YMCA solar array a beacon for the rest of us

Solar power isn’t going to solve global warming, but it’s a great motivator [5 May 2015 | Peter Boyer]

Great news for YMCA Launceston’s bottom line: a big new rooftop solar array now on line at its Kings Meadows recreation centre will cut its big electricity bill by 80 per cent or more.

99 solar panels adorn the roof of YMCA Launceston Recreation Centre, Kings Meadows. PHOTO YMCA Launceston

99 solar panels adorn the roof of YMCA Launceston Recreation Centre, Kings Meadows. PHOTO YMCA Launceston

On a bright day its 25-kilowatt system will handle virtually all the heavy heating load imposed by the city’s cold winter weather and enable the organisation to redirect thousands of dollars annually into its core business of helping people enjoy a fit and healthy life.

The array resulted from a collaboration between YMCA and the Australian Conservation Foundation to deliver a program called Spark: Energy for Change. YMCA Launceston also got financial help from Tasmanian Trustees.

Spark, which seeks to improve knowledge and skills in energy efficiency, is funded out of the federal Energy Efficiency Information Grant. That’s a pat on the back for the Abbott government.

The solar panels, culmination of many years’ work by YMCA Launceston to improve its buildings’ energy efficiency, were “a big win for us and the environment”, as CEO Jodie Johnson put it.

Let me anticipate some criticism. Solar panels are made using fossil fuels. They can’t provide continuous base-load power. They’re only for rich people and depend on public subsidy.

There’s some truth in that, but there’s also a lot wrong with it. For example, the fossil fuels now used to make solar panels are steadily being replaced by renewable energy.

Solar panels won’t meet demand by themselves but they’re making inroads. Sooner than many of us think, using new battery technology being rolled out in the US and Germany will routinely provide 24-hour coverage.

They used to be expensive, but no more. The cost of solar power was more than US$75 per watt in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter had panels installed on the roof of the White House (removed in 1986 by Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan.)

By 1990 the price per watt was below $10. It was around $5 by the turn of the century and has now dropped below US$1 a watt. Driven by unprecedented demand, the cost of solar continues to drop.

Millions of people now pay market prices for solar panels, unsubsidised. YMCA Launceston did have government support for its large installation, but eventually that sort of help won’t be needed.

The journey to our energy future passed a tipping point in 2013. Since that year, energy analysts Bloomberg concluded recently, renewable energy capacity being added globally has been greater than the capacity of all new coal, natural gas and oil plants.

There’s no going back, says Bloomberg. The trend for new fossil-fuel capacity is heading steadily down while that for renewable energy is rising sharply, so that by 2030 the output from new renewable energy plants will be more than four times that of new fossil-fuel plants.

Odds in the near-term seem stacked against renewable energy in Australia. With our 2020 renewable energy target in limbo while political forces continue to debate the appropriate level, venture capital for renewable projects has all but vanished.

But as the Bloomberg report shows, the Australian domestic scene is definitely not the norm elsewhere. Australia will eventually fall into line with the global trend, and fossil fuels will lose out.

That’s a hopeful sign we can achieve a better future. But hope is one thing; blind optimism another altogether. I’m very conscious of the danger of slipping into what the English climate writer George Marshall calls “bright-siding”.

Borrowing from the movie Life of Brian, Marshall refers to something we’ve been brought up to do: always look on the bright side of life. But as he says, too much reliance on technology and growth hides the every more pressing need to act decisively to cut emissions, and that we don’t need.

Repairing the damage done by our use of fossil fuels has to come from within us. Individually and collectively we must acknowledge the danger ahead, accept our responsibility to mitigate that danger, and get on with the job, together.

Solar arrays and wind farms attract attention. They’re a powerful statement about our predicament, a reminder that something has to change, a point confirmed by the expressions of irritation about them coming from people who disbelieve the evidence for global warming.

But that’s a small minority’s view. As genuine contributors to lower emissions, the YMCA Launceston array and many others like it are visible symbols of a better future, something to lift spirits and motivate stronger mitigation efforts. That we do need.

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