Australia’s out-of-control wildfires in recent months have captured the world’s attention and raised serious questions about how climate change is affecting the continent, whether the country’s leadership is taking appropriate action to address climate risk, and what the future holds for its unique weather patterns and ecosystem.
But Australia is one of the most fossil-fuel dependent countries in the world, which makes it politically difficult to face the reality of its climate risk, and how its own activities are increasing that risk. So in this episode we invited a longtime journalist and researcher, based in Sydney, who works in research, strategy, and communications around climate change and finance, to help us understand the political, economic, and climate context of Australia at this moment, and to understand how the wildfires are influencing the trajectory of energy transition there. She reveals a country delicately balanced somewhere between hope and despair, with political leadership in thrall to the fossil fuel industry, and a populace eager to pursue energy transition and reduce its exposure to climate risk.
Since we last covered Australia one year ago in Episode 39, a lot has changed…it has deployed the largest utility-scale battery system in the world, made numerous technical upgrades to prevent future outages, and placed some incredible leaders in key agencies where they are working hard to accelerate the country’s energy transition. It is also actively investing in new energy technologies that aren’t even commercial yet, to see how they can perform. In short, Australia is breaking new trail on multiple fronts in energy transition, and demonstrating some truly interesting findings to the rest of the world, for how a grid might function self-sufficiently, at scale, with significant shares of variable renewable power and large battery storage systems.
Our guide to the current state of affairs today is Ivor Frischknecht, a subscriber to this show and the CEO of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). A widely acknowledged expert and innovator in the energy industry, with deep knowledge of the grid’s needs in Australia, and a far-reaching vision for what it can become, he’s one of the top experts on the energy transition Down Under, and can explain it all in a very accessible way.
Australia has the highest proportion of households with rooftop solar PV systems of any country in the world. It also has the second-dirtiest grid in the world, getting three-quarters of its power from coal. As such, Australia might as well be the global poster child of energy transition, with both a huge load of dirty power plants it needs to retire, and a huge set of distributed and variable solar and wind systems that it needs to integrate into its power grid, while keeping everything balanced, without being able to import or export electricity from other nations. It’s a fascinating case study in wholesale markets, renewable incentives, technical balancing issues, and yes, acrimonious political debate between Browns and Greens. To help us understand this complex picture, we speak with Dr. Jenny Riesz, a Principal at the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO), the operator of Australia’s largest gas and electricity markets and power systems. Dr. Riesz works on adapting AEMO’s processes and functions to ensure ongoing security and reliability as the power system transitions to renewables, and leads its work program on matters such as frequency control, analysis on declining inertia, and possible solutions such as Fast Frequency Response.