Malcolm Turnbull

13 August 2010 – With only days left in the federal election campaign and with both major parties poncing around the point on climate change, 2000 people packed the Sydney Town Hall for the launch of a plan to achieve zero emissions in Australia by 2020 by re-powering the nation using renewable energy sources. That’s right, 100 per cent renewable energy within 10 years resulting in zero carbon emissions nationwide. In case you’re wondering if substance ingestion is at the basis of this wildly ambitious claim, the Melbourne University Research Institute, which sponsored the report, has drawn on glowing endorsements of their collective brainchild from a host of eminent scientists, academics, industry leaders and energy sector businesses.

Bob Carr

Professor Robin Batterham, president, of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering , and formerly Chief Scientist of Australia, says that the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan will “help shift the climate debate to focus on energy; security; affordability; export and of course opportunity.”  Professor Batterham says that the Beyond Zero Emissions initiative “offers a new and invigorating message that is much needed.”

Former Liberal Leader Malcolm Turnbull and former NSW Premier Bob Carr spoke at the launch. Both men advocated for a price on carbon, preferably an ETS, and each put a bah-humbug boot into the unproven clean coal technology often mooted as an alternative to dirty coal. It was the closest thing to a rousing election speech Mr Turnbull might be availed of in the campaign, with one wit on the panel remarking that the deposed Liberal leader gave a convincing performance as a prospective Labour Prime Minister. But Mr Turnbull was upstaged by West Australian Green Senator Scott Ludlum, who had the benefit of representing a political party with a clearly articulated, detailed policy on climate change.

The gist of the Zero Carbon Plan, which is based on extensive research of technology in use elsewhere in the world, is that it is both technically and economically feasible, not only for Australia to achieve zero emissions by 2020, but for the nation to become a regional exporter of renewable energy. Matthew Wright, Executive Director of Beyond Zero Emissions, explained that the research methodology used to formulate the Plan focused on a specific technological model, while pointing out that other complementary options and initiatives were available which could accelerate progress towards the goal of 100 per cent renewables for base load power. I’ll say that again: base load power. The technology in question involves a sea of mirror and a pillar of salt.

The mirrors reflect the heat of the sun and concentrate it on a pillar of molten salt. The captured heat is then converted to steam which is used to power turbines to generate electricity. In Spain, where the technology is currently in use, it has been demonstrated as an effective means on delivering base load power at levels of efficiency comparable to or exceeding that coal and gas fired power stations. The technical problem of variability in supply rates is addressed in the Plan by the supplementary addition of wind power topped up by biological sources when necessary.

Mr Wright outlined plans for a nationwide network of 12 solar power stations and 23 wind sites stretching from Longreach to Canarvon, generating enough power to meet domestic needs and with enough excess to build an export industry. The capital cost to build the network is around $370 billion.  A question from the floor addressed the looming prospect of Australia’s diminishing oil supply which will result in 80 per cent of our oil needs being imported by 2015 at something like $100 a barrel. The question, which was acknowledged by the panelists to be an important one, pointed to the effect of the cost of oil imports on the national economy and how that might impact on our capacity to fund expensive projects like the Zero Carbon Plan.

Senator Ludlum maintained that the challenge was a matter of both risk and opportunity. He advocated a stop to talk of subsidising the coal industry in favour of directing additional revenue to Infrastructure Australia to build projects like the Zero Carbon Plan. A number of speakers made the point that while technical and economic feasibility was clear, changes to the regulatory framework and an easing of the stranglehold of vested interests in the energy sector would be required in order to achieve substantive change.

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We can’t wait for the future