The Australian government has finally released it's long-awaited energy white paper, stating that renewable energy sources could provide up to 40 percent of Australia’s energy needs by 2035 and 85 percent by 2050. The plan also goes as far as to virtually eliminating coal-fired power stations over this time period as well.

The focus of the white paper strongly centers on how natural gas and renewable energy need to develop in the coming decades in order to offset coal supply. It is estimated that this transformation from coal dependency to renewable energy would require over A$200 billion of investment in new power stations and infrastructure, of which up to 50% may be dedicated to renewable sources.

A further emphasis of the white paper is placed on the need for smart power demand management – a welcome change from the infrastructure ‘gold-plating’ mechanisms employed by network owners in the past and primarily responsible for dramatic energy price increases.

Unfortunately the Australian government has been unable to shake it’s fixation with carbon capture and storage (CCS). Modelling for the proposed 85% by 2050 scenario sees fossil fuels (with CCS) contributing 29%, large-scale solar 16%, wind energy and rooftop solar 13% each with geothermal, hydroelectric and bioenergy making up the rest.

The real surprise here in my opinion is rooftop solar. Under the original Renewable Energy Target, small-scale solar was not expected to even rank in the energy mix of 2020. Interestingly, the white paper actually notes that “few could have predicted the dramatic reduction in solar PV costs that has occurred over the past few years”.  With installed costs of small-scale solar falling up to 50% over the past year and showing no sign of slowing it’s easy to see how rooftop solar could become a major player in the future.

Despite the significant gains in renewable energy over the past decade, the energy focus for Australia’s future remains natural gas. Launching the paper in Melbourne last week, energy minister Martin Ferguson said he wants Australia to develop one of the “biggest gas markets in the world” and invest hundreds of billions into export terminals.

Pacific Hydro general manager for Australia, Lane Crockett stated that the white paper was vital in creating Australia's energy future “Renewable energy provides a significant opportunity for Australia and it’s great to see this visioning document outline the opportunity for 85 percent clean energy by 2050,” he said. “Ensuring certainty is central to attracting investment and in transforming our energy market to one that is much cleaner,” he added.

Australia’s renewable energy industry welcomed the white paper, but the Green party objected to the government’s plans to develop the gas market.

Australian Greens leader, Senator Christine Milne, said Ferguson has been “dragged out of his comfort zone here, but his dirty fingerprints are all over the white paper."

In a statement Milne noted:

“Primarily, the white paper confirms that renewable energy can power all of Australia within decades, a reality being modelled by the Australian Energy Market Operator thanks to the Greens’ carbon price negotiations — but has been shunted aside here with a dash for gas and a vision of fossil-fuels still polluting our atmosphere out to 2050 and beyond”.

Image: PV Panels via Shutterstock