News | 16th May, 2011

Coal thrives as cleaner power fights losing battle

Monday, 16 May 2011
Nicky Phillip, Sydney Morning Herald

The proportion of Australia's energy produced from renewable sources such as wind and hydro has declined dramatically over the past 50 years, a new report shows.

As the demand for electricity has surged since 1960, the growth of coal-fired power has dwarfed all renewable sources, a review of electricity generation data commissioned by Environment Victoria found.

Mark Wakeham, Environment Victoria's campaign director, said the report showed the need for a carbon price to encourage investment in renewable energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

''Despite the fact that we've had a range of climate programs over the last decade, the business-as-usual climate policies aren't leading to emission reductions and a more diverse energy mix,'' he said.

The study found Australia today produced 10 times the power generated in 1960.

While renewable energy provided 19 per cent of electricity in 1960, it contributes just 7 per cent to the grid today. Coal-fired power had risen 1200 per cent, and now provides more than 80 per cent of electricity.

The proportion of electricity produced by gas-fired power stations had also grown in the past four decades. The NSW Greenhouse Gas Reduction Scheme and Queensland's gas power targets had fuelled growth in that sector since 2000.

The report showed the decline in renewable energy had occurred despite the federal government's Renewable Energy Target, which was introduced in 2009 to ensure 20 per cent of electricity be produced from renewable energy sources by 2020.

There was no clear pattern of growth in renewable energy, with the amount of electricity produced fluctuating from year to year, the study found. It declined on previous totals by 12 per cent in 2002 and 2004, but rose 17 per cent in 2005.

The ratio of renewable energy to coal-fired power on the main national electricity network, which accounts for the bulk of Australia's supply, had declined slightly from 11 per cent in 2001 to 10 per cent in 2009.

Hydro power was still the largest renewable source of electricity, followed by bioenergy, such as biofuel and wind.

One explanation for the decrease in power produced by renewable sources was that drought conditions led to a drop in the proportion of electricity produced by hydropower over the past decade.

Now that droughts had been linked to climate change, more could be expected in the future, Mr Wakeham said.

"[The findings] highlight that we are going to need a broad mix of renewable energy technology,'' he said.

A price on carbon would be the most effective way to reduce reliance on coal-fired power stations, with some of the revenue used to support the renewable industry to speed up projects, Mr Wakeham said.

''Until someone who is polluting stops polluting, or pollutes less, we are not going to see a fall in our national emissions.''

Download a copy of the energy mix report here

Read our media release on the report here