Australia’s path to net zero analysed in new study

The Net Zero Australia project has released final modelling results analysing what it would take for Australia to decarbonise its economy and exports.

Australia will need to triple the National Electricity Market’s power capacity by 2030 to be on track for net zero by 2050 – requiring a rapid rollout of wind and solar power, transmission, storage, electric vehicles, and heat pumps as we replace our coal fleet, new research shows.

This is a key finding of the Net Zero Australia project, which today released final modelling results of pathways to net zero.

Net Zero Australia is a partnership of the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland, Princeton University’s Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment, and Nous Group – and is supported by gifts and grants from various sponsors and has received input from a diverse Advisory Group.

Chair of the Net Zero Australia Steering Committee and University of Melbourne Honorary Emeritus Professor Robin Batterham said Net Zero Australia has set a new benchmark in analysing what it would take for Australia to decarbonise its economy and exports.

“Our results are unprecedented in their detail, rigour and transparency,” Professor Batterham said.

“Our aim is to inform the national debate with better evidence about the diverse preferences of the Australian community.

“This includes reaching net zero with renewables only, or with different mixes of renewables and low-emission uses of fossil fuels, and with different rates of electrification of our energy use. We have even considered whether nuclear energy has a role to play.

“We are not pushing a preferred pathway, rather we are illustrating a range of potential pathways.

“Our assumptions and detailed results are all public so they can be used by governments, businesses, and communities. They include projections for potential energy sources, mapping of possible land use change, and analysis of abatement from farming and other land uses.”

Director of the Melbourne Energy Institute University of Melbourne Professor Michael Brear said the modelling shows Australia will need all viable options to transform its energy system at an unprecedented pace and scale.

“Renewables and electrification, supported by a major expansion of transmission lines and storage, are keys to net zero,” Professor Brear said.

“But we will need an all technology, hands on deck approach. That includes a large increase in permanent carbon storage, deep underground and in vegetation, and a doubling of gas-fired power capacity to support renewables and energy storage.

“Our modelling finds that there would be no role for nuclear energy unless costs fall sharply (to around 30 per cent lower than current international best practice) and renewable energy growth is constrained.”

Associate Professor Simon Smart, Associate Professor in Chemical Engineering at the University of Queensland, said that Australia has a global responsibility and economic incentive to transition coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports to clean commodities.

“Hydrogen made from solar, wind and desalinated water can replace our fossil fuel exports. We can also export large volumes of clean hydrogen with large scale implementation of Carbon Capture and Storage,” Associate Professor Smart said.

“Exporting green metals, particularly iron and steel made in Australia using clean hydrogen, has much lower abatement and infrastructure costs than for exporting clean hydrogen.

“Northern Australia (WA, Queensland, and NT) is particularly prospective for exports, but inland NSW and SA and offshore Victoria and Tasmania can also play major roles.

“Our modelling also suggests that new gas fields may be needed to fulfil export demand for clean hydrogen, particularly if the growth in renewable construction rates hits limits.”

Katherin Domansky, independent Steering Committee member, said that net zero would bring major changes in employment and land use which create large opportunities and challenges.

“Renewable energy has great advantages in providing a sustainable source of energy to Australia and the world,” Ms Domansky said.

“Decarbonisation will provide up to 700,000 direct jobs, mainly in regional and rural Australia.

“However, renewables need much more land area than fossil fuels to produce a given amount of energy. Our renewable resources overlap the lands of First Nations and farming communities, and land with biodiversity value.

“Careful management will be needed to minimise adverse impacts, share benefits with affected communities and achieve a net gain in biodiversity.”

Dr Chris Greig, Senior Research Scientist at Princeton University’s Andlinger Center on Energy and Environment, said that around $7-9 trillion of capital will need to be committed to domestic and export energy and industrial infrastructure by 2060, which is up to six times the business-as-usual amount.

“Additional investment will be needed by households and businesses, to increase the efficiency of their heaters and vehicles, including by converting to heat pumps and electric vehicles,” Dr Greig said.

“The annualised costs of that investment in energy production, transport and use has been estimated at 8-9 per cent of GDP to 2050, which is similar to today’s level.”

Richard Bolt, Principal, Nous Group, said that the project will now examine how to mobilise the transition to net zero.

“Mobilisation will require strong and coordinated action from governments, businesses, and the public. Our next report, due in July, aims to inform the actions of all parties,” Mr Bolt said.

“It will ask how to transform our energy system and exports, and invest in people, land and nature. We have identified key decisions to be made and will provide some answers. As with the modelling, we will base our findings on evidence not preferences.”

Net Zero Australia is sponsored by Worley, Dow, Future Fuels Cooperative Research Centre, Future Energy Exports (FEnEx) Cooperative Research Centre, APA Group and Minderoo Foundation.

The Advisory Group includes senior representatives of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Climate Council, Energy Consumers Australia, Ethics Centre, National Farmers Federation, and St Vincent de Paul. It also has independent members and nominees from each project sponsor.

Net Zero Australia has consulted widely with the project's sponsors, Advisory Group members and many stakeholders but is independent of all of them. Net Zero Australia does not purport to represent sponsors, Advisory Group members or stakeholders positions, or imply that they have agreed to study methodologies or results.