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Time for government to pick a renewable energy winner

Let’s start with a question: why has Denmark been so successful in renewable energy creation and uptake? It can’t be that Denmark is a windy place (although that helped) or that it was a social democratic…

The Big Dish, developed in Canberra, could be a renewable energy winner if the government focussed funding. WizardPower

Let’s start with a question: why has Denmark been so successful in renewable energy creation and uptake?

It can’t be that Denmark is a windy place (although that helped) or that it was a social democratic country (many others did not develop wind power). We think the answer lies in the way that Denmark was able to focus from the very beginning on one renewable energy option: wind power. It didn’t take a “portfolio approach” to renewables.

This had two major advantages, one economic and one political.

Economically, it was able to concentrate its limited financial resources on one thing. It could rapidly scale-up wind production to levels needed to make it a cost-effective substitute for fossil fuels.

Politically, it had the benefit of creating a united political constituency for renewables (that is, all the wind companies blowing in one direction, so to speak). So they could effectively challenge the dominant alternatives represented by the fossil fuel and nuclear power constituencies.

Australia has taken a very different approach. Given the fear that governments have of being accused of “picking winners”, Australia has clearly been more comfortable with the portfolio option. This has not only been inefficient from an economic perspective (with a scatter-gun spread of resources) but it has created a political problem: a fractured political constituency for renewables that is unable to form a united coalition against fossil fuel producers.

Behind the endless arguments over a carbon tax, over wind v solar, and the seemingly timeless benefits drawn from digging up and exporting coal, there lurks this factor – namely that renewables find it hard to speak with a unified voice.

We have a radical proposal to deal with this issue. It is time that Australia stopped backing every renewable option that presents itself, and makes a public choice to back the one with the best prospects for meeting domestic needs and creating an export platform.

It is not hard to choose such a candidate. Australia is blessed with endless solar input and Australian scientists have a track record of developing world-class solar technologies. One of the most exciting recent developments is the “Big Dish”. This concentrated solar power (CSP) technology utilises a parabolic dish made up of mirrors that can concentrate the sun’s energy 2000 times and heat a fluid (molten salts). It produces both industrial heat and electric power both day and night, because of the heat-storing capacity of the molten salts.

This is an Australian technology that is currently languishing because of the country’s portfolio approach. It is time to get behind it in a serious way, undistracted by too many alternatives.

This is not to say that the Big Dish is the only CSP technology or project worth backing; a modest portfolio approach within the CSP technology family would be sensible given the infancy of the technology and the Australian and global industry. It’s precisely the infancy of the industry that gives Australia a fighting chance of becoming a global player – but this chance won’t last forever, and odds of success would be greatly improved by focusing our efforts and resources.

The political gain from concentrating efforts on CSP is that the country might finally make a breakthrough in renewables and commercialise a scalable technology. It is one that could provide all Australia’s domestic power, and a technology that could be exported around the world. This would be a knowledge-based export with manufacturing possibilities that are never manifested in the coal industry. (We note that ZeroCarbonAustralia promotes such a strategy)

The political losers in such a strategy would be the businesses and associations pursuing other forms of renewable energy. How would we win them to such a national policy?

One approach is to follow the Danish example again. At the time that nuclear power was discontinued in Denmark, and before the wind power alternative had been established, Denmark put its nuclear engineers onto the task of developing a rotor along aerodynamic lines based on prior experience in the aerospace industry. The result was the winning three-blade turbine, that ousted even the US-promoted two-blade version.

So putting our skilled engineers onto the task of perfecting Australian CSP technologies like the Big Dish and seeking improvements to them, in terms of efficiency, cost and materials used, would be one way to deflect political opposition.

Another would be to designate “renewable energy technology creation” as a strategic export industry. We would give all the companies currently working on non-solar technologies continued funding for their research and create a “Renewable Energy Patent Bank” managed by the government. It would promote Australian-owned technologies as solutions to other countries’ energy problems.

Of course we are not advocating that companies be stopped from pursuing technologies of their choice. They will have every right to develop alternatives (such as wind turbines, second generation biofuels) but at their own and their investors’ expense. Public assistance would be targeted on the selected technology.

With such an approach we might end up selling new wind technologies to the Danes. There must be other ways that people could think of compensating renewable energy firms that feel they are being left out of a single national push on one technology.

Of course there are risks in such a strategy. But the alternative is to carry on dithering with a portfolio approach that in the end ensures that no technology “wins” – and Australia is the loser.

Join the conversation

22 Comments sorted by

  1. Paul Cm

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    Hi John, thanks for the article.

    Before 'picking a winner' I think it would be better to wait for the outcome of the BigDish commercial demonstrator project, with construction soon to be commenced.

    See here: http://www.solaroasis.net.au/projects_2.html

    Secondly, the 'scatter-gun' approach you mentioned, resulted in funding of the Big Dish's early development, through to the commercial demonstrator I mentioned above.

