Electricity generation in Australia, Part 1: Renewables have finally overtaken gas

The first in a series of posts looking at electricity generation in Australia in 2019. Part 1 provides an overview of national trends and renewable energy generation.

In a happy coincidence, the day after I published my previous post, the Department of Energy and the Environment finally released Australia’s electricity generation data for 2019. Why it took until June to release I don’t know (I suppose it could have been COVID-19 related).

Using this data, I will look at some broad national trends in electricity generation, renewable energy generation in the states and speculate on what this means for 2020. This will be the first in a series of posts on this topic, with future posts looking at each state in more detail.

The majority of Australia’s electricity is generated in the National Electricity Market (NEM) but there are also separate electricity grids in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and regional Queensland. Households and businesses also generate their own electricity, including off grid.

In 2019, Australia’s electricity generation increased by a bit less than 1% compared to 2018, with some fuel sources increasing and others decreasing. There are currently eight types of fuel for electricity generation: black coal, brown coal, gas, oil (all fossil fuels), wind, solar, hydro (all renewable) and bioenergy (notionally renewable). Solar is generally split into small-scale (eg. rooftop solar) and large-scale. These are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1. Fuel sources as a proportion of Australia’s total electricity generation.

 2018 (%)2019 (%)Change (%)
Black coal45.843.9-1.9
Natural gas19.620.50.9
Brown coal13.712.5-1.2
Small-scale solar PV3.84.70.9
Oil products2.12.20.1
Large-scale solar PV0.92.11.2

Overall, renewable energy increased from 18.9% to 20.9% of Australia’s electricity generation from 2018 to 2019. At first blush, this 2% increase is lower than I expected considering the huge number of wind and solar projects beginning operation since late 2018. A closer look at the numbers is revealing.

  • Wind and large-scale solar each increased by 1.2% and small-scale solar increased by 0.9%. Collectively they provided 14.2% of the country’s electricity. Wind and solar now each create more electricity than hydro.
  • Gas generation increased by 0.9% and oil increased by 0.1%. 
  • For the first time in 20 years, renewables now provide more of Australia’s electricity than gas does. And with large numbers of wind and solar projects still connecting to the grid, the gap is likely to continue to grow. 
  • Both black coal and brown coal declined by a combined 3.1%. Coal provided 56.4% of Australia’s electricity in 2019. 
  • Hydro declined by 1.3%. 

Let’s dig into this. Wind and solar collectively increased by 3.3%, a sizeable increase in line with my expectations. But I hadn’t accounted for the 1.3% decline in hydro generation. So instead of net renewable energy increasing by 3.3% (if hydro had been stable), it only increased by 2%. 

Hydro generation varies year-to-year depending on dam levels and the drought conditions in 2019 throughout much of the country meant that hydro power stations made less electricity, primarily in Tasmania and New South Wales. 

The 0.9% increase in gas generation is also interesting. Most of the increase in gas occurred in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. I can offer a few possible explanations for this:

  • Drought conditions meant that hydro power stations in New South Wales and Tasmania generated less electricity. This left New South Wales more dependent on their gas power stations in periods of high electricity demand. This also left Tasmania more dependent on importing electricity from Victoria, increasing demand on Victoria’s gas power stations.
  • In Victoria, one of the Loy Yang A coal power station’s big units was broken for much of 2019. This punched a hole in the state’s electricity generation and was the primary reason brown coal generation decreased by 1.2%. To make up the gap, Victorian gas power stations ramped up production, especially in peak periods and South Australia’s gas power stations also ramped up to export more electricity to Victoria.

With Loy Yang A back operating normally (at least for the time being) and higher dam levels after heavy rains in the first half of the year, both hydro and to a lesser extent brown coal generation should recover at the expense of gas in 2020. 

In contrast, the 1.9% decline in black coal generation is likely structural, not cyclical. Black coal power stations in New South Wales and Queensland are increasingly losing market share to wind and solar, a trend that is likely to continue with 40 new projects connecting across the NEM in the next 12 months. 

I’ll conclude this post with a breakdown of renewable energy generation in each state from 2018 to 2019. I will go into more detail about the situation in the states in future posts but here are the topline numbers:

  • Queensland and Victoria have seen large increases in renewable energy generation of 4.3% and 3.6% respectively. If this increase were to continue for the next decade, Victoria would reach 57% renewables by the end of 2030 and Queensland would reach 56% renewables.
  • New South Wales saw a more modest renewable energy increase of 1.2%. The state did see a decent increase in wind and solar in 2019 but this was partially offset by the decline in hydro generation.
  • After years of little movement, Western Australia has finally awoken from its slumber with a 1.9% increase in renewable energy, reaching 10%.
  • The Northern Territory is at real risk of falling behind the rest of the country, with a very modest 0.5% increase to 4.1%.
  • The two Australian leaders in renewable energy, Tasmania and South Australia, both experienced small decreases of 0.5% and 1% respectively, probably due to the reasons discussed above (the increase in gas exports from South Australia to Victoria and reduced hydro in Tasmania).

Table 2. Renewable energy as a proportion of total electricity generation by state.

 2018 (%)2019 (%)Change (%)

Note: All data in this post has been sourced from Table O Electricity Generation 2019 released by the Federal Department of Energy and the Environment. Totals may not add to 100% due to rounding. The ACT is included in the NSW total.

If you want up to date information on electricity generation, I highly recommend OpenNEM, a brilliant and easy to use resource. The only limitation of OpenNEM is that it only includes the NEM – so there is no information on WA, NT and regional QLD.

For a comparison of electricity generation from 2017 to 2018, read this article I wrote last year.

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