Powerlines across hills

5 November 2021

The world is watching and waiting in anticipation as global leaders gather in Glasgow for  COP26, in the hope that international governments will agree actionable commitments that start to achieve rapid and sustained decarbonisation over the decades ahead.

In Australia, we wait to see the details of how the Federal Government will join the global effort and make meaningful and impactful commitments to decarbonisation. But, even with significant decarbonisation commitments, the recent IPCC report makes abundantly clear that hopes of restricting global warming to 1.5 degrees seem largely unachievable.

As a consequence, the world will experience increasingly volatile weather and natural disasters in the coming decades. We need to accept that alongside decarbonisation, we must also focus on global activities and actions that ensure our infrastructure and communities are resilient.

At such a pivotal juncture in our global history, we need to be clear: to achieve our decarbonisation and resilience goals, we must achieve an energy transition the scale of which we have not seen before. The nexus of the climate and energy transition is a source of significant global uncertainty. However, times of great uncertainty, can also be times of great opportunity. If the magnitude of the opportunity is defined by the magnitude of the uncertainty, then there is no better time for Australia to be clear on our climate and energy future. A future that is decarbonised, resilient and for the benefit of all.

Australia’s energy transition: a step ahead of the pack

As fossil-fuels are inevitably phased out economy-wide, we should recognise that our energy will largely be supplied by our electricity system. Driven by the rapidly declining costs of new electricity generation and storage technologies, Australia is rapidly heading towards a future electricity system powered by renewable generation, energy storage and distributed energy resources (DER). While these trends are not specific to Australia, it is important to acknowledge that they are happening here faster than almost anywhere else in the world.

Energy storage will proliferate throughout our electricity system to ensure that we maintain a reliable and secure electricity system as the uptake of renewable electricity generation accelerates. In particular, battery storage will proliferate throughout the energy system being installed in the grid, in our communities and in our houses.

Distributed energy resources include technologies like solar PV, residential and neighbourhood battery storage and electric vehicles. Crucially, these are technologies that will largely be funded by customers and installed in their homes, in their streets and in their suburbs.

The forecast uptake of DER is significant, highlighting that individuals and households have a vital role to play in achieving Australia’s decarbonisation goals.

Given that our future energy system will be largely electric, calls for broad electrification are gaining prominence. However, electrification alone is only one piece of the puzzle. The key to effective decarbonisation will be the integration of all of these new generation, storage, and transportation technologies into our electricity system.

Integrate everything

Given that our future energy system will be largely electric, calls for broad electrification are gaining prominence. However, electrification alone is only one piece of the puzzle. The key to effective decarbonisation will be the integration of all of these new generation, storage, and transportation technologies into our electricity system.

In this context, integration refers to capabilities that allow these new technologies to talk to each other and work together. These new integration capabilities encompass new systems, new algorithms, and even new technical standards, an often forgotten but vitally important contributor to beneficial integration outcomes. Effective integration will ensure that these technologies work together to underpin energy reliability and energy security.

In the same way that the convergence of communications led to the internet being called the information superhighway, the integration of these technologies into our electricity system will make it the electricity superhighway of the future. This electricity superhighway will underpin our energy transition and ensure we achieve sustained decarbonisation economy wide.

Effectively integrating all of these technologies into our electricity system will also be a key enabler for achieving more resilient infrastructure and communities. Renewable and distributed energy generation and storage can underpin microgrids and neighbourhood energy systems that ensure that communities continue to have access to energy during volatile weather and natural disasters.

Consequently, to achieve both our decarbonisation and resilience goals, we must ensure that we “integrate everything”!

A socio-techno-economic transition

All this talk of technologies, systems and algorithms might lead us to believe that this will be a technology-led energy transition. Whilst technology is important, our energy transition is a complex socio-techno-economic challenge, requiring a deep appreciation of the social, technical, and economic dimensions for it to be successful. In particular, it will require a new appreciation of the needs and expectations of all energy users.

For example, current models of DER adoption, heavily favour individuals and householders who can afford these new technologies and who own their own homes. For vulnerable customers, renters, and apartment dwellers, new models of owning and benefitting from the uptake of DER are needed so that everyone can benefit from these new capabilities.

More broadly, embracing the energy transition as a socio-techno-economic challenge will require a detailed understanding of the socially and economically effective models of adopting these renewable and distributed energy generation and storage technologies that will underpin a decarbonised and resilient future. These models of adoption are themselves a crucial aspect of effective integration, and vital for ensuring that the energy transition is for the benefit of all. 

Codifying our vision

In Australia, the commitment to a net zero target for 2050, brings the Federal Government into alignment with existing state and territory targets which are in many cases underpinned by ambitious climate and energy policies and actions that are supporting the energy transition.

In addition to clear government targets and policies, there is another important way in which our future energy vision must also be encapsulated. In Australia we have a collection of statements that make up our national energy objectives. They separately address objectives for electricity, gas and energy retail and have as a central focus the need to “to promote efficient investment in, and efficient operation and use of” our energy systems.

When first written, these objectives were fit for purpose. However, at a time of rapid energy and climate transition that will reshape and deeply integrate our energy systems, it feels timely to restate and unify our national energy objectives in a way that recognises the vision for our energy future.

A more appropriate unified national energy objective might be stated as: A safe, efficient, decarbonised, and resilient energy system that provides energy users with an energy supply that is affordable, reliable, and secure with participation models that support choice, equity, and opportunity.

Such a unified restatement of our national energy objective would be an important indicator for everyone that our energy future is decarbonised, resilient and for the benefit of all energy users.

Contributing to global impact

Having a shared vision for our energy future is vital to underpinning our shared decarbonisation and resilience objectives. However it is also vital to support Australia being a decarbonisation and resilience champion and leading the world through the energy transition.

Australia is already leading the world in the per capita adoption of renewable energy and DER. As a consequence of needing to solve many of the energy transition challenges first, Australia has the ability and opportunity to contribute on a global scale. In simple terms, Australia has the ability and opportunity to demonstrate, and be rewarded for, global leadership in responding to climate change. In 2020, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) singled out Australia as a potential new energy leader. IRENA highlighted our opportunity to enhance our global influence and reach, through our ability to take advantage of renewable energy technologies.

As we look ahead to COP26, we should be clear that actionable decarbonisation commitments can underpin a national vision for our climate and energy future. If we do, Australia is well placed to develop the technologies, capabilities, and know-how to lead the global response to climate change. Embracing this opportunity will not only enhance our global stature and influence but it will generate significant economic opportunities and benefits for all Australians.

This article originally appeared in the Daily Telegraph, print edition, 5 Nov 2021.