Making the most of energy

Issue 

Sustainable Energy Systems: Pathways for Australian Energy Reform
Edited by Stephen Dovers
Cambridge University Press, 224 pp., $29.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Graham Matthews
Energy is crucial to an ecologically sustainable technological society. With fossil fuels rapidly becoming exhausted, and nuclear energy remaining unstable and unreliable, it is largely to so-called alternative energies that technologists turn for new ideas. Sustainable Energy Systems is a contribution to the energy debate from a number of renowned Australian scientists. It is an attempt to suggest alternative ways of using and harnessing energy that will contribute to an ecologically sustainable society. The book, a series of essays, presents material in a very accessible and informative way. The first section in particular, written by Stephen Dovers, gives a very good introduction to the problem of energy in modern industrial society, with a history of human development and dependency on fuels as energy, as well as explaining the problems in a scientific manner. The second section concentrates on questions of energy efficiency, most notably in transport. Changes suggested closely follow the findings of the federal government-sponsored environmentally sustainable development process of the early 1990s, which included the need for greater urban planning (public transport, urban villages) as well as a carbon tax on fuels. The equity issues associated with the tax are dealt with fairly briefly and unsatisfactorily, however. The third section is perhaps the most interesting, and offers an introduction to the range of renewable energy technologies under development. The main barriers to the development of these technologies, both in Australia and overseas, have been "not technical, but institutional and political". "Renewable energy has been poorly supported on a global scale", with too few funds being allocated, "in particular when compared to nuclear energy", argue David Mills and Mark Diesendorf in chapter five. One of the most engaging contributions is made by David Mills on solar thermal energy (STE) in chapter six. Although less well-known than photovoltaic uses of solar energy, or the use of wind to produce electricity, Mills argues that STE is more promising than both in terms of cost and availability. The introduction of STE to the electricity power grid in the short term could make a massive impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Mills concludes that the main impediment to its development is the lack of government funding. The final section deals with policy reforms to ensure ecologically sustainable energy generation. A large part of this discussion is spent justifying a carbon tax without consideration of its disproportionate impact on the less well off. The final chapter — an overview of the discussion — is by Dr Ian Lowe of Griffith University. Lowe also attempts to tackle the negative role of business in influencing government against the fundamental changes that need to be made. "There can be little doubt that responding to the problem of global climate change requires social and political change, rather than technological innovation", Lowe states. "The crucial step is the recognition that the future is not something that just happens, or a place to which we are irresistibly propelled by the laws of science, but something we are actively creating." Overall, Sustainable Energy Systems does not shy away from saying that political and social change is required for real solutions to the practical problems of energy reform. It is a very readable study which provides interesting material on the possibilities for environmentally sustainable energy use.

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