Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Laying Clean Energy Foundations

By Ian Lowe

A review finds that Australia is a late adopter of clean energy.

The independent review of the proposed Clean Energy Foundation has given it a very strong endorsement. The team conducting the review was led by Reserve Bank board member Jillian Broadbent, so it certainly wasn’t a group of trendy greenies out of touch with commercial reality. Its main conclusion was that Australia needs a mechanism of this kind to catch up to where the rest of the world is going.

While some fossil fuel interests have claimed that the government is trying to “lead the world”, the review found that Australia is actually a late starter in the move to clean energy. Change in Australia has been impeded by cheap coal, the absence of pollution charges and the highly centralised electricity industry.

Many major economies have set up similar approaches years ago. At the top end of the scale, the USA and China have both committed more than $30 billion of public money, while the UK, Germany and Brazil also have clean energy funds. Germany is planning to spend something like A$150 billion on clean energy over the next 5 years.

The panel saw the proposed Foundation as a vital step to make up for lost time. Climate Change Minister Greg Combet is on record as saying that failure to act would allow other countries to gain a competitive advantage, while Broadbent argued that inaction would leave Australia “vulnerable” in the future.

So it was reassuring to see the government taking steps to shore up the Foundation against whimsical vandalism if it loses the 2013 election. The need was highlighted by the newly-elected Queensland Premier’s bizarre declaration that he would back down on the previous government’s contractual commitment to a large-scale solar energy project at Chinchilla.

It has been reported that the Gillard government will accept the review’s recommendation to use specific legislation to allocate funds from the Foundation. That will mean that an incoming Coalition government would need the support of both houses of parliament to halt the funding of projects under the scheme. I was tickled to see The Age refer to this as an “Abbott-proof fence”, a phrase I used in a presentation last year. It is an intriguing concept.

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I was especially interested to see the review’s recommendations about the balance between renewable energy technologies and other low-carbon initiatives. The panel suggested a minimum of 50% of funds go to renewables, meaning that as much as the other 50% could go to different low-carbon initiatives, such as demand management and efficiency improvements, co-generation and tri-generation schemes, and possibly fuel cells.

I witnessed a brisk debate between respected advocates of renewables and other low-carbon approaches at a recent conference in Cairns. The two contenders were remarkably well qualified.

The first was the real Allan Jones of Sydney: not the radio shock-jock (and climate change denier) but the spearhead of a plan to cut the city’s carbon dioxide emissions dramatically. Jones became a celebrity in the UK when he took the district of Woking, south of London, off the power grid. He made it self-sufficient with a mix of renewables, demand management and tri-generation schemes. He was then recruited by Ken Livingstone, at the time Lord Mayor of London, to take charge of that city’s plans to cut energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. He is now working with the Sydney council to achieve similarly dramatic reductions in energy use. The main element of his plan is a proposal to use locally-produced biogas to provide low-carbon energy.

His presentation was followed by an impassioned critique from Mathew Wright, executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions. This group has produced the impressive plan for Australia to be totally powered by renewables by 2020. Wright’s main concern is that gas-powered schemes, once approved, will have some claim to be allowed to operate for long enough to recover their capital cost. Just as we are still seeing tired old coal-fired power stations operating, he argued, we are likely to see any gas-fired boilers commissioned now still burning gas in 2050.

While gas is a much cleaner fuel than coal-fired electricity, there is legitimate concern that so-called fugitive emissions – inadvertent leakage of gas – will inflate the greenhouse impact of large-scale gas-powered energy. The debate will doubtless continue.

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