We could power our world six times over with the energy harnessed from the sun, wind and waves. We could end the incessant process of digging up our limited supplies of coal and instead better utilise the eve- replenishing renewable sources of energy available. The good news is, we finally have the economic and technological capacity to make the switch. The only thing holding us back is lack of political will and the need for a strong, public demand for change.
It’s easy to be problem-focused. In a world that has been shaken by natural disasters in the last year, the impacts of climate change are no longer an abstract, future possibility. Late last year Tuvalu ran out of drinking water as a result of changing sea levels and weather conditions. An entire population of people had to close their schools, hospitals and businesses and ration out what was left of their precious water supplies. Fear spread amongst the low-lying islands in the Asia Pacific region and climate change once again bubbled to the fore. But, the science says we are running out of time. With the International Energy Agency predicting that we have less than 5 years up our sleeve to keep global temperature rises to less than 2 degrees; it’s well and truly time to start the transition towards a renewable energy society.
We can learn a lot from our global peers who jumped on the renewable energy bandwagon years ago. Germany and Spain are two good examples because unlike Australia, they do not have limitless access to sun and wind – yet they are leaps and bounds ahead of us in their transition away from the archaic, carbon economy. Germany utilises 15 times more wind power and 50 times more solar power than Australia (even though we are one of the sunniest and windiest countries on the planet!) Germany’s booming renewable industry also provides work to 280 000 people in comparison to our piddly 10 370. Spain has harnessed wind energy to provide over 10% of their total energy needs and large scale solar thermal is growing rapidly. The models used in countries like Germany, Spain and Denmark cannot necessarily be replicated exactly in Australia – but they can and do provide the substantive evidence that renewable energy is a viable alternative to coal power. In fact, studies speculating about the role of renewable energy in 2050 suggest that there a global oversupply of renewable energy potential, and that energy matches between supply and demand are achievable in all regions – giving further support to the idea that transitioning to renewable energy is a viable and imperative next step to avoiding catastrophic, runaway climate change.
Currently, over 80% of Australia’s energy comes from the burning of black and brown coal. In the face of depleting known coal reserves, this cannot be sustained. Similarly, Australia’s rapidly dwindling oil supplies mean that we are turning more and more to expensive foreign oil – the consumption of which will result in our petroleum trade deficit rising to over $40 billion per annum by 2020. Those figures do not even contemplate the real cost of our unsustainable energy consumption when irreversible environmental damage is considered. It’s not all doom and gloom. With the passing of the carbon pricing scheme last year and the commitment to invest $100 billion in renewable energy; Australia has an opportunity to springboard away from coal-dependency and towards the likes of Spain and Germany.
Hydro and Wind currently make the largest contribution to Australia’s renewable energy sector. We are on track to meeting our 2020 renewable energy targets predominately because of the energy supplied by these two sources. The viability of large scale wind farms in Australia has been proven time and time again, with the number of wind farms spread across the country growing to 767. The shift towards super sizing renewable energy infrastructure has been galvanised by the carbon price, and construction of what may become one of the world’s largest on-shore wind farms has just begun. Last week, AGL Energy bought a development in Silverton that will house a wind farm of up to 600 turbines, with the capacity to produce up to 1000 megawatts of power. Currently, wind farms are the cheapest “off the shelf” renewable energy solution, and compete with coal at current costs. Investments in projects of this size will allow renewable energy to become a competitive alternative energy source.
So, we’re set to hit our renewable energy target of 20% by 2020. Problem is, the target is too little too late and we have the capacity to do a lot more. Australia is the sunniest country in the world, and house-hold use of solar power has increased exponentially in the last two years – so why does is comprise so little of our energy supply? It’s because we need bigger, more ambitious investments in large-scale technology to harness solar thermal. Solar thermal uses concentrators to focus sunlight to produce electricity – and huge amounts of it. The amount of solar energy that hits Australia in one day would be enough to power the whole world for half a year. To supply Australia’s domestic needs, only 0.3% of Australia’s land surface would need to be devoted to solar generation. We could go above and beyond our renewable energy target, solve the baseload problem, and be well on the way to a 100% renewable Australia with a little political will, ambition and investment in big solar.
Currently, we’re on track to meet targets and slowly shift away from our unsustainable coal dependency. The issue is that we need to do more, faster. We have the technology to rapidly scale up our usage of renewable energy and begin the process of shutting down coal power stations and reskilling workers to galvanise the renewable energy sector. Simultaneously, we need to ask our politicians to do more, faster. The Clean Energy Finance Corporation has $10 billion to invest in renewable energy projects – we need to see it up and running and supporting ambitious, big solar projects.
Sophie Trevitt is the NSW Director for The Australian Youth Climate Coalition