By Laurie Sullivan - contributing writer from Cre8ive Solutions
I’ve seen the light: I’m sold on renewable energy. Not just for my home, but for my local community and my country, too.
What led to my ‘conversion’ from vaguely supportive of renewable energy to a true believer? It wasn’t just the prospect of slashing my family’s ever-increasing electricity bills by investing in rooftop solar. The real eye-opener was learning about a raft of win-win clean energy projects that could not only benefit the environment, but also create tens of thousands of sorely needed jobs and help revive Australia’s ailing economy post-COVID.
I’m about as far from being the proverbial inner-city, latte-sipping greenie as you could imagine. As the middle-aged owner of a regional small business, I’ve been doing it tough in this pandemic – just like every other small or medium-sized business not able to turn to make face masks or hand sanitiser.
My renewed interest in household solar was piqued by a recent chat with my neighbour after he’d installed solar at this home earlier this year. A father of five, Rob could hardly keep the grin off his face as he detailed the dramatic savings solar had delivered.
Naturally, I turned to Professor Google to see if the maths stacked up for my family, too. I discovered that the TV commercials spruiking home solar power systems were right: household solar is not only cheaper than ever, but the technology is more efficient too. (I guess that’s why around two and a half million Australian homes now have solar – the highest take-up rate per capita in the world).
People power behind push for cleaner energy
But, when I dug a little deeper, it became abundantly clear to me that there are huge benefits beyond my own front gate in switching from coal-generated power to large-scale renewable energy sources.
So urgent has climate change become that there’s a rising groundswell of ordinary Australians, backed by business and community leaders, is calling on federal and state governments to accelerate the move away from energy powered by fossil fuels to clean energy, such as solar, wind and battery storage.
Among the credible groups at the forefront of this movement is the Aussie arm of WWF, who are urging politicians of every stripe to support a renewable led COVID-19 recovery stimulus package. It says Australia has the choice to keep investing in outdated, polluting technologies or join more progressive countries in shifting to a low carbon future. WWF-Australia believes our country could emerge from the COVID crisis as a significant player in renewable energy on the world stage, creating 100,000 direct jobs to replace those lost in the pandemic and as coal mining inevitably declines as well as future-proofing our economy in the process.
Among the projects WWF is calling our governments to fund is turning Australia into a global leader in battery manufacturing, investing in a local solar project in every community across the country, converting buses to electric (and then selling the technology overseas), modernising our manufacturing sector by converting to more reliable renewable sources of power, and accelerating renewable hydrogen to become a global supplier of the ‘fuel of the future’. Producing hydrogen would in turn bolster our own domestic fuel security, which is now heavily dependent on imported petroleum. The full reports make fascinating reading. Any one of these projects seems worthwhile, but together they must surely have the potential to give the nation’s economy the kick-start it will surely need as we exit a COVID-19 recession.
Big business backing Renewables for industry
For our wide brown land, switching to cleaner energy sources really is a no-brainer. From sun-drenched Western Australia to South Australia’s wind-swept coastline, we’re blessed with an abundance of renewable resources.
Business leaders like Nicky Sparshott, CEO of Unilever Australia & New Zealand, are sold on renewable energy as a key to the future prosperity of their companies.
According to Sparshott, speaking at WWF-Australia’s recent webinar on renewable recovery, “We can direct stimulus in a way that creates jobs, that allows us to reskill our workers, that enables innovation in existing industries and future industries, and that allows us to create real export opportunities so we not only secure today, but we set Australia up as a real leader in this renewable energy space moving forward.”
This means that not only can Australia move its energy generation entirely to renewable sources, but we can export the technology to the world, just as we did with Aussie inventions like Wi-Fi, spray-on skin, and the Cochlear ‘bionic ear’ implant (to name just a few home-grown Australian inventions). After all, we’ve demonstrated our capability with nation-building infrastructure projects like the Snowy Mountain Hydro scheme and Sydney’s Sydney Harbour Bridge, along with dozens of major road and rail projects. Other business leaders agree. The Business Renewables Centre tracks the number of companies that are moving to renewable power year on year. That number is steadily rising – not because it’s the right thing to do, but because renewable sources are now much more cost-effective options.
