“Silver Buckshot” for Energy Transition
by Dr Catriona Nguyen-Robertson MRSV
This article revisits Simon Holmes à Court’s presentation to the Royal Society of Victoria and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (Victorian Division) in July 2021, and discusses where we are two years on.
Climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying. In 2022, the global mean surface temperature was around 1.15°C warmer than the pre-industrial baseline1.
We are already beginning to experience the drastic impacts of climate change, and it will be the only reality that our children, and their children, ever know. Every child will inherit a planet with more frequent extreme weather events than ever before. It is they who will be saddled with the consequences of our decisions, and our actions (or rather, our inaction).
Multiple estimates strongly suggest that we will cross the alarming global warming level line of 1.5°C in the 2030s2,3. Unless there are immediate, rapid, and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to 1.5°C – or even 2°C – will be beyond our reach.
As we endeavour to become more sustainable, energy transition towards more renewable sources is accelerating. Solar and wind energy are replacing coal. Australia had installed more renewable generation infrastructure in the three years leading up to 2020 than the thirty years prior. While these are positive steps, Australia also has the highest per-capita greenhouse gas emissions of any other advanced economy, and is nowhere near close to reaching its Paris Agreement goals.
Global greenhouse gas emissions continued to increase in 20221. In Victoria alone, over 2 million people use gas in their homes and businesses – more than any other state or territory4. The Victorian gas sector contributes to around 17% of our state’s net greenhouse gas emissions and must play its part in reducing emissions over time4.
How Can We Turn This Around?
For political activist Simon Holmes à Court, it began with a house he built in Daylesford. Off the main power grid, it was powered by a solar battery. While the battery would be fully charged by early morning during summer, he found that had to rely heavily on his diesel backup in winter – not ideal from a renewable energy point of view. He wanted to use wind power instead.
Simon and others in the local community formed a cooperative, Hepburn Wind, with the goal of powering the area with wind energy. Somehow, Simon accidentally became the Founding Chair at their first meeting. Within 24 months, they had raised $10 million for two wind turbines called Gale and Gusto. In 2011, Gale and Gusto were connected to the grid as Australia’s first community-owned wind farm, producing enough clean energy for over 2000 homes. At the centre of the project, Simon became determined to see renewable energy projects being rolled out across Victoria and the rest of the country.
The Victorian government’s Gas Substitution Roadmap, released in July 2022, is a step in the right direction4. By removing outdated laws that forced new homes to connect to gas, and increasing thermal efficiency standards, our homes will be easier to heat and cool without heavily relying on gas. However, this roadmap should have also included more urgent investment in electrification across Victoria to support our state’s transition away from gas. If we are to move away from gas, we need alternate options.
There is no silver bullet for carbon change.
With buildings switching from gas to electricity, it becomes increasingly imperative that our electricity comes from sustainable sources. The 2017 Finkel Report determined that the electricity sector was Australia’s largest source of pollution, accounting for 35% of our greenhouse gas emissions5. The Report also acts as a blueprint to take us in a different direction by ramping up renewables and energy storage uptake. Simon was heartened that it showed coal rapidly being phased out as Australia transitioned to other sources of energy, with wind and solar becoming the champions.
But for times when ‘the wind doesn’t blow and the sun don’t shine’, we will still need to rely on dispatchable generation to keep the lights on. Just like food, energy can come in “fresh” or “frozen” forms – either being fed directly into the grid and used as it is produced, or being stored in power systems that can be turned on and off. Moving forward, Simon hopes that we will rely on solar batteries and hydro power as clean forms of “frozen” energy.
Australia has three pumped storage hydro schemes that can provide several days to a week’s worth of energy in a pinch. But we have so few as the infrastructure to support hydropower needs to be bespoke, and placed where it has access to the grid but in an area that is not environmentally sensitive. Instead, it is easier and cheaper to produce solar panels as they are simply copies of each other. Australia now has the highest adoption of rooftop solar per capita, plus they are highly effective here. According to Simon, even if a solar panel is placed on the wrong (south-facing) side of an Australian house, it will still generate more electricity than one in Germany. It therefore makes both environmental and economic sense for us to shift to solar energy.
With a shift to solar and wind energy and decrease in coal usage, the electricity sector is reducing carbon emissions. However, the gains in this sector are being overwhelmed by emissions from others. Simon therefore advocates for a reduction across the whole economy: ‘we should electrify everything and move to 100% renewables,’ he says.
The transport industry is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Compared to other developed nations, Australia’s standards for fuel quality, efficiency, and emissions are well behind. With population growth, more people are using cars with poor standards – it is unsurprising that emissions are on the rise.
