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Electricity Generation in Australia

A stunning view of an Australian coastal town on a sunny day.

Energy is the lifeblood of modern society, powering our homes, businesses and technology. The methods through which we generate this essential resource have evolved over time, driven by new and improved technology and a growing awareness of environmental impacts. Let’s look at the various ways in which electricity is generated.

What is Electricity Generation?

Electricity generation refers to the process of converting various forms of energy into electrical power

Although renewable sources like the sun, wind and waves create energy, electricity generation is needed to make it usable in our daily lives. For example, if you put your mobile phone outside on a windy day, it won’t suddenly start charging. That wind needs to be converted into electricity before it can charge your phone though a power outlet.

The Evolution of Electricity Generation

  1. Early years (late 1800s) – The first electricity generation in Australia was localised and primarily for lighting. Tamworth, a small NSW town, was the first municipality in the Southern Hemisphere to light up its streets with electricity. This was in 1888. During this time, small-scale generators, often fuelled by coal or gas, powered individual buildings or small communities.

  2. Coal dominance (early to mid-1900s century) – As industrialisation progressed, coal emerged as the dominant source for electricity generation. Coal-fired power plants became widespread due to the abundance of coal reserves in Australia. This trend continued for several decades.

  3. Diversification (late 1900s) – In the latter half of the 20th century, there was a shift towards diversifying the energy mix. Hydroelectric power gained prominence, using the country’s rivers for electricity generation. Additionally, some regions explored natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal.

  4. Renewable energy boom (the 2000s) – In recent years, Australia has experienced a substantial growth in renewable energy. Wind and solar power projects have been on the rise, contributing significantly to the energy mix. Australia has favourable conditions for these renewable sources, and advancements in technology have made them more affordable.

Australia is currently in the midst of transitioning to a low-carbon energy system. The government and various industries are putting money into renewable energy infrastructure to cut down on carbon emissions.

A dark evening with warm street lamps lighting up the road.
Tamworth was the first municipality in the Southern Hemisphere to light up its streets with electricity.

Where Does Electricity Come From in Australia?

Electricity in Australia comes from various sources, the most common ones being:

Fossil Fuels

Historically, fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas have been the primary sources of energy. Power plants combust these fuels to produce steam, which drives turbines connected to generators. While this process is efficient, it comes at a significant environmental cost, releasing greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, or more specifically, global boiling.

Renewable Energy Sources

As concerns about climate change and sustainability have grown, there’s been a notable shift towards renewable energy sources. These include:

  • Solar power. Solar panels convert sunlight into electricity through the photovoltaic effect. In 2022, rooftop solar made up 25.8% of the total renewable energy generation in Australia (cleanenergycouncil.org.au). This technology has become increasingly accessible and is widely used in both residential and commercial applications.

  • Wind power. Wind turbines use the kinetic energy of the wind to generate electricity. As the wind turns the turbine blades, a generator converts this mechanical energy into electrical power.

  • Hydropower. Dams and water infrastructure use the potential energy of water by directing its flow through turbines, thereby converting it into electricity. Australia has over 120 hydroelectric power stations, contributing about 5-7% to the nation’s electricity supply (arena.gov.au).

  • Geothermal energy. Geothermal energy is heat from the Earth. Geothermal power plants use steam or hot water from underground reservoirs to drive turbines and produce electricity.

  • Biomass. Organic materials, such as wood and agricultural residues, can be burned or converted into biofuels to generate heat or electricity.

  • Tidal wave energy. Tidal wave energy uses the kinetic energy of ocean currents to generate electricity. Specialised technology like tidal turbines capture this energy and convert it into a usable power source.

According to Energy.gov.au, in 2022, fossil fuels including coal (47%), gas (19%) and oil (2%) accounted for 68% of total electricity generation. Renewables, including solar (14%), wind (11%) and hydro (6%) contributed 32% to energy generation (a rise from 29% in 2021).

Nuclear Power

Nuclear energy is produced by the fission of uranium atoms. In nuclear power plants, this process releases an immense amount of heat, which is used to produce steam and generate electricity. While nuclear power is a low-carbon option, concerns about radioactive waste and safety have led to debates over its usage.

The construction of nuclear power stations is prohibited across all states and territories in Australia. In the history of civil nuclear power, there have been only two major reactor accidents globally – the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi disasters. Many argue that because it is so rare that something goes fatally wrong, it is only advantageous to allow nuclear power use in Australia.

A hydropower plant running on a sunny day, contributing to electricity generation.
As with solar and wind energy, hydropower contributes significantly to renewable energy generation.

How Much Electricity Does Australia Use?

Australia uses an estimated 5,600-5,900 PJ of electricity per year.

According to Energy.gov.au, Australia used 5,762 PJ in 2021-22. This marks the third consecutive year of decline, and it’s 7% lower than the highest recorded level of 6,188 PJ in 2018-19.

Price of Electricity in Australia

Over the past few years, rising energy prices have contributed significantly to the cost of living crisis. According to Finder, the average price of power in NSW is 34.07c/kWh and the average price in the ACT is 24.28c/kWh.

Generally, electricity prices are less expensive during off-peak periods (usually 10pm-8am) compared to more busy times (2pm-8pm).

How Electricity is Generated

In Australia, energy is generated in a number of ways. Fossil fuels like coal, and renewable energy sources like solar and wind power ensure that homes and businesses across the country can access electricity.

The way we create energy is always changing, driven by technological advancements and growing environmental consciousness. Australia’s move toward cleaner and sustainable energy reflects the country’s commitment to tackling climate change and working towards achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.