Logistics and Costs for Australia to Achieve Net Zero Carbon Dioxide Emissions by 2050 – Watts Up With That?

Logistics and Costs for Australia to Achieve Net Zero Carbon Dioxide Emissions by 2050 – Watts Up With That?

Author: Kenneth Schultz


Across the world, politicians are going out of their way to promise fantastically expensive climate policies. US President Joe Biden has promised to spend $US500bn ($648bn) each year on climate — about 13 per cent of the entire federal revenue. The EU will spend 25 per cent of its budget on climate.

Most rich countries, stampeded by climate activists and peer pressure now promise to go carbon neutral by mid-century.

Surprisingly very few countries have made a serious independent estimate of the cost.

In this study, I estimate the total cost to Australia of achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 to be around $1.13 trillion.

Any country aiming to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions must replace all fossil fuel burning equipment with carbon-free equipment and generators. Where that is not possible, carbon offsets must be employed.

The Australian Labor Party has pledged it will commit Australia to a target of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 if it wins government.

With the Northern Territory signing up for net-zero in July 2020, every state and territory has now adopted a net-zero target.

“Every state and territory has now adopted a net-zero target, meaning Australia now has a de facto national net-zero target,” Climate Council CEO Amanda McKenzie said in a July 10, 2020 statement.

“The national net-zero target is a message to all investors. Australia will be out of fossil fuels by 2050.”

The Prime Minister has been moving towards such a commitment for some months. “Our goal is to reach zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050”, said Mr Morrison in a speech on February 1, 2021.

So now it is imperative to closely examine what such a commitment really means for Australia.

In this report, I’ll present what net-zero carbon dioxide emissions for 2050 means for Australia in terms of cost and the rate of deployment of carbon-free energy and the coincident decommissioning of fossil fuel infrastructure.

To conduct the analysis I used data from the federal government report ‘Australian Energy Update, Commonwealth of Australia 2020 – Guide to the Australian Energy Statistics 2020’1, as well as other sources quoted in the endnotes.


Executive summary

  1. Definitions
  2. Energy consumption per annum
  3. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables
  4. The task
  5. Carbon footprints
  6. Solar farms
  7. Nuclear power plants
  8. Cost comparisons
  9. Carbon offset calculations
  10. The global warming hypothesis
  11. Summary
  12. Endnotes

Executive summary

This study will show that to achieve net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, Australia will need to:

  1. Decommission an amount of fossil fuel-burning generators, vehicles and equipment that collectively consume 1,085,000 gigawatt hours of fossil fuel annually and replace with zero emission equipment.
  2. Install 119,000 wind turbines over an area of 60,000 square kilometres, an area as large as the area of 3 million MCG stadiums. Construction and installation of the turbines will consume 36 million tonnes of steel and 145 million tonnes of concrete.
  3. Install 6 million rooftop solar systems.
  4. Build 22,000  solar farms.
  5. For the 516,000 gigawatt-hours of fossil fuel-burning equipment that cannot be replaced, provide carbon offsets by planting 17 billion trees per annum for a total cost of $238 billion and a total land requirement of 201 million hectares, an area equivalent to 50 per cent of Australia’s total agricultural and grazing land.
  6. Build 6 nuclear power stations at a cost of $92 billion
  7. Emit 670 million tonnes of carbon dioxide during the manufacture and construction of the infrastructure
  8. Spend an estimated total of $1.13 trillion

This infrastructure requirement may be tweaked with more of some items and less of others but it will still need to add up to the total number of gigawatt hours to replace or offset.

The total gigawatt-hours are based on Australia’s current energy usage, derived from the Australian government report ‘Australian Energy Update, Commonwealth of Australia 2020 – Guide to the Australian Energy Statistics 2020’.

If construction started on 1st January 2022, a total of 354 wind turbines would need to be installed every month, or 11.8 every day, until 2050, at a total cost of $476 billion.

In the same time frame, 18,000 solar rooftop systems would need to be installed every month together with 67 solar farms at a total cost of $326 billion.

The total cost would run out at $1.13 trillion, not including ancillary costs such as the construction of power lines connecting remote wind and solar farms to the main power grids.

For all the massive costs and societal disruptions, the impact on global temperatures would be, in the words of Australia’s chief scientist, “virtually nothing”.

1. Definitions

To those not familiar with the subject I will give a brief explanation of the terms and units used in this analysis.

A watt is a unit of power and is used to quantify the rate of energy transfer.

