As coal has been so plentiful and cheap, there has been little incentive in the past to consider alternative sources of energy in Australia. But that has now changed. When Barack Obama gave his State of the Union address in February 2010, he said the country that would dominate the world economy in the 21st century would be the one that led the way in the transformation to clean technology and clean energy.
Australia may be one of the world's largest producers and exporters of coal for electricity, but it also has some of the world's largest renewable energy resources. The documentary, The Future Makers directed by Maryella Hatfield, highlights a number of Australians who are world leaders in the field of renewable energy and sustainable solutions.
"I kept coming across Australians doing really great things and I wondered why their work wasn't common knowledge. So I started to tell some of their stories," she says.
The Future Makers was first released in 2008, but is still in great demand, being shown to community groups, schools, universities, corporations and government departments and at a host of international festivals.
"I think people feel disempowered when the focus is always on the apocalyptic," Maryella comments," and it's easy to get bogged down in the problem. I kept hearing about solutions and I wanted to focus on solutions."
One of the new technologies explored in The Future Makers is wave and tidal power. According to Dr Tom Denniss, founder of Oceanlinx, "It's accepted that there's more than 5,000 times the world's current power usage in the oceans. Now that's all forms of energy; it's tidal, waves, currents, temperature and salinity gradients. Just the waves that break on our coastline alone is about twice the world's current power usage, so even to utilise a small fraction of that is going to be very meaningful."
Tom Denniss used to be a university lecturer in mathematics and oceanography. He was running along Bondi Beach training for an Ironman Triathlon and suddenly he had the brainwave to use his knowledge to extract energy from the ocean and turn it into electricity.
He came up with an idea to concentrate wave energy and developed a new turbine design, which was able to capture much more of the waves' energy then previous designs. In 2010, Oceanlinx installed a demonstration wave energy converter at Port Kembla, south of Sydney. It was connected to the grid and for two months provided electricity to the local retailer, Integral Energy. This demonstration model is believed to be the first of its size in Australia to be grid connected, and one of the first in the world.
Another innovation is the bioWAVE, the brainchild of Dr Tim Finnigan, founder and CEO of BioPower Systems. Currently under development, its nature inspired design (biomimicry) enables high conversion efficiency and the ability to supply electricity to the grid at a competitive price.
The sun's energy can be utilised in various ways to create power and one such technology is solar thermal. Solar thermal uses the sun's heat to make steam or a very hot fluid to turn a turbine and create electricity.
According to Dr David Mills, founder of Ausra, a solar thermal startup company, which was sold to the French power giant Areva in 2010, there are now far more solar turbines on order throughout the world than nuclear turbines.
"It just happened all of a sudden," he explains. "And we also see timelines of plant installation which are between two and three years from the shaking of hands, and nuclear is lucky to have seven or eight years."
The Ausra developed solar thermal projects include the world's first solar/coal-fired power augmentation facility at the Liddell Power Station near Muswellbrook in NSW. What was exciting about this project was that not only did it enable the power station to produce a portion of its energy using solar rather than coal, and so reduce its CO2 emissions, but also the positive reception this solar project received from the coal-based power station, and its willingness to look at renewable energy.
This particular solar thermal technology is being put to effective use in both Australia and America. Areva has been awarded a major contract to install a 44 megawatt solar thermal augmentation project at a 750 megawatt coal-fired power station at Kogan Creek in Queensland. It will be the largest solar project in the Southern Hemisphere and the world's largest solar/coal-fired power augmentation project.
One of the reasons that coal and nuclear power have been favoured over renewable is their ability to generate base load power. The base load is an area's continuous energy demand. Renewable energy solutions are often criticised for their ability to only provide power when the sun shines or the wind blows, and grid energy storage has been one of the major issues. Being able to store the energy and provide it on demand has long been seen as the holy grail of the renewable energy industry.