    See here: http://www.enotes.com/topic/The_Big_Dish_%28solar_thermal%29

    And here: http://www.wizardpower.com.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19&Itemid=20

    Cheers,
    Paul

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  2. Chris Knowles

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Wouldn't Denmark's lack of fossil fuel resources have been a significant driver to "pick a winner"? It's much easier to sell renewables when the alternative is the not-so-cheap nuclear with its potentially devastatingly local pollution.

    Australia has no such immediate driver. Coal is abundant, cheap and it's pollution manifests itself more on a global scale.

    There's also the little manner, somewhat incredibly, of the lack of a consensus in this country on the need to change how our energy is produced.

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    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Chris Knowles

      Interesting article, John and Elizabeth.

      I think Chris has a good point. When you say:

      'Economically, it was able to concentrate its limited financial resources on one thing. It could rapidly scale-up wind production to levels needed to make it a cost-effective substitute for fossil fuels.'

      - do you mean because Denmark would have to import coal or oil?

      Politically, it would be suicide for a government to propose Australians not use the cheaper energy resources we have.

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  3. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    I would have thought that a "horses for courses" approach would actually be best.

    E.g. Tidal power for coastal areas, solar inland with long solar hours, wind in places with consistent wind speeds, geothermal where it is available, hydro where it is available, etc, etc.

    Saying that we need to pick a winner locks in unsuitable technologies or power sources that won't suit all situations. Solar cells may be fine for some situations, but salt ion towers will probably be needed for grid power to provide base-load instead of trying to build massive batteries and back-ups.

    I can see the point being made that there is a lack of focus on development, but lets face the fact that there is a lack of development first. Remind me again which countries are now running Australian renewable energy inventions because they couldn't get anyone in Australia to invest in them?

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    1. Paul Cm

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Tim Scanlon

      Tim, agree with your 'horses for courses' approach in relation to renewable power generation, it is a very important thing to remember when considering large renewable penetration, and often lost in the public debate.

      However, the article is not advocating this. It is proposing a focus on public funding for development of one technology type, rather than spreading it around.

      In this scenario, I would imagine all nations pool their 'championed' technology to offer a portfolio of shared options…

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  4. Colin Megson

    Retired Engineer

    Why is it that renewables enthusiasts never mention the resources that go into renewable energy devices? Is it a desire not to tarnish a green-dream, whereby an industrialised world could commercially exist with energy from renewables only, at no environmental cost?

    The capacity factor of wind turbines is so pathetic they use 54X the steel and concrete resources, per useful kWh generated, than breeder reactors: http://lftrsuk.blogspot.co.uk/2012/03/how-green-is-wind-turbine-in-my-valley.html

    Australia is primed to lead the world in breeder reactor deployment to get some green credentials and move away from being just about the dirtiest and most wasteful country on the planet.

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    1. Patrick Easton

      Law Student at Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne

      In reply to Colin Megson

      This is a ridiculous generalisation and one that I'm sick of hearing. The Beyond Zero Emissions "Zero Carbon Australia 2020 Stationery Energy Plan", which mentioned in this article, examines the resource requirements in detail (see especially p 98-111 and 57-61 for info on CST - http://beyondzeroemissions.org/).

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    2. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Colin Megson

      Yes and no ever mentions the cost or true difficulty of decommissioning and site restoration of wind towers that have hundreds of tonnes of steel and concrete counter weights in their base. Brushed over as someone else s future problem.

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  5. Chris Harries

    logged in via Facebook

    Most of these type articles focus on stationary energy, particularly various forms of electricity production. In that context wind power offers the best energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) and thus wind energy tops the world's renewable energy component in most countries – other than direct burning of firewood.

    But Australia's main energy problem is likely to be a rising cost, and possible shortage, of liquid transport fuels in the future, and I expect if Australia, with its abundant coal…

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  6. Stephen Pritchard

    Researcher, cognitive science

    Thanks for the article, it is certainly interesting to have the prevailing consensus challenged from time to time.

    The most significant problem I see with your argument is that you don't acknowledge the huge role that hindsight plays in it. It is very easy to look at Denmark and see it all as very easy - if only we put all our funding/resources into one technology, we could have a winner!

    But it is not that easy. Who would have known that Denmark would achieve the success it did back in the…

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  7. Eclipse Now

    Manager of Graphic Design firm

    I'm sorry, but you want to pick DENMARK as a model of renewable energy SUCCESS? Wow! Do you define success as an unreliable domestic grid constantly forced to import electricity from more reliable grids, like France's nuclear grid?

    http://bravenewclimate.com/2009/10/22/denmark-wind-experiment-awry/

    The fact that this article highlights the 'success' of Denmark as a renewable energy sector only highlights that John Mathews is a Professor of Management, not the energy sciences or engineering…

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    1. Stephen Pritchard

      Researcher, cognitive science

      In reply to Eclipse Now

      I understand your point, but I think the authors are not simply referring to installed wind capacity in Denmark, they are talking about the fact that Denmark employs many people in their wind turbine manufacturing plants, and export their technology all over the world.

