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2020 marked new ground for the Australian renewable energy industry, with a string of records for the rate of uptake of renewable energy across the country. The Clean Energy Council’s recently-released Clean Energy Australia report has revealed that over a quarter of Australia’s electricity supply now comes from renewable energy sources, and that we are now well on our way to achieving our clean energy transition goals. In this extract from the report, we take a closer look at the progress made by the industry over the past 12 months.

Australia’s clean energy transition accelerated again in 2020 as wind and rooftop solar set new records, battery storage came of age, and the hydrogen sector continued its rapid development. This all points to Australia realising its potential as a clean energy superpower. The Australian renewable energy industry has come a long way in the past five years.

In 2016, just 17 per cent of the country’s electricity came from renewables, and the majority of this was due to New South Wales and Tasmania’s long-serving hydro systems. Fast forward to 2020, and more than 27 per cent of Australia’s electricity came from clean energy sources, with wind and rooftop solar leading the way.

This represents a massive transformation that makes Australia’s electricity system cheaper, more reliable and, most importantly, cleaner.

But the best news is that the shift is showing no sign of slowing down. An enormous amount of new clean energy capacity was added in 2020 as both the rooftop solar and wind sectors set new annual records.

Emerging technologies also made rapid progress, with several major utility-scale battery announcements and considerable investment in renewable hydrogen building strong momentum for these exciting new technologies. Much of this progress was driven by state and territory governments, which introduced a number of world-leading renewable energy policies and targets in 2020.

However, the states and territories’ progressive energy policies only served to highlight the ongoing failures at the federal level, where arguments about government support for gas and coal overshadowed some genuinely positive developments. These included the continued growth of clean energy jobs, with the industry employing more than 25,000 Australians in 2020, and the hundreds of dollars that households and businesses saved on their electricity bills due to the recent influx of new renewable generation.

These are just a small sample of the benefits of renewable energy, and there is enormous potential for more in the coming years as the industry continues to grow. First though, the industry will need to overcome ongoing grid connection and transmission challenges, which continued to plague renewable energy developers in 2020.

While the market bodies made some progress on resolving these challenges throughout the year, much more work and investment is required to ensure that Australia’s clean energy transition can continue unimpeded. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that 2020 was a difficult year for many Australians, but the renewable energy industry continued to provide hope that Australia’s other great challenge – climate change – is being addressed.

The industry’s incredible progress over the past five years is just the beginning of a long and challenging journey towards our vision of a clean energy future. The Australian renewable energy industry’s record-breaking run continued in 2020, despite the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The growth of Australia’s renewable energy industry showed no signof slowing in 2020 as increased support from state and territory governments saw numerous records set across the large- and small-scale sectors. The industry passed a significant milestone in 2020, with more than a quarter of the country’s total electricity generation coming from renewable sources for the first time.

Renewables were responsible for 27.7 per cent of total generation in 2020, an increase of 3.7 percentage points compared to 2019. Much of this increase was due to the small-scale solar sector, which added more than 3GW of new capacity in 2020 to record its fourth-straight record-breaking year.

This brought the sector’s share of Australia’s renewable energy generation to 23.5 per cent, pushing it past hydro into second place for the first time. The large-scale sector contributed almost 2GW of new capacity in 2020 as 32 projects were completed around the country.

While the majority of these projects were large-scale solar farms, representing 893MW of new capacity, the wind sector accounted for the bulk of new generation, adding 1,097MW throughout the year.

This was a new record for the sector, comfortably surpassing the 837MW record set in 2019. A further 76 large-scale wind and solar projects were under construction at the end of 2020, representing more than 8GW of new capacity and employing over 9,000 Australian workers.

Of these projects, 49 were large-scale solar farms, 21 were wind farms, three were bioenergy plants, while three were hybrid plants producing at least two different types of renewable energy. The expansion of Australia’s large-scale renewable energy industry is being led by state and territory governments, who made considerable new commitments to the industry in 2020.

The New South Wales Government’s Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap was the most ambitious renewable energy policy released during the year, promising to deliver 12GW of new transmission capacity to facilitate the construction of three renewable energy zones across the state.

Tasmania passed a major milestone in 2020, becoming the first Australian state to source 100 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources.

The Tasmanian Government has now set a 200 per cent renewable energy target by 2040, which is the world’s most ambitious target for renewables. South Australia passed its own significant milestone in October 2020, when 100 per cent of its electricity came from solar for one hour; the first time this had been achieved by a jurisdiction as large as South Australia anywhere in the world.

Federal politics was dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. As the immediate health crisis abated, the focus turned to economic recovery and the opportunity to stimulate the economy by accelerating the clean energy transition. Rather than grasping this opportunity, the government opted for a “gas-fired recovery” that included a threat to build a government-owned 1,000MW gas-fired power station in New South Wales.

However, pressure on the government to increase its emissions reduction ambitions began to grow towards the end of 2020 following the election of Joe Biden as US President and several of Australia’s major trading partners adopting a net zero emissions target by 2050.

The challenges associated with grid connection and transmission continued in 2020 as the need for additional investment in transmission capacity to allow more renewable energy connections became more urgent.

However, the announcement of renewable energy zones by several state governments should help to ease pressure on the grid, as will Federal Government funding for some key transmission projects to help unlock additional renewable energy resources.

