Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Eye of the Renewable Energy Storm

By Ian Lowe

Political foes have united in their condemnation of fear-mongering about renewable energy.

Australian responses to climate change have been a political football in recent years, so it’s a rare experience to find past or present politicians from different political parties even sharing a stage. It is quite remarkable to find an ALP Minister and a former Liberal Party leader in furious agreement. But I witnessed that phenomenon in Brisbane at the end of November.

Griffith University organised a 2-day conference on Pathways to a Sustainable Future. The dinner featured veteran comedian Rod Quantock, but also offered a platform to Queensland’s current Environment Minister Dr Steven Miles, and Dr John Hewson, national leader of the Liberal Party from 1990–94. Yes, two politicians with formal academic qualifications, both holding doctorates! It would be simplistic to conclude we would have a more reasonable debate if we had better-educated leaders, but a capacity for critical analysis clearly helps decision-makers to deal with complex issues.

Miles and Hewson agreed on several important points: climate change is real and happening now, Australia’s current commitments fall well short of our share of the necessary response, yet some of the recent statements and actions of Coalition ministers have been scandalously irresponsible.

Hewson zeroed in on the claims by senior politicians that South Australia had suffered a statewide blackout because of their encouragement of wind and solar energy. The supply interruption happened when a severe storm blew over transmission towers. As Hewson said, the effect would have been the same if the power had been coming from coal, oil, gas or even the nuclear power that has been promoted by some Coalition politicians in South Australia.

Miles expressed his displeasure at a Federal minister who attacked Queensland, Victoria and South Australia for each having 2030 targets for the share of electricity from renewables. As Miles said, if the Commonwealth wants a national approach, they need to set a national target. In its absence, responsible states are doing their own planning.

With growing concern about the health of the Great Barrier Reef, Miles had a good news story to tell. The Queensland government organised a field test of using less fertiliser on sugar farms. Several properties participated in a controlled trial, with some of the land using normal amounts of fertiliser and other sections using less. The results from the sugar mill showed that the harvest was better from the sections using reduced amounts of chemicals. That will be good for the farmers’ costs as well as reducing nutrient runoff to the reef.

Hewson also had some good news. More than 200 cane farmers in northern Queensland have become so disgruntled at their treatment by the local sugar mill that they have banded together and formed a cooperative to build a new mill. It will produce a range of other products beside refined sugar: electricity from the waste, ethanol and other biofuels. The project has a solid business case that has attracted funding and is almost ready to start construction.

Sugar cane is just one example of growing interest in bio-energy, especially energy from agriculture and forestry. It remains the largest global contributor to renewable energy, despite the rapid expansion of solar and wind. It has the obvious advantage of providing stored energy, so it supplements those intermittent sources. It also offers the potential to meet some transport energy needs that are otherwise very difficult, such as aviation fuel.

The November Bioenergy Australia conference brought together more than 100 local researchers and decision-makers, as well as some overseas experts. The technical progress is impressive, but it needs to be. The International Energy Agency says the contribution from bio-energy must at least triple by 2050. The IEA 2015 conference on the topic noted that projects offer economic and social benefits to rural communities, but warned of the need to ensure sustainable approaches.

It is an important warning. In October I was walking in northern Spain and saw hundreds of hectares of blue gums, planted to meet the European Union’s carbon storage target. The farmers who have the eucalypts are happy, but many neighbours are concerned about the impact on the water table and the loss of habitat when traditional mixed woodland is replaced by a monoculture. The complex consequences are important.

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