Units:    1 kilowatt (KW) is a thousand watts

            1 megawatt (MW) is 1,000 kilowatts = 1 million watts

            1 gigawatt (GW) is 1,000 megawatts  = 1 billion watts

Electrical generating plants are often designated as having a capacity of so many Megawatts or even Gigawatts, but this is not very helpful as it doesn’t specify how much electricity it can actually generate over a specified time period.

A more useful unit is the megawatt-hour (MWh) or gigawatt-hour (GWh), which is the actual amount of electricity generated over one hour. For example, an electricity generator supplying one megawatt of energy for one hour will generate one megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity. For generators operating 24 hours per day, such as coal or nuclear plants, a one-megawatt plant can generate 8760 megawatt-hours (MWh) in one year, where 8760 is the number of hours in one year. For a solar farm where the solar panels can only gather energy five hours per day, the multiplier becomes 8760 x 5/24.

A further complication is that the Australian Energy Update Report specified above quotes most energy consumed or generated in another unit, petajoules (PJ). For this analysis, I have converted petajoules to gigawatt-hours, where one petajoule is equal to 277.778 gigawatt-hours.

I added an extra column to the tables derived from the above report showing energy also in gigawatt hours, which makes it easier to follow examples later.

2. Energy consumption per annum

The relevant figures for energy consumption are:

The figures include not only electricity generation but fuels consumed by industry, aircraft, passenger vehicles, trucks, mining equipment and heavy machinery. With over 2 million rooftop solar systems, a number of solar farms and wind turbines, renewables provide only 6.4 per cent of Australia’s energy needs.

The problem of looking to renewables to supply all of Australia’s energy needs by 2050 is the difficulty of scaling up. Some 20 per cent of all residences, mainly the more affluent, already have rooftop solar. This relatively high figure was achieved mainly because of large taxpayer funded subsidies. Under this scheme, the less wealthy homeowners are often subsidising the more wealthy homeowners who can afford to install solar.     

3. Replacing fossil fuels with renewables

For Australia to reach its net zero target with renewables, it will have to decommission 1,601,112 GWh of fossil fuel generators and devices (table 1) and replace them with a combination of solar and wind turbines. Where they can’t be decommissioned, carbon offsets will have to be deployed.

Not all fossil fuel devices can be decommissioned. A problem arises with converting large trucks and industrial machinery to electric.

For example, the Caterpillar 797F dump truck is powered by a 4,000 horsepower turbocharged diesel engine. At full power it will require 2.98 megawatts of energy. Assume the truck runs at 50 per cent of maximum power for an eight-hour shift. It would consume around 12 megawatt-hours of electricity. It would need 120 of Tesla’s latest automotive batteries to power it. The batteries would weigh 64 tonnes

This is just an example of the impossibility of converting large machinery to electric. Not to mention converting a Boeing 787.

The following table lists sectors that can only be partially converted.

Let’s assume that 50 per cent of the vehicles and equipment in these sectors can be converted to electric. That amounts to 515,847 GWH to be subtracted from the total fossil fuel amount of 1,601,112 GWH leaving 1,085,265 GWH to be replaced by renewables. The other 515,847 GWH will need to be dealt with by carbon offsets, which we will come to.

The following table lists the sources of renewable energy in Australia for the 2019 year. The only renewables with expansion capability are wind and solar PV, the other sources are mostly static.

4. The task

And therein lies the problem. How do we scale up some 33,000 GWH of wind and solar to 1.085 million GWH, a factor of 33? 

A large amount of baseload power will still be needed when the wind stops blowing and the sun stops shining. Storage batteries will offset some of the baseload needs. But without being recharged during prolonged rainy and cloudy periods or wind-free periods, the batteries will run down. Commercial and industrial buildings could not afford to be without power and would still stay connected to the grid.

But wind turbines and solar panels will not cut it, even with backup batteries. They require base-load power and the only means of providing such carbon-free baseload power is by way of nuclear power generation.

Nuclear produced energy is clean, green, reliable baseload electricity. Australian politicians will have to get their heads around the fact that nuclear power is essential in meeting their net-zero targets. There is simply no other way to do it. (See nuclear power generation below)

Let’s assume that the minimum CO2 free baseload is comprised of one nuclear generation plant in each of the six mainland states. These jointly will provide 66,000 gigawatt-hours per annum.  That leaves a balance of 1,085,000 hours (rounded to the nearest thousand) to be shared between wind and solar.

