Focus on Australia's energy system heats up

As summer power bills land in letterboxes around the country, the focus on energy policy will intensify. Fortunately, the benefits of a once-in-a-generation energy transformation will soon start being felt.

When summer comes to an end, the tennis and cricket has faded in the memory and the first energy bill arrives in the post or the e-mail, many of us will feel the cost of keeping our houses cool. And the cost might just make us a little more interested in how our power is both generated and used.

New clean generation technologies, coupled with innovations such as smart meters, mean that we are on the verge of a once-in-a-generation transformation of our entire electricity system. This will mean businesses and households being able to effectively control their energy use and reduce costs.

As policymakers at state, federal and local levels know, developing and implementing a coherent and strong energy policy has significant social, environmental and economic implications. Achieving a workable balance between generating electricity cost effectively, but in a way that doesn’t heighten environmental risks, is a never-ending high-wire act above a river filled with crocodiles.

But progress is being made.

The move to cleaner energy is now part of a strengthening global trend. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, new global investment in clean energy is now greater than in coal and gas. In 2004 only $US34 billion was invested in clean energy globally. In 2012 Bloomberg estimates that it was almost $270 billion.

This is all happening a good deal faster than most predictions and is being stimulated by technological innovation, multi-million dollar investment and a rapid decline in the cost of renewables.

In Australia and elsewhere, cleaner energy growth has been driven by policies including renewable energy targets, feed-in tariffs and government incentives. There is nothing new in this. Last century, providing electricity to every home and business involved direct action by governments through extensive public funding and active regulation. The largest engineering project in Australian history is still the Snowy Mountains scheme: a nation-building clean energy project driven by political optimism.

The process of constant change in our electricity system is why my job working with more than 600 companies in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency is so exciting. What makes for a more effective energy system now is very different to what made for an effective system 50 years ago, and will be quite different 50 years from now.

Our energy system will continue to change as clean energy costs continue to fall, and both businesses and individuals move to take control of their electricity costs.

The political debate in this federal election year will no doubt be fierce. Notwithstanding differences over the carbon price, it is heartening that both sides of politics in Australia accept the need to maintain the current national renewable energy target of achieving at least a 20 per cent share of electricity supply in Australia by 2020.

But beyond power generation, energy innovation will also involve developing a better understanding of the electricity we use in a cleaner, smarter energy system. It is a change that Australia can, and I believe will, embrace.

David Green is Chief Executive of the Clean Energy Council.

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