Renewable Realities

Australia cutting back on renewable energy while China is investing in new energy technologies
As climate change policies dominate the media, and our thoughts, Adrian Glamorgan suggests we risk being left behind by other countries, not least China.

In case you haven't heard, in May's Budget the Australian Government cut back our country's renewable energy funding by over $500 million, putting a new front cover on the strategy and rejigging the funding so the renamed Emerging Renewables Program (supposedly $100 million) gets only a total of $2 million over four years, and the Venture Capital Fund allocations will be finalised - wait for it - by 2024.

Worse, part of the money being used to support renewable energy and emerging renewable technologies this coming year was carried over from unspent monies on renewables from last year!

The same day as the Budget, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), taking a conservative line, argued that, on the evidence, there seem very few technological barriers to a big shift to renewable energy, and that if these renewable energies are given support, they should power 80% of the world by 2050. In other words, solar energy, ocean power, wind power, and bioenergy, if properly managed, could give us the energy outcomes we need to help steer us through growth in the decades ahead, while tackling the biggest problem of humankind, rising mean temperatures leading to climate change.

So, it's the bad news and the good news. The bad news is that the Australian Government has effectively abandoned renewables at a time when the actual technology for renewable energies has been tested and found to be real, practicable and achievable, obviously a key cornerstone to action on reducing greenhouse gases, and the way of our century. The good news is that the whole world has been put on a notice that renewables can be a key part of the answer to greenhouse gases.

The $506 million Budget cuts in Australia included scrapping the Solar Schools program that facilitates schools providing a portion of their own electricity needs, selling it to the grid when they had surplus (for example, in high summer, when school is out). Also gone are Green Start and other energy efficient schemes.

It did make sense for the government to cut funding for the "clean" coal initiative, as it is only an idea, an untested process and technology.

But renewable energies, as the IPCC has reminded the world, is technology ready to go. When the Treasurer Wayne Swan announced a $3 billion training package and "critical new investments in economic infrastructure", the opportunity for facilitating a turn towards these renewables was ready and waiting - but ignored. In fact, $4.3 billion of investments in the Sustainable Australia strategy includes what Professor Ray Wills, CEO of the Sustainable Energy Association of Australia (SEA), has called "simply a different way of describing seemingly business as usual spending of money on regional hospitals, health care, universities and roads."

On the upside, the Australian Conservation Foundation commended the reform of the Fringe Benefits Tax subsidy that, by discouraging excessive driving, curbs greenhouse pollution from company cars. But the Fuel Tax Credits scheme continues, which means, as CEO Don Henry explains, that "every household in Australia is contributing about $200 a year so companies like BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto don't have to pay a single cent in tax for the diesel they use in their off-road mining operations."

ACF was critical of tax breaks for green buildings being deferred, and the $9.7 million to help continue the network of regional marine planning program "falls well short of the $350m needed to meet our international responsibilities to protect the oceans around our coastline".

Of course, at a time of belt tightening, we can't expect all environmental initiatives to be taken up. But renewable energy priorities do at least help us shift jobs into a carbon-neutral economy, with long term climate change benefits, which, with a price on carbon (due in July 2012) sends the right message to entrepreneurs about which way to take Australia - towards leading the world in renewable and low carbon technologies.

Some might raise the objection - why would we become a leader in these technologies when the rest of the world is committed to polluting energies? Why should we do anything when China hasn't shown any sign of changing its rampant industrial approach?

As it happens, China has a five year national economic blueprint to raise living standards by 7% Gross Domestic Product (GDP), while simultaneously reducing carbon pollution by 17% per unit of GDP, and will invest in low carbon industries, replant forests, and introduce China's first-ever environmental taxes. The 12th Five Year Plan is also framed to create carbon markets. A pilot program in Jiangxi and Guandong Provinces in industrial Southern China will pioneer the way for a national scheme. There are existing carbon trading exchanges in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin. The Chinese are also investing heavily in new battery types that store electric charges much more efficiently, making them suitable for high energy demand technologies, like electric cars.

While Australian governments of all persuasions have argued that we should stay with selling coal to China to ensure our future prosperity, they have ignored that China is investing in high-tech, low-carbon manufacturing for the future. It's many years away yet, but you can't restructure Australian industry once it's been fully accomplished in China - we must start our own transitions now, as are they.

So what are our options? Obviously, Solar Photovoltaic (PV) cells are suited to houses and offices, and can buy and sell electricity to the grid according to need. Put these on people's roofs, instead of investing in a new coal fired station. Solar thermal plants can power electrical generators, which, with storage technologies, can reassure sceptics concerned about solar capacity to provide "baseload" power. Wind power also has enormous potential, though we will need to investigate claims about their potential negative impacts.

Since our continent has extensive hot granite, we have a great capacity to create geothermal power to heat and generate electricity.

These are not experimental technologies - they already exist. Wind power generated 158 Gigawatts around the world in 2009, and has been climbing 30% per year. Photovoltaics are around 21 GW, climbing by over 50% per year. The largest geothermal in the world is in California, able to produce 750 Megawatts. Of the 300 Gigawatts (GW) of new electricity added 2008-2009, 140 GW came from renewable energy. And here's the surprise - according to the IPCC, developing countries host more than 50% of current global renewable energy capacity. They are carrying the rich countries.

What do all these numbers matter? The IPCC tells us that taking renewables to 80% of total production by 2050 would, by the best of projections, represent "a cut of around a third in greenhouse gas emissions from business-as-usual projections", and these "could assist in keeping concentrations of greenhouse gases at 450 parts per million (ie close to the tipping point). This could contribute towards a goal of holding the increase in global temperature below 2 degrees Celsius."

The findings of the 120 researchers led Ramon Pichs, a Co-Chair to say: "The report shows that it is not the availability of the resource, but the public policies that will either expand or constrain renewable energy development over the coming decades."

Public policies like Australia's national 2011 Budget that cut back on renewables and energy efficient programs, leaving us open-mouthed, and open-handed, as China prepares to make its own big change away from the best "dirty" coal we have to offer. The best we can do?