Orange-Bellied Politics


Just when you thought the Federal Government could not stoop any lower in blocking renewable energy sources from making progress in Australia, Environment Minister Ian Campbell announces his ‘save one parrot a year’ decision to block a wind farm in Victoria.

This latest move follows the Government’s refusal to increase renewable energy electricity generation targets and its refusal to impose any mandatory targets for renewable fuels in the transport sector.

Campbell’s decision needs to be seen for what it is. It has nothing to do with saving orange-bellied parrots which are just a ‘divide and rule’ pretext in this case and everything to do with wedge politics.

The appropriate response from the Greens and environmental groups would have been to condemn the decision out of hand. Instead, it had its desired effect, with some groups saying they were ‘neutral’ on the issue of wind farms, thereby scuttling a united front on the more general question the need for wind farms.

The result? Last week in the business press, it was widely reported that the Australian group Roaring 40s Renewable Energy, a joint venture between Hydro Tasmania and CLP Holdings, has pulled the plug on $550 million worth of wind projects in the country, citing the investment uncertainty created by the Federal Government’s decision.

Roaring 40s is withdrawing its planning application for the $300 million Heemskirk wind farm in western Tasmania and will not go ahead with the $250 million Waterloo project in South Australia. Another Tasmanian project, worth $270 million, is also in doubt, the company said.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

So here we have a Government that refuses to recognise that its blind support of fossil fuels at any cost (leavened perhaps with a little nuclear energy) is leaving Australia without any serious investment in any renewable fuels or energy sources. For a country so blessed with abundant renewable resources, this is madness to the point of perversity.

For the past decade, a world-class group has been working at the University of New South Wales under Professor Martin Green to produce the next generation of solar energy cells. But after years of effort to commercialise the technology, frustrated at every turn by Federal and State Governments, the innovation has been bought by German interests, and is now leading the German push to make renewable and solar energy one of its principal industries in the 21st century. The technology Crystalline Silicon on Glass (CSG) can make solar cells a hundred times thinner and yet almost as efficient as their thicker counterparts. In any other country, Martin Green would be a national hero.

By refusing to set long-term and increasing goals for retail electricity companies to find renewable sources of power, the Federal Government has also ensured that there is little incentive for companies to invest in the co-generation of ‘green electricity’ from biowastes. Meanwhile, they hand out billions of dollars in subsidies and tax breaks to the oil and coal industries to ‘assist’ them in exploring new fields to waste.

Groups like the Mackay Sugar Co-operative, who hope to make their sugar mills into energy exporters by utilising the bagasse that is left after extracting the sugar-rich juice from sugar cane, are therefore being forced to put their plans on hold.

And as petrol and diesel prices head skyward because of ‘Peak Oil’, the Government is even more reckless on fuel. A paltry non-mandatory target of 350 megalitres of biofuel production (mainly ethanol) by 2010 has been set up amounting to less than 1 per cent of current fuel consumption. But the oil majors’ low uptake of biofuels in 2006 indicates that even this voluntary target is not going to be met.

In the meantime, a vicious public relations campaign waged by the oil majors against ethanol is allowed to run rampant.

There are many reasons to be optimistic about the capacity for renewable energy sources to deliver us from the bondage of fossil fuels (not to mention being forced to buy oil at any price from Middle East despots propped up by successive US Administrations), but there seems to be a perverse insistence in Australia on bowing to vested oil and coal interests.

But it’s not all gloom and doom. Last week I attended a magnificent three-day conference on ‘Ethanol The Fuel of the Future,’ sponsored by the Queensland State Government, in Brisbane’s Hilton Hotel. The Queenslanders are getting behind a big campaign to turn ethanol a clean, renewable fuel that can be blended with petrol and diesel into one of the State’s biggest industry and export products.

This will be good for motorists, good for the Queensland economy, and good for cane farmers, who will be able to turn their erstwhile waste products into profit. These ethanol plants will be built in rural communities, thus giving them a much-needed fillip. And the beauty of ethanol is that every carbon atom burned is simply replacing one drawn out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis: it is greenhouse gas neutral.

The Queenslanders are realistic enough to know that this Federal Government will do nothing to support them in their efforts. But business works in surprising ways. There are huge mining interests in Australia that use a lot of diesel, and they are very interested in biofuels as blends and alternatives. (The largest mining contractor in the Queensland, Leighton Holdings, expects to switch to biodiesel within 18 months.) And the Japanese, Korean and Chinese markets beckon with Japanese trading companies like Mitsui and Sojitz already scouting for every drop of ethanol they can secure. These are the markets that smart producers in Australia will be targeting.

In the meantime, the Federal Government needs to be sent a message loud and clear that no further sabotage of the country’s renewable energy prospects will be tolerated.

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