The route to a renewable energy future for Australia

Renewable energy production is excelling in Europe and making its name as a simple and cost effective alternative to fossil fuel power generation; meanwhile it is barely developed within Australia and in need of increased focus and investment. That may come in 2013-2014.

Despite the recession affecting the global economy, the world invested a record US$251 billion in clean energy during 2011, with the US streaking ahead in green spending ($54 billion) and boosting confidence among climate action advocates.  This was further endorsed last month at COP17 where the major green-house emitting countries recognised the need for further investment in renewable technologies.

According to Kobad Bhavnagri, Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s lead clean energy analyst in Australia, Australia’s investment is on track to rise to US$6.8 billion next year and will aim to be a total of $45 billion by 2020, However, is this enough investment to meet the target of renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal making up 20 per cent of the energy supply for Australia?

Despite some of the best renewable energy resources on the planet, Australia has been slow at tapping into the potential of these.  Nevertheless, Australia did see an increase of 11 per cent on the previous year; with the biggest contribution to the $4.7 billion spend on renewable energy, coming from solar power installations. However, Australia is only deriving 8.7 per cent of electricity from renewable energy, versus a worldwide average of nearly 20 per cent.  Why this is and what are the challenges and steps that Australia has to combat in order to not only meet their renewable energy targets of 20 per cent by 2020, but to exceed them?

Australian ideas commercialised elsewhere

Many Australian ideas are now being commercialised overseas, such as David Mills’ solar thermal technology, which is being developed in the US and is owned by Areva, the French nuclear power giant. The incongruity of having the ideas and resources, but not using them is a hurdle in Australia’s renewable energy development; according to Andy Cutt, Renewable Energy PhD student at Murdoch University, this is due to “political willpower to make it work on a large scale and drive down the costs so that it can be economically competitive”.

Australia must build its own infrastructure to reduce our greenhouse gas footprint, cut our dependence on liquid fuels, and enable the transition to a low-carbon economy.  What is currently lacking that prevents Australia from harnessing their own renewable energy inventions are economies of scale. Therefore, a small government stimulus, would allow many renewable energy technologies to compete head-to-head against coal-fired electricity generation within the next five years. In turn, this will provide significant employment and export opportunities.

Without government intervention to ‘tilt the marketplace’, Australia could lose its potential competitive edge in developing renewable energy technologies and will become a passive importer of technologies developed overseas, particularly in Europe; where the innovators of renewable energy technology mainly reside.

Storing renewable energy

Work by Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT) highlights the issues of energy storage and demand management.  For instance, currently, Australia’s energy grid cannot accept wind generated energy. Consequently, as renewable energy production is unpredictable, it is essential that these storage issues are addressed.  The work by QUT will focus on creating local hubs able to store and distribute renewable energy more effectively. “Our aim is to develop new storage and management systems to better harness all of the electricity sources available and give the electricity grid greater strength. This will benefit all electricity users, not only those in remote locations,” said Professor Gerard Ledwich, Chairman Power Engineering at QUT.

According to the Energy Supply Association of Australia, the installed capacity of Australia’s electricity generators comprises of 44,900 MW in grid-connected capacity and a further 5,200 MW in embedded and non-grid capacity.  According to the Australian Academy for Technological Sciences and Engineering (2009) Australia’s energy security requires a major increase in base-load electric power generation capacity to enable and support the growth of renewable energy.

The ability to better store renewable energy locally, combined with the vast amounts of renewable energy Australia is capable of producing, will enable the country to develop a stronger electricity network and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Recruitment agencies such as Allen & York are witnessing a growing trend in job opportunities within Transmission & Distribution and Grid Connection worldwide, with a large majority of these roles being within Europe.   We anticipate more demand in this area within Australia as the grid connection networks are expanded.

CSIRO results point to an increase in support for wind energy development

There is strengthening community support for wind farms across Australia according to a CSIRO report, of which the results were welcomed by green groups such as the Clean Energy Council - who stated that community support for wind was “much stronger” than reported in the media.  The science organisation looked at nine wind farms across South Australia, NSW and Victoria and analysed 49 articles from 19 newspapers in the second half of 2010. The results interestingly revealed that more reasons for wind farm opposition were reported than reasons for support and that rural residents often backed the developments but did not seek media attention or political engagement to express their views.

Findings of the CSIRO report outlined important factors identified in relation to opposition that were underlying cultural or ideological concerns, including the view of rural communities being politically neglected by urban centres, commitment to an anti-development stance, and opposition to a ‘green’ or ‘climate action’ political agenda.

While wind farm supporters may be a relatively silent majority, the study findings suggest community acceptance of wind farms could be further increased by wind energy developers adopting a ‘Social Licence to Operate’ approach – making an effort to better engage the local community; before, during and after construction. Moreover, increasing public education on renewable energy development combined with clear guidelines for allowable noise levels and visual amenity could encourage the establishment of wind farms and other sources of renewable energy, such as solar thermal and biomass generation.

It is expected that wind energy will provide the largest share of Australia’s targeted 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020; to achieve this, major objections to wind farms need to be addressed. These include aesthetic considerations and a concern for the effect of wind farms on birdlife.  This could be achieved by looking at European countries, where thorough Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIA) address these issues prior to wind farm development.  ESIA is increasingly used within renewable energy and in turn this is creating a number of career opportunities worldwide, according to Allen & York; who note a number of job opportunities for EIA and ESIA Environmental Professionals in Perth, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Australia’s wind energy industry is set to see dramatic growth over 2012 and 2013, provided it can find ample investment opportunities, supportive policies and a skilled labour force.

Vicky Kenrick is an Advertising and Marketing Communications specialist for international sustainability recruitment consultancy, Allen & York.

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