This article looks at the relationship between climate change and the use of new forms of renewable energy to meet net zero, greenhouse gas emission by 2050. A parallel is drawn, using research data and analysis, and supports the theory that the impacts of climate change are caused by an increase in anthropogenic gas emissions since the pre-industrial era. Globally, there is a movement towards renewable energy as a source of power, with policy and regulatory framework execrating this growth industry. The focus of this paper is Australia’s commitment to net zero by 2050 and its advancement in the use of hydropower, concentrated thermal energy and wind energy. Moreover, a case study undertaken by Green Energy Australia (2022), on the use of Bagasse (residual sugar cane fibre) as a power source, is indicative of Australia facing the challenge of global warming. The research framing this article, although a positive reflection on Australia’s commitment and current technological advancements, highlight that Australia is lagging behind other countries on climate ambition (Climate Action Tracker, 2021) and furthermore, that current policy is not compatible to the Paris Agreement. Further research on current Government policy and their plan to reduce fossil fuels and renewable energy uptake would provide some assurance that the Government is achieving its stated goals and that its commitments reflect those of the global community.
Renewable Energy and Climate Change
To understand the importance of renewable energy, we must first acknowledge the relationship between climate change and the impact of fossil fuels (in the power sector) on the planet. In order to decipher the myriad of scholarly discourse and research that frames this relationship, in this article we have relied upon the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Synthesis Report (Pachauri et al., 2014).
The Synthesis Report (The Report) is the collaboration of three working groups – Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis; Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability; and Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. The Report makes the distinction between human influence and the impact of such influence on the climate – observed across all continents and oceans (Pachauri et al., 2014). The results of the studies and data collection in the Report, reinforced that the Earth’s surface has been successively warmer than the preceding decades (since 1850). Subsequently, the warming has been caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions that have increased since the pre-industrial era. The drivers for the change is due to significant increases in carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide (Pachauri et al., 2014).
According to Pachauri et al., (2014), climate change impacts are the strongest and most comprehensive for natural systems, such as changing precipitation, melting snow and ice, and freshwater and marine species that have shifted their geographic ranges and migration patterns in response to climate change. Crop yields have also been impacted by climate change together with ocean acidification on marine organisms due to human influence (Pachauri et al., 2014). Gielen et al. (2019) adds that land, energy, and water are precious resources but the way they are exploited also contributes to climate change, and furthermore, the systems that support these resources are vulnerable to changes in the climate.
The projected change in the climate system will see heat waves that will occur more often and last longer and extreme precipitation events, more intense and frequent with the ocean warmer and acidifying which will give way to global sea levels rising (Pachauri et al., 2014). Without adaption and mitigation measures for reducing and managing the risks of climate change through substantial emission reduction, the risk of abrupt and irreversible changes increase as the magnitude of warming increases (Pachauri et al., 2014).
The findings of the Synthesis Report are consistent with the United Nations – The Agenda for Sustainable Development. On September 25th of 2015, the United Nations General Assembly, adopted Transforming Our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (The Agenda). The Agenda is a call to action for ‘people, planet and prosperity’ (United Nation, 2015) asking all countries, and the many stakeholders, to act in unity to implement the Agenda.
The Agenda sets out 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 169 targets. It is framed by the Charter of the United Nations (United Nations 1945), is grounded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations 1948) and informed by other instruments such as the Declaration on the Right to Development (United Nations 2015).
Of relevance, in this circumstance, is Sustainable Development Goal 7. The United Nations General Assembly dedicated a stand-alone goal for energy (SDG 7) to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” (United Nations, 2015). The principles underlying SDG 7 were profound and included, but not limited to, “greater protections from, and resilience to, climate change” (United Nations, 2015).
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has reviewed scientific research provided by agencies around the world and their own investigations to advise on climate issues. The IPCC concluded that the average temperature of the earth’s surface has risen by 0.6oC since the late 1800’s and it is expected to increase another 1.4 – 8oC by 2100. The main reason, according the WHO (2022), is a century and a half of industrialization. Moreover, the rise is consistent with excessive burning of oil, gas and coal, deforestation, and certain farming methods. But, it is not just the environment that suffers. WHO (2022) also reported that an estimated 150,000 deaths annually are due to climate change from extreme weather events, transmission patterns of disease, water-related disease, patterns of food production and more.