If the split is 70 per cent wind and 30 per cent solar it equates to 713,000 GWh for wind, 203,822 GWh for solar farms and 101,911 GWh for rooftop solar, which will require 6 million installations (there is a total of 9 million dwellings in Australia and around 2 million rooftops already have solar.)

One wind turbine can generate on average 6 gigawatt-hours of electricity per annum. In a windfarm, the generally accepted minimum area required for each turbine is 0.5 square kilometres. This is to take into account topography and to ensure minimum air turbulence between turbines.

Wind turbines chop up a large number of birds and bats each year. Figures are hard to come by, but the US Fish and Wildlife Service estimate America’s 67,000 wind turbines kill up to up to 500,000 birds and 888,000 bats each year.2 Based on the US figures, the required 119,000 turbines could kill around one million birds, including the iconic wedge-tailed eagle, and 1.6 million bats annually.

The cost of an average wind turbine of 3 Mw capacity is about $4 million, the cost of installing 119,000 wind turbines in Australia will run out at around $476 billion. In addition, maintenance, estimated at $45,000 per unit will cost an additional $5.35 billion per annum.3

Materials required

Material requirements of a modern wind turbine have been reviewed by the United States Geological Survey. On average 1 MW of wind capacity requires 103 tonnes of stainless steel, 402 tonnes of concrete, 6.8 tonnes of fibreglass, 3 tonnes of copper and 20 tonnes of cast iron. The elegant blades are made of fibreglass, the skyscraper-sized tower of steel, and the base of concrete.4

5. Carbon footprints

All types of electricity generators have a carbon footprint, which is the amount of CO2 generated over its lifecycle, from mining its constituent minerals, to the construction, maintenance and decommissioning of the generator.

Figures vary from researcher to researcher, but I have taken the figures of the 2017 report from the University of Texas as being the most authoritative.5

The University of Texas carbon footprint figures for various forms of electricity generations are shown in the chart below.

One gram of CO2 per KWh equates to one tonne of CO2 per GWh.

6. Solar farms

Many solar farms are being built around Australia but they still account for a small percentage of renewables generation. I used a December 2019 report by MCG Quantity Surveyors6 to arrive at a cost of building a 5-megawatt solar farm. The average cost from the two case studies is $11.9 million. Assuming an area of 20 acres is required for a solar farm of this gives a total space requirement of 963 square kilometres..

7. Nuclear power plants

Currently, there are 440 nuclear reactors in thirty countries in operation around the world.  As of April 2020, 55 reactors were under construction, including 4 in the US and 12 in China.

One large nuclear power plant can generate on average 11,000-gigawatt-hours per annum. Australia would need to build 6 such nuclear power plants to meet the minimum requirements of carbon-free baseload power.

Building such a plant requires 40,000 tonnes of steel and 200,000 tonnes of concrete7

The practicalities for Australia are that after overcoming massive environmental hurdles, placing orders, training technicians and incurring long construction times, the first nuclear power plant would not be commissioned before 2030. That time frame is optimistic considering the time allocated to build Australia’s next-generation submarine fleet. That leaves just 240 months to build 6 nuclear plants, or one every forty months.

Australia has by far the largest identified uranium resources in the world8

The cost of building nuclear power plants is very difficult to pin down as the costs vary enormously from country to country due to varying construction costs and varying rates of finance. The only guide I could find is two nuclear plants under construction in Georgia in the US.  The final estimated combined cost for both is US 23 billion, or A$ 15.3 billion each.

British firm Rolls-Royce is developing small modular reactors that could be shipped to Australia in containers and erected on site. These are expected to be available by 2030.9 Each unit will have a generating capacity of 440 megawatts capable of generating 3,850 gigawatt-hours per year (this figure is arrived at by multiplying the capacity by 8760, the number of hours in a year- assuming it is online 100%). However, they will not be in production until at least 2030.

8. Cost comparisons

One way of comparing the costs of different energy producers is known as the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) which includes the lifetime costs of building, operating, maintaining and fuelling a power plant.

The LCOE is calculated as the ratio between all the discounted costs over the lifetime of an electricity generating plant divided by a discounted sum of the actual energy amounts delivered.

I have not included an LCOE comparison chart here, because they can be misleading. Generally, wind and solar appear quite competitive in comparisons, but there are two factors not usually taken into account:

  1. In the calculations, the cost of renewables are generally subsidised by taxpayers
  2. Renewables require storage systems, such as batteries. Instead of adding the storage costs to the cost of a renewable such as wind or solar they usually appear under their own headings.

