Howard announces feeble renewables target

Issue 

The federal government announced on September 23 that it has — for the first time — adopted an actual target for energy generation from "clean" sources. Under the plan, 15% of Australia's electricity would be generated from such sources by 2020, including renewable energy like wind and solar, as well as "clean, green" nuclear power and "clean coal". Prime Minister John Howard heralded the plan as "a major cost saving and regulatory breakthrough".

Federal Labor environment spokesperson Peter Garrett was quick to point out that under existing state government schemes, at least 15% of Australia's electricity would be coming from clean sources by 2020 anyway.

The ALP is yet to announce its own shorter-term targets for emissions reductions. Its main target is for 60% overall emissions reductions by 2050 — a target so distant that it is nigh upon meaningless.

However it is likely that the ALP will adopt a target of around 20% of national electricity generation from clean sources by 2020, and will maintain a focus on the "clean coal" fantasy and renewables, but will rule out the use of nuclear energy to reach this target. Neither party is proposing a radical and immediate program to rapidly reduce emissions across all sectors, and the ALP's climate policy — like its industrial relations policy — is merely a slightly less horrendous version of the government's approach.

If climate change is to be stabilised at near or below the crucial tipping point of 2°C above pre-industrial levels, all of the developed countries, including Australia, the US, Britain and Japan, must shift rapidly to producing the lion's share of their electricity from renewable sources like wind, solar and geothermal energy.

The technology to make this transition already exists and has vast room for improvement and refinement. But if the investment in this global project is not made within the next decade, and "runaway" climate change is triggered by a 2° average global temperature rise, any progress that has been made toward reducing emissions will have been for nothing.

Average global temperature rises of 5°, 6° or even 8° above pre-industrial levels, set in motion by this initial 2° rise, would cause sea-level rises, the desertification of agricultural land, frequent severe weather events like hurricanes and heatwaves, and would result in the deaths and dislocation of hundreds of millions or even billions of people. In short, the planet would be thrown into complete chaos and upheaval.

All or nothing

Leading climatologists like James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute increasingly warn that stopping climate change is possible, but that the crisis demands an all-or-nothing effort to reign in emissions before the crucial 2° tipping point is reached. The current policies of the Coalition, Labor and even the Greens clumsily try to blend the scientific requirements of stopping climate change with the economic "realities" of capitalism, and as a result provide the framework for Australia's lacklustre role in what could be a tragic and horrific failure to halt runaway climate change.

There is only one party arguing for emissions reduction targets that — if matched by similar radical action by the governments of the other big polluters — would come within cooee of being able to stabilise warming below the 2° tipping point. The Socialist Alliance advocates that rather than 15-20%, a full 95% of electricity generation should be from genuine renewable sources by the end of the next decade. Furthermore, the alliance advocates a 60% reduction in overall greenhouse gas emissions (on 1990 levels) by 2020 and a 90% reduction by 2030.

These targets are driven not by what is expected to be palatable to the market or politically expedient. Ultimately, the "business as usual" approach of watching climate change unfold is economically (and morally) irrational in the extreme. Emissions reductions targets that are based upon a scientific approach to preventing runaway climate change — as informed by the advice of climatologists like Hansen and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — are bound to seem quite radical to economic rationalists like Howard. They simply cannot fathom the logic behind investing in renewable energy infrastructure when there are more profitable fossil fuel based options available.

The day after the federal government announced its 2020 renewable energy target, the Australian ran a predictably melodramatic story about dissent within the government toward the new policy, as well as reporting opposition to a wind farm in the Victorian country town of Smeaton. The article depicted a community action group of a dozen or so people holding a large banner reading "wind power — a total fraud" and quoted federal tourism minister Fran Bailey saying that wind power per se had not been subject to adequate cost-benefit analysis, and that industry claims of job creation were a "furphy".

Bailey also expressed her "personal view" that "wind technology as an alternate technology was far more suited to the northern hemisphere than the southern hemisphere" and that solar energy should be prioritised over wind energy.

Wind power

Wind energy is by far the cheapest and lowest-emission source of renewable energy, although it is still somewhat more expensive than coal — by roughly 20-100% depending on the scenario.

