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Australia’s old powerlines are holding back the renewable energy boom

By Liz Hobday

Australian wind and solar farms are putting downward pressure on energy prices, and there are hundreds of new renewable facilities set to come online. But that green energy is stretching the country’s outdated network of transmission lines.

Key points:

  • The renewable energy boom means electricity transmission infrastructure in regional Australia is reaching capacity
  • Wholesale energy market operator AEMO says while billions are being spent, there is an urgent need for even more infrastructure spending
  • In the last two months 48 solar and wind farms have connected to the grid, with another 170 about to come online

Australia’s high-capacity transmission lines were designed to service centralised electricity generation from coal-fired power stations.

But renewable projects are being built in parts of regional Australia where wind and solar produce the most energy.

In many cases, these are the areas where the transmission network is weakest, with ageing power lines that were never designed to transport electricity from large-scale renewable generators.

Karadoc Solar Farm in Victoria’s far north-west, owned by BayWa r.e., has 300,000 solar panels that produce enough energy to power around 40,000 homes. It plugged into the grid last year.

BayWa r.e. managing director David Shapero says Australia’s transmission infrastructure is beginning to hold back the boom in cheap renewable energy.

“At the moment we’ve been able to put most of the renewable energy that’s available to go in (to the grid), but there’s many more projects to go in,” he told 7.30.

“The transmission infrastructure is filling up and it’s providing more and more electrical challenges.”

Mr Shapero says this could deter investment in the sector if there is effectively no room for new projects to connect to the grid.

“People won’t invest unless they can connect, and so if we can secure a connection, then of course we will invest,” he told 7.30.

“As we look to develop new projects, obviously we will be looking for the new infrastructure.”

He believes it is time for the Federal Government to step in and give the energy market operator the power to move more quickly on infrastructure projects.

“I find that to be a frustration, and I think they should be given the powers to manage that process and, essentially, just get on with the job, because we know the end result.”

The latest forecasting by AEMO, the body responsible for running the wholesale energy market, says there is an urgent need for more spending on transmission infrastructure to avoid energy price spikes and blackouts.

“We are going through a transition, probably the most significant transformation in this industry that it’s ever gone through,” AEMO chief executive Audrey Zibelman said.

“And Australia is in many ways leading the way.

“One of our concerns is that the transmission capability we have in some of these regions just isn’t enough to accommodate the renewables.

“And so we do have to change the regulatory process to make sure that when we identify an opportunity and a need to build transmission, we can do it much quicker than we have in the past.”

Green Energy Markets analyst Tristan Edis tracks all the renewable projects being developed across Australia.

He says the issue of transmission capacity in regional Australia should have been recognised as early as 2007.

“We’re already seeing substantial constraints in probably the areas where we have some of the best wind and solar resources,” he said.

“They include areas around Northern Queensland, north-west Victoria, and large areas of New South Wales. But we also see issues in Western Australia as well.”

He claims the capacity of the renewable projects in the pipeline is now so great that, when it is added to existing green generation, it is almost enough to meet the electricity demands of the entire country.

“Essentially all of the electricity we currently consume could be produced through renewable energy,” Mr Edis said.

“In fact, we could start exporting electricity. We have some of the best resources in the world.”

Mr Edis says transmission capacity is one issue that would need to be resolved to allow this to happen.

He added that improved battery technology, as well as other equipment to maintain the quality of the electrical output would also be needed.

Source: ABC News