Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Wind Energy Blows Strong

By Ian Lowe

South Australia’s wind farms are generating almost one-quarter of the state’s energy needs.

The Murdoch press has been running a campaign against wind energy, but the facts from South Australia show that wind turbines can make a major contribution to a clean energy future.

On one windy day in early September, the state’s wind farms produced 55% of all the electricity used in South Australia. At its peak in the early hours of one morning, wind was producing 85% of the power being consumed.

So much for the furphies that renewables can’t provide baseload power or contribute significantly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions!

Russell Marsh, Policy Director at the Clean Energy Council, quoted data from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO). Marsh said: “According to AEMO, in the 2011–12 financial year almost a quarter of the state’s electricity was generated by wind farms. This has led to a corresponding drop in generation from coal and gas plants, with wind generating more energy than coal for the first time. South Australia has proven once again that wind energy can generate real power – and lots of it.”

Marsh said the data showed that greenhouse gas emissions from South Australia’s power sector had fallen every year since 2005–06. The overall reduction over the 5 years was just over 27%.

“All this wind is putting South Australia well ahead of the curve on Australia’s 20% Renewable Energy Target, and helping to provide farmers and local businesses in regional areas with extra income”, Marsh said.

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One question has been at the centre of science and technology policy since I was first running Griffith University’s science policy research centre in 1980: science-push versus demand-pull. Do we fund basic science and then look around for applications of the new knowledge, or do we start from today’s pressing social or economic challenges and set out to find the science needed to solve them?

Over those 30 years, funding of curiosity-driven basic science in universities and CSIRO has gradually been wound back, with public funding increasingly directed to such areas as medical research or cooperative research centres with a commercial focus.

So it was a step back in time to attend a high-level workshop in Beijing in October. The workshop, NBIC2, was part of a broader program exploring the “converging technologies”: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science. The initiative began 10 years ago in the USA and has a strong “science-push” emphasis, seeing the commercial development and use of technology being driven by advances in science. It also sees significant links between these fields of rapid development.

I can certainly see real potential for these advances to help meet pressing challenges. Biotechnology is critically important to the task of meeting human energy needs without causing dangerous climate change and depleting petroleum resources. While dramatic savings can in principle be made by efficiency improvements, those savings are unlikely to be realised while current economic policies continue.

That makes it urgent to develop biofuels beyond their present niche applications. While solar and wind energy are able to supply increasing amounts of our need for stationary energy (see above), biofuels are likely to be the main means of providing transport energy if current mobility levels are to be maintained.

Information technology offers the prospect of dramatically reducing energy needs by moving information rather than people and objects. The web, Skype and other advances have reduced travel needs. An increased emphasis on information technologies offers the prospect of cutting aircraft fuel use, which is a large and growing environmental problem.

There is still a vigorous debate about the best approach to harnessing innovation. Significant issues have been raised by a European “High Level Expert Group” that argued for “a bottom-up approach, starting from societal needs”. The Europeans also argued that progress involves the skills and knowledge of many scientific disciplines, rather than “the core of three or four” promoted by the US experts.

Similarly, the Canadian variant of convergence gives significant attention to ecology and human health, rather than having a narrow emphasis on economic development

The robust discussions in Beijing showed that there is no simple best solution for every country.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.