Distributed energy has long been derided by government and big business, who prefer highly-visible, centralised systems. But spreading the load holds the key to future energy management. [10 June 2008 | Peter Boyer]
“The commitment to a long-term coal economy… makes the doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration early in the next century virtually unavoidable, with the prospect… of substantial and perhaps irreversible changes in global climate.”
A young American physicist named Amory Lovins wrote these prophetic words in 1976. He went on to criticise his world’s unfortunate preference for what he called “hard energy” – fossil-fuel-powered transport and big centralised electricity generators.
Big corporations like centralised energy systems because they’re easy to control. Governments prefer them because they’re big, visible and have an impact on the electorate. But they also have an impact on the environment.
This bothered Lovins, who advocated a shift to “soft energy”, by which he meant small-scale sources of renewable energy, including biofuels, geothermal and wind energy, located near where the energy is used – in our homes, offices and factories.
So after three decades we’re finally starting to have the discussion we should have had then. And of all the technologies for distributing power generation, it’s electricity from the sun using photovoltaic cells that has attracted most attention, and controversy.
Solar P-V costs a lot and is less efficient than wind energy, but its clean, high-tech image has obvious appeal to those who think technology will solve all our climate problems. It won’t – human behaviour is immensely more important – but solar still has a valuable role to play.
In Germany, which gets about half the solar energy that falls per square metre on our own wide brown land, P-V energy output is many times Australia’s. A similar rate of solar uptake in sunny Australia could yield as much as five per cent of our energy needs.
In summarily slapping a means test on the subsidy for installation of solar panels, the Rudd government offered Australians no significant alternative incentive to go solar – such as a national feed-in tariff scheme guaranteeing a long-term return on high installation costs.
The most effective such scheme is in Germany, where private take-up of renewable energy – including other energy sources such as wind – has been astonishingly successful. Germany pays premium prices for all renewable power generated, not just the net surplus after subtracting what’s used by the household.
In Australia, only the ACT government has so far opted for such a gross scheme in a bill currently before the ACT Legislative Assembly. South Australia’s scheme covers only “net” power; Queensland and Victoria have adopted a similar course
In Tasmania (which also gets a lot more sun than Germany), the government and electricity suppliers have yet to agree on a feed-in tariff scheme. Householders installing solar – or keen entrepreneurs like Nichols Poultry which paid megabucks for its own wind turbine – must put up with low rates payable only on excess energy generated.
Germany’s success is founded on a good bottom line – the turnover of its world-leading renewables sector was over $US25 billion last financial year – and leadership prepared to open up to the electorate about dangerous climate change.
What is it about Australian governments and businesses that they find it so hard to get their heads around such things?