Australia’s path to net zero

Australia has a lot of sun and desert space, positioning the country well to continue to be an energy exporter in the era of net zero. But the renewable resources it will have to build to get there are absolutely epic in size, according to a new report.

The country has long supported its economy on natural resources. Its number one commodity is iron ore, which accounts for nearly a third of all exports, but its coal and gas sales to Asia and India make up a further quarter of the country’s export profile. These dirty fossil fuel dollars have an expiration date, but the country’s huge stretches of hot desert present an opportunity both to power Australia itself and to replace coal and gas exports with clean, renewable fuels.

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

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 and 1.3 million new jobs, mainly in the north of the country.

Breakdown of Australian exports from 2020


Surprisingly, domestic energy demand is expected to decline slightly, rather than increase with predicted population growth, due to the efficiencies achieved through electrification. And far more investment in energy will be needed, 50-70% more than maintaining fossil fuels, even though the report notes that the costs of inaction on this front would be “substantial”.

In all of the group’s scenarios, commercial-scale solar panels and battery storage will need to increase dramatically, and some level of carbon capture and storage will be required to offset sectors such as agriculture, which cannot be fully decarbonised.

The country’s roughly 15 exajoules of energy exports will have to shift to hydrogen derivatives, mainly ammonia, unless cheaper storage and transportation options are developed on a commercial scale. The report notes that Australia should be able to compete with other exporters despite its geographic isolation.

Two different scenarios in which Australia can maintain its energy production.  The middle part represents the exports of clean hydrogen-based fuels and the right represents the country carrying out its own refining of iron ore and aluminum on land
Two different scenarios in which Australia can maintain its energy production. The middle part represents the exports of clean hydrogen-based fuels and the right represents the country carrying out its own refining of iron ore and aluminum on land

Net Zero Australia

And there is an opportunity for the country to start processing its iron and aluminum ores on land using renewable energy, to start exporting clean and refined metals – a value-added energy export, if you will, which could end up dwarfing exports of clean fuels in terms of income.

But as great as the opportunities in this space are, the scale of the required renewable energy projects, especially solar panels, is mind-boggling. To replace its current energy exports, the report estimates that Australia will need to develop renewable energy at around 40 times the capacity of today’s entire national energy market.

This will require approximately 132 GW of onshore wind, 42 GW of offshore wind and a monstrous 1.9 TW of solar photovoltaic projects. Net Zero Australia outlines an indication of what it 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 it could be said that each of these solar projects could end up covering a land mass as large as Alabama.

The expected scale of solar PV land use
The planned scale of solar PV land use is absolutely epic

Net Zero Australia

The challenges will be enormous. The materials, manpower and logistics involved in installations of this size, as well as all the electrolysis, processing and transportation infrastructure, must be undertaken on an extraordinary scale.

Environmental impacts also cannot be ignored: hydrogen electrolysis requires fresh water (or potentially atmospheric moisture), and exports on this scale effectively represent a shipment of fresh water from a country notoriously prone to prolonged droughts. It is unclear what such an amount of shade can do to desert ecosystems as well.

Not to mention the native title; these huge areas of land may seem largely unoccupied, but Aboriginal groups have used 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 that recognizes the displacement and expropriation of indigenous groups has created a complex system of property, trading and clearing rights that will be absolutely relevant to these solar mega-farms.

Australian Native Title Determinations as of April 1, 2022
Australian Native Title Determinations as of April 1, 2022

National Tribunal for Native Titles

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 it now bears the scars of a mining economy.

The Net Zero Australia report offers a fascinating look at the scale 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 will have to prevail.

Source: Net Zero Australia

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