My heros are in the SMH today

Matthew Wright of BZE gets a good mention in today’s SMH.

Zero-carbon boffins aim to have us renewable-ready by 2020

Paddy Manning

June 13, 2009

The Australian Government employs about 237,000 public servants. Not one of them is planning for the country to make a complete transition to renewable energy or even seriously envisaging such a scenario.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister 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 around 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 and nuclear are the only credible options for “baseload power”.

It would be prudent at least to work up a plausible transition-to-clean-energy scenario, because a tipping point is looming and the public’s patience will not last forever.

As soon as 2013, we face the total loss of Arctic summer sea ice. A blue North Pole will be more than a psychological shock – cue media frenzy, photos from space, political promises, sceptical blathering etc.

The summer Arctic ice covers 7 million square kilometres (about the size of Australia) and reflects 90 per cent of the sun’s energy back into space. If or when it melts altogether, 80 per cent of that warming energy will be absorbed by the ocean. It’s called the “albedo flip” – a sudden loss of reflectivity – and it’s one of the planet’s many feedback mechanisms, which threaten to accelerate climate change dramatically.

Privately funded groups in Australia, worried and fed up waiting for credible action from the Government, can see the need and are developing back-up plans, on a shoestring but with conviction and purpose.

Zero Carbon Australia (ZCA) 2020 is one such document, being drafted by volunteers, mainly in Melbourne (see beyondzero, with funding from the Climate Emergency Network. An initial exercise estimated 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 from a private donor in NSW to prepare a national plan.

About 50 scientists and engineers, activists and writers are working on the plan, using their own internal wiki. The aim is to show how renewable sources could provide Australia’s entire energy demands by 2020.

The guiding principles behind ZCA 2020 include that all technological solutions must be proven, reliable, commercially available and costed at today’s prices. Energy security must be enhanced. The transition must not cause other environmental degradation (for example, land clearing for biofuel crops).

Separate “zero carbon” plans will cover stationary (ie, 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 made available to interested parties 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; and obtaining half of our electricity supply from 50 solar thermal power stations and another third from more than 11,000 wind turbines. A ballpark estimate of the costs is $250 billion over the decade.

The group is working on a public launch of the finished stationary energy, buildings and transport plans in mid-August.

The campaign director, 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 country,” he says. “All kinds of people, there’s the whole spectrum there.”

One of the first localised groups in Australia, Climate Change Balmain-Rozelle, for example, has 170 supporters and its own website, blogging to 700 households. 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.

Among similar planning exercises overseas is the Desertec Foundation, backed by the Club of Rome. (Yes, that’s the same Club of Rome that in 1972 – forget decades of troglodyte scoffing – correctly predicted we would be facing environmental crisis by the mid-21st century.)

Desertec aims to provide clean power from deserts. In Europe, that means building massive concentrating solar power stations in the Sahara, with power sent thousands of kilometres north through high-voltage direct-current cables.

In terms of deserts, Australia looms large. We have, according to Stewart Taggart of Desertec’s local arm (he also runs Desertec in the US and China from beachside Manly), an unbelievable opportunity to become a clean energy superpower by 2050. The plan to do so 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.

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,” Taggart says. “This replacement cycle represents a blessing in disguise. It’s really fortuitous.”

Taggart wants to see Australia make a “dash for gas” between 2010 and 2020 in the transition to renewable energy.

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”.

The desert bit is important because concentrating solar power requires direct normal radiation and minimal atmospheric moisture or cloud cover, which trends to diffuse the light.

Australia has a world-class solar resource, perfectly flat and geologically stable. We also have selective expertise in transmission technology in this area: the 177-kilometre Murraylink (the world’s longest buried HVDC power line) and the 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.”

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