Why aren’t there Big Solar Projects in Australia?

Businesses developing renewable and energy efficient technologies search in vain for a sympathetic ear in Canberra. (p.66)

Matt from The Coffee House and Environment Solutions asked,

Are there not any big solar building projects going on in Oz?

My original answer to Matt was,

The University of NSW and Australian National University are internationally recognised in solar technology development, but research ideas are often commercialised overseas because the venture capital can’t be found in Australia. eg. UNSW’s recent $1.7m licensing agreement with Taiwanese solar cell manufacturer E-Ton Solar Tech Co. Ltd.

I also thought Australia’s government is not very helpful because our Mandatory Renewable Energy Target is set at 9,500GWh by 2010. This target will only increase Australia’s renewable energy market by about 1-2 percent. I didn’t think, Why is this so?

The correct answer to Matt’s question is Prime Minister John Howard’s government and the greenhouse mafia, also known as the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network.

I just read Scorcher: The dirty politics of climate change by Clive Hamilton (Black Inc, 2007) and now I know why Australia’s government is so anti-renewable energy and until quite recently sceptical of climate change. If I watched more TV I might have seen Four Corners in February 2006 and heard about Guy Pearse’s PhD thesis on Australia’s greenhouse mafia.

I recommend Hamilton’s book, although it was depressing to be reminded of the things Australia’s government has done in relation to the Kyoto Protocol and denial of human-induced climate change.

Prior to Australia’s last federal election in May 2004 the Lower Emissions Technology Advisory Group (LETAG), made up of CEOs of fossil fuel corporations, met with government ministers. Prime Minister Howard wanted the meeting to provide

some ideas about how the Government could beef up its greenhouse credentials in a way that would convince the Herald [newspaper and thus the public] that it was serious about climate change (p.11)

He could have achieved this by Australia ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, but no one in the room was going to suggest that. John Howard’s nephew Lyall Howard is the head of government relations at Rio Tinto (one of the companies at the above meeting). This is how Australia’s Prime Minister finds “nothing improper” (p.12) with meeting with these companies and asking them for input in Australia’s greenhouse policy.

Australia relies on energy-intensive exports such as coal, aluminium and uranium and our current government (with encouragement from the industries which deal in these exports) wants to keep it this way (p.66). Other countries ratifying the Kyoto Protocol will affect these exports. It has concerned some that

If Australia has repudiated the Kyoto Protocol, why is it so desperate to continue to participate in Kyoto negotiations?…A plausible answer is that as long as the Howard government has a seat at the table, it can continue to spoil and make progress more difficult. (p.224)

Carbon capture and storage and nuclear power are technological solutions to climate change favoured by Australia’s government which would allow these exports to continue (p.223), but

will not have any significant effect for 15 to 20 years. (p.221)

We should have thought about them 20 years ago. While researching for Scorcher Hamilton came across Fossil Fuels and the Greenhouse Effect by the Office of National Assessments, dated November 1981. Thus, Australia’s government has had access to information on climate change for quite some time. In 1989 Western Australia’s state government adopted the Toronto Target, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 80% of 1988 levels by 2005. This would have been why I did my primary school project on the greenhouse effect. (All I remember of my project was the title: “The Greenhouse Paradox” which I plagiarised from a newspaper article.) Other states and subsequently the federal government adopted the Toronto Target. A few elections later and no one remembered that one. At the time, Prime Minister Bob Hawke said,

greenhouse cannot be dismissed as just another environmental issue. It has the potential to change fundamentally within a single lifetime the way all nations and peoples live (p.46)

Hamilton also discussed personal versus government action on the issue.

For all its good intentions, green consumerism contributes to the progressive privatisation of responsibility for environmental degradation…we are told that we each have to take responsibility for our personal contribution to the problem…consistent with the economic rationalist view of the world (p.109)

One example of this voluntary approach to decreasing carbon emissions is Greenpower, paying more to receive electricity from renewable sources. In 1995 it was suggested that by 2000

between 26 and 30 percent of residential customers would be participating in such schemes. However, by July 2006, less than 4 percent of all households had signed up. (p.53)

The Big Switch is a campaign to encourage people to choose Greenpower, but only so many people will ever do this because inertia gets in the way. Hamilton suggests an opt-out system would increase the number using Greenpower.

The other day I commented on No Impact Man how ineffectual government is at doing anything, but perhaps

Climate change is far too big a problem to be left to the goodwill of individual citizens. (p.53)


Further reading

Yusuf, Irfan The Greenhouse Mafia in New Matilda, 16 August 2007.
Pearse, Guy High & Dry: John Howard, climate change and the selling of Australia’s future Penguin, 2007.
Naughten, Barry Climate change: Howard holds a monkey wrench in New Matilda, 15 September 2006.
Hamilton, Clive The Dirty Politics of Climate Change. Speech to the Climate Change and Business Conference, Hilton Hotel, Adelaide, 20 February 2006.

One thought on “Why aren’t there Big Solar Projects in Australia?

  1. Claire,

    Excellent post above. Helps to explain a lot why action has been little within Australia, at least via the Howard government. Howard and Bush will not be missed.


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