Big solar needs democracy to switch on

June 5, 2012 at 7:30 am Leave a comment

If Australia were a democracy and governments had no choice but to carry out the will of the majority, we’d be well on our way to a 100% renewable power grid.

Recent polling organised by climate action groups around the country found that 94% of 12,000 people polled said they wanted big solar power stations built in Australia. And 93% of those polled said the government should invest public money to make that happen.

Big solar power stations use a field of mirrors to capture heat from sunlight. As they can store excess heat, big solar plants can run at night or in cloudy weather.

Australia has some of the best conditions in the world for solar power. About 60% of Australia’s energy needs could be met with it.

In the long run, big solar is also a big money-saver. Initial set up costs are high. But because the energy source is free, big solar will save many billions of dollars worth of coal and gas bills in coming decades.

The 100% renewables survey reported many of those polled said they supported big solar power because it would help boost employment. Unlike fossil fuels, solar power is a job-rich option.

Compared with big solar, gas-fired power is a job killer. Beyond Zero Emissions says that building big solar and wind power in Port Augusta would create about 20 times more permanent jobs than a gas-fired power plant.

Fossil fuel industries are already killing jobs elsewhere in Australia. The Australia Institute says a new liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in Gladstone will cause such huge economic dislocation that it will destroy 1600 more jobs than it will create. And, taking advantage of a tight rental market, landlords will hike up rents once the plant opens. Many small businesses, or unemployed and pensioner Gladstone residents on fixed incomes, will be priced out of town.

Do you think the owners of the Arrow LNG plant — Royal Dutch Shell and Petrochina — give a damn about these consequences? Of course not. Once that plant gets built the owners will rake in the cash. If they rake in a lot, that will free up capital to invest in the next profitable project, and the next after that. That is what matters to them.

Gladstone’s two-speed economy of big winners and big losers captures on a small scale what the mining and resources industry is doing to the whole Australian economy.

Australia’s mining boom, which is really still an investment boom, is hoovering up foreign and domestic private capital as profits soar. But the boom has pushed the rest of the economy to the brink of recession.

The mining boom is helping push workers out of manufacturing jobs. Huge coal seam gas and coal developments threaten to ruin entire rural economies and wreck irreplaceable farmlands.

Alongside hurting farmers, mining companies are trampling over the long-term needs of Australia’s tourism, wine and other industries.

Taking into account its overall impact on the economy and employment, Australia’s so-called mining boom is a curse, not a blessing. And above the wreckage rise the mining barons — richer, more powerful and with more reasons to not change course than ever before.

Alongside the economic dislocation, the mining and resources juggernaut creates environmental havoc. Once again, the ecological tragedy inflicted on the town of Gladstone captures on a small scale what is taking place on a big scale.

Dredging in Gladstone Harbour — on behalf of coal and gas interests — has transformed a picturesque, world-heritage listed waterway into a toxic, polluted nightmare.

On a global level, the fossil fuel and mining companies have expanded their operations, ignoring the climate change danger. Last week, the International Energy Association said global greenhouse gas emissions rose 3.2% last year.

The IEA said emissions have never been measured so high. It said unless we turn around and cut emissions quickly in the next few years, the Earth’s average temperature rise will cross the 2°C threshold. Above that point, scientists say we can expect much stronger climate change impacts: longer droughts, fiercer storms, extreme weather patterns and biodiversity loss.

What’s most shocking about the IEA measurements is how carbon emissions are worsening. In the early 1990s, global emissions rose by about 1% a year. Twenty years later, and despite all the scientific evidence and the green technologies available, investment decisions based on profit have made greenhouse gas emissions three times worse.

To keep profits up, the fossil fuel economy has to treat our atmosphere the same as it treats Gladstone Harbour: a dumping ground for waste.

This disastrous record of the past two decades should cause more observers to doubt the official wisdom about the climate crisis, which says market forces must play the main role in the transformation to a safe climate. In practice, the capitalist market has hugely rewarded the companies that are taking us down the road of disaster.

The argument for market based solutions to the climate crisis is based on faith, not experience. There is no body of evidence that suggests corporate greed, self-interest and the profit motive can help us in this cause.

But once politicians translate their faith in the market into political policy, it means that science-based policies that conflict with big capital’s need to expand in destructive ways are cast aside.

The science says we cannot afford this barren faith: we have no time to lose. We’re well into the climate change danger zone already. But big solar power is a hopeful option. Renewable energy is job-rich, clean, modern, healthy, affordable and necessary.

Only public money can get big solar power built in Australia in time to make a difference. That kind of public investment makes the most economic sense and the most environmental sense.

The private sector is not going to do it — indeed, the mining and resources sector, and the rest of the 1%, will fight it every step of the way. And so the fight for a sunny, windy job-rich future will also be a fight for real democracy, a society where the wishes of 94% of people actually means something.


Entry filed under: Solar thermal power.

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