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Australia's opportunity to lead the rapid growth and uptake of renewable energy

Speeches in Parliament
Scott Ludlam 6 Feb 2013

Senator LUDLAM (Western Australia) (17:20): I rise to speak to this notion for a number of reasons, the first being the speed at which renewable energy technology is changing-the speed at which costs are coming down and the speed at which it is being deployed around the world. These are obviously issues that no doubt Senator Birmingham, and slightly less than half, regrettably, of his colleagues, understand. But then we have the counterproposals raised by Senator Joyce. He is simply so utterly ignorant of the reality on the ground that it is worth bringing a debate such as this into the Senate chamber.

The second reason is that, as a result of the passage of the Clean Energy Act which has unlocked over a period of five years $10 billion in investment with which to assist the private sector close the cost-revenue gap that exists at the moment with some of the leading edge concentrating solar-thermal technologies in the world, we have this mechanism now. We have the Clean Energy Finance Corporation. It is getting on its feet and preparing to open the bidding for the first tranche of funding in the second half of this year. We have the technology that is now taking root around the world in leading countries, in places like Spain, western United States, the Middle East and elsewhere, and we have the mechanism to build it.And, the third reason is that I have seen it with my own eyes. I travelled to Andalucia in Spain in December, and visited, firstly, the Abengoa complex, west of the city of Seville, and Torresol's Gemasolar plant, about 100 kilometres to the east. These are two examples of large-scale, utility scale, solar energy plants that work around the clock. 24/7, rain, hail or shine. It can do this with or without sunlight. The second plant that we visited can hold thermal energy storage for up to 15 hours. On a cloudy day, or on a run of consecutive cloudy days, they can run that plant without much sunlight for hours and hours. That is how you get better than baseload dispatchable energy from a solar plant that runs on no fuel other than sunlight itself.

I think that many people, when they consider solar energy, think of rooftop solar panels. That is fine. We have seen huge falls in the cost of that technology as economies of scale kick in, particularly with the research and development leadership that Australia has shown over previous years, coupled with the massive manufacturing capacity of China. This has led to huge falls in the cost of PV. For example, in Perth-the latest figures I have from last September-218 megawatts of peak electricity was generated from the rooftops of the residents of Perth. It is interesting to note that the largest renewable energy instillation in Western Australia is actually the city of metropolitan Perth. Because costs have fallen so fast-with halting policy assistance from both federal and state that comes and goes; rebates that get slashed and reintroduced, different schemes that come and go and even so people have done the right thing-we are now seeing large-scale deployment of solar energy in Western Australia and right around the world. So, PV is a big deal.

But, what we want to raise today-and the reason the motion is worded as it is-is that there are major changes occurring in concentrating solar thermal technology which does not use photovoltaics, it does not require the rare earth minerals, it does not require advanced electronics or miniaturisation or particularly advanced manufacturing technologies. These are fields of glass, a kilometre or more across, that reflect the sunlight onto a central receiving tower which heats some kind of thermal storage mechanism-whether it be water, or hot oil, or molten salt, as was the case in some of the plants that we visited, and other technologies, including one that is proposed to get up and running in Western Australia using the solid thermal storage medium of graphite-and that thermal energy can be stored and dispatched later. That is how you get better than baseload solar plants that can run around the clock. It changes absolutely everything. It certainly should change-although I suspect he would be one of the last people on the planet to get the message-the determined, unhinged, pig ignorance of people like Senator Barnaby Joyce and the display he put on for us just now. That a senior policymaker in 2013 can still hold and express views like that is dangerous. And, it is a leadership example set by his leader, Tony Abbott, and premiers like Premier Barnett in Western Australia which is dangerous. Crossing the road with a blindfold on is dangerous. We cannot allow people like these to hold leadership positions in Australia while the ship heads towards the rocks. We have the technology, we have the institutional set-up and now we have the funding mechanism to make plants like this a reality in Australia, largely in part because of the leadership shown by Senator Milne, by Adam Bandt and by our former leader, Senator Bob Brown, in bringing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation into being. We are not simply taxing the several hundred largest polluters in the country, but we are using a large fraction of that revenue to build the platform to replace the polluting infrastructure. This technology is good because it gives you the thermal storage, it is responsive to demand, unlike coal and nuclear power plants, it is relatively simple to build and it can happen on a large scale, on a utility scale. That is what has been missing from this debate up until now.

There is a whole range of other technologies taking their place like wave and geothermal. Senator Madigan had some useful points to make on energy efficiency. That is the keystone here: reducing demand and our profligate use of energy so that these generating technologies can take their place. Where would we build plants like this? This is something I plan on spending a lot of time working on this year, because the West Australian goldfields have been shown in study after study to be one of the best places in the world, one of the best solar resources in the world. There is space for plants such as this. There is not merely community acceptance but community advocacy. I want to congratulate the leadership that the city of Kalgoorlie Boulder and its mayor Ron Yuryevich have shown for as long as I have known him in trying to get this infrastructure built in the goldfields and out at Kalgoorlie. We have the manufacturing capability, the fabrication capability out there, and we have the best solar resource in the world out there. I am quite determined to help support the goldfields in taking that leadership position that industry, business, civil society groups like the Goldfields Renewable Energy Lobby and the local government authority itself are trying to show out there.

Some of the most interested participants and stakeholders in this debate are the mining industry who are sick of having to cop rising gas costs on a grid that is now at capacity. That is where this debate gets very interesting, because the cost of technologies such as this are falling rapidly, and are predicted to fall even more rapidly if the current rates of deployment are maintained. Forty per cent annual increases in deployment of concentrating solar thermal technology around the world, and the number of large-scale plants under construction in Australia at the moment is zero. We are at risk of falling behind. Some of the best research in the world on plants like this has been undertaken in Australia in places like the University of New South Wales, and then they go overseas and build these plants elsewhere. This is because of the kind of views that we heard Senator Joyce express.

He has done us a favour. It is not often that people would have the courage in this place to come in and be so brazenly ignorant as to just put it all out on the table with, perhaps, deliberate misrepresentation of the science. I would almost prefer it be deliberate than be the actual views that Senator Joyce holds. But he is not alone. He is more honest than others, like his leader, Mr Tony Abbott and like Premier Barnett in Western Australia. They pay lip service to climate change issues and to the reality of the disaster that we are ploughing towards if we continue on our present course. They pay lip service to it and they pretend to care. At least Senator Joyce is honest enough to come in here and admit that he could not give a damn about climate change, and that he just thinks that it is rubbish. That is actually less dangerous than the kind of views professed by Mr Abbott who is holding to a five per cent target and has no intention of doing anything of the sort. He is utterly dumbfounded if you put to him the question of, what about the other 95 per cent? How on earth do these people propose to de-carbonise the economy? The fact is, they do not have any such intentions. Western Australia-my home state-is heading for a doubling of greenhouse gas emissions in the next 10 to 15 years. It is the same in Queensland and New South Wales. Massive increases in coal exports, ramp up industrial capacity, put in as many mines as you can, exporting LNG, exporting coal all over the world and the party is just about over. We now have the tools that we need to change course, and we need to change course very, very quickly.

If you look at the statistics-not what the Greens are saying but what the global investment community is saying-investment in nuclear technology has gone backwards. The nuclear industry has gone into its terminal decline. You do not have to take that from me. Investment in fossil fuel power stations is flatlining and will be declining, and investment in renewable energy is surging. It is time Australia took the leadership position that it so clearly can.


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