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Renewable Economics

Green energy

It could be possible to shift the entire electricity system to a mix of renewables by 2020.

By Ian Lowe

Growth in GDP could pay for the entire electricity system to be converted to a mix of renewables by 2020.

A new report and a bizarre speech by a leading politician both put the spotlight on energy policy recently. The report by Zero Carbon Australia was an important contribution.

A 1992 study by the Department of Resources and Energy concluded that Australia could get all its electricity from a mix of renewable energy technologies by 2030. Since that report there have been significant advances in supply technologies. Importantly, there are now storage systems that deal with the problem of intermittent availability of sunlight or wind.

The ZCA report showed that solar thermal power systems with molten salt storage don’t just enable round-the-clock supply, but also deal with longer periods of reduced sunlight. The startling conclusion was that it could be possible to shift the entire electricity system to a mix of renewables by 2020!

It would require a significant investment but, as Dr David Crossley calculated, it would only amount to about 3% of GDP each year for a decade, after which the power needs for the next 30 years or more would be almost cost-free. That really would be an investment in the future and a way of ensuring that future generations are able to live in security and comfort.

To put 3% of GDP in context, it is the about the same as the annual growth expected by Treasury forecasts. In other words, we could fund it simply by ploughing each year’s growth into capital investment in electricity supply for a decade.

By contrast, the federal Opposition’s environment spokesman, Greg Hunt, told a business group that we should have bipartisan support for nuclear energy. I have some sympathy for the difficult position Hunt was placed in when his political party was taken over last year by a group that is still in denial about the science of climate change. I understand that he might want to appear to do something to reduce greenhouse pollution without directly challenging the forces of darkness within his Coalition. I can also see why he isn’t going to advocate going nuclear unless the political risk is removed by persuading the ALP to adopt the same stance.

But debating the issue with Professor Barry Brook of Adelaide University in recent weeks, following the launch of our book giving both sides of the argument, has reinforced my view that nuclear power makes no sense at all for Australia. The last coherent pro-nuclear argument, that it was claimed to be the only low-carbon way of providing baseload power, has been comprehensively refuted by the ZCA study.

So I have to wonder why an environment spokesman isn’t calling for a bi-partisan approach to building a national renewable energy supply system.

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I recently spent 10 days in New Zealand giving a series of workshops on assessing sustainability. I was surprised and disappointed to be told by several participants that even the word “sustainability” is not politically correct in that country at the moment, given the lurch back to 1980s thinking after the last election.

I had thought that by now even the most blinkered politician would think that we should be able to sustain activities at least until the next election, if not beyond, and so would feel obliged to at least say that they were in favour of sustainable development even if they didn’t really believe it! But apparently not.

On the other hand, I think I can understand why a thoughtful politician might be worried by the very concept of sustainability. The groups I was working with in New Zealand analysed several specific proposals. In every case, they found that the proposals were not genuinely sustainable. Some were worse than others, some failed several criteria and some only failed a few, but no proposal we considered passed the test.

In every case, problems could be ameliorated by thoughtful design that took account of social, environmental and resource issues. So, in every case, what could be called the level of unsustainability could be reduced. But that will only happen if we are serious about assessing new proposals against the test of sustainability.

Of course, by that test it would clearly be ludicrous to propose expanding coal export facilities or build new urban motorways.

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