There are a number of reasons you may wish to review your energy options, including seeking more sustainable ways of living. Concerns about greenhouse gas emissions can be a strong call to action for moving towards a renewable energy supply. Or, perhaps you have the desire to be less reliant on large-scale infrastructure, which dictates prices from the top down.
Whatever the reasons for seeking alternatives, the options available to you are increasing. While some energy types are more suited to a small scale home installation, other ways of generating renewable electricity are only viable on a much larger scale.
Currently, renewable energy makes up less than 15% of the total electricity generated in Australia each year, with the vast majority coming from coal-fired power stations. The amount of electricity generated by renewable methods varies hugely from state to state, with Tasmania currently generating 95% of their electricity from hydroelectric schemes, while their nearest contender is Western Australia at 13%.
Hydroelectric is the biggest single renewable source of electricity in Australia, comprising 45.9% of the renewable energy ‘mix’. There are several major installations: the biggest generator of hydro power is Tasmania, with other schemes in the Snowy Mountains making up the rest. Most hydro schemes are executed on a relatively large scale, requiring dams and pumping stations well beyond the capacity of the average landowner to develop. That being said, micro-hydro options do exist for small-scale generators to use the natural water flow of permanent rivers and creeks that don’t dry out. Hydroelectric schemes offer a permanent supply of electricity that other renewable options don’t provide, as water is constantly flowing, meaning electricity can be generated any time of day or night.
Tidal and wave generators are other options for water-based electricity generation. Though these only contribute a tiny fraction of energy currently generated in Australia, the extensive coastline means there is huge potential for utilising these energy sources in future, especially in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.
Wind generators produce the 2nd highest amount of electricity of any renewable source in Australia (a little over 30% of the total). This area is dominated by large-scale “wind farms” over relatively large areas, often on actual farms that produce other returns for landowners (such as livestock or crops). The wind farms provide a reliable alternative income for farmers, which somewhat protects them from crop failures and droughts, without substantially reducing their productivity. Small scale alternative wind generators do exist, though wind generation usually requires open, unobstructed areas where wind is frequent. These characteristics are often undesirable places to live for the same reasons, as high winds can make houses and other buildings more expensive to heat and cool.
Australia is one of the sunniest places on earth, so it’s no surprise that there is a focus on solar energy capture as an alternative energy source. One of the most basic ways to capture solar energy is by using it to heat water for domestic uses. This kind of solar has been installed in almost a million buildings in Australia and employs close to a thousand workers. While not generating electricity directly, solar hot water systems reduce electricity and gas consumption for water heating.
Solar in the home
The next most common solar energy is photovoltaic panels, or solar panels, which can be seen on rooftops all over the country. These are often combined with some form of a storage battery, or can be fed back into the electricity grid as it is generated. Solar panels can be installed almost anywhere, and are scalable for almost any size of building; large-scale ground-based installations are also possible.
Industrial solar energy
Large scale solar energy capture uses reflective mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays and use it to superheat water turning it into steam. The steam can then be used to run turbines to generate electricity. While projects of this type are out of the realms of possibility for the average individual, they are currently under consideration, and a group exists to promote the concept as part of the energy mix for the future in Australia.
Biofuel and methane capture are possible alternative technologies for both small and large scale applications. Biofuel uses crop residues to produce liquid or solid fuels for running machinery or generating electricity. Methane gas is captured from landfill sites or sewage treatment plants for use as an alternative fuel. Both of these methods do reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions by preventing more potent gases, such as methane, from entering the atmosphere. That said, they still produce problematic emissions.
Geothermal power is another potential baseline-energy producing method using heat from the earth to generate electricity or produce hot water for industrial purposes without producing any greenhouse gas emissions. The potential for geothermal power in Australia is extensive.
There are renewable energy technologies that could reduce reliance on fossil fuels. If the government and private companies continue to invest in renewable energy technologies, it’s likely that they will become more affordable for everyday Australians. When this happens, you will be able to choose whether to purchase more competitively priced clean power from a retailer, or perhaps switch to generating your own electricity. Either way, you become a more empowered customer, allowing you to compare more options and make smart decisions about your power usage.