There remains a concern in some sections of the population that renewable energy is neither reliable enough nor sufficient to provide our energy needs. It is certainly true that renewable energy cannot supply all of Australia’s energy needs at this time. But this situation is rapidly changing and solutions are in sight.

Here are some commonly discussed issues around renewable energy and some facts that may help.

How renewable energy will make a difference to climate change

Renewable energy will have a significant impact on Australia’s carbon emissions because the energy sector represents more than 50% of Australia’s total emissions (around 33% from electricity and 20% from the direct combustion of fuels for manufacturing, mining, residential and commercial use). Sectors such as transport and agriculture also impact on emissions, making up around 17% and 14% of emissions respectively. Decarbonising the energy sector will help Australia meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce carbon emissions across the world by 2050. The purpose of the Paris Agreement is to hold the average increase in world temperature to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels.” An Australian National University report released in November 2020, states that emissions from electricity generation, gas use and transport in the 12 months ending in July 2020 fell by almost 14 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents, scientifically recognised as a contributor to global warming. This is a drop of 4.6% on the previous 12 months. And this, the report concluded, is mostly due to wind and solar generation.

Can renewable energy really meet our energy needs?

Yes, but it will take time to get there – that is why we talk about ‘the energy transition’. Many countries are already focusing on increasing their reliance on renewable energy. Take Costa Rica for example. This South American nation regularly meets 90% of its energy needs through renewable resources. It’s estimated that the US will generate 80% of its energy needs from renewables by 2050. Renewable energy, when used in combination with other emerging technologies such as hydropower (HYDRO 2.0 will be fully online and commissioned in 2025), biofuels, storage and effective demand-response strategies, can provide all our energy needs into the future. A 2019 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that by 2024 the world’s solar capacity will grow to 600 gigawatts – that is twice the installed capacity of Japan. That will jump to 1200 gigawatts during the next five years, the entire current capacity of the United States.

How renewable energy compares on cost

It may have been a while since you last looked at the costs of renewable energy, but solar panels have come down in price. There was a time when they were more expensive than conventional energy sources, but not anymore. Solar generated power is by far the cheapest energy of all. That is why the new rules seek to maximise the use of this cheap, plentiful resource and limit solar wastage. Remember that just a few decades ago, computers were incredibly expensive and beyond the reach of most people. Now everyone has access to them. The economics of renewables means that while it is true that for many people the upfront costs mean solar remains out of reach, improving technology, efficiencies, increasing demand and new retail options available to customers all combine to push prices down. Batteries are still too expensive for many people, but they are coming down in price too.

How much energy goes into producing big renewable generators like wind turbines?

A two-megawatt turbine might require 260 tonnes of steel produced using 170 tonnes of coking coal as well as 300 tonnes of iron ore. That’s a lot of energy, however if sited correctly that same turbine will recover the energy expended within three years of operation and then save that energy many times over during its lifetime.

The future for renewable energy

Trends come and go, but the facts are that renewable energy is here to stay and is already becoming a permanent part of our energy network. Here’s an example of how the world’s biggest corporations view renewables – Google recently purchased THREE gigawatts of renewable energy capacity. That’s equal to the annual energy needs for all its offices worldwide. Renewable generation in Australia has grown by 72% during the past decade and the revolution has barely begun.