The battery storage sector rose to prominence in 2020, with 16 utility-scale batteries under construction at the end of 2020, representing more than 595MW of new capacity.

This will increase significantly in the coming years, following the announcement of several major utility-scale batteries throughout the year, including several projects that will again make Australia home to the world’s largest battery.

Australian households installed 23,796 small-scale batteries with a combined capacity of 238MWh in 2020. Several noteworthy steps were taken in 2020 to develop Australia’s emerging renewable hydrogen industry. The most significant of these was the technology’s inclusion in the Federal Government’s Technology Investment Roadmap.

The states and territories also upped their investment in renewable hydrogen, committing millions of dollars to various pilot projects and new initiatives throughout the year.

Small-scale renewable energy

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the small-scale solar sector showed no sign of slowing down in 2020, as more than 3GW of new capacity was added to Australian rooftops. The small-scale solar sector recorded its fourth-straight record-breaking year in 2020, easily surpassing 2019’s record of 2.2GW of new capacity.

The 378,451 systems installed in 2020 was also a record, overtaking the previous best set back in 2012. The industry’s success was seen right across the country as every state and territory besides Tasmania – which recorded its second-best ever year – set a new record for installed capacity.

New South Wales was Australia’s small-scale solar leader in 2020, adding 927MW of new capacity, followed by Queensland with 787MW and Victoria with 559MW. Victoria’s 2020 performance is particularly notable considering that its entire small-scale solar industry was forced to shut down for almost two months in mid-2020 due to the state’s devastating COVID-19 outbreak.

The household battery sector continued to grow in 2020, with 23,796 batteries with a combined capacity of 238MWh installed throughout the year. Unsurprisingly, the states with government-backed battery installation support schemes saw the most installations, with South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria leading the way.

The remarkable growth of the Clean Energy Council’s Approved Solar Retailer program continued in 2020 as more governments made it mandatory for companies to sign up to the program to participate in their solar schemes. By the end of 2020, the program had grown to 1,141 participating companies, an increase of 66 per cent on 2019.

The Solar Retailer Code of Conduct was re-authorised by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in 2020, with, a number of minor amendments made to bring it up to date and in line with industry developments. This will allow the gradual transition of signatories to the New Energy Tech Consumer Code (NETCC), which was authorised by the Australian Competition Tribunal in September 2020.

The NETCC will eventually replace the Solar Retailer Code of Conduct to include solar, battery energy storage systems, electric vehicle charging products, energy management systems and software, and other emerging products and services for homes and businesses.

The number of Clean Energy Council accredited installers also grew strongly in 2020, increasing by 17 per cent to 7,713. The program has seen remarkable growth alongside the solar industry, with the number of accredited installers surging by more than 3,000 over the past five years.

Large-scale renewable energy

When the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic first became apparent in the early months of 2020, there were some dire predictions about the prospects for the large-scale renewable energy industry.

However, the sector was able to ride through most of these challenges, completing 32 projects with a capacity of almost 2GW throughout the year. A further 76 large-scale renewable energy projects were under construction at the end of 2020, representing more than 8GW of new capacity and employing over 9,000 Australian workers, often in regional areas.

Of these projects, 49 were large-scale solar farms, 21 were wind farms and three were bioenergy plants. A further three were hybrid plants, producing at least two different types of renewable energy. Despite making up just over a quarter of all projects under construction, the wind sector is responsible for over half of the new capacity, with more than 4GW of new wind generation currently being built.

The small-scale solar sector showed no sign of slowing down in 2020, as more than 3GW of new capacity was added to Australian rooftops.

The utility-scale battery sector saw a number of significant developments in 2020. The most notable of these was the expansion of the Hornsdale Power Reserve to 150MW/194MWh, which will allow Australia’s biggest battery to provide additional grid support services such as inertia to help stabilise the grid.

An additional 16 utility-scale batteries were under construction at the end of 2020, representing more than 595MW of new capacity. Several new major project announcements in 2020 provided a further boost to the sector, including a 300MW battery in Victoria, Western Australia’s first large-scale battery, and a plan to install a mammoth 1.2GW battery in New South Wales’ Hunter Valley.

The development of Snowy 2.0 and the Battery of the Nation hydro projects continued to make steady progress in 2020. Snowy 2.0 received state and federal environmental approval during the year and a $125 million transmission investment from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, putting the project on track to begin construction in 2021.

In Tasmania, the Battery of the Nation named its first pumped hydro site, while Marinus Link – the interconnector that is a critical component of the project – received a $94 million commitment from the Federal Government. The large-scale sector faced its fair share of obstacles during the year.

The most prominent challenges continue to be related to the electricity grid and the lack of a federal energy policy, with the convoluted grid connection process, network congestion and energy policy inaction causing significant uncertainty for developers.

While reform initiatives such as the Energy Security Board’s post-2025 market review are working to alleviate grid-related issues, and state and territory governments are taking energy policy into their own hands, it will take significant time and effort to solve the problems caused by years of inaction and neglect.

This is an extract from the Clean Energy Council’s Clean Energy Australia report for 2021, reprinted with permission. To read the full report, head to the Clean Energy Council website, www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au

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