Over the last 20 years, wind turbines have been developed and refined to become much more reliable and more powerful. Modern turbines are quite large (some with a blade diameter of over 100 metres) and have sophisticated controls that allow the output of the turbines to be accurately regulated. The minimum output of modern wind farms can be calculated based on wind speed data for the site.

In March, Spain generated 27% of its electricity from wind turbines. Melbourne climate activist group Beyond Zero Emissions stated at the time that "Given Spain's poor wind and solar energy resources compared to Australia's, the former's success with wind power is an example for Australia to follow".

"Geographically, Australia is 15 times the size of Spain, but has half its population. With around 1/30th of Spain's population density, Australia has a phenomenal capacity for wind generation."

Denmark, the world's largest producer of wind turbines, is seeking to derive 75% of its electricity from wind by 2025. According to Beyond Zero Emissions, "The Danish wind industry ... employs over 20,000 people, which when adjusted for population is equivalent to more than the entire Australian coal industry employs both directly and via downstream jobs".

Solar options

Solar photovoltaics (PV), the familiar blue panels, are perhaps the most expensive form of renewable energy available. However because they have no moving parts, they have a long lifespan, and since they generally generate power to be used at the site, solar panels do not incur the same transmission losses as other more centralised power sources. Moreover, solar cells make no noise and can be fitted in an unobtrusive way to most rooftops, so they don't require extra space (as opposed to a wind farm, for instance). Solar cells directly convert sunlight into electricity via a silicon semiconductor panel.

Australia used to be a much larger producer of solar panels than it is today, but a lack of investment and government support meant the industry shrank. According to Labor leader Kevin Rudd, under the Howard government, Australia's proportion of the world solar energy industry has dropped from around 10% to 2% today.

Germany and Japan are the world's biggest solar panel producers. Germany produced 960MW of panels in 2006, which on a sunny day would collectively produce about as much electricity as a typical nuclear or coal-fired power station. Annual German solar cell production is projected to be 2800MW of panels by 2010.

Professor Andrew Blakers and Dr Klaus Weber from the Australian National University have developed a new type of solar cell — the Sliver Cell — which could greatly reduce the cost of solar PV production by using a fraction of the materials.

However solar panels are certainly not the only form of solar energy generation.

A 2006 study by the Coal Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) assessed the virtues of concentrating solar thermal (CST) technology, both as a means of boosting the efficiency of coal-fired power stations, and as a freestanding source of electricity generation. CST generation works by concentrating the sun's rays on a network of tubes or on a boiler to generate steam and run a turbine. The Coal CRC found that a 35 kilometre by 35 kilometre CST plant in a "high irradiance, low cloud cover location" could generate enough electricity "to meet Australia's entire current power demand".

CST technology is cheaper to build than solar PV technology and new developments in molten salt heat storage mean that new plants will be able to continue generating large amounts of electricity for several hours after the sun goes down.

Geothermal potential

Australia has excellent hot dry rock (HDR) geothermal resources, particularly in the Cooper Basin in South Australia and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. HDR geothermal differs from other types of geothermal energy in that it involves injecting water into fractured hot granite to create steam to run a turbine. Other forms of geothermal technology rely on capping existing geysers or pumping water through porous rock that already produces steam.

A study funded by the government's Energy Research and Development Corporation completed in 1994 concluded that "Australia is probably the only country that has extensive HDR resources with the potential to generate electricity many times its current total annual electric power needs".

HDR geothermal has been starved of investment, but is on the cusp of being perfected for wide-scale use.

If the Howard government and the ALP are prepared to back the idea of "clean coal", it would be a supreme contradiction if they were to discount HDR geothermal as an "unproven" technology. Money spent trying to develop "clean coal" technology would be far better spent on perfecting HDR geothermal technology, which is a much more promising technology that works on a simpler principle and presents far less technical barriers to resolve than "clean coal" does.

Biomass

Queensland is already home to several biomass plants, most of which are run on bagasse, a byproduct of sugar cane. Biomass plants come in a diverse range of forms and operate by burning various "biomass" products, including plant matter such as bagasse, or animal manure, sawmill/ forestry waste or even methane "biogas" from sewage. Like in a coal-fired plant, the burning material is used to create steam that runs a turbine.

