The Difficulty of Abandoning Fossil Fuels in Australia

As the world’s largest exporter of coal and with its biggest source of uranium in the Olympic Dam mine, one would not expect Australia to be at the forefront of the push for renewable energy sources.

Yet the Australian public has made it clear that this is exactly what they want of their nation, with a survey conducted in 2007 determining that over 80% of the population supports a greater focus on renewable energy (Wikipedia.org).

According to energymatters.com, the industry estimates demand for energy in Australia to increase 50% by 2020. Faced with that prospect, and with such a wealth of coal, uranium and gas to draw on, will the industry still be motivated enough to advance the cause of alternative energy?

An effort is being made, with Australia one of at least 66 countries that has adopted  a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) – a goal of producing a proportion of the nation’s energy using renewable sources by a certain deadline, set by that nation’s government and supported by legislation. The target varies from country to country; in Australia’s case it is 20% of the nation’s energy generation utilizing renewable sources by 2020.

Renewable Energy Sources in Australia

The Difficulty of Abandoning Fossil Fuels in Australia

Image credit: Owen James, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/owenjb/2682080288/

Renewable energy refers to energy attained from resources that do not diminish rapidly in supply, unlike fossil fuels which are harvested at a greater rate than reserves can support in the long-term. The process of burning fossil fuels to convert them into energy creates a number of pollutants. Greenhouse emissions are given the most press attention but they are just one of many environmental concerns associated with fossil fuels.

Renewable energy sources drastically reduce pollution, and are also a cheaper, more accessible source of energy and so are of great benefit to developing countries. Primary sources of renewable energy include: Wind power, solar power, hydropower, biomass (plants that have absorbed energy from the sun), biofuel (fuel obtained from biomass, such as ethanol) and geothermal energy (obtained from heat stored in the earth’s surface).

  • Wind power: Currently considered the most cost-efficient renewable energy source, with its long-term potential believed to be production of electricity equal to forty times the worlds current demand (Wikipedia). Australia has much land that could support the establishment of wind turbines, and Southern Australia with its particularly strong winds has proven an effective source of wind power.
  • Solar power: The sun is, of course, the most powerful source of energy, and solar power is advancing at an increasing rate. Australia’s climate and its proximity to the equator make it well-suited to generating power from the sun. According to ramblingsdc.net, only the south west of the USA has as strong potential for solar power generation amongst areas in developed nations.
  • Hydropower: Hydro is Australia’s greatest source (63.4%) of renewable energy, though this is changing with decreased rainfall and the increasing amount of wind farms. Hydroelectricity can be generated from ocean tides and waves, as well as from hydroelectric dams, but as yet these are not considered amongst Australia’s most viable options.
  • Geothermal power: This can be drawn from volcanoes or from “hot rocks” in the earth’s surface. Though Australia has no active volcanoes, it is one of the places on earth where hot rocks are close enough to the surface to be viable as a source of energy. However, technology is not yet advanced enough to utilize this.
  • Biofuel and Biomass: Australia is believed unsuited to this energy source. Though biofuel and biomass can be produced, available agricultural land could not support a large enough rate. However, studies are being conducted into the possibility of using algae for biofuel (oilgae.com)

Australia’s efforts to utilize its renewable energy sources

With an economy historically dependent on coal and petroleum exports, and a fossil fuel-based industry with much to lose, it’s understandable that the Australian government has not done all it can to utilize a potentially vast supply of renewable energy. Nearly 9% of Australia’s energy uses renewable sources, compared to the worldwide average of 20% (renewableenergyfocus.com).

The Australian government subsidizes the fossil fuel industry. It also subsidizes solar power, but cynics believe this is only due to solar power’s relative inefficiency compared to wind power, which they claim is not receiving enough support from the government. Some even point to leaked minutes from a meeting between officials from the government and representatives of the fossil fuel-based energy industry as evidence that both are, in fact, worried by wind power’s rising efficiency, and hope to curtail its growth until nuclear power and coal power stations with CO2 capture are established.

Forecasts are still positive, with the Beyond Zero Emissions research group reporting in 2010 that Australia could have 100% renewable energy by 2020 if they follow measures listed in the report. But, Australia’s government and energy industry will need to overcome a historic dependency on the production and export of fossil fuels before it can reap the benefits of renewable energy.

This post was written by Matthew Flax, a freelance writer and accountant with an eclectic range of interests that includes gaming Matt writes on behalf of Now Learning, an Australian education portal that promotes training courses and a variety of online education opportunities.

Filed in: Renewable Energies

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