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DELIVERING THE RENEWABLE ENERGY TARGET MUST BE THE CORNERSTONE OF EVERY PARTY’S ENERGY POLICY

28.07.2020

Delivering the 50% renewable energy target by 2030 is key to building a modern, reliable and affordable energy system for the Northern Territory.

Critics argue that solar is to blame for grid instability. But they’re honing in on a side effect while missing the root cause: what is at fault here is a deeply rooted systemic and cultural problem in NT's energy agencies to address the vital upgrade to changing technology and execute the necessary steps for a smooth transition to modern renewable energy.

Reporting functions have been woefully inadequate and multiple warnings from reports from the Utilities Commission disregarded for over a decade, over multiple governments.

Although complex, the steps required for an upgrade were identified and laid out long ago in the government’s own 2017 report, Roadmap to Renewables. The government should have begun implementing the report’s 11 recommendations two years ago. Back then the level of renewable energy generation in the NT grid was lower than it is today and it was the right time to start implementing these necessary grid upgrades.

The reality is that all types of electricity generators – including gas and coal – can fluctuate or even fail. Frequency and voltage often fluctuate, the quality of gas supply (even air temperature changes) can cause gas turbines to change their output, and bad weather can impact conventional power plants or transmission lines.

All grids are essentially “wobbly” but are stabilised through technology. Batteries can charge and discharge very quickly and the effect on the grid is to smooth out fluctuations. And as storage costs continue to fall, it makes good economic sense to install grid-scale battery storage on the Darwin-Katherine grid.

Rather than being a threat, renewable technology is the key to shoring up NT grid stability. Solar combined with storage is better able to react in an emergency and stabilise power in peak demand situations, compared to traditional power generators. It is also decentralised and distributed technology, which builds resilience and redundancy.

Continued renewables growth requires transmission infrastructure and storage technologies to ensure the distributed energy can be delivered where it is needed, and that reliability is maintained. Although there is a cost attached to this transition to renewables, it is exactly that – a transition period.

What will follow that transition period will be many lifetimes of low-cost renewable energy. Delaying or drawing out this period of transition by weakening the renewable energy target only sets the Territory up for a larger and larger gap between what will be the high fossil-fuel prices of the Northern Territory and the low-cost renewable-generated electricity of other Australian states and Territories and around the world.

While it is true that then-Labor Chief Minister Paul Henderson signed the NT to a domestic gas supply deal for the next 25 years, this doesn’t mean we should delay the NT electricity system’s inevitable upgrade to clean energy. 

Holding onto a clunky, highly-centralised, gas-powered grid, is a bit like refusing to upgrade to a smartphone just because your uncle scored a good deal on some old dial telephones a few years ago. We are witnessing every other Australian state upgrade to efficient, networked, fast and agile technology, and the NT only shoots itself in the foot if it tries to cling to outdated tech. 

There is a strong economic case to be had with NT’s abundance of solar resources representing an opportunity to revitalise our economy.  

Solar is cheaper than gas. Take the electricity to be produced by Livingstone Solar, the NT’s largest locally-owned and financed solar farm located 30km south of Darwin near Berry Springs. In an interview with The Environment Centre NT, project manager of the farm and director of NT Solar Futures Ilana Eldridge states that while the wholesale price of power in the Northern Territory is over $200/MWH, the Livingstone Solar Farm will produce power for under $100/MWH.

When fully operational and connected to the Darwin-Katherine grid, the Livingstone Farm’s 100,000+ solar panels are expected to provide 5% of Darwin’s power demand or the equivalent of 13,000 homes. The $100 million projects will provide more than 200 local jobs during its construction phase and will contribute to the regional economy and community. Now in its final feasibility stages, it should be “shovel-ready” early next year.

Ilana Eldridge is just one of thousands of Territorians already working in the solar industry. It is vital that NT solar entrepreneurs have a government that supports their business endeavors.

Here’s an idea: let’s grow our energy pie and use this incredibly cheap clean energy to power a local manufacturing industry. Rather than simply digging minerals out of the ground and shipping it straight overseas, let's add value to those minerals by processing it and manufacturing low-carbon products such as green hydrogen and green steel (driven by rapidly growing overseas demand) - all powered on next-to-free solar energy. With a thriving manufacturing industry, who knows, maybe we’ll even be able to break out of painful boom-and-bust cycles set by fossil fuel industries. 

A report published by the Environment Centre NT and Beyond Zero Emissions, The 10 Gigawatt Vision, shows that driving 10 gigawatts of renewables (20 times the current renewable energy target) could create over 8,000 new jobs and over $2bn in annual new revenue by 2030. It could support local businesses, lower power prices for residents and mean the kind of cheap, reliable power that remote communities in the NT have rarely ever experienced with diesel generators. 

But that window of opportunity is closing. If we don’t seize it, other states will make better progress and grab market share.

Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory all have targets to grow renewable energy to 50% by 2030. South Australia has a more ambitious target of net 100% in the 2030s and Tasmania is on track for 100% by 2022. The Australian Capital Territory has achieved its target of 100% renewable electricity by 2020.

It is vital the next government remains committed to the renewable energy target. That target provides the government a firm framework within which to build complex policy, turning promises and ambition into a concrete goal. And by maintaining policy stability, it can prod retailers or generators to do what they are supposed to do, and give investors confidence that a renewables investment is a safe bet.

Now is not the time to buckle. We should hold our nerve, muster that pioneering spirit the NT is famous for, and continue the work of upgrading our grid as laid out in the detailed, step-by-step 2017 report Roadmap to Renewables. A short period of pain will pay itself back with an eternity of cheap, reliable, dispatchable energy on a smart grid, and unlock a world of potential for the NT. 

Let’s embrace a modern grid, for a thriving NT, and not drag out the awkward and difficult upgrade period any longer than we must.


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