Ian Porter

By Lyn Drummond
22 February 2012 – The Alternative Technology Association’s chief executive officer Ian Porter is optimistic about the future of renewable energy, particularly its improving cost competitiveness with fossil fuels, but would like to see a much stronger solar industry.

”What is exciting is that technology is moving in both price and competitiveness so quickly,” he told The Fifth Estate.

“We have a carbon price change starting at the end of June that will change initially and more, over time, the economics of renewable energy and energy efficiency. It internalises the environmental cost which for years we have not bothered to pay.”

Mr Porter, who will be speaking at a Sydney conference on 17-19 April on retrofitting for energy efficiency said renewable energy was heading towards cost competiveness with fossil fuels. “It’s getting closer and closer. A classic example is solar photovoltaics.

“In 2009 PV cost $10-$12 a watt to be installed into a two kilowatt system, that would be a total cost of about $20,000 before subsidies. Now the cost is between $3.50 and $4.50 installed – a 60 per cent reduction in three years.”

He cites the reason as the scale and improvement in technology. “Some manufacturing is done in China. We sometimes hear in the climate change debate that China is not doing anything; in fact China spends masses on building a solar industry.”

“There was an increase in distribution and transmission of electricity prices across Australia in 2009 and 2010 of the order of five and 10 per cent and then a further three or four per cent increase per cent per year after that.”

See the 2011 Australian Energy Regulator report

Mr Porter, who describes himself as a mathematical and nuclear scientist, was formerly executive director of the Victorian government’s climate change program.

He believes that the carbon tax has put more pressure on building owners to explore alternative energies like solar and wind.

“The renewable energy sector in Australia has boomed in recent years in response to government legislation – and this will grow even more with the carbon tax legislation kicking in mid-year which will make non-renewable energies more expensive,” he said.

“I think people have been waiting to see how the carbon price debate would stack up. It’s no surprise now to anyone that carbon prices are only going to increase over time.”

Rising energy prices across the board have also spurred building owners to examine new ways to keep costs down, he said.

“Energy prices are going up not so much because of the carbon price at the moment, but also because wholesale energy prices are also going up. I think this will drive the economics. And for commercial building owners, realistically, it’s these economics that will be their first point of call.”

Whilst interest in alternative technologies has made the market more competitive, there are still certain challenges for building owners who want to make use of alternative energies.

“The first big challenge was understanding how energy use happens in a building… so the challenge is getting the right information,” he said.

“From my experience, in commercial buildings, the person who pays the bills may not be the one who is controlling investment around energy efficient technologies, meaning the CEO and board may not be aware of these things.”

Once this is covered though building owners can then start to look at the options available to them. Whilst different renewable energies will see various commercial applications, he believes building owners in particular will find solar energy attractive.

“I think we might find solar arrays popping up on large commercial buildings over the next couple of years,” he said.

For those still not convinced about the sector and its applications for buildings Mr Porter has this to say:
“If they’re not buying into it because they think this is a brief or short term fad, I’d be very happy to discuss that that is a very misplaced view. Community’s expectations toward commercial buildings in this area are growing and growing, and it won’t turn back.”

The ATA is a 31 year old association with 6000 members. Mr Porter, who has been CEO since 2009, says there has been a big change in public attitudes in the past 10 years, with 70 per cent saying in a national opinion poll they wanted to do something about the environment.

“There was a huge surge around the climate change agenda in 2007, but that subsided because of postering by climate change sceptics, and it becoming such a party political issue.

“We address this by continuing to help households in particular to become more sustainable, the more that happens, the more people will expect good decisions of their policy makers about sustainability, and know it will be done.”

ATA volunteers in East Timor

Since 2001, the ATA has installed solar lighting and power systems in over 1000 homes, community centres, schools, hospitals and training centres in remote villages in Timor Leste

Last year 16 ATA volunteers installed solar panels for lighting and power in community centres and schools in Baguia, Same, Ainaro, and Ermera.

This included a large system to power a community centre in Baguia with an office, 17 laptops, sewing machines, musical instruments and other equipment for training, children’s activities and work opportunities in the local community.

Volunteers also trained a number of locals to install rooftop solar panels on homes.

By the end of March 2012, these Timorese will have installed solar-powered lighting in more than 700 houses in rural areas where there is no electricity.

“In time it will become an industry and we will not be needed there,” Mr Porter said.

Donations for the project are collected from friendship groups in Australia. ATA is planning to expand the program to other countries in the Asia Pacific region, but no final decision on where has been reached. See East Timor program