Energy

Five solar farms, each as big as Tasmania: Australia's path to net zero

Five solar farms, each as big as Tasmania: Australia's path to net zero
An indication of how much land mass would be needed for solar power in a decarbonized 2060 version of Australia that maintains its energy exports
An indication of how much land mass would be needed for solar power in a decarbonized 2060 version of Australia that maintains its energy exports
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An indication of how much land mass would be needed for solar power in a decarbonized 2060 version of Australia that maintains its energy exports
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An indication of how much land mass would be needed for solar power in a decarbonized 2060 version of Australia that maintains its energy exports
Two different scenarios in which Australia can maintain its energy outputs. The middle represents hydrogen-based clean fuel exports, and the right represents the country doing its own iron and aluminum ore refinement onshore
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Two different scenarios in which Australia can maintain its energy outputs. The middle represents hydrogen-based clean fuel exports, and the right represents the country doing its own iron and aluminum ore refinement onshore
Australian Native Title determinations as at April 1, 2022
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Australian Native Title determinations as at April 1, 2022
Commercial-scale solar and lithium battery storage will both scale up sharply
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Commercial-scale solar and lithium battery storage will both scale up sharply
Australia's export breakdown as of 2020
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Australia's export breakdown as of 2020
The projected scale of solar PV land use
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The projected scale of solar PV land use is absolutely epic
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Australia has a lot of sun and desert space, positioning the country well to continue being an energy exporter in the net zero era. But the renewable assets it'll need to build to get there are absolutely epic in scale, according to a new report.

The country has long sustained its economy on natural resources. Its number one commodity is iron ore, representing nearly a third of all exports, but its coal and gas sales into Asia and India make up a further quarter of the country's export profile. These dirty fossil fuel dollars have an expiry date on them, but the country's huge expanses of hot desert represent an opportunity both to power Australia itself, and to replace coal and gas exports with renewably generated clean fuels.

So what does that look like? A Net Zero Australia research partnership between the University of Melbourne, University of Queensland, Princeton University and the Nous Group consultancy has put together a range of possible scenarios for 2050 – when both the federal government and the states have committed to net-zero domestic emissions.

The group's first interim report indicates that even in the absence of advanced nuclear power, renewables will produce enough energy for domestic use, creating between 1-1.3 million new jobs, primarily in the north of the country.

Australia's export breakdown as of 2020
Australia's export breakdown as of 2020

Domestic energy demand is surprisingly projected to decline slightly, rather than rising with expected population growth, due to the efficiencies gained through electrification. And much more investment in energy will be required – 50-70% more than sticking with fossil fuels, although the report notes that the costs of inaction on this front would be "substantial."

In all the group's scenarios, commercial-scale solar arrays and battery storage will need to ramp up sharply, and some level of carbon capture and storage will be needed to offset sectors like agriculture, which will not be possible to fully decarbonize.

The country's 15-odd exajoules' worth of energy exports will need to move to hydrogen derivatives, chiefly ammonia unless cheaper storage and transport options are developed to commercial scale. The report finds that Australia should be able to compete with other exporters despite its geographical isolation.

Two different scenarios in which Australia can maintain its energy outputs. The middle represents hydrogen-based clean fuel exports, and the right represents the country doing its own iron and aluminum ore refinement onshore
Two different scenarios in which Australia can maintain its energy outputs. The middle represents hydrogen-based clean fuel exports, and the right represents the country doing its own iron and aluminum ore refinement onshore

And there's an opportunity for the country to start processing its own iron and aluminum ores onshore using renewable energy, to begin exporting clean refined metals – a value-added energy export, if you like, that could end up dwarfing straight clean fuel exports in terms of income.

But as big as the opportunities are in this space, the scale of the renewable energy projects required – particularly the solar arrays – boggles the mind. To replace its current energy exports, the report estimates Australia will need to build out renewables to around 40 times the capacity of today's entire national energy market.

That'll require some 132 GW of onshore wind, 42 GW of offshore wind, and a monstrous 1.9 TW of solar photovoltaic projects. Net Zero Australia sketches out an indication of what that might look like on the map: five solar mega-projects, each nearly the size of the island of Tasmania. For reference, Australia is quite close to the size of the contiguous United States, so you could say that each of these solar projects might end up covering a land mass about as big as Alabama.

The projected scale of solar PV land use
The projected scale of solar PV land use is absolutely epic

The challenges will be enormous. The materials, manpower and logistics involved in installations this size, plus all the electrolysis, processing and transport infrastructure must all be undertaken at extraordinary scale.

The environmental impacts can't be ignored, either – hydrogen electrolysis requires fresh water (or potentially atmospheric moisture), and exports at this scale effectively represent a shipping out of fresh water from a country famously prone to extended droughts. It's unclear what such a huge amount of shade might do to desert ecosystems, as well.

