Kane Thornton: As WA stands on the edge of history, we must forge our own path

Kane ThorntonThe West Australian
Western Australia is a concentrated microcosm of our national energy challenge and opportunity.
Camera IconWestern Australia is a concentrated microcosm of our national energy challenge and opportunity. Credit: Tom Zaunmayr/Pilbara News

Western Australia is a concentrated microcosm of our national energy challenge and opportunity.

As any follower of motivational social media memes knows, there is one you see time and again and it applies to WA, even more than to our island nation: nobody is coming to save you.

WA stands at the precipice of history, with an opportunity to lead the world in both renewable energy and the production of the minerals that will be essential to the global clean energy revolution.

But much like Australia as a whole, WA can’t rely on neighbouring systems and interconnectors to come to the rescue.

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It has more pressure than any other to get it right because there is no plan B.

WA is islanded in a network sense. The tyranny of distance means the State must forge its own path, confidently and by necessity.

Thankfully, it possesses world-class renewable energy resources that will be essential to power the State and deliver the low-cost power that will ensure energy security and that the previous mineral resources can be extracted and produced at costs lower than any other competitors. WA is truly blessed and has an enormous opportunity to lead the world and become a genuine clean energy superpower.

The race is on, but WA is not starting flat-footed.

For many years it has been driving the shift away from expensive diesel and gas to power remote communities and mining operations. WA has been leading the world with advanced micro-grids utilising solar, wind, batteries and some smart technology.

The resilience and ingenuity this has taken to power this State is revered around the world and should be a great source of pride to all West Australians.

Homes are helping, with more than one in three houses with rooftop solar helping the grid. But there is a lot more to be done.

WA is a victim of its own success.

As the State moves towards net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, it is estimated that if the predicted new industrial loads connect to the wonderfully named SWIS — the South West Interconnected System — by 2042, the level of electricity required could grow to be five times greater than it was in 2022.

The SWIS serves the majority of the State’s population and will require an additional 4000km of new transmission lines and about 50GW of new renewable electricity and storage infrastructure to support increased demand over the next 20 years. The majority of that will need to be wind and solar.

There is also the need for long-duration storage and finding the right solutions won’t be easy. The topography makes pumped-hydro difficult but doable.

Much of this demand is being driven by the shift away from expensive gas and diesel and the growing demand as a result of the growth in the mining and resources sector. This is a State that is unlocking potential across a range of industries, green iron in the Pilbara, green hydrogen and new offshore wind opportunities.

WA possesses some of the world’s largest reserves of the critical minerals that will be required to build the massively expanded portfolio of renewable projects not just in Australia, but around the world. It also has a global responsibility borne by some of the world’s largest minerals companies. If you’re going to talk the talk, what happens in your backyard matters. And the world is watching.

Today, the State’s energy industry is coming together in Perth to discuss what needs to happen to ensure this great State reaches its energy potential at the WA Clean Energy Forum.

There is nowhere in the world with the same challenges and opportunities as WA. The State needs to calibrate for a once-in-generation infrastructure build that will require workforces and supply chains to become more sophisticated, and quickly.

The orchestration necessary to unlock the opportunities and manage these risks will require leadership and detailed planning on a scale that is hard to overstate.

WA has benefitted from leadership that understands these challenges in a way others didn’t. The relatively new Premier and Energy Minister have a clear vision for continuing the momentum built in renewable energy by their predecessors and now matched by a Federal Government determined to lead.

In its refreshed strategy, the WA Government highlighted the benefits WA’s critical minerals and battery industries are forecast to contribute to the national economy by 2030: $16.9 billion in gross value added and more than 60,000 jobs.

Now the challenge will be to harness the opportunity and ensure the State benefits from what will be the greatest infrastructure challenge and opportunity in a generation.

As the Instagram influencers say, the advice to WA is “be your own hero”.

Kane Thornton is the chief executive officer of the Clean Energy Council.

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