Renewable energy in Australia: can it achieve its potential?

Victoria Kenrick

Is is safe to say that compared to the major renewables markets, renewable energy is still developing within Australia - and in need of increased focus and investment; could that be set to come in 2013-2014 and beyond?

Despite the recession affecting the global economy, the world invested a record US$251 billion in clean energy during 2011. But away from the major markets (such as Germany, U.S. and China for example) there is a need for further investment in renewable technologies.

Arguably, Australia would fall into this category.

According to Kobad Bhavnagri, lead clean energy analyst, Bloomberg New Energy Finance - Australia, Australia's investment is on track to rise to US$6.8 billion next year, and will aim to rise to US$45 billion by 2020. But despite some of the best renewable energy resources on the planet, Australia has been slower than other countries at tapping into this potential. Australia saw an increase of 11% on the previous year (with the biggest contribution coming from Solar Power), but Australia still only derives 8.7% of its electricity from renewable energy, versus a worldwide average of nearly 20%.

So what are the main reasons for Australia's lacklustre approach to renewable energy, and what challenges does it still need to overcome if it wants to fulfill its renewable energy targets of 20% by 2020?

Australian ideas commercialised elsewhere

It is a daming indictment of renewable energy development that many Australian ideas are now being commercialised overseas (such as David Mills’ solar thermal technology, which is being developed in the U.S. and is owned by Areva, the French nuclear power giant).

The incongruity of having the ideas and resources, but not using them, is a hurdle in Australia’s renewable energy development. According to Andy Cutt, Renewable Energy PhD student at Murdoch University, this is due to “political willpower to make it work on a large scale and drive down the costs so that it can be economically competitive”.

Australia must build its own infrastructure to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint, cut dependence on fossil fuels and enable the transition to a low-carbon economy. What is currently lacking that prevents Australia from harnessing its own renewable energy inventions are economies of scale. Therefore, a larger Government stimulus would allow many renewable energy technologies to compete head-to-head against coal-fired electricity generation within the next five years, and in turn provide significant employment and export opportunities.

Storing renewable energy

As renewable energy relies on variable sources of energy, storage issues also need to addressed (something that is of course in no way unique to Australia - ed). Australia's Queensland University of Technology is working on creating local hubs able to store and distribute renewable energy more effectively: "Our aim is to develop new storage and management systems to better harness all of the electricity sources available and give the electricity grid greater strength," says Professor Gerard Ledwich, Chairman Power Engineering at QUT. "This will benefit all electricity users, not only those in remote locations.”

If Australia is able to better store renewable energy locally and combine it with the vast amounts of renewable energy Australia is capable of producing, experts hope the country could be able to develop a stronger electricity network and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the idea of a larger regional grid structure could also aid Australia's foray into renewables.

Allen & York is witnessing a growing trend in job opportunities within the Transmission & Distribution; and Grid Connection sectors worldwide, but a large majority of these roles are currently available in Europe. Christopher Ouizeman, regional manager, Allen &York Australia anticipates more demand in this area within Australia as the grid connection networks are expanded, and the capacity for energy capture and storage is improved.

CSIRO results point to increased support for wind energy development

There are signs of increasing community support for wind farms across Australia according to a CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) report. The results, which are welcomed by green groups such as the Clean Energy Council, which believes that community support for wind was “much stronger” than reported in the media.

Increased public education on renewable energy development combined with the clear guidelines for allowable noise levels and visual amenity, could encourage the establishment of wind farms and other sources of renewable energy, including solar thermal and biomass generation.

It is expected that wind energy will provide the largest share of Australia’s targeted 20% renewable energy by 2020. To achieve this, major objections to wind farms need to be addressed; these include aesthetic considerations and a concern for the effect of wind farms on birdlife. This could be achieved by examining best practice in European countries, where thorough Environmental and Social Impact Assessments (ESIA) address these issues prior to wind farm development.

Allen & York is seeing a rise in Planning and EIA/SIA roles within the industry, with openings for Social Impact Assessment professionals on the increase.

Investment for the future

The Australian Government has committed to reducing Australia's emissions to 108% of its 1990 levels. To help achieve this, the Government has pledged A$10 billion (AUD) in investment, to be carried out over a five year period, and managed by the Government-formed Clean Energy Investment Corporation.

As in other markets, to achieve the transition to a low carbon sustainable economy a massive mobilisation of skills and training is required – both to equip new workers, and to enable appropriate changes in practices to be achieved by the three million workers already employed in these key sectors.

About the author: Victoria Kenrick works for Allen & York, a specialist recruitment consultancy. Allen & York anticipates demand for roles such as: Renewable Energy Developer, Head of Land Acquisition, Renewable Energy Project Engineer, as well as Construction Site Managers. The development of renewable energy will also affect Health, Safety and Environmental (HSE) careers; where professionals such as Health & Safety Advisor and Environmental Impact Assessor will be required to work within the renewable energy industry.



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