It was way back in April 2009 that I had finished talking at a seminar in Copenhagen and was due to fly out to my next stop in Amsterdam but I took a slight detour. While at the conference I was told by a local about a fascinating piece of infrastructure called the Öresund Bridge. To demonstrate that people the world over are not terribly creative at naming things, this ‘bridge’ connects Sweden and Denmark across the Øresund strait. The reason I found it fascinating was that this bridge is actually half-bridge, half-tunnel. It starts off from the Swedish coast as a bridge and then dives into the ocean and turns into a tunnel for the rest of the journey to Denmark.
When I jumped in the taxi in Copenhagen, I told the driver I needed to go to the Copenhagen airport but via Sweden. As you can imagine, he gave me a very strange look. I explained that I just wanted to take a trip on the Öresund Bridge. While I found the trip fascinating, there was something else that amazed me even more. As we went across the bridge component, I looked out across the strait and had to rub my eyes to make sure they weren’t playing tricks on me. I thought I saw wind turbines in the middle of the ocean. As I kept looking, I noticed a number of them. Forty eight in fact. In the ocean! The Lillgrund Wind Farm has a capacity of 110 megawatts (MW) and can power 60,000 homes.
I thought more about this and translated it to how much sun and land we have in Australia. In 2009 I had a regular column in a magazine called CRN so in September of that year my column contained the calculations required to make Australia completely powered by renewable energy. If we ignore the transmission of power for a moment, my detailed calculations back then showed that we would need a patch of dirt approximately one thousand square kilometres in size and fill it with solar panels. One thing Australia has is a bit of spare land. The Simpsons Desert is 176,500 square kilometres in size. We could probably spare a patch of this to generate all of Australia’s electricity needs.
I am being overly simplistic, of course. The sun is only up in the day and we need power at night. We have seen in South Australia that batteries are a valid option and this technology is improving all the time. The alternative is to look for ways to generate power at night. In the same calculation of solar panels, to create enough power for Australia from wind turbines, you would need 16,000 of them. Maybe a combination of the two would be reasonable?
This, of course, ignores that pesky little problem of transmission. Building a solar farm in the middle of the Simpson sounds great but getting that power to a house in Sydney is problematic. We are already seeing fantastic solutions with this in relation to distributed power generation. Several years ago, Dubbo was the number one rooftop solar panel connector and we see solar farms in our region. We see wind farms in locations as close as Bodangora. One of the great advantages of renewable production of power is that it can be produced close to where it is needed. A coal-fired power station has the same problem with transmission but you can’t build mini coal-fired power stations on the roof of a house.
The critical question in this is whether this is a pipe dream – or achievable.
Different countries have been able to achieve this already. Iceland – with not much wind or sun – is already producing all of its power with renewables. Iceland is not alone. Costa Rica. Albania. Ethiopia. Paraguay. Zambia. Norway. All of these countries are at the point where all of their power needs are being met with renewables. I have only mentioned two methods but there is also geothermal power and hydroelectricity and a variety of other methods that are being worked on. As much as we want eccentric billionaires, like Elon Musk, to keep working on solutions we also have existing systems that could be adapted – such as pumped hydro. This is the equivalent of a battery in the hydroelectric world. When there is excess power on the grid, water is pumped uphill into a dam and when power demands are higher, that water flows down the hill and turns turbines.
As much as some would like to deny it, climate change is a problem that needs solving and there are technology solutions out there that will eventually solve this issue. I can hardly wait to see the next solutions that come forward.