March 1, 2024

The Nationals want renewables to stay in cities – but the clean energy grid doesn’t work that way

The weeds are full – there is no room for more renewables, according to Nationals leader David Littleproud. Instead, renewables should be restricted to large solar panels on commercial buildings in cities.

The smaller country-centered party likely hopes to capitalize on rural skepticism toward large-scale renewable projects — especially the angst surrounding new transmission lines. On the coast, there have been protests against proposed offshore wind farms.

Unfortunately, fencing off renewables in cities won’t work. As our recent research into onshore wind energy shows, intermittent energy sources like wind can work very well to support a modern grid – as long as we locate wind farms in different locations. This ensures that we can keep the lights on even if it is absolutely calm in some areas.

Of course, rooftop solar could very well be useful for families and building owners. But we will need new renewable projects in scattered locations. Banning renewable energy in the bush is not a solution. What we can do is make sure we are not duplicating wind farms. Each new wind farm must be in the best possible location.

Planned offshore wind projects have hit turbulence, such as this anti-wind protest in Wollongong in October 2023.
Dean Lewins/AAP

The best place to build a wind farm

In 2001, renewable energy provided 8% of Australia’s energy. In 2023, they provided almost 40%.

The federal government’s ambitious goal is to boost this growth and reach 82% by 2030. It’s a meteoric rise, but it has to be. Climate change is accelerating.

Decisions about where to build large renewable projects cannot be left to the market alone – or undermined by protests.

The supply of renewable energy is variable in nature. Solar power only works during the day, hydropower can be affected by drought or water shortages, and the wind doesn’t blow consistently.

Read more: Do we want a wind farm outside our window? What Australians think about the net zero transition

This is not a hindrance. It just means that you need to have a combination of technologies – and place large-scale farms in different locations. This minimizes the need for expensive or resource-dependent energy storage such as pumped hydro and batteries.

Wind power currently represents around a third of Australia’s renewable supply – around 11% of total electricity generation in the first quarter of 2023.

But the wind blows and then stops. By itself, a wind farm cannot provide energy at a consistent rate or in line with demand. The energy generated depends on the weather and, in the long term, the weather.

To make wind energy consistent, it is necessary to build wind farms in different locations chosen for their unique local wind climate.

wind farm being built
Each new wind farm must be built in the ideal location to provide energy.
Havas PR/AAP

Currently, the supply of wind farms in Australia is reasonably varied. But it could be even better.

We analyzed more than 40 years of climate data and found that wind farms currently operating in Australia could produce around 50% more energy if they had been built in optimized locations.

If we had built this network of parks in an optimized way, we would have reduced the variation in wind energy. Currently, the location of current farms means that annual variability is around 40% higher than it could have been.

When we add up all the wind farms under construction or with approved planning, we find that these inefficiencies persist.

We have to improve the placement of renewable energies

Is this bad news? No. It means we can do better. And it means we can reduce emerging resistance from some rural and regional residents, who feel their landscapes are being taken over to power distant cities.

Building renewable farms in suboptimal locations is a burden on the environment, as many more farms need to be built to make up the gap, and can lead to increased energy prices for consumers.

At the moment, the cost is masked by the fact that wind energy’s share of the energy market is small. But that will change. The net-zero economy we are building will require wind energy, both onshore and, increasingly, offshore.

Read more: A clean energy grid means 10,000 km of new transmission lines. They can only be built with community support

To build a wind farm, what typically happens is that an energy company finds a landowner who agrees to have a farm on their land in exchange for regular rent. The company then seeks government approvals.

To approve a site for a wind farm, government agencies need to evaluate many things. How close are you to wetlands that are home to rare birds? Is the wind resource good enough? To figure out wind quality, regulators often take on-site measurements and analyze historical data. Typically, this data set only goes back a few years.

We could do this much better. First, wind energy can vary by up to 16% year to year. La Niña can bring strong winds to a location, while El Niño can bring stagnation.

Deciding on a location based on a few years’ worth of data means you don’t know the long-term wind average, which could be better or worse than expected.

Secondly, approvals are site-specific – we do not compare the similarity between this potential wind farm and farms already built. This means that many wind farms simply don’t meet expectations for how much extra power they can provide to the grid.

Once built, wind farms typically operate for decades. If we choose inefficient locations, we will be stuck.

But there is good news here for the National Party, rural residents and everyone concerned about the energy transition. We can solve this problem.

One extra step would be enough for renewable energy developers: demonstrating how the proposed wind farm would improve overall electricity supply. And that.

And for the government, make sure our planned new transmission lines increase access to high-quality wind resources.

These two actions seem simple, but they would make a real difference. We could avoid building wind farms in suboptimal locations, build fewer wind farms overall, and accelerate the shift to cheap, clean energy. This is something the city and country can agree on.

Read more: How to beat ‘deployment rage’: the environment versus climate battle dividing regional Australia

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