What do you do when you can’t do what you want? Simple: do what you can.
No-one said it out loud, but that’s what I heard. Rewind a few days to Powershift. I’m sitting in a small breakout lecture theatre with forty or so other youngsters, listening to a panel discussing the realities and potential of renewable energy in Australia. The panel comprised representatives from the energy and solar PV industry, carbon offsetting and solar and wind research. We first heard a quick summary of the state of affairs in each area, with a plan for the possibility of 100% renewable power load by 2020 the last presentation.
The fact that such a concept – 100% renewables – is feasible shows how wide the void is between our current political situation and the technological and economic capability we have.
In Australia today, government incentives favour decentralised, individually installed solar PV and hot water systems. These reduce demand from coal-fired power stations, but will never eliminate the need for them. Investment in energy efficiency and new infrastructure to help deliver renewables is slated, but the current funding is piecemeal. It’s not sufficient to encourage market forces to produce innovation and private investment in technology and infrastructure.
Another major problem is that the benefits of a large-scale change to renewable energy will outweigh a selection of smaller changes, yet smaller changes are what we’re getting. Minor investments will tend to involve compromises, while major investment can harness economies of scale and generate jobs and exports.
What’s standing in the way? One panellist summed it up: big vested interests. Not only are energy hungry resource and fossil fuel companies powerful in their own right, but they also make a large contribution to our current economic output. What is required is no less than a complete economic restructure, which is hugely ambitious and faces many obstacles. The chances of it getting off the ground politically are slim now, but we must remember that leadership and policy with the major parties can change dramatically in the space of a few years, and the Greens are emerging as a legitimate third force.
Where does that leave us? I, and many others, would like to see Australia pushing hard to introduce renewable energy as a baseload power supply option where possible. However, the current situation is promoting decentralised solar, so that’s what we should support and expand, while lobbying for incentives and regulations which will encourage development of large-scale renewable energy generation.
Maybe it’s the story of Icarus holding us back. Our politicians do look like a bunch of geese, and if they venture too close to the sun, their feathers will fall off. And nobody wants to see a politician in just their underwear, right?