Renewables surge in new Australian energy data despite political inertia

As the country's politicians continue to back fossil fuels, including the Morrison government’s expensive Kurri Kurri gas plant, its energy market moves towards green sources.

Renewables provided five times more power to Australia’s largest energy grid than gas in 2021 and reached record high usage in all mainland states, according to new research from the Climate Council. Gas fell to its lowest usage level in the National Electricity Market (NEM) in more than 15 years despite almost no change in electricity demand, said the council on Thursday, providing just 1.5 percent of NSW’s power in the year. 

The findings come despite the approval of a widely-criticised gas-fired power station in the Upper Hunter by the Federal government just this week, which will cost $600 million for taxpayers. While gas releases half the emissions of coal when burned, its production processes produce fugitive emissions that contribute vast amounts of methane to the atmosphere, which warms it around 80 times more than carbon dioxide. Climate Council Senior Researcher Tim Baxter says the Coalition’s ‘gas-fired recovery’ makes ‘zero commercial sense’ when solar, wind and batteries are making electricity prices cheaper than they have been in almost a decade. 

“Gas is expensive, polluting, and diminishing in importance and relevance as the rest of the world moves towards net zero, and our own states and territories rapidly roll-out large-scale renewable energy and storage,” said Climate Councilor and energy expert Greg Bourne.   

Labor also backed the Kurri Kurri plan earlier this week, under the condition it be powered by 30% hydrogen by the time it is operational. According to USyd Enviro Officer Tiger Perkins, this is driven by the fact the largest political donors to both the ALP and Coalition each year are fossil fuel companies, totalling around $1.3 million in 2020’s financial year. 

Experts from Victoria University have highlighted that a plant running on 30% hydrogen would not only be a wasteful use of hydrogen, but require the expensive reconstruction of the plant itself, whose turbines are designed to accommodate a maximum 15% of hydrogen.

“The Labor party, in an attempt to catch moderate-liberal and centre-right votes, has the apparent strategy of doing everything the liberal party does but just 1-5% more left-wing so as not to lose swing voters positioned between the two major parties,” says Perkins. “The result, however, is that Labor appears unwilling to take a strong stance on any issue, be it social or economic.” 

Energy giant AGL also announced it will bring forward the closure of two of its biggest coal plants by at least three years this week, responding to market shifts towards renewable sources of electricity. In an earnings statement to the ASX on Thursday, the company, recently named Australia’s biggest polluter, revealed a 41% reduction in underlying-profit-after-tax on the same time last year, totalling $194 million. 

AGL says it will shut the Loy Yang A coal-fired power station in Victoria’s East and the Bayswater station in NSW’s Hunter Valley at least three years ahead of schedule, between 2030 and 2035. But environmental groups have been quick to slam the closures as not coming soon enough, as renewables drive electricity prices down.

Building plans for Kurri Kurri will be delayed until after the federal election this year.