A report to be released in the first half of this year finds that Australia can use solar and wind power to produce 100 percent of its electricity in 10 years using technologies that are available now.
The study is being compiled by the Victoria–based advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions and is based on the research of engineers and scientists.
"We have concluded that there are no technological impediments to transforming Australia’s stationary energy sector to zero emissions over the next 10 years," said Matthew Wright, executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions.
Australia now gets nearly 80 percent of its power from coal plants. Only 1 percent comes from wind power; less than half of 1 percent comes from solar energy.
"We're in a state of complete stagnation [on clean energy] at the moment," Wright told SolveClimate. "When the time is right and the community support is strong enough to take on the entrenched special interests of the big polluters, then our plan will be ripe for the picking."
The report calls for 40 percent of power to come from wind turbines. Concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, with molten salt to store energy, would form the backbone of the scheme, providing 60 percent of total electricity.
CSP uses mirrors instead of solar cells to collect sunlight to produce steam and drive turbines to produce power. There are few such utility-scale plants operating in the world today, and 30 under construction — none of which are in Australia.
According to DESERTEC-Australia, a 50-square-kilometer area covered in solar mirrors could theoretically meet all of Australia's electricity demand.
The report claims that 20 percent of the proposed CSP systems could be installed in four years, from 2011 to 2015. Wright said 12 sites with a capacity of 3,500 megawatts each have already been selected for the solar installations.
"The sites were chosen by a team that includes solar researchers from Melbourne University and Australian National University, based on solar incidence data, with particular attention paid to winter insolation," he said.
The whole point of the zero carbon plan is "not to burn anything," Wright said. But biomass co-firing would be needed to back up solar plants in the throes of winter. The plan would also require new transmission lines between the solar- and wind-intensive areas and population centers.
The organization calls for the total elimination of natural gas, not just coal. It also envisions 100 percent electric vehicles by 2020.
Wright concedes that the plan is ambitious. At the same time, he says, it is "totally feasible," despite the price tag.
The cost of quitting carbon entirely is estimated at around $36 billion per year, or up to 3.5 percent of Australia's annual GDP.
"The costs of transformation are adequately offset by savings made from shifting away from the business-as-usual scenario," Wright said, mainly "by avoiding the costs of a future carbon price and escalating oil, coal and water prices."
Chances for any kind of clean power transformation appear slim in Australia. The Senate in December failed to pass climate legislation that would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent by 2020 through a cap-and-trade program. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Labor government says it will reintroduce the legislation in late February.
The Beyond Zero Emissions plan, which launched last week as the centerpiece of the Transition Decade — an alliance of green groups — has been publicly endorsed by the Australian Greens Deputy Leader, Sen. Christine Milne, and by Victoria Gov. David De Kretser.
More endorsements could follow. "We have a panel of experts currently reviewing the plan who will decide on their endorsement once the final plan is released in a couple of months," Wright said.
So far, the group has not received any real backlash from opponents. "It seems the fossil fuel industry and other vested interests, as well as their media representatives, have decided not to attack us," Wright added. "Perhaps they do not want to bring attention to such a legitimate project."
The group has issued a summary on how to zero CO2 emissions from the electricity sector. A full report will be released in the coming months, followed by studies on carbon-free transportation, industrial processes, buildings, land use and agriculture, and plans for replacing coal exports.
Wind and solar power could completely displace conventional fossil fuels, with no new nuclear power needed, the report said.
"The reason people put their finger on the nuclear option is because they felt there was no other option. That's not the case today," Wright added. "We have renewables that do 24-hour firm power."
The claim comes as nuclear power advocates worldwide are pushing for the construction of new plants to slow down climate change.
The U.S. just guaranteed over $8 billion in loans for the first two nuclear plants in the nation in over 30 years. Some analysts see the move as the beginning of an atomic renaissance.
In a statement today on his Facebook page, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that "wind and solar are intermittent energy sources" and "nuclear power has to be on the table."
"Without technological breakthroughs in efficient, large scale energy storage, it will be difficult to rely on intermittent renewables for much more than 20-30 percent of our electricity," wrote Chu. "But nuclear power can provide large amounts of carbon-free power that is always available."
Rudd has ruled out a nuclear revival for Australia.
Australian skeptics paint the entire Beyond Zero Emissions plan as a pipe dream — especially so without new nuclear power.
"Because of irregularity, wind and sunshine can only feasibly contribute around 15 percent of the electricity load," said Alan Moran, director of the Deregulation Unit at Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs, a free-market group.
For transportation, Moran is particularly unconvinced.
"It is impossible — certainly by 2020 and possibly ever — to envisage fuel for cars, planes and other transport being from renewable sources," he said. "Nuclear is a possibility — with batteries for cars — but even that would leave vast holes in supply and not be feasible for the whole transport fleet inside half a century."
Despite the naysayers, plans worldwide have sounded a similar note on a total renewable energy future.
A report presented last year by the German Advisory Council on Global Change, chaired by prominent climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, concluded that the U.S. must cut emissions 100 percent by 2020 to prevent the worst effects of climate change, while other major polluters have until 2025 or 2030 to produce carbon-free electricity.
More recently, Stanford University engineering professor Mark Z. Jacobson and University of California-Davis researcher Mark Delucchi published a plan for 100% renewable energy for the entire world by 2030, fueled by a mix of solar, wind and hydroelectric power.
The construction costs for a global electricity shift of the kind envisioned in Australia, however, "might be" $100 trillion worldwide over 20 years, the authors said.