Australia has much to gain by exploiting our sunshine for renewable energy

29.11.15 By
This article is more than 8 years old

This article originally appeared on the Sydney Morning Herald website.

China’s largest solar array, located in the desert of the Tibetan plateau.

Malcolm Turnbull could use the Paris climate talks to repair Australia’s reputation globally in the renewable energy industry.

It won’t be easy. Earlier in the year Australia became one of the only countries to legislate to reduce its commitment to renewable energy, with the federal government slashing the renewable energy target. It’s estimated it will cost the country $5-6 billion in lost investment until 2020.

Turnbull has historically been supportive of renewables and tackling climate change. Environment Minister Greg Hunt was recently in China, touting Australia as being “open for business” on renewables at a summit in Shanghai. However, the talk, so far, hasn’t translated into action.

Many renewable energy companies shut up shop in Australia during the past few years due to the detrimental policy environment. Nonetheless there remains a strong appetite for investment in Australia given our huge resources.

A study earlier this year by the Climate Council found that the countries attracting the most investment in renewable energy are those with stable, reliable and bipartisan policy environments.

On a recent trip to China, I delivered an address at the eighth Chinese Renewable Energy Conference in Wuxi. I described the opportunities for this industry in our country. We have an abundant wealth of resources from the sun and wind, but only 13 per cent of our power is derived from renewables.

Afterwards, more than 30 representatives of some of the world’s biggest renewable energy companies rushed forward to press their business cards into my hand.

They were all interested in opportunities for renewable energy investment in Australia, but their first question was: “Is the policy environment stable enough that if I did invest it would pay off?”

A wily Indian investor told me over lunch: “How can we be sure that they won’t just change their policy six months later?”

We often hear about how polluted the air is in China and this was obvious on my trip. However, we often don’t hear the other side of the coin, how much work is going on in China to tackle climate change and air pollution. The renewable energy sector is growing extremely quickly in China, with investment increasing 32 per cent between 2013-2014, employment grew an incredible 51 per cent between the year before to 2.6 million jobs. China is now leading the world on solar PV and wind power.

Two days before the conference I’d stood in the centre of China’s largest solar array. Located in the desert of the Tibetan plateau, a sea of solar panels stretches to the horizon in all directions, 12 kilometres by 12 kilometres. It generates enough power to supply about 300,000 Australian homes. The resounding thought as I stood there watching the winter sun glint off the panels was: “Why aren’t we doing this?”

We are the sunniest country in the world with huge tracts of land, but we have nothing like it.

Australia is one of the best places on the planet for solar and wind energy. Our scientists have been at the forefront of renewable energy innovation, from building the first solar hot-water heaters, to major innovations on the efficiency of solar panels. We have excellent opportunities to utilise our clean energy sources at home, but we also should be considering the broader economic ramifications.

China alone is aiming to build 800-1000 GW of low emissions generation capacity by 2030, that’s more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to total current electricity generation capacity in the US. As the world moves to more and more renewable energy China and other countries will boost their manufacturing in these areas. Already Tesla is building an enormous giga-factory in the US to manufacture household and commercial batteries to store solar energy.

How can Australia benefit from this boom? Could we manufacture high tech parts? Could we be investing more in research and development to create new innovative technologies? Australia already produces more lithium than any other nation, what opportunities are there in the world mass-producing lithium-ion batteries? Already a Chinese company has agreed to buy 100 per cent of the lithium mined from the Mount Marion mine in Western Australia.

The longer we delay, the greater the risk opportunities to create global innovative leadership will pass us by, and we will become simply technology and equipment buyers, rather than innovators and business creators.

To some extent, the new government is acknowledging the problem with Greg Hunt changing the rhetoric. However, to actually rescue Australia’s reputation we need long-term, ambitious and bipartisan renewable energy policies.

The Paris conference will mark the incredible transition the world is making from fossil fuels to renewable energy. The question for Australia, and for Malcolm Turnbull, is: can the sunny country reap the rewards?