      If we went nuclear, would we be installing Australian made/designed technology, or buying off the shelf technology from foreign multi-nationals? Not saying that country of origin is of primary importance when thinking about technologies to reduce climate change, but it is still of interest, and seems to be what the authors are focusing on.

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    2. Elizabeth Thurbon

      Senior Lecturer in International Relations / International Political Economy at UNSW Australia

      In reply to Stephen Pritchard

      Thanks for the feedback Stephen (and all) - yes this is precisely the point we are making. To re-focus the debate for a moment: we are certainly not arguing that Australia now focus exclusively on developing and commercialising CSP technology at the expense of all others, or that the government should stop funding R&D across a broad spectrum of renewable technologies. We state clearly in the article that Australian firms and their investors should be free to commercialise any technology they believe…

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    3. Eclipse Now

      Manager of Graphic Design firm

      In reply to Elizabeth Thurbon

      But if the technology doesn't *work* in that it cannot provide year round baseload power, should we be exporting it? Is this about establishing Greenwashing jobs or an industry that will actually get the job done? How much taxpayer money do we want to throw at 'Green jobs' if it will not, in the long run, turn off a single coal-fired power station?

      Sorry to be a pain as I *really* want to see climate change tackled seriously. But this isn't serious. This is off with the tooth-fairy.

      Professor James Hansen says:

      ///Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.///
      http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/08/05/hansen-energy-kool-aid/

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    4. Peter Davies

      Bio-refinery technology developer

      In reply to Elizabeth Thurbon

      Elizabeth I understand the intent of your article but shake my head when you pick technologies for which the horse has already bolted...

      Your comment above "the starting point for our article is that no Australian renewable technology has been commercialised to world scale" ignores the fact that Australian solar technologies are being commercialised in this way, just not in their country of development.

      One of my colleagues was privileged last year to be given a tour in China of a new factory…

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  8. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Picking winners, or picking losers?

    The problem in Australia has not so much been the spread of money for renewables over too many different models. It has been the massive disparity between spending on renewables and on fossil-fuel technologies.

    Centralised systems, such as Big Dish, centralise power. There are many contexts in Australia where localised generation can save a lot of problems. It is more than twenty years ago that solar voltaics were already mature-enough to replace fossil fuels…

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  9. Tom Keen

    PhD Candidate; Ecology & Evolutionary Biology.

    Denmark's renewable success? Their electricity sector still produces ~650g CO2/kWh. There's nothing particularly successful about that. Perhaps if they hadn't discontinued nuclear power development their emissions would be more similar to that of France's; ~90g CO2/kWh.

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    1. Chris Harries

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Tom Keen

      The heated contest between nuclear proponents and wind energy proponents is a constant throughout these debates. And it's hard to work out who's figures ought to be believed.

      I guess the main thing is to accept (regardless of any incipient fear of nuclear power) is that we appear to be on the cusp of commercial development of small breeder type reactors that pose far less risk than do traditional reactors and that these ought to be brought within the definition of 'renewable'.

      To date the…

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  10. Ken Fabian

    Mr

    Isn't the whole point that mainstream political parties don't want to face up to this particular imperative to shift away from fossil fuels at all? Even if Labor, forced into a commitment it didn't really want by short term political imperatives can't backpedal on the Carbon Tax they can backpedal on every other aspect of climate and emissions policy - and that's what they are doing. The ongoing support for continuing, growing exploitation of fossil fuel resources remains absolute. It's all about appearing to have an emissions and climate policy that doesn't any binding commitments to adequately cutting emissions or that could impact the resources sector.

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  11. Peter Davies

    Bio-refinery technology developer

    Scattergun approach to funding? Even with several hundred million specifically earmarked for large solar projects the industry can't get it right and the money is heading back to treasury. As for local jobs the Solar IP is developed here but equipment made in China! Wonder if the authors regularly pick the winner of the Melbourne cup as well...

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    1. William Bruce

      Artist

      In reply to Peter Davies

      HOW MUCH ENERGY IS IN A PONTOON BEING FORCED UP & DOWN BY OCEAN WAVES?
      .........waves going up & down by about a meter or so 24/7......tons of consistent energy....SEEMS A OBVIOUS WINNER to me?

      Also, I think we must consider going nuclear soon to run fast trains & radically reduce fuel usage/costs & pollution etc....& provide 4 future...& can just make trains free?

      Also, if we can stop importing $2 Billion in oil each month it is a winner.
      Why aren't we using our own gas to run vehicles…

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