9. Carbon offset calculations:

Finally, let’s deal with the matter of carbon offsets. From above we had 515,847 GWH that cannot be replaced with renewables, but only with carbon offsets by the planting of trees. To prevent fraud, the trees must be planted in Australia where they can be monitored.

One kilowatt-hour of fossil fuel burning generates 0.707 kilograms of CO210

One mature tree can absorb 21 Kg of CO2 per annum.11

The table below calculates the total number of trees to be planted annually at 17.3 billion.

The trees will take 20-30 years to reach maturity before they can absorb their full 21 kilograms of CO2 so there will be a constant backlog. A dog chasing its tail comes to mind.

It is difficult to get an estimate of tree planting costs, but let’s assume the cost of each plant, together with labour, maintenance and the acquisition of land amounts to 50 cents per tree. That amounts to $8.5 billion per annum or $238 billion over 28 years. Senator Richard Colbeck, on a tree-planting excursion with the Prime Minister, estimated every billion trees require 400,000 hectares of land, hence, 17 billion will require 7.2 million hectares or 201 million hectares. Over 28 years.

Australia has a total of 353 million hectares of grazing and agricultural land12. The tree-planting program would take up 57 per cent of the total grazing and agricultural land by 2050.

Much of Australia’s grazing land is in semi-arid areas. It would be a logistical nightmare to provide sufficient water during the growing phase of the trees.

10. The global warming hypothesis

All of this economic pain and industrial disruption over an unverified hypothesis about the impact of carbon dioxide on global temperatures. Looking at the climate change subject rationally, it is quite bizarre that a colourless, odourless trace gas comprising just 0.04 per cent of the earth’s atmosphere, and essential to all life on the planet can be routinely described by governments and the media as a “pollutant.” All life is carbon-based, and the primary source of this carbon is the CO2 in the global atmosphere.

There is no scientific evidence the planet is in any danger from runaway global warming. A “consensus” between a select group of “scientists” is not science. Science does not depend on consensus. It depends on testable hypotheses. We have a hypothesis that fossil fuels may be responsible for the very small increase in temperature over the last century. But such a hypothesis can only be tested over a very long period of time. All we have so far are predictive models. These have already been shown to be grossly inaccurate.

As there has been no discernible increase in earth’s temperature for the past twenty years, the term “global warming” has quietly been abandoned in favour of an all-encompassing “climate change”. Now every anomaly, whether it be drought or floods, can be attributed to the nebulous “climate change”.

There is no evidence that hurricanes and cyclones are increasing in frequency and intensity. In fact, the reverse is the case.13

Studies by reputable institutions including the CSIRO have concluded the average sea level rise between 1992 and 2016 is a minuscule 3.31 millimetres annually,14 nothing like the six metres claimed by Al Gore.

The one indisputable fact about CO2 is that it is essential for all life on earth. Without it, there would be no life on earth, for two very good reasons.

Firstly, CO2 is plant food. All plant life depends upon CO2. No CO2 means no plant life and hence no life on earth.

Secondly, the so-called greenhouse gases, of which carbon dioxide is just one, combine to make the planet habitable by raising the average temperature of the earth by some 20 degrees Celsius. Without this greenhouse effect, the planet would largely be an uninhabitable ice sheet.

Carbon dioxide should be revered, not demonised.

Statement from Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel:

“On 1 June 2017 I attended a Senate Estimates hearing where Senator Ian Macdonald asked if the world was to reduce its carbon emissions by 1.3 per cent, which is approximately Australia’s rate of emissions, what impact would that make on the changing climate of the world. My response was that the impact would be virtually nothing”.15

Embarrassed, Finkel quickly put out a media statement trying to cover his tracks, but he did not deny his statement.

11. Summary

In section 4, I asked the question, how do we scale up from the current 33,000 gigawatt-hours of wind and solar to 1.085 million GWh, a factor of 33? 

Together with the proposed nuclear plants and the carbon offsets (table 5), this is what is required for Australia to achieve its target of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050.

Table 6 reveals Australia must install 354 wind turbines per month, or 12 every day, as well as 17,842 rooftop solar system and 72 solar farms every month until 2050, a logistically impossible task.

Material requirements of a modern wind turbine have been reviewed by the United States Geological Survey. On average 1 MW of wind capacity requires 103 tonnes of stainless steel, 402 tonnes of concrete, 6.8 tonnes of fibreglass, 3 tonnes of copper and 20 tonnes of cast iron. The elegant blades are made of fibreglass, the skyscraper-sized tower of steel, and the base of concrete.16

All types of electricity generators have a carbon footprint, which is the amount of CO2 generated over its lifecycle, from mining its constituent minerals, to the construction, maintenance and decommissioning of the generator.

