How to export Australia’s future solar energy

By Stewart Taggart, DESERTEC-Australia

Both the International Energy Agency and Siemens believe Australia could become a future exporter of solar energy to Asia. How might it be done?

Following Western Australia-Indonesia fiber-optic routes would involve traversing a long distance of earthquake-prone, deep water. By contrast, connecting the Northern Territory to East Timor would shorten the distance, keep deep water at a minimum and could dovetail with other developments.

The most practical route would be via a high voltage direct current (HVDC) power line across the Timor Sea, possibly in conjunction with exploitation of joint Australian-Timorese natural gas assets.

For instance, East Timor favours construction of a pipeline from the Sunrise natural gas field to Suai on East Timor’s south coast where it could feed an export-based LNG processing plant. If that happened, an HVDC power cable from Darwin could be laid alongside. The problem, however, is that Timor Sea gas supplies may be developed (2010-2020) before Australia is ready to export surplus solar energy for international sale (2020-2030).

But given that East Timor and Woodside are unable to agree where to locate a Sunrise gas field LNG processing plant, this could delay development of the Sunrise field for several years. By then, the deleterious greenhouse gas emissions aspects of energy-hungry LNG liquefaction may become more widely-known.

If that occurs, a natural gas pipeline to Asia may then emerge as the best choice for getting not only Sunrise gas, but Northwest Shelf and Queensland unconventional gas supplies to Asian buyers. If so, HVDC power lines could be laid alongside. This would reduce overall investment cost through bundling infrastructure.

The huge greenhouse gas emissions involved in creating liquid natural gas make it a ‘dirty fuel’. A Pan-Asian Energy Infrastructure of bundled HVDC/natural gas pipelines would be more environmentally efficient.

There is precedent for this. In Europe, for instance, the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative is considering laying HVDC cable along routes already traversed by the existing Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline.

The good news is that a bundled infrastructure in the Timor Sea would represent the first step toward creation of a highly-flexible Pan-Asian Energy Network. Under such a system, surplus Australian natural gas could be turned into electricity in Australia and transmitted to Asia if HVDC spare capacity exists. This might occur in winter, for instance, when solar energy production in Australia is below its peak.

Conversely, surplus solar energy generated in Australia (for instance, during summer) and unable to be immediately transmitted over an already-full HVDC system could be turned into fuels like hydrogen. These could then either be pumped down spare capacity in the natural gas pipeline, or merely stored for later transmission. The efficiency gains of this arrangement are clear.

The benefits to Australia of developing its natural factor endowments in clean energy are huge. The benefits of a open, interconnected and competitive Asian marketplace for low-emission energy are huge. The benefits in battling climate change of frictionless fuel switching are huge.

Australia must begin preparing for the ‘post-coal’ era. When it arrives, coal mines will no longer scar the landscape, pollute groundwater or cause Chinese coal exports ships to run aground on Queensland reefs. Instead, gas and electricity can leave Australia by pipeline and cable to compete with indigenous Asian clean energy sources in an open, regional, efficient, carbon-adjusted, distance-adjusted pricing market.

Many steps, however, like between here and there.

Infrastructure must be built (i.e. pipelines and powerlines). Market reforms must be undertaken (i.e. carbon pricing and cross-border trading). Geopolitical reforms must be agreed (i.e. rules governing energy passage through transit countries). And, of course, status quo notions must be shattered (i.e. the default notion of the primacy of fossil fuels).

Now that the International Energy Agency and Siemens both argue that Australia’s future lies increasingly in solar energy, both for domestic consumption and export, the logistics of cross-border transit must be tackled. East Timor will emerge as Australia’s most-practical conduit to Asian markets.

Co-ordinating Australia and East Timor’s infrastructure development in HVDC and natural gas pipelines will open the doors to connection to Indonesia, ASEAN, China and north east Asia – the vast new energy markets of tomorrow.

The time to start planning, and thinking long-term, is now. DESERTEC-Australia has developed roadmaps for how Australia’s individual states can contribute to the retooling of Australia’s and Asia’s energy economy.