Global Renewable Energy: How does Australia stack up?

The beginning of a new year is as good a time as any to take stock of where we are as a nation and see how our fledgeling renewable energy industry stacks up against other countries’ markets. This is a difficult comparison to make, given the vast differences in geography, population, development and technological capability that we find across our globe. To paint a more rounded picture, we will look at the general state of renewable energy amongst the top 20 nations, ranked by Nominal GDP
(for this discussion we are using nominal GDP as it doesn’t take into account inflation – something that would have a volatile effect if we were reviewing GDP over a period of time rather than at just its current value).

Nominal GDP CountriesIn this ranking from the World Bank, Australia’s GDP is ranked 12th, making us relatively on par with Canada and Spain, who are, as it turns out, model bedfellows. Renewables (particularly hydro power) contribute 16.9% of Canada’s total energy supply, whilst accounting for a whopping 59% of its electricity generation. Spain paints a similar picture, with around 50% of its electricity coming from renewables, predominantly hydro and wind power (2013 figures).

So how does Australia sit comparative to its global neighbours? Not well unfortunately. Australia’s renewable energy contributes 5.5% to our national energy supply, and 14.76% of our total electricity generation (2013 figures).

Well lets have a look at some other countries then.

India and Brazil are both BRIC countries – emerging economies undergoing rapid population and infrastructure growth so it is unlikely that they will exceed Australia’s renewables output. Oh wait…THEY DID. In the 1980’s the Indian government set up the Ministry for New and Renewable Energy, and are responsible for renewables currently contributing 26.5% of India’s total energy supply. In terms of electricity generation, renewables have the capacity to supply 13% of national demand, although it  only actually supplies 6-7%, as grid infrastructure is yet to catch up. This is made more promising by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership in the field; Modi is responsible for the enormous uptake of solar energy across the country, and for championing renewable energy – striving to more than double renewable electricity generation by 2020. So India is just ahead of Australia. Surely we can’t be behind India!?!

Ok..ok…lets try somewhere else…Brazil! Brazil has a population of 202.6 million people, and has the largest electricity market in South America, comparable to the size of Italy’s or the UK’s market, except that it is spread out over an area nearly 35 times the size of either nation – and again, a developing economy. Oh and GUESS WHAT? 88% of their electricity generation comes from hydroelectric power.

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So Brazil, with a similar landmass to Australia, and over eight times the population manages to derive EIGHTY EIGHT PERCENT of its electricity supply from renewable energy; Brazil’s coal power accounts for 1.4% of power generated. That didn’t just happen overnight. Surely someone noticed? This isn’t giving Australia much street cred!

Luckily the US and China, our #1 and #2 countries (on the Nominal GDP scale) have stepped in to give Australia a better name. The US is a first world economy, China is an industrial powerhouse, and both nations are both bigger carbon polluters that Australia. Good work Australia – you’re back on top!

Well here are the facts. Renewables account for 10% of the US’s energy supply, but 13% of its electricity generation (2013 figures) With a dependance on foreign oil as a major energy source, there is less emphasis on renewables, so it comes in slightly lower than Australia’s 14.76% electricity generation. As for China, renewables account for 30.3% of China’s total energy supply, but only 12% of its domestic electricity generation (2013 figures). This disparity between these figures comes from the fact that industrial provinces are unevenly positioned far from renewable sources (such as major hydroelectric plants), and older and burdened transmission infrastructure prevents widespread usage. With that said, however (and due to its population size) China still leads the world in renewable energy production, with 378GW of total renewable capacity generated in 2013 (out of China’s total energy production capacity of 1247GW). So even though Australia is ahead of China in %electricity production, China still knocked it out of the park because of it’s gargantuan proportions. Add to this the US and China’s announcement last year stating a strong and decisive reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and it seems that Australia is falling further and further behind.

So what comes next? Australia lags behind many of the world’s major actors – certainly behind those that we count as peers on the global stage. Russia is the fifth largest renewable energy producer in the world (thanks mostly to hydroelectricity), and Germany has quadrupled its solar/wind/biogas generation to 30% since 2000. Last year, during peak energy demand, Germany managed to reach 74% electricity generation from these renewable sources.

Below is a 2012 diagram of which countries in the world are leading the charge on various renewable energy sources (hydro/solar/solar thermal/geothermal/wind/biomass). Australia features at the bottom of the Solar Thermal Electricity Generation (STEG) list, a power source used for solar hot water systems, steam generation for electricity, and space heating through building design. Whilst it is a renewable energy source, it is limited to the above three mechanisms, and cannot be widely used as an efficient all-purpose energy source.

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Although it is from 2012, this infographic really brings home what we have been discussing above; that Australia has fallen behind many of its peers, and many of the nations that we would normally think we are ahead of. Of the 17 other countries listed in the above diagram, over 50% are developing nations, and all the developed nations mentioned are surpassing Australia’s current renewable energy abilities.

Australia has a long way to go, and should take its lead from all of the above nations – even those that are strong polluters. Even they, with their seemingly insurmountable challenges have taken the courage to forge a path into a greener future. SustainingPeople hopes Australia won’t leave it too late to get on board and realise its true energy potential.