Not to mention native title; these enormous areas of land might look largely unoccupied, but Aboriginal groups were using the "empty" parts of the country for tens of thousands of years before European colonization in 1788, and these areas remain dotted with remote communities to this day. Native title and land rights legislation recognizing the displacement and dispossession of indigenous groups has created a complex system of ownership, negotiation and compensation rights that will absolutely be relevant to these solar megafarms.

Australian Native Title determinations as at April 1, 2022
Australian Native Title determinations as at April 1, 2022

The huge tracts of land in question will never be the same again. The country will bear the sleek, black barnacles of a clean energy transition in the same way as it now bears the scars of a mining economy.

Net Zero Australia's report is a fascinating look at the scope of the decarbonization challenge for a relatively small population living on a large land mass. Each country will have its own challenges, as well as enormous opportunities, and each must prevail.

Source: Net Zero Australia

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14 comments
14 comments
Robert
Interesting that there seem to be long power lines to south planned. I thought it is cheaper to forgo long power lines, use money to buy some more solar panels and place them closer to consumers, even if it is far from optimal location.
jerryd
The problem with such huge farms is most homes, buildings and businesses are going to have solar too leading to a glut of power. It can be handled with EVs, homes, buildings, businesses/HBBs storing it for later use, sale, such large farms are not profitable except those for industrial use outside of the grid.
US is going to do the same thing though more varied utility RE will have to compete with HBBs at retail and they will lose from such a low price as demand drops as everyone makes their own for a lot less.
martinwinlow
No mention of https://newatlas.com/energy/sun-cable-australia-singapore-solar-undersea-powerlink - and I'm baffled at why there is so much acreage of PV to power relatively small Australian loads. Take the central one ~80m across. That's Pi x 40^2 = ~5k sq miles = 13x10^9m2 and given that each m2 of PV generates about 0.2kW in full sun, 13x10^9 x 0.2 = 2.6x10^9kW, which x 8 hours a day for say 300 days a year = ~6x10^12kWh. Australia uses about 200x10^9kWh annually. So, just one 80mile diameter 'splodge' of PV would generate about 30 times what Australia needs (ignoring storage needs).

Now if you want to replace *all* the fossil fuel use with electricity, that's another matter. About 70% of Australia's electricity is made by burning fossil fuels. Given that using electricity to run things directly (instead of wasting vast amounts of the fossil fuel making electricity in what is a very inefficient process) there is still hugely more generating capability in Australia than this article suggests.

It is no surprise that electricity use is falling - it is falling elsewhere in the western world (eg 15% in the UK in the last 20 years) due to improvements in efficiency in its use and much to everyone's surprise, global population is now expected to decline rathe than grow (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/07/200715150444.htm)
see3d
This is just one country. So many more countries need to go to net zero ASAP aggressively. Large generation facilities are not efficient (due to distribution losses) and are prone to single points of failure for a large number of users. Distributed (local) small and safe modular factory-built nuclear reactors need to be part of the equation for a practical solution.
ShowManMN
The reflective heat generated by thousands of square miles of Solar Panels affecting water molecules will forever alter the atmosphere altering the jet stream and increasing Global Warming.

Use of concentrated saltwater heat generators into existing rock utilizing a silica silo with a smaller solar array would be more effective because it eliminates batteries.
vince
Works wonders for the world's health no matter how you slice it. And makes Australia immune from energy blackmail. And they can still export their coal to those countries that want the dirty stuff--like India and China. At least for a while anyway. USA needs to do the same thing but there are too many big oil lovers with investments in big oil throughout the mid-West--eg., farmers and ranchers who just refuse to give up their lucrative leases to big oil for use of their land to extract oil and gas.
mystixa
The bit about making hydrogen being bad in a country beset by droughts since it requires loads of fresh water used to be true. There are however several technologies for making hydrogen from seawater now, which wouldn't. Here is 1: https://news.stanford.edu/2019/03/18/new-way-generate-hydrogen-fuel-seawater/
Nelson Hyde Chick
All these plans for solar farms sound great, but is there enough resources to make them? I understand we have almost run out of the special sand for glass. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/03/05/sand-shortage-the-world-is-running-out-of-a-crucial-commodity.html
VicCherikoff
This is absolute idiocy. More loss of biodiversity for some politician's stupidity. It's like Neville Wran who had a proposal to turn NSW rivers to flow inland, bugger the cost to the environment.

Australia already has the answer to carbon-free energy and it doesn't stop when the sun goes down or the wind doesn't blow.

See https://starscientific.com.au for what and how.
Gerry Lavell
One source says roughly 500,000 km² of solar is needed for the world's needs. That area is roughly seven times the size of Tasmania, which is at odds witj a figure of
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