Article:

The (slow) rise of renewables

20 June 2019

Following the recent BDO Global Natural Resources Conference in London, I took the opportunity to revisit my old stomping grounds in the north of England to catch up with family and friends.

The north of England has some wild weather, perfect for driving wind turbines, and as I drove through the old Yorkshire coalfields, I was able to witness firsthand the UK’s transition away from fossil-fired electricity.

The coal-fired power stations were pumping out far less smoke from the stacks I recall from my childhood trips to Lincolnshire. All around the Yorkshire moors (which once rang to the sound of colliery brass bands) were dozens of wind turbines, signalling the new dawn of electricity generation as the UK increases gas and nuclear energy, as well as energy production from renewable sources such as bio-energy and waste, solar, wind and hydro.

In the past year, coal capacity has fallen by one-quarter, with now only six coal-fired plants left in the UK.

But why has the move to renewables been so slow?

Although experiencing steady declines for both coal and fossil fuel generated power over the past 20 years, the transition to renewable energy has been slow. This slow transition is not from a lack of desire, and certainly not from lack of funds, but rather from the issue of grid technology. This same issue will affect the Australian grid and our move to renewable energy production.

The main problem surrounding grid technology is that original electricity infrastructure did not intend for electricity to move in two directions. While it is not impossible for electricity to flow backwards, it is tricky for networks to manage the grid on a technological level, especially when there is a lot of distributed electricity feeding back into the grid in the same area.

As a result, network configurations and equipment investments become necessary to maintain grid stability and reduce risks - raising the question of who should pay for these investments. AEMO released an integrated system plan in 2018, which was seen as a great first step in helping to coordinate a national approach, identifying large scale renewable energy zones and the network upgrades necessary to bring them to fruition.

Another factor influencing the slow transition to renewables is electricity storage. Original electricity infrastructure cannot store the excess power generated by large scale solar during the day and release it for use at night, once the sun has set. While there are a number of potential pumped hydro sites across the nation mapped out, many of these lack an existing connection to the grid.

What does this mean for Australia?

Until networks are upgraded and large-scale electricity storage can be economically developed, the rise of renewables will remain slow for both UK and Australia, and regions across the globe.

BDO’s Natural Resources team has deep industry experience in all of the world’s renewable energy, mining and oil and gas centres to help you navigate complex landscapes both at home and abroad.  For more information regarding renewable energy, please don’t hesitate to contact a member of our team.