North Australia’s electrifying future: powering Asia with renewables

Last week, RenewEconomy published an article by Andrew Campbell, Andrew Blakers and Stuart Blanch which injected some much needed vision into the energy policy debate. The authors make the case for a nation-building project for Australia to emerge as a renewable energy powerhouse that exports zero-emissions electricity to the fast-growing Asian region. Here’s a taste: 

By Andrew Campbell, Andrew Blakers and Stuart Blanch

It may just be election season, but big dreams for the development of northern Australia are back in fashion. So here’s our piece of “next-frontier”, big-picture 21st-century thinking. It may even have room for a dam or two.

A Snowy scheme for the 21st century

Imagine a project that could help Indonesia achieve energy security, dramatically cut energy poverty for hundreds of millions, catalyse renewable energy production in Assocation of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries, cut regional carbon pollution, and transition Australia’s energy exports from risky fuels to renewable energy.

Sounds far-fetched? In fact, such a proposal has already been published in the international peer-reviewed literature. It takes several existing technologies already in widespread deployment, and joins them together in a new configuration on an unprecedented scale, in a region with enormous natural competitive advantage — north-western Australia.

Here’s the plan.

Take part (say 2,500 km2) of an existing cattle station somewhere near Lake Argyle and cover one third of it with solar panels on tracking arrays. Build a large reservoir upslope at least 300 metres above Lake Argyle, holding at least 1,000 gigalitres of water.

Build a 100 gigawatt power station that uses solar energy to pump water from the lake up to the upper reservoir. The water flows back down the hill through turbines at night, generating power to the grid 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Schematic of the spine of a hypothetical HVDC grid linking north Australia and SE Asia Andrew Blakers

Hundreds of “pumped hydro” schemes of this nature are already working well around the world, albeit not on this scale.

The “grid” in this case, would be an integrated south-east Asian supergrid, the spine of which would be a High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cable running from northern Australia along the Indonesian archipelago and up into the Philippines, Malaysia and Indochina, and then eventually into China.

The capital cost of building such a power station, storage and HVDC link and extending it as far as Jakarta is estimated at around US$500 billion. This compares with Indonesia’s current projections that it needs to invest US$1,000 billion in conventional (coal and nuclear) power stations to meet its energy needs over the next 40 years.

The electricity price in Jakarta from this scheme would be around 8 cents per kilowatt-hour, compared with the current 6 cents price (externalities excluded) from coal-fired power in Indonesia.

Much cleaner energy, forever, at a comparable price. What’s not to like?

If this sounds unlikely, or too grand by half, let’s back up and look at the individual elements in turn.

Looking back, and looking forward

The year 2022 will mark 150 years since the first telegraph submarine cable was laid between Darwin and Java, subverting the tyranny of distance by connecting Australia to the rest of the world. It instantly changed our sense of identity, making inter-continental communication possible in hours instead of weeks and months.

For northern Australia, the telegraph line accelerated settlement and growth of the pastoral and mining industries.

Today, northern Australia remains a contested landscape, with some seeing a next frontier for development, and others sounding caution.

Northern Australia should have a much bigger role to play in the rapid growth of its northern neighbours than as a mendicant northern outpost of a big empty continent. The Asian Century White Paper counsels that our future success will be determined by the choices we make today, not on chance.

Almost 150 years after Australia and Asia connected via the telegraph link, it’s time to lay more cables.

The basic idea is to meet the projected almost doubling of energy demand in South East Asia by 2030, by exporting renewable energy from north-western Australia.

Ed: Read the whole article at RenewEconomy, then come back and let Yes 2 Renewables know what you think. Does the idea have merit or it it pie in the sky stuff? Will the vision find a champion in Australian politics? Chime in below. 

3 thoughts on “North Australia’s electrifying future: powering Asia with renewables

  1. At first sight this idea looks a bit silly – especially because of the bit in the second line which talks about “vision”. It is not that we do not have people of vision, it’s just that they have something better to do than get into politics where these sorts of decisions will ultimately be made.
    Also, since the energy resource of the future is clearly renewable – a distributed resource, not needing a centralised power construct, one might regard the proposal as fanciful.
    However, while most of Australia has plenty of solar radiation – about 1kw per square metre for much of the year from clear skies, the same is not the case in much of Asia.
    There, the climate, being tropical, has the effect of reducing access to the solar resource.
    So maybe a centralised power plant, located in a region of clear sky, with its associated distribution network may be the answer.
    Let’s hear some further ruminations on the matter.

  2. “Forever”? Solar panel performance degrades steadily with time; most warranties are for 25 years or less. Even these might not be valid in what is one of the most cyclone-, lightning- and heavy rain-prone areas on the planet. Hard to imagine a worse place for photovoltaic longevity, in fact.

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