Figures vary from researcher to researcher, but I have taken the figures of the 2017 report from the University of Texas as being the most authoritative.17

The University of Texas carbon footprint figures for various forms of electricity generations are shown on page 8

Table 8 reveals that in Australia achieving its 2050 zero-net emissions target, it will be responsible for emitting 672 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Table 9 below shows that based on the calculations in this study, the estimated total cost of Australia achieving net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 is in the order of 1.13 trillion dollars.

By comparison, the federal government’s annual total revenue pre-Covid was $493 billion.

The total cost would run out at $1.13 trillion, not including ancillary costs such as the construction of power lines connecting remote wind and solar farms to the main power grids.”

One country that has not bought into the climate change lunacy is China. Chinese President Xi Jinping must be sitting back smugly watching the Western nation lemmings racing to the economic cliff.

Communist China, in 2020, built over three times as much new coal power capacity as all other countries in the world combined — the equivalent of more than one large coal plant per week. In addition, over 73 gigawatts (GW) of new coal power projects were initiated in China, five times as much as in all other countries, while construction permits for new coal projects also accelerated.18

Also in 2020, China’s CO2 emissions rose by 1.5% while those of most other countries fell. Although in 2020, the world retreated from coal, these retirements were eclipsed by China’s new coal plants.19

Even before China built those new plants, it was already the world’s biggest emitter of fossil fuel carbon dioxide (CO2): In 2019, China was responsible for almost 30% of CO2 emissions — roughly twice the amount emitted by the US, then the second largest emitter.20 China, the planet’s primary coal consumer, already has the largest concentration of coal plants globally;21 in 2020, it produced 3.84 billion tons of coal, its highest output since 2015. In addition, China, in 2020, imported 304 million tons of coal, up 4 million tons from 2019.22

12. Conclusion

And there you have it.

Massive industrial and economic disruption. Unreliable energy. Higher energy prices reducing Australia’s international competitiveness.

Deployment targets that will be logistically impossible to achieve in the time frame.

A gargantuan total cost of $1.13 trillion.

And in the words of Australia’s Chief Scientist, virtually no impact on the world’s climate.

It begs the question, why would any political party want to condemn Australia to such an ill-conceived scheme that would decimate our economy while assisting China to grow economically, politically and militarily.

13. Endnotes

[1]   https://www.energy.gov.au/publications/australian-energy-update-2020

[2]   https://www.evwind.es/2020/10/01/the-realities-of-bird-and-bat-deaths-by-wind-turbines/77477

[3]  https://weatherguardwind.com/how-much-does-wind-turbine-cost-worth-it/

[4]  https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2011/5036/sir2011-5036.pdf

[5]   https://www.factcheck.org/2018/03/wind-energys-carbon-footprint/

[6]   https://www.mcgqs.com.au/media/australian-solar-farms/

[7]   Ecolo.org>documents>wind-concret-steel-07

[8]  NEA & IAEA (2019) Uranium 2018: Resources, Production, and Demand.

[9]   https://www.afr.com/companies/energy/the-rolls-royce-option-for-australian-nuclear-power-20190822-p52jpn

[10]   https://www.epa.gov/energy/greenhouse-gas-equivalencies-calculator

[11]   https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2015/03/17/power-one-tree-very-air-we-breathe

[12]  https://www.agriculture.gov.au/sites/default/files/images/ag-snapshot-2021-2-01.jpg

[13] https://wattsupwiththat.com/extreme-weather-page/

[14] IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) – Summary for Policymakers page 9

[15] https://www.chiefscientist.gov.au/2018/12/clarifying-the-chief-scientists-position-on-reducing-carbon-emissions

[16]  https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2011/5036/sir2011-5036.pdf

[17]   https://www.factcheck.org/2018/03/wind-energys-carbon-footprint/

[18]    https://globalenergymonitor.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/China-Dominates-2020-Coal-Development.pdf

[19] https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-chinas-co2-emissions-surged-4-in-second-half-of-2020

[20]  https://www.statista.com/statistics/271748/the-largest-emitters-of-co2-in-the-world/#:~:text=In%202019%2C%20China%20was%20the,largest%20emitter%20the%20United%20States.

[21]  https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-worlds-coal-power-plants

[22] https://www.scmp.com/economy/china-economy/article/3121426/china-coal-why-it-so-important-economy


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