What is Renewable Energy
Energy is essential to society and underpins the global economy but renewable energy offers clean, abundant energy from self-renewing resources such as wind, earth, sun and plants (Bull, 2001), and it is a necessity for sustainable development (Østergaard et al., 2020). As there are many new forms of renewable energy, this article looks specifically at three main types of renewable energy – hydropower, solar thermal energy, and wind energy.
The U.S Energy Information Administration (EIA) describes hydropower as “one of the first sources of energy used for electricity generation.” In the United States, hydropower is the largest source of renewable electricity generation (EIA, 2021). Simply, hydropower, or hydroelectricity, is generated when water flows from rivers or streams and is channeled through water turbines. Rotating blades in the turbine drives an electrical generator converting the motion into electrical energy. It is the most advanced renewable energy technology for more than 160 countries worldwide and has advantages of low greenhouse gas emission, has a quick response to electricity demand and has low operating costs (EIA, 2021).
Solar Thermal Energy
Solar thermal energy is a technology that harnesses solar energy for heating; for example, when a dark surface is placed in sunshine, it absorbs solar energy and heats up. The solar collector transfers this energy to a working fluid such as water or air – the conversion of the radiant energy (energy distributed according to wavelength and spatial position) from the sun into heat (Arshad, 2017). This system of energy collection can be used for many purposes including cooking, water heating, and crop drying. It also has many benefits over traditional firewood and electric stoves (Bhatia, 2014). The advantages to reduction in greenhouse gas emissions are significant with over 38.4 million tons of CO2 being prevented each year (Arshad, 2017).
Wind energy / power is wind which is used to generate mechanical power or electricity. Wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in the wind into mechanical power, which is used for specific tasks (Energy.Gov, 2021). There are many scales of wind turbines depending upon the application; for example, residential use requires only small turbines to generate energy for the home requirements – less than 10kW. For small commercial-scale use approximately 10-50kW is typical in output but utility-scale wind energy (contributing 7.2% of the U.S. electricity supply in 2019) will exceed 1.4 – 7.5MW (Energy.Gov, 2021). The Wind Vision Study (Energy.Gov, 2021) reinforces that wind power is one of the fastest growing sources of new electricity supply and the largest renewable power generation in the United States since 2000. The Wind Vision Study goes further to apply a trajectory of 10% of the nation’s end use demand by wind power by 2020, 20% by 2030 and 35% by 2050. According to WWEA (2019) the overall capacity of wind turbines, worldwide, reached 597 Gigawatt (GW) by end 2018 – characterised by new dynamics with strong growth in market coming from China, India, Brazil and other Asian markets with some African countries making their mark in this emerging market.
What’s happening around the World
The Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2020 Report was commissioned by the United Nations Environment Programme (Economy Division) in cooperation with Frankfurt School – UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate & Sustainable Energy Finance and produced in collaboration with BloombergNEF. The key findings of the Report reflect the commitment of industry and government to mitigating climate change through renewable energy (UN Environment Programme, 2020). In summary, Government and major stakeholders, globally, committed to adding 826GW of new non-hydro renewable power capacity in the decade to 2030. This will be at a cost of $1 trillion. Albeit, the Covid-19 pandemic has slowed the process of deal-making in renewable energy, governments have now tailored their economic recovery programs to “accelerate the phase-out of polluting processes” for more cost-competitive, sustainable solutions in technology (UN Environment Programme, 2020).
Further data from the Report revealed that solar slipped 3% to $131.1 billion in 2019, but wind climbed 6% to $138.2 billion. This is the first time that wind outweighed solar in terms of dollars committed since 2010. Investments in offshore wind hit its highest level at $29.9 billion – up 19% (most notably in France & China) with the United States, edging ahead of Europe in terms of renewable investment in 2019. And, in 2019, renewable technologies raised their share of global generation to 13.4% from 12.4% in 2019 (just 5.9% in 2009). The Report concluded that “the amount of renewable electricity production in 2019 was sufficient enough to prevent the emission of an estimated 2.1 gigatons of CO2” (UN Environment Programme, 2020).
