of EV batteries this way. “Adaptive charging” sounds impressive, but Blakers said it means simply that there’s a low-tech controller so that the utility avoids charging the EV battery when the grid is under stress.

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