Two years ago, Australia made a strong and ambitious commitment to the Paris climate conference. The country pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 26 to 28 percent on 2005 levels by 2030.
Now, a new study from the Australian National University (ANU) suggests the target is well within the country's reach.
If Australia replaces enough of its coal-fired power plants with renewables, the country will easily meet its 2030 carbon emissions target, says lead author Professor Andrew Blakers.
And the best part? Australia can make this switch with a zero net cost.
"The cost of renewables includes stabilising the electricity grid with energy storage and stronger interstate powerlines to ensure that the grid continues to be reliable," said Professor Blakers from the ANU Research School of Engineering.
"As Australia grapples with the challenge of securing its energy supply into the future, our study shows that we can make the switch to affordable and reliable clean power."
The zero net cost is possible because renewable energy has gotten much cheaper to produce. ANU researchers found the cost of electricity from a newly built wind or solar power generator is well below the cost of electricity from a newly built fossil fuel generator. Plus, the study found renewables are cheaper than existing gas generators and the wholesale price of electricity.
The financial incentive here is clear, which is why Australia is already installing about three Gigawatts per year of wind and solar electricity - just enough to meet its emission targets.
"This rate is sufficient, if continued until 2030, for renewable energy to meet more than half of Australia's electricity consumption needs and Australia's entire Paris greenhouse emissions reduction target," said co-researcher Dr. Matthew Stocks from the ANU Research School of Engineering.
Right now, only 15 percent of Australia's electricity is produced from renewable energy sources, whereas nearly two thirds come from coal-fired power stations. But the good news is the majority of those coal-fired power stations will have to be retired over the next 15 years. And inevitably, that energy will have to be made up somehow.
The ANU study compared the cost of three replacement scenarios: new coal-fired power stations, new renewable generators and new gas generators. The findings reveal renewables are the cheapest and greenest way to power the country.
Even gas was found to be uncompetitive at current prices. Plus, the researchers argue if coal is replaced with gas, there will likely be a spike in gas consumption, which will inevitably cause gas prices to increase even more.
On the other hand, the renewable scenario does not require an increase in gas consumption, which means gas prices will be kept low and affordable. In fact, the study found that the cost of balancing large amounts of renewable energy will remain low until the country starts to generate more than three quarters of its electricity from renewables. And that's still a while away.
As far as energy storage goes, Dr. Stock believes in the future of hydro power.
"The Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro energy storage project could provide half of the new energy storage required," he said.
"The other half of the additional storage could come from more pumped hydro, batteries in houses and in electric cars, and improved demand management."
The findings of the new study are especially exciting because they do not take into account technological advances in the green energy industry. With that in mind, it is possible that fifteen years from now, when the coal-fired power plants are on their last days, green energy will reign supreme in Australia.
The study was provided by the Australian National University.