A radical shift towards renewable energy has the potential to reshape the Australian economy and create exports worth hundreds of billions of dollars, according to the head of a major research project to be announced on Thursday.
The project, led by director of the Energy Change Institute at the Australian National University professor Ken Baldwin, will seek to identify ways to turn the massive renewable energy potential of northern Australia into a booming export market while dramatically reducing global carbon emissions.
The $10m Zero-carbon Energy for Asia-Pacific project will investigate bold proposals including building massive solar and wind projects in the country's sparsely populated north and selling that power via undersea cables, or shipping it as hydrogen created through green energy. In time these projects could replace current coal and gas shipments and help solve many of the energy needs of developing countries throughout the region. Singapore has already proposed a $20b project to build one of the largest solar power plants on the planet in the Australian desert and send the energy via an undersea cable from the Northern Territory.
"Our aim is to do the research into the way Australia trades with the world based on renewable energy. The aim is to establish what will happen during the energy transition away from fossil fuels which is happening, and how Australia can maintain its position as an energy powerhouse," professor Baldwin said.
Professor Baldwin said the Indo-Pacific would drive two-thirds of the world's energy demand growth in coming years, making it vital to decarbonise the region. By meeting some of this demand with renewable power and refining iron ore with renewables Australia could help the region reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by three times Australia's domestic emission levels.
"Australia is currently the world leader in the installation of renewable energy ... and although we have a large component of fossil fuels in our current energy mix we are transitioning away from that at the most rapid rate."
The project will also investigate energy policy and governance in the Asia-Pacific and look at ways to involve indigenous communities.
"One of the great advantages Australia has is its enormous renewable energy resource and its large available land areas to capture that. Where other countries are constrained by high population densities, agriculture and the like Australia has vast areas available to turn into these large energy plants. These are vast projects, on the scale of projects Australia is already very good at but based on renewables."
Australia recently announced it was on track to achieve its 2020 renewable energy target of 33,000 gigawatt hours of additional energy, despite being revised several times since its introduction in 2001 and attempts to kill off the target altogether.
Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction Angus Taylor, who will launch the ANU project on Thursday, said Australia had a crucial leadership role to play in the energy future of the region.
"This ANU research project is an opportunity to explore energy security in the Asia-Pacific and to help develop new clean energy industries in Australia," Mr Taylor said.
"It is important that governments, academia and industry work together to develop a sustainable, secure and affordable energy future."