These countries are charting the way forward in the energy transition

Picture: Pixabay
Picture: Pixabay

South Australia, Denmark, and Portugal are among those that are rapidly moving towards 100% renewable power systems. They’re working it all out for the rest of us.

South Australia: The world’s self-appointed guinea pig

Until now, the only countries that have run entirely on renewables were those with significant hydro or geothermal resources at their disposal – think Iceland, Paraguay and Norway. That’s about to change.

South Australia, for one, is showing that variable renewable energy technologies – wind & solar – are up to the task as well. More than 70% of the state’s annual power needs come from these sources, and that share is constantly edging higher.

On some days, rooftop solar alone covers 100% of demand, driving wholesale electricity prices deep into negative territory. For now, gas-fired generators must remain on to provide ‘inertia’ and other critical grid services, which can’t be delivered by wind farms and solar panels.

(At the risk of oversimplifying things, inertia refers to the rotational momentum of a gas turbine, which helps to keep a steady flow of electricity through the grid and maintain a constant balance between supply and demand.)

Coal and gas plants have reliably delivered these grid services in the past, but they won’t be needed for much longer.

Advanced big-battery technologies, together with machines whose only job is to spin, are gradually taking on these roles, and it’s expected that gas’ minimum share of South Australia’s power mix will soon be trimmed from 5% to 2%, before being eliminated altogether by 2030.

In short, the state is ditching the old “baseload” energy playbook for good.

The rest of Australia is now, finally, racing to catch up.

The country’s energy market operator (AEMO) expects to see periods of 100% renewable power penetration in the main grid from as soon as 2025, and the government aims to reach an average share of 82% in 2030.

The move to variable renewables is also keeping a lid on prices.

In mainland Australia’s primary grid, the states of South Australia and Victoria enjoy the lowest electricity spot prices. They also happen to have the highest share of wind & solar in the mix.

Data from the Australian Energy Market Operator shows that the average spot price in 2022 was A$91.06 in Victoria and A$104.60 in South Australia. The states most reliant on coal – Queensland and New South Wales – had average spot prices of A$162.06 and A$132.35, respectively.

Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Scotland and the Netherlands show Europe how it’s done

In Europe, where sunlight is often in short supply, a similar revolution is underway.

Denmark, Portugal, Spain and Scotland have found success in their wind energy programmes, while the Netherlands now counts solar as its single largest source of power production (in the summer months, at least).

Scotland produces enough renewable energy – mainly wind – to power the entire country each year, while more than 80% of Denmark’s electricity now comes from renewables – again, mostly wind.

In 2023 so far, more than two-thirds of Portugal’s electricity has come from renewables, with solid contributions from wind, hydro and solar. The country aims to get to 85% renewables by 2030 as it ventures into offshore wind for the first time and scales up its solar and onshore wind capacity.

Portugal’s larger neighbour, Spain, is now consistently above the 50% renewables mark, with similar contributions from solar and wind.

Why should I care?

For starters, the world is on the brink of dangerous climate change tipping points.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, we humans have warmed the planet by 1.2°C by burning fossil fuels. Scientists warn that crossing the 1.5°C threshold – we’re likely to get there in under a decade – would be catastrophic, leading to far more severe floods, droughts, storms and wildfires.

Moving away from fossil fuels is non-negotiable, and developed countries have a responsibility to lead the way.

If the climate crisis is not reason enough to prompt an accelerated shift to zero-carbon power, then simple economics should be.

Following a decade of dramatic cost declines, wind & solar are now the cheapest sources of energy in history.

While the likes of Denmark and Portugal made a large share of their renewable power investments before costs plummeted, other countries that follow in their footsteps will reap the benefits.

Fossil fuel prices are inherently volatile and susceptible to shocks like Russia’s war on Ukraine. Looking forward, a new era of energy security and price stability awaits.

And, for South Africa, which is in its 16th year of crippling rolling blackouts, wind & solar are by far the fastest and cheapest solutions to the seemingly never-ending energy crisis. A new solar farm delivers power at less than half the cost of a new coal plant, and can be built in a fraction of the time.

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