Climate change

October 14, 2008

Thinking big and fast on renewable energy

Filed under: Renewable Energy — Barry Brook @ 11:07 am

There is an old saying in strategic communications. Repeat your key point, again and again. Then repeat it once again. Keep doing this. When, at last, you are sick to death of saying it and can’t possibly imagine anyone would want to hear it again… say it again. That’s about the point when people really get it.

So, I do harp on a lot about large-scale renewables. But in many spheres, it’s starting to sink in, and get real traction. Many other highly credible people are saying it. This is no pipe dream. This is our future – so let’s start thinking big – fast.

In this context, I recently published an Opinion Editorial on which pushed hard on the renewable energy ‘vision thing’. As I’ve remarked previously, I think a vision for installed capacity in renewables is a far grander and more attractive target than clutching at the straws of an emissions reduction goal. Read below, and let me know if you agree…


Can it Replace Coal, Gas, and Oil?

Solar Thermal Electricity: Can it Replace Coal, Gas, and Oil?

I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100% of its electricity from clean energy within 10 years” – Al Gore

Al Gore says the United States should embark on a “man on the moon”-style effort to satisfy all of America’s electricity needs by renewable energy within a decade. Just 10 years. That’s an incredibly bold vision – a real stretch goal. But it is also what’s needed to avert a climate crisis.

So why not do the same in Australia? Here, it could become a “nation-building” symbol of pride, akin to the 19th Century construction of the Overland Telegraph Line or the post-WW II Snowy Hydro Scheme.

Eighty per cent of Australians support carbon trading. A carbon price will open up huge new 21st Century markets, as price signals lead to a retooling of our energy economy away from dirty power sources like coal.

Australia has more than enough wind, geothermal and solar energy to make it happen. The question is not the availability of resources. It is national will, adequate leadership and sufficient commitment.

Al Gore says his plan is “achievable, affordable and transformative.” It is, both in the US and in Australia.

Fossil fuels like coal and oil are rising in price due to scarcity and supply bottlenecks, coupled to spiralling demand. Meanwhile, the costs of renewables are falling due to innovation, research and development, and rapidly-increasing economies of scale. Just like computers and mobile phones, the more you invest in these technologies and the more widespread their use, the cheaper they become.

Also, unlike fossil fuels, there will never be scarcity in renewables – ever.  ”Peak sun” and “peak geothermal” remain billions of years away.  ”Peak oil” and “peak coal” are right around the corner.

It’s a win-win

Australia has never had such a perfect opportunity to make the shift. The Australian economy has been ignited over the past decade by mining prosperity due to unprecedented terms of trade for coal, gas and oil.

If Australia uses near-term export windfalls to invest in decarbonising the economy, Australia will have intellectual property and experience in “sunrise markets” to sell internationally later.  Fossil fuel exports now, renewables exports just around the corner.  It’s a classic win-win.

Renewable energy economics is radically transformative. Civilisation has never experienced a long-term epoch of declining energy costs such as it will see in renewable energy. Scarcity could become irrelevant. Renewable energy is an infinite resource that’s falling in price due to rapid technological research and development.

“Moore’s Law” has been successful since the early 1970s in predicting that computer prices will halve, and processing power double, every 18 months. This literally transformed modern society.

Falling energy prices due to the uptake of huge amounts of “flat price” (free once built) renewable energy could be even more positive. We only need to choose to follow this obvious path.

The time is right. We have a huge windfall of export receipts to invest in decarbonising our economy. Carbon trading will provide tens of billions of dollars more per year to invest in upgrading to cleaner energy sources.

If coupled with proper economic reform that progressively eliminates $10 billion of annual domestic fossil fuel subsidies in Australia , we could lay the groundwork for a “long boom” akin to the early years of the 20th century when our nation got rich on agricultural commodities

In the 21st Century, clean energy can be our export.  Instead of riding on the sheep’s back, we can bask in the sun. Change isn’t Australia’s greatest future danger. Stasis or old-fashioned thinking is.

High energy prices, the mess in the Middle East, global warming and the need to upgrade aging electricity systems dominated by coal-fired power plants and threadbare power lines. The world is being hit by a confluence of events that makes dramatic solutions not only possible, but imperative.

Twenty years from now, obscure names like Innamincka, Ceduna, Woomera and Mildura could hold the kind of instant energy associations that old-style coal era names like La Trobe and Hunter valleys hold today. And instead of talking about constant “technologies in development” like carbon capture and storage, we could talk instead about solar chimneys, parabolic troughs, big wind turbines and oceanic wave machines. These are the new, limitless energy sources of the future.

In this new vision, the Outback’s huge solar and geothermal resources could become the centre of our domestic energy complex. Instead of crusty explorers trekking into the interior with mules and shovels, they’d be equipped with drill rigs, mirrors and high-voltage power cable. Fatal mine accidents like that at Beaconsfield, Tasmania will become a rarity because renewable energy is intrinsically much safer than fossil fuels.

Crisis + opportunity

Climate change is an existential handwringer. It’s no doubt the thorniest global problem we’ve faced as a civilisation, world wars included.

But the urgency of solving it also represents a huge opportunity for Australia to move early to exploit her clean energy resources and progressively export that energy to the world. Doing so will make Australia richer as the world rapidly moves beyond coal and oil.

In the next 50 years, humanity will either go to hell in a hand basket, or it will totally revamp the way it does business. If it takes the bleak “do as little as possible, slowly” pathway, interior Australia may see a tide of climate refugees fleeing flooded coastlines, a destroyed national food bowl, a devastated tourism industry, and huge dislocation.

But if Australia has vision, plays its cards right, and becomes a leader in the global climate solution, we could be humming with global exports of clean energy as world-leading discoveries make exploitation of unlimited energy resources ever cheaper.

Australia is incredibly well placed among developed countries to move completely to renewable energy. We have huge, unexploited solar resources in our continental interior akin to the oil fields of the Middle East in the early 20th Century.

When the Seven Sisters oil companies exploited that resource, the global energy system changed forever. Today, Australia has all the makings of a global “green energy” superpower.

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this “comparative advantage” in such a key 21st Century sunrise industry as cleantech.

In the early 1960s, South Australia, with its Woomera Base, held the lead in the global space race. Australia shouldn’t let the huge opportunities of solar/geothermal cleantech slip away from it now like it did with rockets.

It’s a once-in-a-century chance to get it right.


1 Comment »

  1. Vision is a word associated wiht leadership – and I totally endorse your call for leadership. And I thank you for exercising yours.

    In order to change we need to be able to identify what we value so much about the status quo – and decide how to reorder our values in order to move into the future. This just is not happening – yet. But doesnt mean it cant.

    We seem stuck without a picture of what might be. Or at least we are stuck with a picture of the future as a constrained and lesser version of today.

    What seems to be missing is a sense of how life in a truly sustinable future may be a whole heap better! We may have an environment that is cleaner and healthier. That in turn could mean healthier food, healthier and happier children. We may not spend so much of our time buying things… and so not need to spend 12 hours a day working! We may find that we get greater satisafction from being with people and enjoying relaxation and family again. We may find that as we choose to stop idolising the $ so completely, that we start to value people again…

    How could this future be so bad? I reckon it sounds WONDERFUL!

    I know we keep trying to talk the language of business and dollars when we talk about addressing climate change. And there is without doubt opportunity – but most of all, we need to respond from our hearts. We just need to care – for ourselves and our children…..

    Comment by jjmclean — October 17, 2008 @ 12:39 am

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