No energy transition without transmission

Published 16 September 2021

The Australian

It has been dubbed the “energy transition” but what we’re experiencing is a revolution. Coal-fired generators, once the mainstay of our system, are being replaced by new, clean renewable generation. Solar farms, wind farms, battery storage and home systems are driving this new movement.

Change is coming faster than anyone anticipated.

Whenever this upheaval is discussed, you’ll see soaring aerial shots of solar panels and windfarms in lush, green fields. There’s an uprising. The old coal kingdoms are being toppled and these images are the flag-bearers’ emblems. It’s right that they are.

Ninety cents in every dollar invested in generation since 2012 has been in wind and solar. Australia leads the world in installing renewable generation per capita. Per person, we’re installing double the rate of our nearest rival, Germany – about 10 times the world average. But how we transport these green electrons into the grid is a difficult issue. Most windfarms are near the coast, most solar deep inland.

We’re a clever industry, but we still can’t beam the electricity across the sky without the necessary transmission lines.

And therein lies the problem.

Our transmission system was built to service coal fired generators in regions close to mines. The system of the future requires new transmission to bring the renewable energy from the coast and country to where it’s needed.

The transmission in regional areas, built for a bygone era, was never designed for renewable generation hubs. Already, there is congestion at different points of the grid and this is projected to get worse in the coming years causing constraints, preventing clean energy generated at zero marginal cost from getting to homes and businesses.

It’s essential we act now.

Meeting our emissions reductions targets depends on it, those developing clean electricity need to know they can connect. The concept is simple enough to understand. While they’re less likely to be featured on a postcard, transmission lines are critical to reaching our climate change targets.

As our electricity generation increasingly relies on variable renewables, more transmission, especially between states, will help keep the lights on when the wind isn’t blowing, or the sun isn’t shining. New transmission is also key to providing resilience in the power system, particularly in a changing climate where extreme weather events are more likely to disrupt supply.

In a very real sense, there’s no transition without transmission.

The benefits of new transmission to Australia are immense and diffuse, cheaper energy for families and households, cheaper energy for small business and major industry. And our carbon emissions will reduce significantly when new generation replaces the old. It’s critically important that as a nation we recognise the need and act.

Generation is changing quickly and so are our patterns of consumption. While demand is growing only slowly, how we consume energy is changing. Electric vehicles are a game changer. Distributed energy from homes will also alter how we need to think about the system. And as coal-fired generators come offline, we need to manage without their giant spinning turbines that keep the system stable.

But importantly, regional Australia which hosts the generation and the new transmission will need to be compensated, directly and by sharing in the prosperity of these new industries. This must occur while farming occurs alongside, maintaining the lifestyles and essential industries about which rural areas are rightly proud.

For farmers, hosting transmission can provide an upfront windfall or a second income stream, supporting and stabilising their businesses through difficult periods. The Australian Energy Market Operator succinctly articulated what the system needs in its Integrated System Plan last year.

It’s now beholden on the nation to get behind that plan. Australia has the potential to be an energy superpower, blessed with our abundance of renewable resources.

But there is also the potential to fall behind other nations.

The United States has estimated it needs to triple its transmission infrastructure to decarbonise by 2050. Germany has been a world leader in renewables construction but is now facing the problem of how to transport that power to population centres with its ageing transmission system.

It’s not a unique problem, but one that must be faced.

Committing to the transmission system of the future will bring more affordable, reliable and cleaner energy for all Australians.

We may never learn to love powerlines.

But if Australia wants to fight climate change and enjoy the benefits of a modern economy, we need to get on with building electricity transmission.