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Wind farm

Let’s talk clean energy systems

In any discussion around global warming and net-zero emissions, it seems inevitable that the term clean energy will be mentioned.

And while it may seem overused, it is a notion we need to grasp on a national and global scale as we move toward the use of cleaner energy systems and attempt to extend the longevity of the planet.

Why the focus on energy?

The simple answer is, if we are to limit global warming by a total of 1.5 degrees, we must make deep cuts into our production of CO2 emissions.

The energy sector is a massive emitter so if we are serious about global warming, we have to look at changes to how we generate power and how we use energy.

The undeniable largest emitters of CO2 are coal-fired and diesel power stations. In WA, most of our power generation comes from gas as a fuel, however we do still have some large base load coal plants and we use a significant amount of diesel for power in remote communities and mine sites.

While gas-fired power generation is not considered “clean energy,” it produces about 50% less emissions than power generated from coal.

At the recent launch of a study by Wood Mackenzie on the future of gas in WA the state’s Minister for Energy, Bill Johnston, highlighted that our reliance on gas rather than coal means that we already have a much lower carbon intensity in our power generation sector than the eastern states, which is still heavily reliant upon coal.

The Minister also noted at the event, organised by Cannings Purple on behalf of DomGas Alliance, that the State Government has closed the Muja AB coal power station in Collie with two further Muja units due for closure within the next few years.

The power sector is in a state of transformation to a much cleaner, low emissions future.

Solar and wind

Renewable generation is already a key element across WA’s power generation infrastructure.

Research by the Clean Energy Council showed that wind and solar operations provided almost a third (31.5%) of the electricity consumed across Perth and the South West in the 12 months to July 2021.

And with all state-owned coal-fired power stations to be closed by 2025, wind and solar are likely to make up an even bigger proportion of WA’s energy mix.

In 2020, the state government released its first Whole of System Plan, providing a 20-year outlook on the future of the South West Interconnected System (SWIS), the power grid that services most of the state’s population.

That policy document modelled four future scenarios, with each including an expectation that renewables would account for at least 70 per cent of generation capacity by 2040.

Wind was the preferred form of large-scale capacity, with the highest-demand scenario to require more than 3,000MW of wind generation capacity added to the network over the next two decades.

At a consumer level, roof-top solar, otherwise known as the shiny panels on your or your neighbour’s roof, is now responsible for approximately 1400MW of power capacity in the SWIS.

WA households added 191MW of generation capacity to rooftops in 2021, with more than 400,000 homes and businesses having rooftop solar connected to the state’s main grid.

This achievement cannot be understated and is roughly equivalent to amount of power generated from Collie’s coal-fired stations.

Other initiatives around rooftop solar include a commitment to install solar generation systems on the rooftops of hundreds of WA’s public schools, while customers in remote and rural locations will be allowed to use standalone power systems.

The WA government also introduced a neighbourhood batteries policy in 2020, allowing for excess solar electricity generated during the day to be used at night, or shared with neighbours.

Naturally as more solar comes on, the need for coal-fired power will be reduced further and further.

Being one of the windiest locations in Australia is another of our natural advantages, which is starting to pay off.

WA has one of the most reliable wind resources in the world, and there is considerable momentum building in the wind energy space.

At the end of 2020, WA had 22 operational wind farms, with a collective 345 wind turbines producing 621MW of electricity, equivalent to 11 per cent of the state’s power generation needs.

New projects are also significantly adding to that capacity.

The state’s largest wind energy project, the 214MW Yandin wind farm near Dandaragan, around 175km north of Perth, was opened midway through last year, while around the same time, an international consortium also proposed to build the nation’s biggest renewable energy hub in the Goldfields and the Shire of Dundas.

That proposal, which is known as the Western Green Energy Hub and is estimated to cost $100 billion to develop, will comprise a large-scale hybrid wind and solar project that could produce up to 50GW at full capacity.

More recently, billionaire Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group unveiled plans in February to build a 5.4GW wind and solar project to power its iron ore operations in the Pilbara.

The FMG proposal comprises 340 wind turbines and vast arrays of solar panels over a 25 square kilometre area in the Pilbara.

But while both solar and wind are effective forms of zero emissions energy which are gaining traction, the big issue is that they are not continuous and this can cause reliability issues for the grid, unless there is a ‘firm’ source of power to back them up.

This is where gas comes into the picture.

Gas-fired power stations and WA have a deep history, with operations running for decades.

All our major iron ore mines, most large gold mines, and the alumina industry run on gas-fired plants.

We also have large gas-fired power stations in the South West that provide energy and essential support services to the grid – at Kwinana, Neerabup, Pinjar, Pinjarra, Geraldton and Kalgoorlie.

These all have a significant role to play in WA’s energy future by continuing to provide that essential ‘firming’ energy supply, delivering power through the times when there is no wind, or after the sun goes down.

The energy transition

Wood Mackenzie’s report reinforced the view that gas plays a vital role for WA and will continue to do so for some decades. By providing firming and back-up to the grid, gas allows increasing amounts of renewable energy to enter the grid, and this displaces coal.

So, as we move down the clean energy path, we will continue to see more renewable energy in WA, coal being phased out within a decade, and gas playing the crucial balancing role.

In time, battery storage will begin to displace gas in providing that back up and firming role, but it is not yet commercially viable at an industrial scale.

Hydrogen will also begin to play a role later in this decade as a source of fuel for power generation, likely to be blended with gas initially, but later as a heat source for minerals processing.

With many of the major players in the mining, mineral processing and upstream oil and gas sectors committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050, or earlier, which is essential to limit the impact of global warming, WA will certainly play its part in this important transition.

About the author

Bree Liddell is Cannings Purple’s Government Relations Associate Consultant. With a broad range of working knowledge and experience writing for local members and government, Bree is perfectly placed to assist clients in navigating government processes, policy and approvals. Contact Bree.

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