Unlike coal-fired power plants, biomass plants are a smaller and less centralised source of power, and source their biomass from farms in the immediate area (usually producing 10-100MW, whereas coal plants may produce 1000-3000MW output).

In Cuba, biomass plants have for certain periods supplied over one-third of the country's electricity needs — and this is without using specially grown biofuel crops, only by-products of existing agriculture.

In his paper A Sustainable Energy Future for Australia, Dr Mark Diesendorf, a sustainable energy researcher from the University of New South Wales, concluded that Australia could feasiblely source 28% of its electricity using biomass derived mainly from crop residues. Traditionally, many farmers just burn these crop residues (such as bagasse) in the field, whereas if there was a network of biomass plants in suitable agricultural areas, these residues could be collected and used for electricity generation.

Biomass plants can also be used to produce what is known as "agrichar" or "biochar", which can be transported back to local farms and ploughed into the soil, enriching the soil as well as "sequestering" carbon. In many cases, crop residues that are traditionally burned to ash in the farmer's paddock (providing little or no enrichment to the soil) could be used more effectively in this way to both enrich the soil and lock away a certain amount of carbon.

No shortage of solutions

There is no shortage of alternatives to Australia's filthy coal-fired power stations — alternatives that can be built right now.

There are also promising inroads into HDR geothermal and CST technology that could ensure that by 2020 virtually all of Australia's electricity could be from clean renewable sources.

What is missing is a government prepared to prioritise the global struggle to stop climate change over the global squabble to make the most money. You can't have both. Not only is stopping climate change a massive and long-term investment, it also requires that we phase out the incredibly lucrative fossil fuel industries. The giants of the Australian stockmarket — BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and the big banks — are up to their elbows in creating climate change.

Australia — already the world's largest coal exporter — will be exporting 50% more coal than we do already by the end of the decade. Neither Liberal nor Labor are about to turn upon some of their closest big business "partners" and start eroding the domestic coal market (over 20% of coal mined in Australia is used domestically).

Renewables revolution

On August 18, British author George Monbiot told a group meeting at the Camp for Climate Change in London that "We're not talking anymore about measures which require a little bit of tweaking here and there, or a little bit of political tweaking here and there. We're talking about measures which require global revolutionary change."

Targets of 15% clean/renewable energy production by 2020, as espoused by the federal government, are precisely the type of tweaking Monbiot is referring to. Here is a target that is simply not consistent with the reductions Australia and the other big polluters must achieve if we are to stop global warming of over 2°.

Furthermore, it is a target based entirely upon clean energy initiatives that the state governments had already committed to — and does not include any extra initiatives on the part of the federal government, and certainly does not point towards a major state investment in emissions reduction programs.

Where are the billions of dollars for state-operated wind turbine and solar panel factories? Such an investment is sorely absent from Coalition policy, but also from the policies of the ALP and even the Greens.

The crisis continues to build and fester, and the renewables revolution continues to be postponed and stifled. We continue to be assured that large-scale private investment in renewable energy is just around the corner — just after we develop the right emissions trading scheme, set firm targets, hold more summits, write more reports, and hear just a few more warnings from the climatologists and the IPCC.

But the private sector doesn't want to invest in the renewables revolution. There are more profitable things to invest billions of dollars in than renewable energy. Like coal and uranium mines, for instance. Or oilfields.

The government will continue to drag the chain on climate change and it remains to be seen whether an ALP government will be much more responsive to public concern about climate change than the Coalition has been.

An urgent, large-scale struggle is needed to bring about a new political force committed to creating the necessary transition to clean energy and other emissions reducing strategies and technologies. But whether this will be done in time to stop runaway climate change is another matter — something that Monbiot pointed to in his address to the London Climate Camp.

"When it comes to dealing with a problem of this scale, small is no longer beautiful", Monbiot said. "We have to start thinking on the biggest possible terms ... We have very, very little time in which to act. We have very, very little time in which to bring about the largest economical and political transformation the world has ever seen."

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