According to (Gielen et al., 2019), the Government of India has set an ambitious renewable energy target of 175GW by 2022, which includes 60GW of wind and 100GW of solar energy. This has been raised to 227GW by 2027 due to good progress on production. From a national consensus, Germany will abandon nuclear and reduce greenhouse gas emission by 80% by 2050 by accelerating their renewable energy. Furthermore, Brazil is driving biomass-based ethanol demand – paving the way for an innovative biofuel industry (Meyer et al., 2014).
The United States Forecast
Data provided by (Pimentel et al., 2002) indicated that the United States was facing an energy shortage and thus increasing energy prices as they had consumed from 82% to 88% of oil reserves. Forecasting suggested that (with a population of 285 million and growing each year) electricity produced annually would not support the country’s needs. At the time of (Pimentel et al., 2002) publication, renewable energy sources provided only 8% of United States needs and around 14% of the world needs. In 2020 however, the story is brighter with the consumption of renewable energy in the United States growing, with a record high of 12% of total energy consumption where fossil fuel and nuclear consumption declined (EIA, 2020a). According to EIA (2020a), of the five major sectors, wind energy accounts for approximately 26% of U.S. renewable energy consumption; hydroelectric power – about 22%; wood and waste energy account for approximately 22%; biofuel consumption around 17% and solar energy accounted for approximately 11% of renewable energy consumption in 2020. By the end of 2021, according to (EIA, 2021b), 31 states and the District of Columbia had committed to a renewable portfolio standard (clean energy standards). This commitment resulted in the states being legally bound to renewable portfolio standards in terms of carbon-free, carbon-neutral, renewables, or clean energy and accounted for 67% of total electricity.
The European Renewable Energy Council, Mapping Renewable Energy Pathways toward 2020 was published in 2011 with an aim to address energy security and climate change – the two biggest challenges globally (EREC, 2011). The Report concluded that it would take significant expertise and innovation, working collaboratively, to shift towards renewable energy and realise the benefits that such a shift would bring. To achieve this realization, according to EREC (2011), one third of Europe’s power would need to be generated from renewable sources of electricity for heating and transport and invest billions of euros into both the public and private sectors for a secure the future.
The European Commission is led by the Directorate-General for Climate Action and directs the efforts to fight climate change at both EU and international level (European Commission, 2021). The key targets, proposed in September 2020, were to raise the 2030 greenhouse gas emission reduction target (including emissions and removals) to 55% compared to 1990. The Renewable Energy Directive sets out a framework to achieve 20% energy saving by 2020 and, as a minimum, 32% of its renewable target by 2030. In order to achieve this goal, individual EU countries (having their own resources and unique energy markets) must meet obligations under the renewable energy directive – legally binding 2020 targets – set out in their national action plans and including ‘individual renewable energy targets for electricity, heating and cooling, and transport sectors’ and a ‘planned mix of different renewable technologies’ (European Commission, 2021).
Australia’s Policy on Renewable Energy
Since 1910, Australia’s land mass average temperature has increased by 1.44oC resulting in more frequent heat events, longer fire seasons and more extreme fire risk (CSIRO, 2020). Consequently, the change in climate is also heating and acidifying the oceans and impacting on Australia’s communities, regions, industry and ecosystems. These factors alone are driving the discourse on innovation, challenging investment and formulating adaption action.