Australians want to change, but it is difficult without legislative support. More than half of Australians consider an electric vehicle as their next car6, but there simply are not enough in the country to sell. Although there is high demand, electric vehicle sales represented only 3.2% of new car sales last year7. Manufacturers prioritise countries that will penalise them if their product does not meet certain fuel efficiency standards – and that’s not Australia. Setting fuel efficiency standards would help drive a push towards electric transport.
Public transport is also a sustainable way to get around Victoria, and transitioning its energy source will mean that they are even more environmentally friendly. Last year, the Victorian Government flicked on the switch of 200 solar panels in the Southbank depot to power the Yarra Trams network. New solar panels across seven depots are expected to cut carbon emissions by up to 350 tonnes and excess power will be fed back into the network.
We have much to learn from other countries that have spent the past decade, not thinking about whether they should transition, but how they could.
But we cannot stop there: we need to approach reducing our carbon emissions from every angle possible. ‘There is no silver bullet for carbon change,’ says Simon, quoting Bill McKibben. ‘Only silver buckshot – we need a combination of many transitions, not in the electricity sector alone’.
Simon believes that we have much to learn from other countries that have much more advanced thinking in this space as they have spent the past decade, not thinking about whether they should transition, but how they could.
Emerging Australian projects demonstrate that we, too, can be leaders in energy transition. The Tasmanian Government’s Renewable Hydrogen Industry Development Funding program envisages the construction of one of the world’s largest green hydrogen plants. Hydrogen is a budding fuel choice for countries seeking to decarbonise their economies, and Tasmania is on track to be a global leader in green hydrogen production by 2030. At the end of February 2022, the Tasmanian Government proposed a legislative change to enable Tasmanian irrigation to supply bulk raw water to the Tasmanian Green Hydrogen Hub. With farmers and green hydrogen working together, Tasmania could produce renewable hydrogen for domestic use and for export around the world.
A second project that Simon was excited for in 2021 was the Sun Cable Australia-Asia PowerLink project that aims to build the largest solar energy infrastructure network in the world. The company’s existing plans are to build a solar farm and battery storage facility in one of the most reliably sunny places on the planet in the Northern Territory by the end of the decade. The original goal was to supply Darwin and Singapore with reliable renewable energy via a 4,500km transmission system (including 3,750km of sub-sea cable). However, at the beginning of this year, Sun Cable was placed into voluntary administration after a falling-out between its two financial backers. The Chair of Sun Cable is adamant that the project will still go ahead, however its vision no longer includes funnelling renewable energy all the way to Singapore via a cable that would cost about $35 billion. The news is a blow to global decarbonisation efforts given that Singapore is extremely land-constrained and would not be able to house a 12,000-hectare network of solar arrays itself. Nonetheless, the project will hopefully still deliver reliable, 24/7 renewable energy to the Northern Territory.
Victoria is taking promising steps forward too, having started the formal re-establishment of the State Energy Commission (SEC), decades after the privatisation of state-owned electricity assets. An initial investment of $1 billion will be spent to deliver 4.5GW of power through renewable energy projects so that 95% of Victoria’s electricity can be sourced from renewable energy by 2035.
As Australia becomes a renewable energy superpower with these projects and more, the cost of energy will fall. As Simon points out, the plans and technologies exist, but if we are to reach our Paris Agreement targets, we need the political and financial support as well as coordination between sectors and governments. We have so much potential to be world leaders in energy transition as we fire “silver buckshot” to hit net zero.
Simon Holmes à Court’s presentation ‘Decarbonising Energy: At the Tipping Point’ is available to watch now on the RSV’s YouTube channel: in brief at youtu.be/5-JZDBAGXO4 or in full at youtu.be/qtpHVBgozA8.
- World Meteorological Organization (WMO), ‘Provisional State of the Global Climate in 2022’, 2022, storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/5417cd9148c248c0985a5b6d028b0277
- Climate Council, ‘Aim High, Go Fast: why emissions need to plummet this decade’, 2021, climatecouncil.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/aim-high-go-fast-why-emissions-must-plummet-climate-council-report.pdf
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ‘Assessment Report 6 Synthesis Report’, 2023, ipcc.ch/report/ar6/syr/
- Department of Energy, Environment and Climate Action, ‘Victoria’s Gas Substitution Roadmap’, 2022, energy.vic.gov.au/renewable-energy/victorias-gas-substitution-roadmap
- Finkel A et al., ‘Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market – Blueprint for the Future’, Commonwealth of Australia, June 2017, energy.gov.au/publications/independent-review-future-security-national-electricity-market-blueprint-future
- Electric Vehicle Council, ‘Consumer Attitudes Survey 2021’ 2021, electricvehiclecouncil.com.au/reports/consumer-attitudes-survey-2021/
- Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI), ‘FCAI releases 2022 new car sales data’, 2023, fcai.com.au/news/index/view/news/787https://www.education.gov.au/higher-education-statistics/resources/2021-staff-numbers