As economies disentangle themselves from the “fossil burden” in their generation fleets the world will stumble towards an inevitable transition to clean energy, says UTS research director Dr Sven Teske, but global temperatures will likely rise above the 2°C target.

Who is taking the best approach to replacing dirty energy with clean energy?

Definitely Denmark, followed by Germany – at least between 1980 and 2013. The German government wasn’t convincing in its energy policy over the past four years. But now there are many champions out there, often small developing countries – like Cost Rica – who get really good results. Leapfrogging into 100% renewables is possible as solar and wind is the cheapest way to generate electricity now. Industrial countries with a huge “fossil burden” – meaning the infrastructure of power plants and mines – often have far more problems to switch to renewables than developing countries with no energy infrastructure in place.

Dr Sven Teske is research director at the University of Technology Sydney and a core member of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS.

Is the world heading towards a dangerous patch where coal is removed at a faster rate than in the past? What can go wrong?

We are certainly not on a pathway to a rise in global temperatures this century of around 1.5°C, more a 3°C to 4°C pathway. The transition to renewables is too slow. However, China and India are heading towards an end of their coal boom. That means the rate of grid connection of new coal power plants slows or even freezes.

Unfortunately, the existing coal power plant fleet in those countries is so enormous that the CO2 emissions from coal-fired generation are too high. We need to shut these new power plants down before the end of their technical lifetime in order to stay under 2°C.

Can you explain how renewables generation is matched to load in Germany and how this has shown the baseload to be a “myth”?

The term “base-load” explains it: it is a load, not base generation! Base-load power plants are not a technical requirement to provide base load; it is a business concept to get priority dispatch and sell electricity independent from the current demand. In Germany, all renewables have priority grid access and dispatch. This means that RE electricity has priority to all other forms of electricity generation. So when solar and wind generate enough electricity for the whole country (and they currently have the capacity to do so) then all other power plants have to ramp down. When that happens, “base-load power plants” cannot generate any more and need to reduce output or shut down entirely.

Unfortunately, that does not always happen. Instead, coal power plant exports electricity to neighbouring countries. Coal is too slow to follow the load; a coal plant needs hours to ramp up and down its generation output. New power systems need flexible and quick power generation equipment. Hydro power, for example, is extremely good for dispatch power plant services. Coal power plants are inflexible. It’s like playing Mozart on a drum set – wrong instrument for that purpose.

How important is interconnection and proximity in a region like Europe in enabling the introduction of renewables?

Important, but less important than many people think. The interconnection capacity between EU countries is usually below 10% of their maximum load, with some exceptions like Denmark and Germany who have about 40% and 20% respectively.

Germany itself is still divided in the west and east and there are only three new interconnections between the old power grid in the east and the west. Spain, which has a very high wind and solar share, is almost an electrical island and has only minor interconnection with France.

Australia can obviously not really interconnect with neighbouring countries, except Indonesia. But Australia has far better wind and solar resources as Europe (both roughly twice as high as Central Europe). And the solar radiation is more equally distributed over the entire year than in Germany, for example. Australia has all the resources to go 100% reliable renewable.

Can the rise of distributed, privately-owned clean energy generation have a negative impact on the introduction of utility-scale renewables?

Not really, if there is good planning and coordination. We need both: utility-scale renewables (wind, PV, concentrated solar power with thermal storage, hydro, etc) and decentralised RE (basically PV). The interconnection of different technologies and different voltage levels makes the entire system more resilient.

Could the electrification of vehicles and heating hinder the transition to renewables? And how could it affect other energy sectors?

No, the opposite is the case. With electric mobility the storage capacity goes up. In theory, this storage capacity could help to integrate more variable solar and wind. It is a new business concept possibility. Same for heating. Storage of heat is low tech and can be used for demand side management.

As fossil fuels are replaced, what could be done with the expensive infrastructure so it doesn’t become redundant?

Some of the infrastructure could be recycled. A gas pipeline can transport renewable-generated methane and/or hydrogen, LNG terminals can export renewable-produced LNG and gas power plants can operate as dispatch power plants with those renewable-produced synthetic fuels. I am sure we will find more use for other infrastructure. It is a new engineering field. We should get more R&D funding to look into more innovative options. It would be a waste of money to just scrap existing equipment without an evaluation if this equipment can be used for 100% renewable energy systems.

There is a lot of expectation that the proliferation of data from distributed energy networks will lead to optimal efficiency. Is this possible or will it become too hard to optimise systems as they become too large?

I am sure it is possible. We just need to start to work with more distributed energy networks. The main barrier in the renewable energy sector of the past was political, not technical. The engineers are usually at least a decade ahead of politicians. Unfortunately that’s a global problem, not an Australian one.

How vulnerable are such systems to hacking?

Data security is extremely important. But renewable energy systems are less dangerous than, for example, coal, gas or nuclear-supplied systems. So this is not a “renewable energy problem” but an energy sector challenge as a whole.

How has the rise of wind and solar changed community attitudes towards the generation of electricity?

The public needs to be included in the journey towards 100% renewables. Community energy is key in this concept. Wind farm projects from global financial institutions that bypass communities and local councils will not get the social license to operate.

Under what circumstances should an energy user consider going off-grid?

When a consumer is connected to the grid, I would not recommend to go off-grid at all. Being part of an interconnected system makes the system more resilient and reduces storage capacities. However, when grid companies penalise consumers for generating their own electricity, then these grid companies might force their own customers off the grid. That would not be smart.

The grid operator of the future would treat a grid-connected consumer with his or her own generation as a business partner. The asset (solar PV) is very useful to optimise the overall system – in theory. In practise, grid operators need to fundamentally change the business concept.

Dr Sven Teske is research director at the University of Technology Sydney and a core member of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS. He has 20 years’ experience in technical analysis of renewable energy systems and has published more than 50 special reports about renewable energies. Sven was a lead author for the IPCC Special Report Renewables published in 2011 and a member of the expert review committee for the IEA World Energy Outlook in 2010 and 2011.