'Solar has won'
So claimed the headline of an op-ed in The Guardian (Aus) yesterday. It was written by Giles Parkinson, founder and editor of Reneweconomy.com.au, which claims to be Australia's leading website on clean technology and climate change issues, and former deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review. He's also a columnist at The Australian, so hopefully he can change a few fusty mindsets there.
As early as 2018, solar could be economically viable to power big cities. By 2040 over half of all electricity may be generated in the same place it's used. Centralised coal-fired power is over.
His piece describes a rare event the previous week that didn't make many mainstream media headlines: 'a negative [electricity] pricing event' in the middle of the day.
Such a thing usually happens in the middle of the night, when demand is low and coal-fired generator operators don't want to turn them off so they pay others to take electricity off their hands. But during the day, when everyone is awake and busy using something or other electrical at work or at home, and factory and farm machines are whirring, that is when electricity generators normally make a killing. Last week there was glorious sunshine in Queensland but it wasn't hot enough for air conditioning. The people in the 350,000 buildings in the state fitted with solar panels were the ones smiling about the returns on their investments. They may no longer be getting a solar rebate as of 1 July, thanks to the shortsighted, fossil-fool leaders of the Sunshine State, but in a short space of time they have turned the workings of the wholesale electricity business upside down.
There's more and more noise about the inevitable ascendency of renewable sources of energy, and especially solar, this being the sunniest continent on earth. Last night's Four Corners ably illustrated the extent to which the Australian Federal Government's energy policy is misaligned with that of the world's leading economies. President Obama may be thwarted by Republican dinosaurs in Congress, but individual states are just getting on with the job of reducing their carbon emissions in a warming world.
California has decreed that a third of its energy will come from renewables by 2020, which has stimulated huge investment and innovation. Energy Commissioner David Hochschild claims the state has the world's largest wind, geothermal, solar thermal and solar PV projects in the world as a result. California employs 50,000 people in the solar power industry alone. And the state's largest manufacturing enterprise is developing electric cars with a range of just over 500 kilometres on a single charge, and the lithium ion batteries to bring down their cost. (I read an article yesterday about a man who road-tripped a Tesla Model S more than 1000 miles from San Francisco to LA and back, stopping to charge it six times.) I wonder how many people were watching Four Corners in Geelong*.
California has also been experiencing severe drought, higher than normal temperatures as well as earlier and more serious wildfires. The drought has been linked to climate changes in the Arctic.
Next door in Nevada, we were treated to the extraordinary sight of the Crescent Dunes solar facility near Tonopah, a 'mechanical forest' of steel and mirrors and black tower containing molten salt, which will store the sun's energy as heat until power is needed, like at night. In this case – and even more surprising than the 'heliostats' – power will be supplied to the neon capital of America, Las Vegas. I wonder if Tony Abbott, who still believes solar power can't be used at night, was watching Four Corners; or the inhabitants of slowly dying Outback towns who believe the only hope of employment for their children is if giant coal pits are excavated in once proud cattle country.
There were examples of progress via renewables in Australia, too. There was the Orange City Bowling Club in New South Wales, where an astute treasurer, based on his experience at home, persuaded the Club to invest in solar panels and so reduced their annual electricity bill by more than a third. The panels will have paid for themselves in three years. There was Infigen Energy's wind turbines near Canberra that can already supply half the capital's homes. These are the very turbines, of course, that Australia's national Treasurer finds so 'offensive' as he drives to work.
There was also the story of an Aussie entrepreneur who moved to California seven years ago to take advantage of the American state's enthusiasm for innovation in the renewables business to set up a business selling rooftop solar panels online, using aerial photography and satellite imagery. Today his company generates hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue and employs more than 500 people in three continents.
Then we stepped inside the huge power station at Tarong, 180 kilometres northwest of Brisbane that has the capacity to consume 7 million tonnes of coal and 28,000 megalitres of water a year. It is run by Stanwell, a power company owned by the state; but Stanwell has been losing money in recent years and had to shut down two of its four generators, with the loss of 160 jobs.
Queenslanders have been using less power. As electricity prices went up and up – doubling in five years – they learned to use less, and demand fell. They also put solar panels on their roofs and received, until this month, ever decreasing subsidies for feeding excess power back into the grid. Although these people were the sensible ones, they were criticised for adding to the power costs of non-solar homes. It turns out, in fact, that solar feed-in charges are almost negligible in the sums, and that by far the largest proportion of price increases is attributable to over-investment in renewing the infrastructure (poles and wires) of the grid. Power companies got their forecasts wrong and consumers have been paying through the nose ever since.
In the programme, the Prime Minister's fossil-fuel ideology and his Environment Minister's feeble excuses seemed woefully out of touch with the many contributors to this renewables debate. The question whether Australia has the motivation or the wherewithal to play catch-up seemed rather pitiful compared to California's bold strides into its climatically challenged future. Australia is already way behind as far as action on climate is concerned, despite the best efforts of some of its more enlightened citizens. The Abbott government and state governments such as Queensland's dig their heels in daily in support of coal and gas investors: while elsewhere in the world fresh thinking and innovative design is driving an industrial transformation. The renewables revolution will be labour intensive, and the economic re-evaluation that goes with it will provide a much-needed shake-up of a tired old system that has created vast inequality and put the planet at grave risk. What's there not to like? Just in case some Aussies remain to be convinced, take another look at the table above right. Surely you don't want to be lounging at the bottom of the top 10 with an old rival?
* A city in Victoria where Ford factories are scheduled for closure