Game changer: This Australian state is moving rapidly to renewable energy and battery storage — minus fossil fuel backup

Climate Energy

Game changer: This Australian state is moving rapidly to renewable energy and battery storage — minus fossil fuel backup

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New technology may provide the missing link to an all-renewable energy future.

The state of South Australia, inland west of Melbourne, is a global leader in the move from coal-generated energy to wind and solar with large-scale battery storage. It went from no renewable energy to 60% supply in just 14 years

Energy experts now say the state is ready to try quitting fossil fuels altogether and moving to become what is possibly the world’s first gigawatt-scale energy grid operating without synchronous generation. 

What’s that you say? Synchronous generation is the product of the technology used to generate electricity with high inertia to ensure a consistent frequency, most commonly the burning of coal and gas. Variable renewable energy and battery storage don’t need the same systems and have more flexible systems, using power electronics, artificial intelligence and telecommunications.  

A new kind of zero-emissions, zero-inertia electricity system is possible

“Without big traditional power plants, a new kind of zero-emissions, zero-inertia electricity system is possible,” said Dr. Gabrielle Kuiper, with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA). “In fact, this will be more flexible, and if we manage the transition, easier to operate — kind of like driving an electric motorbike instead of a lumbering diesel truck over curly terrain.”

According to the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), renewable energy has accounted for 64% of South Australia’s locally-generated energy for the past year, RenewEconomy reported. That amount is the highest from wind and solar — without hydro or geothermal — for any jurisdiction over a million people, anywhere in the world. 

This is a world-first operation

AEMO said it is now possible to move away from fossil fuel backup energy to batteries with pumped hydro or synchronous condensers that can provide consistent frequency whenever needed. In the future, new smart inverter technologies capable of providing “grid-forming” services, meaning that they can provide the strength needed to maintain grid security, are expected to make the move from fossil fuel backup even easier. 

“Without big traditional power plants, a new kind of zero-emissions, zero-inertia electricity system is possible.” 

“Initial desktop studies for grid formation and grid reference show [the] South Australian system could theoretically be capable of ‘holding together’ without synchronous generators,” AEMO said in a new presentation published earlier in March and reported by Renew. “Further desktop studies and real-time tests [are] required as this is [a] world-first operation.”

See our related story: Elon Musk’s Tweet changed Australia’s Energy Future

Ironically, AEMO said that the amount of rooftop solar and other distributed energy resources, which is at times meeting nearly all of South Australia’s energy demand, make the transition away from a synchronous generation more complex due to issues such as daytime power loading.

A new $100 million funding round has been established by AEMO to develop at least three new big batteries that can provide “grid forming” services. These systems can rapidly deliver energy as needed from the renewable energy and battery system.

If successful, South Australia will be showing the world that it’s possible to leap off of coal and gas generation and operate new renewable energy systems without the risk of power outages. In a time when the need for clean, secure and locally-generated energy is crucial, all eyes will be on this state’s efforts to show if it can be done.

Written by

Blair Palese

Blair Palese is a writer and project manager on a range of climate change projects. In 2009, she cofounded 350.org Australia and was its CEO for 10 years. Previously, she was a communications director for Greenpeace International and Greenpeace USA, head of international public relations for the Body Shop, editor-in-chief of Greenpages magazine, and worked at Washington Monthly and ABC.