“Save Our State – Business leaders plea to kickstart our floundering economy” was the headline on the front page of the Courier Mail earlier this month.

The article proceeds to document Queensland State Government advisors informing the Premier that the state government needs to make decisions and start spending on infrastructure to bring confidence back into the state.

Queensland’s infrastructure needs include road and rail upgrades, port infrastructure, electricity and water supply/treatment networks and infrastructure that has the combined capacity of making Queensland more resilient to both drought and flood events. There is no over-arching infrastructure plan for Queensland that has been adopted by the current Queensland Government.

Renewable energy is widely acknowledged as an important tool in mitigating climate change. Its role in water conservation is not so recognized. Water is an essential ingredient in the energy production process. In the EU for example, energy production accounts for 44 per cent of total water use (15 per cent of global freshwater withdrawals annually). Locating similar data for Queensland has been problematic. The Water Q Strategy, a 30-year strategy for Queensland’s water sector, does not provide the baseline for water usage against which to measure the success of the plan.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), by 2050 the global population will need roughly 80 per cent more energy and 55 per cent more water than today. Meeting these growing demands is a tremendous challenge, given competing needs for limited resources amid heightened climate change effects. The frequency and intensity of adverse weather events may place even higher loads on energy water and food supply systems.

The IRENA analysis also finds that doubling the share of renewable energy, in particular solar PV and wind, could reduce water withdrawals in the power sector as much as 32 per cent in Australia. Achieving massive scale-up of renewable energy can occur with the right policy settings in Australia. Australia has the technology and the means to integrate variable renewable energy technologies into the electricity grid, creating jobs along the way. Renewable energy sources means more potable water for human consumption.

Energy is also needed to process water for consumption, including desalination and water treatment plants. During power generation, solar power withdraws 200 times less water than a coal power plant to produce the same amount of electricity. Wind power requires no water. Geothermal and concentrating solar power (CSP) have higher water needs for operation, but recent projects have shown that application of dry cooling systems in CSP plants, as well as in conventional power technologies, can reduce the water use substantially. High value (environmentally, socially and economically) renewable energy and water use reduction models have been found through waste reduction at sewerage treatment plants.

Queensland’s planning system (Sustainable Planning Act 2009 and State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971) and infrastructure industry-focused enabling legislation (such as the Electricity Act 1994 and Water Act 2000) creates a maze of regulation through which infrastructure providers and private operators/developers must navigate to achieve positive outcomes for industry and community. There is also legislation in the areas of transport, ports, community and related areas. It is interesting to note that the term “climate change” appears:

  • Three times in the Sustainable Planning Act 2009 preamble
  • Once in the Water Act 2000 in relation to water take entitlements
  • Zero times in the Electricity Act 1994
  • Zero times in the State Development and Public Works Organisation Act 1971

The term “renewable energy” is used even less frequently in these four pieces of legislation. The term “water” is found far more frequently in the legislation, though it is mostly to do with water infrastructure (pipes and storage entities), flood management, coastal and riparian management. Broader recognition of these key concepts in legislation will likely result in more detailed consideration of these matters in future planning of infrastructure and built-form, agriculture and resource projects in Queensland.

Obtaining approval for large-scale renewable energy plants in Queensland is proving to be problematic. While large scale renewable energy projects generally utilise the assessment processes of the Sustainable Planning Act 2009, Queensland’s planning system does not appear to account successfully for the scale of such projects. Both the private sector proposed Burdekin Solar Power Plant and Mount Emerald Wind Farm on the Atherton Tablelands were assessed under the Sustainable Planning Act 2009, yet both projects have been the subject of Queensland State Government Ministerial call-ins. Such actions must have an impact on the level of confidence of the renewable energy sector to have a balanced and timely assessment of critical infrastructure.

On September 9, 2015, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) made an announcement about the start of its large-scale solar competitive round, a $100 million programme that is seeking bids from major solar PV project proponents for grants of up to $30 million. Projects must have a minimum generation capacity of five megawatts (AC), and there is an added incentive for the Queensland Government and the private sector to work together to develop a more streamlined development assessment process for large scale renewable energy projects.

