Solar Briefly Overtakes Coal for the First Time in Australia

The Broken Hill Solar Plant in western New South Wales, Australia.

The Broken Hill Solar Plant in western New South Wales, Australia. Jeremy Buckingham via Flickr

For a few minutes on Sunday, solar energy supplied more than half of Australia’s power generation, marking the first time that solar has outstripped coal in a country long dependent on fossil fuels to produce electricity, The Guardian reported.

Renewables fare better during shoulder seasons, when there is little demand for heating and cooling, and sunny weather yields ample solar energy. On Sunday, renewables briefly provided 57 percent of the country’s electricity generation, The Guardian reported. In South Australia, wind and solar met 100 percent of energy demand.

The power supply from all sources so outstripped demand that prices went negative, meaning producers had to pay to continue running. Coal plants typically pay these costs rather than shut down, given the expense of stopping and starting power production. Wind producers face a different calculus, and many ramped down power generation on Sunday to avoid the added costs. Had prices not gone negative, renewables would have supplied an even larger share of the country’s power, The Guardian reported.

“There was a significant amount of curtailment,” energy analyst Simon Holmes à Court told the Guardian. “What it shows is that there’s already more renewables that could have gone into the grid if the coal plants were more flexible and transmission was upgraded.”

Despite reaching a key clean energy milestone Sunday, “Australia was a long way from peak renewable energy,” Dylan McConnell, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Climate and Energy College told The Guardian.

To reach its commitments under the Paris Agreement, Australia must build out an additional 51 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy capacity by 2042, according to modeling by Rennie Partners. So far, only 3 GW of wind and solar projects are in the pipeline, leaving a major shortfall.