In the absence of government commitment, private groups are taking the initiative, writes Paddy Manning
THE Federal Government employs about 237,000 public servants. Not one of them is planning for Australia to make a complete transition to renewable energy, or even seriously envisaging such a scenario.
A spokesman for the PM confirmed this week a clean energy future is not on our agenda, even as an option — not for 2020, not for 2050, not at all — even though thousands of people will march in Australia today demanding just that.
As a result, most of us are completely in the dark as to whether there is potentially enough renewable energy to go around, and at what cost. We are held hostage to the argument that coal or nuclear are the only credible options for "baseload power".
It would be at least prudent to work up a plausible transition-to-clean-energy scenario.
Privately funded groups in Australia, worried and fed up waiting for credible action from the Government, can see the need.
Zero Carbon Australia (ZCA) 2020 is one such document, being drafted by a group of largely Melbourne-based volunteers called beyond
zeroemissions.org, with funding from the Climate Emergency Network.
An initial exercise estimated the state of Victoria — reliant on dirty brown coal — could halve its emissions within three years at a cost of $29 billion. Then, about six months ago, the group won seed funding of $25,000 to prepare a national plan, from a private donor in NSW.
About 50 scientists and engineers, activists and writers are collaborating on the plan. The aim is to show how Australia's energy could be provided entirely from renewable sources by 2020.
The guiding principles behind ZCA 2020 include that all technological solutions must be proven, reliable and commercially available, and costed at today's prices. Energy security must be enhanced. The transition must not cause other environmental degradation (through land clearing for biofuel crops, for example).
Separate "zero carbon" plans will cover stationary (that is, non-transport-related) energy, transport, land use, buildings, industrial processes and replacing coal export revenue. A rough draft of the stationary energy plan — eliminating roughly half the country's emissions — will be available next week.
Over the next decade, the draft plan envisages: using energy efficiency to keep demand at current levels; electrifying transport; creating a smart grid; switching coal-fired power stations to gas in the transition; obtaining half of our electricity supply from 50 solar thermal power stations, and another third from more than 11,000 wind turbines. The costs are still being modelled, but a ballpark estimate is $250 billion over 10 years.
The group is working towards a public launch of the finished stationary energy, buildings and transport plans in mid-August.
Campaign director and former computer engineer Matthew Wright has a weekly radio show on climate science and solutions on Melbourne's 3CR community radio station.
"We've got tens of thousands of climate action group members all over the country," he says. "All kinds of people. There's the whole spectrum there."
Those concerned about climate change are constantly told, as Malcolm Turnbull told the ABC in 2007: "You cannot run a modern economy on wind farms and solar panels. It's a pity that you can't, but you can't."
Wright disagrees: "That's absolute rubbish." ZCA 2020 will give people confidence they can lobby for a clean energy supply with confidence.
Similar planning exercises are going on internationally. The Desertec Foundation is an initiative backed by the Club of Rome that aims to provide clean power from the world's deserts. In Europe that means building massive solar thermal power stations in the Sahara, with power sent thousands of kilometres north through high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) cables.
Speaking of deserts, Australia has, according to Stewart Taggart of Desertec's local arm, an unbelievable opportunity to become a clean energy superpower by 2050, and the plan to do that has been drawn up and is available online.
Taggart, a former financial journalist and economist, is a director of consultancy Acquasol, which is working on the world's first large-scale solar/gas hybrid desalination plant, at Port Augusta, north of Adelaide. In his spare time, he runs Desertec in Australia, the US and China from the Sydney beachside suburb of Manly.
A positive for Australia is that our ageing, 1970s-era, coal-fired power plants require replacement in coming years, while the country's electricity grid also needs an overhaul.
"The whole system is like a clapped-out Cuban Chevy on its final kilometres," says Taggart. "This replacement cycle represents a blessing in disguise. It's really fortuitous."
Australia's solar, geothermal, wind and wave energy endowments are sufficient to create "a massive clean energy export industry that could one day power Asia".
Apart from a world-class solar resource, Australia also has selective expertise in transmission technology through its 177-kilometre-long Murraylink, the world's longest buried high HVDC power line, and its Tasmania-Victoria Basslink cable, until recently the world's longest subsea HVDC cable.
"It's all shaping up as a beautifully 'perfect storm'," Taggart says. "Coal goes out one door, solar and geothermal come in another, and HVDC power lines tie it all together. Australia's definitely the lucky country."