Securing Australia’s Energy Future

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Last week Sustaining People attended the United Nations Association of Australia’s Conference on Securing Australia’s Energy Future. Facilitated by Kane Thornton of the Clean Energy Council, the NAB supported forum hosted three guest speakers:

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Oliver Yates CEO Clean Energy Finance Corporation

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Paul Graham Energy Flagship Group Leader CSIRO

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Simon Gamble Manager of Technology & Commercialisation Hydro Tasmania

The panel spoke to their various areas of expertise but together painted a broader picture of the Australian clean energy and renewables market. From research conducted by the panel and the Clean Energy Council it was reported that $5.187 billion was invested in clean energy in Australia in 2013. This includes contribution to a pipeline of projects worth $14.5 billion and support of 21,000 jobs in the Australian economy. Yet despite this size of investment, job creation and potential, the split of clean energy usage for Australian consumers is still extremely uneven, with renewables accounting for only 14.76% of market demand, whilst fossil fuels account for 85.24%. This is supported by the recently released Clean Energy Australia Report 2013.

Given a global standard moving towards increased carbon restraints, pressure on Australia’s ageing coal power fleet and rising gas prices, engaged consumers are looking for smarter and greener ways to power their lives. Unfortunately with the current policy debate and uncertainty around future legislation these developments have ground to a halt. The sentiment conveyed by the speakers was that although there is uncertainty around legislative policy, Australian business is still focused on future-proofing business activities in favour of clean energy alternatives. Kane Thornton’s discussion of the current state of clean energy was particularly energising, and you can view his presentation below.

Paul Graham from the CSIRO Energy Flagship, noted that electricity consumption and peak demand prices have been in decline, as have carbon emissions (mainly due to a July 2012 carbon price mechanism and the increase in hydroelectric power supply in 2013). You can read more about the various energy market scenarios that CSIRO has been working on below.

Oliver Yates spoke about some of the promising projects supported by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), and spoke about his vision to diversify the CEFC’s investment portfolio into 50% renewable energies and 50% low emission and energy efficiency projects. One such recent case is that of Sundrop Farms, an amazing project that responsibly grows food in some of the world’s driest regions by processing desalinated water and translating sunlight to thermo energy using proprietary greenhouse technology. This project is key to accessing the dry arid lands of the world (that are ever increasing) and enabling them to be used to grow high volume fresh produce.

Simon Gamble’s insight into hydro technology at Hydro Tasmania showed the congregation that hydro power was a viable option and offered a strong argument as to why living off the grid was possible in the near future. Due to falling costs of mobile energy storage solutions and the current subsidised price of installing solar PV cells, the ability to live completely independent of the main power generation grid is becoming a definite possibility for Australian citizens. His presentation is below, however given the rather technical nature of his discussion, the slideshow may not be easily understood without the vocal narrative.

It was noted as a caveat that whilst renewable energy sources were definitely going to play a major role in the future or our country and planet, a complete independence from fossil fuels was not possible. Throughout the conference, Kane Thornton spoke about the importance of Australian coal and gas assets, and that upgrading technology for these energy sources was important, as was gradually phasing out older power generators to enable growth in the renewables sector.

Given the recent shift in the federal government’s energy policy through the eradication of the carbon tax, the economy is still dependent on an ageing coal fleet that doesn’t have the long term capacity to meet Australia’s future energy demands. With the freeze of the Renewables Energy Target it seems that many projects like Hydro Tasmania’s energy storage, and development of more projects like Sundrop Farms is that little bit further away.

In terms of continuing sustainable development, it is still possible for the business community to at least make small changes to cutting down energy costs. Reviewing lighting, heating and energy efficient technology within an organisation can create huge savings as well as creating environmental and social returns. You can find a brief list of initiatives on the Energy Australia Website. The panel of speakers certainly advocated for making behind the scenes improvements, but did reinforce that major technological and infrastructure advancements were dependant on financial mechanisms determined by federal policy.

Looking further out from the UNAA conference the G20 Summit in Brisbane in November, a number of factions are hoping to push for a solidified energy policy by calling for a place in the agenda for carbon trading and climate change. The Centre for Economic Development of Australia is leading the charge, noting that a long term climate and energy policy must be implemented soon to enable Australia to maintain its competitive advantage and still remain a haven for sustainable development and international investment.

Let’s hope that a forum like G20 will impress upon the federal government to create the foundation of a strong long term energy policy, one that will be supported by all major parties, no matter who moves to power in the next election. Australia needs stability in this area if it is to continue to nurture Australian business, innovation and sustainable technology.