As we look forward towards a future affected by COVID-19, one major question for Australia is what our masterplan looks like for our energy production and consumption.
Australia is in the position to become a world leader in renewable energy, and we have the resources to do so. There’s so much talk of investment in renewable energy – but is this talk being backed up with action?
While COVID-19 has presented unprecedented challenges, it’s also provided an opportunity for reflection and change. One stand-out part of the year has been the huge decrease in air traffic, resulting in clear and clean skies. According to researchers, COVID-19 has led to a 9.3 per cent reduction in humanity’s ecological footprint, compared with the same period last year. We can and should learn from this period – further progress must be made by design, rather than as a silver lining to a disaster such as this pandemic.
Right now, we should be planning for major, nationwide renewable infrastructure. If we had done this years ago, and invested properly back then, we’d be in a different position now. The lessons learned from COVID-19 must not be wasted, and the key to success is not expecting to revert to ‘normal’. If we have learned anything, it’s that what we thought of as normal before was simply not sustainable, and that cleaner energy sources that are more respectful of the environment is a necessity moving forward. So, how do we do it?
The Federal government’s technology road map is a step in the right direction, with hydrogen, batteries, green steel, carbon capture/storage and soil carbon identified as the top five priority technologies over the next decade.
Where it falls down, though, is that it posits that older technologies such as solar and wind power “no longer warrant government investment”. I’d argue that we need to go further on these more mature technologies to make them even more widespread – while Australia has greater solar coverage than any other continent, there’s still room for improvement and investment.
According to Wes Stein of the CSIRO, there is enough sun falling on around 0.03 per cent of Australia to provide all of the country’s electricity. This natural resource presents a huge opportunity – we should be committing to net-zero emissions by 2050, and the only way this is possible is if all methods are invested in significantly, including those that are considered by the government as being “old tech”.
What we should be doing is investing in Australian manufacturing of renewables. The government’s $1.5bn investment in advanced manufacturing, as outlined in the latest Federal budget, is certainly a promising place to start, presenting a huge opportunity for Australia to step up its commitment to renewables.
The demand is there, too: during COVID-19, Sydney received a 50 per cent uptake on enquiries for advanced manufacturing from entities outside of Australia. Australia is considered a safe place to invest and has done a great job keeping virus infection rates in check. As a country, we have huge potential and opportunity to provide advanced manufacturing facilities. We have the land, skilled workers and an enviably low rate of COVID-19 infection and transmission, especially compared to the rest of the world.
This strategy will also create and boost jobs – according to the AFR, renewable energy could create a global job boom of up to 5.5 million over the next three years. In Australia, direct employment in renewables reached 27,000 between 2018 and 2019. These are really promising numbers which will get even better with more investment.
The possibilities are huge, too – renewables could make way for the manufacturing of innovative projects such as hydrogen-powered aircrafts and cars and hydrogen cell technology. Many hydrogen technologies are carbon-neutral, and could thus play an important part in preventing climate change. Over in Europe, there are already plans in motion for a zero-carbon passenger plane, which will hopefully be rolled out by 2035. It’s exciting to see advancements being made around the world that will lead to a more sustainable planet – in Australia, we need the necessary infrastructure and government backing for something like this to happen.
And we mustn’t abandon wind or solar power – though these are seen as a bit ‘old school’, there’s plenty more we could do with it.
The way forward will be a strategic approach to construction projects and stimulus – pulling the same old infrastructure projects off the shelf as a band-aid solution in the short-term will not work. What is needed is a careful consideration of what our cities need in the long-term, being smart about how we use our resources, and how renewables can come into the picture. Australia deserves a prosperous, sustainable future, and investing in renewable energy is a major part of how we’ll get there.
By Nick Deeks, Managing Director at WT (Australia & New Zealand)