Last night’s episode of Four Corners (one of Australia’s finest journalistic organs) was both frustrating and heartening: frustrating because our government is ideologically and financially focused on the 19th century business model of dig it, burn it and sell it, to the detriment of the environment, to our domestic renewables market and to our great potential to be a major global player in the next industrial revolution (the “Saudi Arabia of renewables”); heartening because the number of people installing solar arrays in their homes is already over 10% in some states, are in some areas producing more than enough electricity to satisfy requirements and are showing coal-fired power stations to be the inefficient, highly costly and soon-to-be outdated things they are.
Much of the report contrasted the American attitude to renewable energy with that of our government here in Australia. While America is innovating and building large-scale solar farms in its deserts with some towns & communities headed towards total self-sufficiency built on renewable energy (and with Apple designing its next corporate headquarters around total self-sufficiency), Australia’s conservative government is sabotaging investment and research into renewables, sabotaging the Renewable Energy Target, has dismissed its climate commission and is looking to repeal the carbon tax. This is chiefly due to our government being deeply entwined in mining, especially coal, which powers most of our power stations – so deeply entwined that I suspect there’s no easy way out for them (let’s not forget that conservatives and billionaires in this country go hand-in-glove, so expecting a Tory government to suddenly want to wash its hands of coal-dust in favour of free, functionally infinite sunshine and wind is like expecting Gina Rinehart, Australia’s richest
businesswoman heiress, to start a charity devoted to providing asylum seekers with university education).
Of course, those who own and operate businesses based on fossil-fuel extraction and combustion (and those political parties and governments who both enable and benefit from them) have had perhaps two decades to adjust to a changing energy market and carve out a piece for themselves. Presumably through some combination of denial, myopia and being able to strongarm successive state and federal governments for subsidies, tax breaks and other examples of corporate welfare, they have chosen not to do so. By their own free-market standards (the ones they invoke when, for example, they blame those stricken by poverty or lack of opportunity for their own misfortune) they’ll have noone but themselves to blame if the market leaves them flapping in the breeze – however, as we all know, it’s highly impertinent to point that out. So I won’t.
I will, however, point out that it’s kind of appropriate that people who’ve made themselves obscenely, obesely wealthy by digging holes may well end up in holes of their own making. As demand for their black, dusty gold decreases while its price inflates, people are increasingly looking to the sky. Basic economics dictates that if a consumer can get your product elsewhere for less money or, especially, a different product that does the same thing for nothing, they’ll seek out that product. Coal costs large amounts of money to find, to dig up, to transport to its destination; sunlight falls from the sky daily in large amounts over most of the planet and wind is simply unavoidable. As the technology to harness and store solar and wind energy improves and becomes more common, it will become cheaper. And more people will buy it.
For a final thought, look to the third world – many impoverished and developing nations are blessed with large amounts of sunlight. A solar kit that would power a generous home or two in Australia could provide clean electricity for an entire community in just about any put-upon place on the planet (global charities, I’m sure this kind of thing might already be on your list). Do you think someone in a remote subsistence-farming village in Kenya or Cambodia or a remote Aboriginal community in Australia would care about the profit projections of Clive Palmer or Gina Rinehart if they could, thanks to a simple community-owned solar array, just flick on a light – or an oven, water pump or even a computer for, say, distance education? Solar and wind technology will soon improve to the point of being cheap enough to pay for itself very quickly and is already trivial to transport and install, with the raw materials already available at the location – for free – every day. This will enable previously disenfranchised people to strike from their lists of privations that simplest of things, that most basic of privileges: a light in the dark.
As the rest of the world, developing nations included, embraces cheap, clean power technology, Australia might just be left in the dark itself, with our neighbours, customers and friends looking on, scratching their heads and asking us why weren’t paying attention.