But Dr David Mills stresses solar thermal power is able to provide base load power, and it's only a matter of time before huge gigawatt plants able to run 24 hours a day completely replace the function of nuclear and coal plants. One person working hard to create that reality is Associate Professor Keith Lovegrove who has 24 years experience in solar thermal energy research.
Prof Lovegrove has developed the world's largest parabolic dish solar concentrator, which can concentrate the sun's rays by up to 1500 times. The heat can be used to drive an electricity generating turbine and also to power thermochemical processes, which mean that solar energy can be stored in chemical form. The Big Dish uses ammonia-based thermochemical solar energy storage - storing heat in a chemical battery so it can be used when the sun isn't shining. This breakthrough technology means clean energy can be provided whenever it's required.
Currently a Big Dish is being built near Whyalla in South Australia in conjunction with an energy retailer and the Whyalla City Council and community.
Australia is also making huge inroads in the area of solar photovoltaic cells that convert the sun's energy directly into electricity. Since the 1970s, Professor Martin Green of the University of NSW has been researching solar photovoltaics and his work has had a worldwide impact. Twenty five year old Eureka Prize winner Nicole Kuepper is currently at the forefront of the research being done into photovoltaics at the university. Several years ago, she had a vision to make affordable solar photovoltaic cells that could be easily made in poorer countries, so that people would be able to "read at night, keep informed about the world through radio and television and refrigerate lifesaving vaccines."
The result is the iJET cell concept that uses low cost and low temperature processes, such as inkjet printing and pizza ovens, to manufacture solar cells. The potential of Kuepper's PhD research has been recognised by Suntech Power for manufacturing in China. Suntech's founder, Dr Zhengrong Shi, recently summarised Australia's impact in photovoltaics in his article, "Can Australia Save the World?" (ATSE Focus, February 2011) when he observed that the UK had shown the way to use coal for energy, the USA had shown how to harness atomic power, but Australia and China had shown the world how to best use solar. Companies linked with UNSW formed an amazing four of the world's top six solar photovoltaic companies in 2010.
The work by Kuepper and others in this field means that the cost of manufacturing solar cells has halved and capacity has doubled. The uptake of photovoltaics by the market has been so enormous that it's believed in two years time solar photovoltaics cells could provide power as or even more cheaply than coal. The consequence is that solar cells will be automatically incorporated into new buildings, and not only reduce our carbon footprint, but also bring down household energy costs.
Another ingenious innovation is the plug-in, plug-out hybrid vehicle, which not only has a socket to charge up the vehicle, but also a socket to provide power. So the car can be used to charge appliances or equipment, or potentially to feed energy back into the grid at times of high demand. As well as providing transport, its portability adds the capacity to provide power wherever it is needed.
Chris Dunstan, Research Director at the Institute for Sustainable Future at University of Technology Sydney (UTS), says the cost of providing fuel in the form of electricity is about a quarter of the cost of petrol. And if energy for transport were provided by solar thermal electric power plants on the grid then, says Dr David Mills, "the two largest single emitters [of CO2] in the largest emitting country can be taken out by the same technology."
Called the Intelligent Grid, the ability to both take energy from the grid and also feed into it is seen as the way of the future, and will be an element explored in Maryella Hatfield's next film project. The Australian Government plans to spend $45 billion over the next five years on upgrades to the energy grid, so visionaries are looking at how the grid can be designed to make it highly amenable for decentralised models, ensuring that households and communities have the ability to feed energy in and take it out at different times of the day.
Chris Dunstan concludes The Future Makers by saying he believes a combination of large solar thermal plants, geothermal plants (which are also looked at in the film), combined with photovoltaic panels on house roofs and smart metering, will provide "the sort of framework within which we'll see sustainable energy become the dominant form of energy supply to meet the needs of tomorrow's economy."
As the political debate continues to rage over the carbon tax, hearing about the innovative work these Australians are doing is inspiring. Maybe, instead of being the world's highest CO2 emitters, we can be the country of President Obama's vision, and lead the way in the world's transformation to clean technology and power.
For more information about The Future Makers go to www.thefuturemakers.com.au