Australia will play its role in achieving the Paris Agreement’s global goals including limiting global warming to below 2oC and reaching net zero emission by 2050 (ALTERP 2021). Australia’s Long Term Emission Reduction Plan aims to achieve net zero emission by 2050 and recognises that acting to reduce emissions is in the national and global interest. The Long Term Emission Reduction Plan focuses on new technologies whilst growing the economy including the creation of jobs. The Minister for Industry, Energy and Emission Reduction, The Hon Angus Taylor MP, stated that Australia had reduced emissions by more than 20% since 2005 as the economy grew by 45% and furthermore, that Australia had achieved it Kyoto-era targets by 459 million tons and it was expected that Australia would achieve the 2030 Paris target by up to 343 million tons (ALTERP, 2021). It is proposed that the Australian Government will invest more than $20 billion in low emissions technology by 2030 – $80 billion in total investment including the private sector and states (ALTERP, 2021). The Long Term Emission Reduction Plan furthers the effort on emission reduction by building new industries such as clean hydrogen that will benefit the country and global partners whilst adding to the economy. Research shows that hydrogen, renewable energy and minerals could create more than 100,000 new jobs, by 2050, in many Australian regions and create a net worth of more than $50 billion in 2050 and $85 billion in exports (ALTERP, 2021).
Renewable energy consumption in Australia is primarily biomass, hydro, wind and solar energy with use for electricity generation (60% of total renewable energy use in 2019-2020) with strong growth in solar and wind generation (a rise of 5%) used for electricity (DISER, 2021). The greatest change has been in the growth of wind and solar energy use over the past decade with a combined growth of 40% of all renewable energy consumption between 2019-2020 – up 13% on a decade ago, according to DISER (2021). It should be noted that, despite a decline of 8% in 2019-2020 of bagasse (the remnant sugar cane pulp left after crushing) due to smaller crop sizes, it remained a significant source of renewable energy with 20% contribution to the total renewable energy use in 2019-2020 (DISER, 2021).
Australia is going through massive changes in the way it supplies and uses energy. These changes are underpinned by sound policy and investment decisions. The Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources (DISER) is charged with compiling and publishing data on energy statistics and balances. Its most recent report was published in September 2021 and advised that; Australia’s energy consumption had contracted by 0.3% in 2019-2020 to $1.9 trillion as the population grew by 1.3 %(25.7 million people); renewable generation increased by 15 %between 2019 -2020 (7%); and in total, renewable generation grew to 24 %further in the calendar year. DISER (2021) also demonstrated that solar PV, in particular large scale solar PV, was the “fastest growing generation type in both 2019-2020 and the 2020 calendar.” Promising signs of change in renewables.
The Clean Energy Council is a not-for-profit, peak-body, committed to transforming Australia’s energy system to a cleaner and smarter industry. The Council’s membership is advocates for change – “to influence and accelerate the take-up of clean energy in Australia” (Clean Energy Council, 2021). Australia is at a point in energy transformation where crucial decisions must be made for the future of energy. The Council explores issues and the role of renewable energy in Australia. The Connections Reform Initiative is a project by the Clean Energy Council and the Australian Energy Market Operator. The project highlights five priorities – from complex issues to improving electrical grid connections – with an aim to find solutions and implementation strategies. Technical challenges are also present in evolving areas such as distribution of energy resources that include generation and maintaining voltage, access and equity. According to the Clean Energy Council (2021), renewable electrical transmission must be efficient in connection and operation. It ‘requires an agile, strategic, timely and coordinated approach’ for optimal grid operation.
Hydropower in Australia
Australia is one of the driest continents on earth with over 80% of its landmass receiving less than 600 mm or rain per year and high variability in rainfall evaporation rates (Geoscience, Australia, 2021). Due to this factor alone, Australia has already harnessed most of its hydropower – that is economically feasible. There are more than 100 operating hydroelectric power stations totalling approximately 7800MW. Australia’s largest hydro scheme is in The Snowy Mountains in Victoria and has a capacity of 3800MW – described as ‘one of the civil engineering wonders of the modern world (Snowyhydro, 2020) with nine power stations, 16 major dams, 80 kilometres of aqueducts and 145 kilometres of interconnected tunnels. The Snowy Scheme accounts for more than half of Australia’s total hydroelectricity generation capacity to the eastern mainland grid of Australia.
