By Clare Brown | 25 Oct 2019

Renewables, once dismissed as too expensive to compete with conventional energy sources are now seen as a viable alternative.

However, there are limitations in delivering these alternatives from an approvals and land-use policy perspective. So, what is the role of planning? What actions must planners and authorities consider for the transition to renewable energy to be achieved?

Australia and the world are rapidly entering the renewable energy era as an essential move to respond to rising greenhouse gas emissions.

Globally, this shift has largely been made up of moves away from inefficient technologies and towards more efficient energy usage and cleaner power generation. Improving energy efficiency and growth of renewable energy generation are the main pillars of this transition.

While power generation, energy efficiency and sustainability have a national platform there is no national framework or co-ordination of approval requirements and land use policy for the delivery of renewable energy projects. Therefore, local and global investors are faced with a multitude of statutory planning layers and policy inconsistencies within States and between States when seeking to roll out projects.

Once dismissed as too expensive to expand beyond niche markets, renewables such as solar and wind can now compete with conventional energy sources on price while increasingly matching their performance.

Presently, fossil fuel reliant energy consumption and production (coal, natural gas, oil) accounts for about two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions. These fossil fuels form 81% of the global energy mix. We know that emissions trends are not on track to meet goal reduction targets of the Paris Agreement.

Globally, under current and planned policies, the world would exhaust its energy-related “carbon budget” to keep the global temperate rise to well below 2°C in under 20 years, while fossil fuels would continue to dominate global energy for decades to come.

The recent increase in global power generation was driven by strong expansion in renewable energy, led by wind and solar which accounted for almost half of the total growth in power generation. Despite this it represents only 7% of total power generation. Although wind continued in its role of the bigger, more established technology, it is solar energy that is growing the fastest globally. As countries ramp up their share of solar PV and wind, they will require market reforms, grid investments, and more efficient and effective storage technologies to be developed.

Figure 1: Renewables investment 2019. Click to enlarge.

Here in Australia, coal dominates our power generation comprising a total 62% of the fuel type. Renewables currently take up only 17% of the generation with hydro and wind together making 68% of that load.

It is refreshing that Australia has the highest uptake of solar globally, particularly with rooftop solar PV, this small-scale solar accounting for a further 20% of renewables. Bioenergy, usually associated with the agricultural sector like bagasse from sugar cane, and the large-scale solar farms together account for 11% of renewables.

The greatest short-term opportunity for growth appears to be with large-scale solar projects. Across the eastern state’s National Electricity market, (excluding WA and NT) coal fired power generation has decreased from 85% in 2009 to 75% today.

However, this needs to be considered against the following:

  • Australia’s per capita emissions are the highest in the OECD and among the highest in the world.
  • Australia’s emission target, under the Paris Agreement is to be 26-28% below 2005 levels by the year 2030. On current figures scientific commentators predict that we will miss the target by 21%.
  • Electricity generation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Australia.
  • Coal has a carbon intensity of about 1,000g CO2/kWh (grams of CO2 per kilowatt HOUR) compared to hydro, wind and solar which are all less then 50g CO2/kWh1.

 It has been estimated that Australia would need to shut 12 coal power stations by 2030 to do what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is necessary to avoid the effects of climate change.

Governments have an important role in delivering sustainable and reliable power. NSW has made a start, through the Transmission Infrastructure Strategy which will help to accelerate delivery of poles and wires to priority areas of the State with renewable energy resources.

The process of improving our energy networks and incorporating a greater percentage of renewable energy resources is complex and will need close collaboration between all levels of Government, regulators and the Australian Energy Market Operator.

Figure 2: Potential Renewable Projects (+100NW). Click to enlarge.

Australia has no national policy on climate change and therefore no effective framework for transformation of the energy sector in response to climate impacts. Australian governments have failed to deliver affordable, reliable energy in a way that is consistent with meeting our emissions reduction targets.

The planning approvals and development assessment processes differ from state to state and from energy type and there are real challenges experienced by investors in addressing the multi layers of approvals and documentation and varying timeframes for assessment throughout the country.

The approach to renewables, particularly large scale solar is in catch-up mode.

With any large-scale development and a change in land use, you need to have a comprehensive plan. The approach to renewables, particularly large scale solar is in catch-up mode. Some planning policies and guidelines across the States are being updated or are in draft but there is a lack of co-ordination or consistency.

In addition to those renewables already mentioned, bioenergy or energy from waste (EfW) can be seen as an important contributor to the national grid. Australia generates nearly 70 million tonnes of waste per year, around half of which is recycled. Traditionally the remainder would be destined for landfill here or recycling overseas, but now some companies are taking cues from innovations in Europe, Singapore and Japan and investing in ways to extract energy from Australian waste.

However, like solar and wind projects there is no consistency of approach to standards and assessment criteria which presents barriers to the successful management of our increasing waste problem and need to secure sustainable and reliable energy sources.

We need clear government policy to be developed and put in place. A clear set of national guidelines for renewables, supported by all jurisdictions, would be preferable so that proponents know exactly where they stand and what the rules of the game are.

If we think about our energy sector and the opportunity and importance for renewables it is critical to develop a land use planning system that sits within a national framework. We need to encourage and support investment, particularly from the international providers who have access to a wide range of cutting edge technology.

There is ample opportunity to improve how we plan for renewables in Australia.

The Grattan institute recently recommended we introduce an emissions reduction obligation for the electricity sector and develop a comprehensive narrative for the energy transition. The absence of such a policy is the critical challenge facing the electricity sector.

The Federal government needs to develop stronger national policy particularly to secure the transformation of the electricity grid to accommodate renewable energy providers and the States need to respond with an improved and co-ordinated planning assessment and approvals approach that removes inconsistencies and are streamlined.

One approach could be to take a ‘critical infrastructure’ approach to projects to encourage investment, particularly from the international providers, to provide certainty to the proponents and the community, to make the best use of our available resources, to limit our greenhouse gas emissions and deliver reliable electricity to the National grid. There is ample opportunity to improve how we plan for renewables in Australia.

This article originally appeared in ‘New Planner’, a Planning Institute of Australia publication. For more information, visit:

1 Wilson, L 2013, ‘Graph of the Day: How green is your electricity?’, Renew Economy- Clean Energy and Analysis