Around the world, including Queensland, waste water treatment plants have successfully been used to generate electricity from the capture of gases above treatment ponds. Treated water from sewerage treatment plants has been used for the purpose of cropping irrigation, thus reducing the impact on potable water sources. Some sewerage treatment plants elsewhere in the world have seen the vast size of their treatment ponds used as high quality cooling environments for large-scale solar power plants while also providing energy to the plant and the surrounding community.

However, desalination plants in Australia (and elsewhere) are frequently in “shut down – maintenance mode.” It may be socially and economically justifiable to build and operate very expensive grid powered desalination plants in periods of prolonged drought. However, do the economics make sense for operating desalination plants during periods of normal weather patterns where water storage facilities maintain consistently high volumes? The Gold Coast Desalination Plant is a case in point.

Is there a business case for developing symbiotic renewable energy sources at Australia’s desalination plants, water treatment plants, and food processing facilities that makes them economically viable for year round operation?

Can the planning system support such actions without the need for expensive and lengthy planning and assessment processes?

The Valley Center Municipal Water District in the United States installed a 1.1-megawatt solar power system that provides 2.1 gigawatt hours per year, offsetting up to 20 per cent of the electricity required by the utility’s largest pumping station. In Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah’s Solar Water Desalination (2010) aims to enhance the country’s water security and contribute to the national economy by developing low-cost solar-based desalination technology. Decreasing renewable energy costs, technology advances and increasing scale of deployment, make desalination based on renewable energy a cost-effective and sustainable solution in the long term.

Closed-loop production/manufacturing/waste reuse/recycle systems also have the potential to substantially reduce fossil fuel energy generation over time, decrease water consumption and improve food security for local and regional communities. Such systems also have the potential to improve the economic foundations of the local or regional community.

Vulnerabilities in water and energy supply also pose critical risks for food security, as do bio-security matters. Severe droughts and fluctuations in energy prices can affect the availability, affordability, accessibility and utilisation of food over time. The agri-food supply chain accounts for 30 per cent of the world’s energy consumption and is the largest consumer of water resources, accounting for approximately 70 per cent of all freshwater use. Energy produced from biomass can contribute to food security as long as it is sustainably produced and managed.

The Clean Energy Council ranks bioenergy as Australia’s fourth-largest generator of renewable energy behind hydro, wind and solar. Bioenergy could necessitate substantial water inputs, depending on feedstock production. Residue-based bioenergy requires relatively less water compared to dedicated energy crops, whose water consumption in turn depends on whether irrigation is necessary, on the irrigation method adopted, the crop type, local climatic conditions and technology choices.

Governments, the private sector, communities, academia and other stakeholders are being compelled to explore integrated solutions to ease the pressures. There is a need to formulate development pathways based on sustainable and efficient use of limited resources. More integrated planning and policy development across ministerial portfolios and between local government jurisdictions is necessary to ensure integrated solutions can be sourced.

In June 2015, the Palaszczuk Government announced it is planning to develop and expand Queensland’s biofuels and bio-manufacturing industries to help power the state toward a cleaner, greener energy future and create more job opportunities. Upon completion of the planned regional forums, action will be required as soon as possible to develop the industry further.

Temporary Local Planning Instruments may be required to help facilitate actions at the local government level. For example, ethanol production plants at sugar mills may need such mechanisms to expedite the planning process.

Current planning reform in Queensland needs to consider these matters in detail to provide appropriate direction to the State Assessment and Referral Agency and local governments in the assessment of development applications and in the writing of planning scheme policies and provisions.

One of the most effective, immediately available solutions to meeting the rising demand for water and energy, while also mitigating climate change, is to scale up renewable energy in all its forms. Making planning systems and policy direction that fully support the renewable energy sector and its efficient and effective delivery to meet the needs of communities needs to become a priority for local, state and national governments.