Concentrated Solar Thermal Energy in Australia (CST)
The benefit of concentrated solar thermal is that the heat can be stored (cost-effectively) for long periods of time with little loss of energy. As a result, the energy can be used for electricity generation without the sun shining (ARENA, 2021). Globally, this form of electricity production incorporates 3-15 hours of thermal energy storage. In Australia, there has been little use for CST as it competes (and not competitive) with solar PV and wind, making the cost of CST high. But this may change as the world’s first dispatchable Raygen solar thermal plant is to be built in Victoria (a State of Australia). This locally developed technology uses the sun’s rays to generate and store electricity while also capturing heat created by the process to provide thermal energy storage (ARENAWIRE, 2021). AGENAWIRE (2021) describes RayGen (product name) as a “low cost, large scale, long duration energy storage system.” This is a vision of an investment of $42 million in capital, shared by private investment of $27 million. A vision to accelerate the global transition to decarbonised energy using innovative technology (AREANWIRE, 2021).
Wind Energy in Australia
According to ARENA (2021), wind energy is one of Australia’s main sources of renewable energy with 94 wind farms across the continent delivering approximately 15GW of wind generation capacity in 2018. In Australia’s fight to support the global transmission to net zero emissions, the vision is to accelerate the pace of pre-commercial innovation that will benefit consumers, business and create employment. This will be achieved through investment, knowledge, and people – building the foundation of a renewable energy ecosystem in Australia (ARENA, 2021). Consequently, ARENA (2021) estimates that Australia will cut its greenhouse gas emission by almost 3,256,000 tons each year with increased wind energy.
AUSTRALIA’S BAGASSE: RECYCLING CROP RESIDUE
A case study, undertaken by Green Energy Australia (2022), looked at the sugar mill industry and the benefits to the environment in using bagasse (as an ecologically sustainable energy source. Sugar cane is one of Australia’s pioneering rural industries and has been recycling crop residue to produce heat and electricity for over 100 year (Green Energy Regulator, 2022). The by-product of sugar cane is known as bagasse – a fibrous material that is left over after the sugar cane is crushed and the juice is extracted. The waste that is generated from the process is used for onsite power in the sugar making process – a huge benefit that enables the sugar mills to be self-sufficient in terms of their energy generation (Clean Energy Regulator, 2022). The most important benefit is that bagasse results in zero greenhouse gas emission plus its use avoids the transport of waste material off-site or leaving it to rot creating methane emission.
The Clean Energy Regulator (2022) – an independent statutory authority, states that ’28 renewable power stations are accredited with bagasse as their renewable fuel source, with a combined capacity of 539 MW. But more importantly, bagasse will produce ‘green’ energy that will reduce Australia’s emissions by over 1.5 million tons each year (The Clean Energy Regulator, 2022). According to (Rabelo et al., 2015) bagasse is ‘burned with very low energy efficiency’ resulting in the production of electric energy. At present however, sugar cane still requires some burning of the straw but it is hoped that in the future, sugarcane can be used more completely (Rabelo et al., 2015) adding to Australia’s commitment and renewable energy uptake.
From the research undertaken for this article, there is sufficient evidence to show that fossil fuels contribute to climate change and similarly, as the world’s population continues to increase, so too does the demand for non-renewable resources – currently pushing the environment to destruction. Energy is central to humanity’s existence and with it comes enormous challenges and opportunities. To adapt to climate change, ensure food security, health, and education together with the creation of sustainable cities, it is crucial that we work as a collective and look to a future of environmentally friendly sources of energy. Access to these energy resources must also be available to the most remote space on the planet.
Australia has vast mineral wealth with an economy that is dependent on these minerals for export. It is categorised as a primary sector industry and contributes billions of dollars to the economy. Since the time of the gold rush (1800’s) the mineral boom has underpinned Australia’s growth and prosperity. But a new industry is forecasted: An industry that will support the economy through the export of new technologies and implementation of renewable energy programs. The current Morrison Government in Australia has made a commitment to deliver net zero emission by 2050 (DISER, 2021). This will require an economic transformation that would affect all sectors of the economy and place additional demands on capital spending, and employment – but it will be worth the effort for all of humanity and our environment.
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