Australian film premiere

solar panel

Credit: iStockphoto

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Australia needs four things to become a world leader in renewable energy, according to Chris Dunstan of the Institute for Sustainable Futures.

They are: a renewable energy target; a feed-in tariff to pay ordinary Australians to put solar panels on their roof; subsidies to compensate for the fact that the existing polluting technology was paid for years ago; and a nationwide energy efficiency program.

Dunstan made the comments at the premiere of a new Australian film on renewable energy last night.

Directed by Maryella Hatfield, The Future Makers is an hour-long documentary covering the technology developed by a diverse bunch of Australian scientists. It will be screening on the Discovery Channel at 8.30pm on December 8.

It's a great doco. As I was watching it, I felt inspired by the fact that so much amazing technology was being developed right here in Australia. Until funding dropped away, Australia was a world leader in photovoltaic technolgy - that's solar panels.

And we're right up with the rest of the world in developing wave power and solar thermal power. We're also far advanced in geothermal technology, otherwise known as "hot rocks".

All of these technologies have the potential to replace coal, gas and petroleum in the long term. They are all clean and efficient.

So why aren't we using them?

The short answer is that our existing technologies are entrenched. Most of our power plants were built 40 or 50 years ago. The cost of building them is a sunk cost. In addition, the network of powerlines is all set up around these power plants. Building a new grid, or extending the existing grid is costly.

This means that developing and applying new technology is VERY expensive compared with fossil fuels. Of course, if we keep subsidising fossil-fuel power, then we're contributing to climate change.

Barack Obama said yesterday that he hopes to kick-start the renewable energy industry in the US when he takes office. With the US economy behind it, renewable energy could really take off.

And in the film, the most developed technology, solar thermal from Australian company Ausra, has gone to the US to prove and pilot their power plant. They now have a plant up and running in California.

Which brings us back to what we need to do in Australia to keep or catch up.

  1. A renewable energy target was set for Australia, but it was too low. The companies in the industry met and exceeded it almost within minutes of it being set. As one of the scientist said last night, it's not about the number; it's about stimulating the industry. With the Rudd government having set the target at 20 per cent by 2020, the industry has leapt into action again.
  2. A feed-in tariff is if you have solar panels on your roof and you are not using all of the energy you are generating, then you are paid for the electricity you are putting into the grid. Nicole Kuepper of the University of New South Wales said that such a tariff was applied in Germany and the extra cost was spread over all the households in the nation. She said that the stimulus was enough to generate 42,000 jobs in the solar industry at a cost to each household of just 6 Euro.
  3. The existing power plants were paid for years ago. Any new infrastructure needs investment and new power infrastructure is no different. A new power industry will only come about if the government sinks money into it.
  4. At the moment energy use in Australia is increasing faster than our population. Australians and Australian industry need to work towards energy efficiency if we are to build enough new power plants to phase out the old polluting ones. Chris Dunstan proposed using some of the money that is currently propping up the coal industry to implement a nation-wide energy efficiency program.