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Renewables v. fossil fuels: From confrontation to cohabitation?

By Grace Guo

Could countries depend exclusively on renewable energy for affordable, efficient power? Not anytime soon.

Last month, 21 leading energy experts harshly criticised a prominent paper which argued that renewable energies could affordably meet the United States’ energy needs by 2055. The scientists contended that the estimate was too optimistic and could delay a decarbonized energy system. Instead, they argued that net-zero carbon emissions require a wider suite of energy approaches.

The same day the rebuttal came out, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said that carbon capture and storage (CCS) is moving up the agenda of governments in the Asia Pacific. Together with wind and solar energy, CCS will be critical to minimising global warming. The debate between carbon and renewables is shifting from confrontation to cohabitation—and Asian governments are leading the way.

India’s coal challenge

India has been prioritising emissions reduction technologies to address rampant pollution and meet emissions targets. The challenge for India is greater than for many countries, however, because it must address the more than 240 million people who lack adequate access to the grid. This means continued reliance on coal—which accounts for 70% of the nation’s electricity—for essential base load power.

To square that circle, the government has been leading a drive to maximise efficiency and cut pollution from coal-fired plants. In March, Power Minister Piyush Goyal announced all outdated power plants will be phased out and converted into “supercritical” plants. This was followed by an announcement that some $10 billion worth of coal plants will be built over the next five years, as well as an agreement between New Delhi and Washington to cooperate on clean coal technologies.

High costs of change for Australia

Even in countries like Australia, despite government incentives, renewable energy infrastructure is still too costly and insufficiently developed to replace coal. This was demonstrated last September when South Australia’s (SA) electricity transmission network suffered a catastrophic cascading failure and statewide power outage during a severe storm. After an investigation, the Australian Energy Market Operator declared the state’s energy mix a key culprit, citing overreliance on intermittent renewables and the failure of gas and coal generators to stabilise the grid. To top it off, SA has the highest household electricity prices in the world

Following heated debate, on June 20th Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that the government would back the construction of new coal power stations, employing “reverse auctions” to replace outdated coal-fired generators with clean coal technology.

These plans come on top of two CCS projects already underway. Chevron is finishing the world’s largest CCS operation at the Gorgon liquefied natural gas plant on Barrow Island off Western Australia, where CO2 will be stripped, compressed, and stored. The second project, CarbonNet, is a $114 million government study underway in the state of Victoria that could store 125 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

China’s renewable goals

Like Australia, China employs a hybrid approach, making major investments in renewable energy while continuing to rely on coal-fired power plants. Beijing aims to generate 20% of its energy from renewable sources, and earlier this year announced it would invest $360 billion over the course of three years towards accomplishing that goal. However, that emphasis on renewables hasn’t been without growing pains. Massive wind farms have been built in the sparsely populated north-west, far from where their electricity is most needed. Transmission lines have failed to keep up with the pace of turbine construction.

China thus continues to construct coal stations at a steady pace while the government is spearheading research and investment in emissions reduction technologies—especially carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). Most recently, following the approval of the country’s first large-scale CCUS project at a coal-to-chemicals plant, China is expected to displace North America as the leading investor in CCUS. When complete, the plant will be able to capture 410,000 metric tonnes of carbon per year.

The paradox of renewables in the Asia Pacific

While green energy sources are on the upswing, economies across the Asia Pacific are not gearing up for an all-renewable future. India, China and Australia are building hydro plants or solar panels while also upgrading existing coal power plants with new technologies. The intermittent nature of renewables necessitates a stable source of energy—and policymakers in the region have settled on coal as the base load power source their countries still need.


Featured Image Source: Pixabay 

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