Batteries, energy ‘islands’ will save dollars – and lives
Like most homeowners, I had considered home solar over the years, but could never justify the cost. Today, the cost of a home solar PV system starts at around $3500 for basic installation, and prices are steadily coming down as demand and mass-production increase. A system without batteries typically has a payback period of 3 to 5 years, but adding batteries extends the payback period.
Not only has the cost of rooftop solar fallen, but large-scale wind and solar farms are also now cheaper and quicker to build and operate over their lifetimes. In fact, the Australian Energy Market operator and the CSIRO, which examine the cost of energy nationwide annually, confirm that renewables are cheaper than any other source of electricity generation today. Of course, the other big plus is that the ‘fuel’ that powers them is free.
Conversely, coal-fired power stations are expensive to build and costly to operate – the reason why none have been built in Australia since 2007.
Integrated with digital technology that can respond to outages in seconds instead of hours, solar and wind powered power stations are now the most reliable sources of energy, too.
The main cause of blackouts isn’t failures of power generation, but damage to infrastructures such as towers, poles and wires. The advantage of renewable power sources is that they can be set up at community level in so-called ‘islands’ that incorporate battery storage that’s able to cope with brief outages by continuing to supply power during a natural disaster such as a bushfire to, say, power water pumps to protect buildings as flames threaten a building.
With ever-improving battery storage, the old ‘but-what-happens-on-cloudy-or-windless-days’ argument no longer applies. South Australia’s Hornsdale Power Reserve, better known as the ‘Big Battery’, is three times bigger than any lithium battery ever made. It’s defied its many early sceptics by saving local consumers a staggering $116 million in energy costs in 2019 alone, while also preventing three wide-scale blackouts over the last three years, according to an impact study by consulting firm Aurecon. It’s expected to pay for itself within a few years.
Regional export opportunities ‘too good to miss’
In a recent interview I came across on the Energy Insiders podcast, NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean admitted that the biggest threat to supply reliability is the risk that the state’s ageing coal-fired power stations will fail during the peak demand that comes with summer heatwaves - when power is needed most. Refreshingly, the minister broke ranks with his party saying he believes wind, solar and battery storage could make NSW an economic superpower and presents an opportunity ‘too good to miss’. Countries like Singapore, South Korea and Japan that currently import our coal and gas are actively looking for ways to reduce their carbon pollution and the climate impact of fossil fuels. They are looking to Australia, not only as a convenient source of renewable energy like hydrogen but also to acquire renewable power technology to provide cleaner sources of power for their people and industry.
Kean believes Australia could wean itself off coal and gas export revenue, exporting instead our massive renewable resources via undersea cables, or in the form of ammonia or hydrogen – even as finished goods. (Imagine having a viable manufacturing sector again!)
Speaking of resources, coal is a huge user of water, a precious and often scarce resource on the world’s driest continent. Wind and solar powered generating plants require much less water to operate and, unlike coal power stations that belch out pollution-laden smoke, renewables co-exists in harmony with existing agricultural practices and other land uses.
Grasping climate change ‘nettle’ a vote winner
Which raises what is surely the most compelling reason to switch from polluting energy to clean, renewable energy: The health of our planet. Burning our coal to generate electricity here and in the countries that import it from us results in millions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions pumped into the air we breathe each year.
Like me, you may be shocked to learn that Australia’s air pollution standards for cars and coal-fired power stations rates are among the worst in the world – higher than China’s. Almost 5,000 Australians die from exposure to air pollution each year, while thousands more suffer health effects like stroke, heart disease and asthma, according to Legal Justice Australia. The organisation is not only tackling climate change within Australia’s legal system, but also works to safeguard the health of Australians, and protect our wildlife and natural resources.
The case is clear cut. Replacing coal and gas with solar and wind and we create a cleaner planet – not just for our kids and their kids, but for every other form of life on Earth.
Australia’s major political parties have failed to grasp the nettle of climate change. Policies cloaked in acronyms didn’t capture people’s imaginations and it’s time for a new game plan.
Nicky Ison, Energy Transition Manager at WWF-Australia and a research associate at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology Sydney, believes we need bold, exciting ideas that answer the scale of the problems climate change presents.
I reckon she’s right. And, the political party that finally has the courage to create a comprehensive national renewable energy strategy will be a winner with the electorate. They’ll get my vote.