National Computational Infrastructure

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Renewables good to go

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It’s a ground-breaking fact most people don’t know: Australia already has the means to run on 100% renewable energy.

“When I started my thesis in 2010, the idea that all of our electricity needs could be met from renewable sources was controversial. Claims were made that it wouldn’t be reliable, and if it was, it would be too expensive,” says Dr Ben Elliston.

Dr Elliston used NCI facilities to work out whether a combination of already available renewable technology could cover the nation’s electricity requirements.

He not only showed it was technologically and economically feasible, he even worked out what infrastructure was needed and the most effective places to install it.

“I created a computer model that simulated the supply of electricity to the National Electricity Market in 2010 using actual demand data and weather observations from that year,” Dr Elliston explains.

“I then plugged in five commercially available renewable energy sources – solar photovoltaics, wind, concentrated solar thermal, hydropower and bio-fuelled gas turbines – and asked the model to test tens of thousands of different configurations to find the lowest cost system to reliably meet the demand.”

The result was a national renewable energy system, dominated by solar and wind energy, that would be just as reliable as our current system and reasonably priced.

“I found that it actually wouldn’t be much more expensive than some of the alternatives that are on offer to deal with climate change.

“In fact, the use of carbon capture and storage was found to cost no less, and potentially more, than the 100% renewables case. The difference is that all these renewable technologies already exist, whereas carbon capture and storage has not been demonstrated at large-scale.”

Dr Elliston says NCI’s facilities allowed him to speed up his research from one run per day to one per hour.

“It was very useful, because I could get suggestions from my PhD supervisors – [Associate Professors Mark Diesendorf and Iain MacGill at the Institute of Environmental Studies and the School of Electrical Engineering & Telecommunications, respectively] at UNSW in the morning, adjust some assumptions, and we could explore the results by lunchtime.”

Dr Elliston hopes his simulated system will show what is possible if we embrace renewable energy, as “business-as-usual is not an option”.

“The electricity industry is full of infrastructure that lives for a very long time. If we build a new coal-fired power station it will last for 40 years,” he says.

“If we make poor decisions today, it has tremendous economic and environmental implications in the long run.”

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