What Four Corners didn't reveal about renewables

While the Four Corners program aired last week lamented Australia's position in the global renewables race, I was actually left uplifted and optimistic looking back to an eerily similar 2007 episode of Four Corners.

The Four Corners episode last week (Power to the People – July 7) which critiqued the current government’s disparaging attitude to renewable energy, contrasting it with California, led me to actually feel rather optimistic about the prospects for renewable energy. For those who watched the program this may be surprising because it painted a rather bleak picture of the government’s attitude towards renewable energy.

But there is a much broader context that informed my perspective.

You see back in April 2007 I had assisted Four Corners journalists at the time, Jonathan Holmes and Joanne Puccini, in development of their report, Earth Wind and Fire. The plot of that program was eerily familiar to last week’s. Sure there were different people and projects but it carried the same message of a government focused on the past, and used California to illustrate an alternative future of progress.

It made me realise just how far the sector has come in just a few years. For those who’ve come to be engaged in the renewable energy sector after 2007 you need to realise that if you think things look bleak right now, it is nothing compared with how challenging things appeared to be in the months leading into Four Corners producing 'Earth, Wind and Fire'.

That may seem hard to believe with a Treasurer calling wind farms "utterly offensive", and laughing with radio shock jock Alan Jones about the possibility of leaving investors in wind farms high and dry. As well as having a range of Coalition backbenchers free to publicly wage what seems like a jihad on the Renewable Energy Target.  

But in many respects the fervour and the anger directed towards renewable energy is in fact symptomatic of its progress. Renewable energy is no longer some token trinket that can be laughed off and ignored, it is a genuine and serious threat to the existing order of our power industry.

Of course for many it quite rightly feels like renewable energy has barely got started. Solar PV has only just pipped 2 per cent of Australia’s electricity consumption last year and wind power was 4 per cent. Old hydro built several decades ago is still the biggest source of renewable energy and other sources are a negligible share of power supply. At the same time, to contain the risks of global warming to moderate levels, renewables needs to grow at intimidating levels.

Nonetheless, I look back to that 2007 Four Corners episode and see remarkable achievements well beyond my expectations.

Firstly, a personal story. One of the subjects of the recent Four Corners program was Australian Danny Kennedy who left the country to establish the solar retail and installation company, Sungevity, in California. He did this alongside a person called Andrew Birch who is the CEO.

Back around the time of that first Four Corners episode I knew Kennedy as an activist for Greenpeace and Birch was fresh out of university after doing a Masters degree at University of NSW. He was the spreadsheet guy at BP Solar who I worked with in trying to educate government officials about the economics of solar PV and feed-in tariffs.

Now Sungevity is one of the top 10 solar retailers in California – which is the largest state market by far for solar PV in the US. The company has revenue of several hundred million per annum and is now expanding beyond the US to Europe as well as Australia.

That is a fantastic achievement from where those guys were just seven years prior.

Then there were the complaints of the CEO of Queensland Government power generator Stanwell. Richard Van Breda argued that solar PV growth was too rapid and Queensland solar rooftops now represented 10 per cent of Queensland generating capacity – about 1000MW.  This addition of supply to an already oversupplied market, Van Breda complained, had forced him to mothball part of the Tarong coal-fired generator and sack 150 staff.

Well, back in early 2007 I suspect Stanwell management would have laughed at the idea that solar would grow to 10 per cent of Queensland power generating capacity and put pressure on the viability of some of their coal power generators. In the year prior just 3MW of generating capacity was installed across the entire country and the total sum of historical capacity in place up to that date stood at 15.7MW. 

Also worth noting is that employment in the solar PV sector in 2006 was just 1300 people. Last year it was 11,700 people. The loss of 150 staff at Tarong power station is unfortunate but more employment opportunities are being created in transforming the electricity sector than leaving it preserved in aspic.

In 2007 one of my jobs was to keep a database of all large-scale renewable energy projects under development. It was frustrating to see so many potential projects accumulate in the database but so few get built. But since 2007 there has been the satisfaction, much like ticking off a ‘to do’ list, as a number of projects in that database became reality – such as Macarthur, Musselroe, the final stages of Portland, Albany stage II and Snowtown II. News today is that investment in such projects for the first half of this year reached lows we haven't experienced since the Renewable Energy Target commenced in 2001. But people need to remember that things looked worse in early 2007 when the Renewable Energy Target was just 9500 gigawatt-hours.  

In 2007 the renewable energy industry was full of promise but had little concrete to point to in this country to demonstrate its potential.

This time round you can see an industry that is delivering on its promise.