Government Fiddles while Coal Burns

Government Fiddles while Coal Burns

In Australia, solar power is probably seen as either the domain of the bush dweller or the cashed up city Greenie. 'Tree changers' who bought a bush block away from it all and believed it cost the earth (literally) to connect to the electricity grid may have explored the cost of renewable energy. They would have found that it could cost anywhere between $1000 and $50,000, depending on their requirements. They also would take a steep learning curve regarding the latest technology and how their personal use of energy fits in with that. After the initial investment, the solar system could be expanded to meet future demand, a future without power bills!

The conscientious city dwellers, on the other hand, will put solar panels on their roof and use some renewable energy with their 'dirty power' as a way to save money on their electricity bill while doing their bit to help reduce greenhouse gases: their very own 'powerhouse on the roof' if you like. They can be more energy conscious, watch their meters go backwards sometimes; sell power to the grid, but they will only get the going rate everyone else pays for it. There are no real incentives for the conscientious city dweller except his willingness to participate in reducing greenhouse gases.

Both scenarios still have the choice, however, except perhaps a very remote bush dwelling. Most people, whose bottom line is financial, take up the choice of cheap coal fired electricity, although many of these people, given the chance, would embrace the opportunity to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

However, their chance to do so is dwindling away due to the Australian Greenhouse Office's New Year’s decision to slash solar rebates to community organisations and schools. Individuals seeking solar rebates will find that they have been reduced and will end by mid 2007. The Australian Greenhouse Office halved the maximum rebate to community organisations on January 1, from $8000 to $4000.

This should be no surprise, considering that our government has thus far refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, even though Australia is the largest per-capita producer of CO2 emissions. Scientists from all over the world are saying we need to reduce our emissions by 15 to 30%. The Australian government is wilfully failing to take climate change seriously on the required scale, even though we can all see it happening around us now.

In Germany, the government recognised the role of the conscientious city dweller. They see the real value in lightening the peak load pressure on the electricity grid and pay a higher price to purchase their solar electricity. Panels currently manufactured and too expensive for the average Australian are going to Germany to meet their heavily subsidised demands.

Even the Queen of England is installing her own hydro system in the River Thames, supplying a third of the power for Windsor Castle. The investment is a million pounds, and will supply up to 200 kilowatts of the royal needs. The company installing the four turbines says that they are likely to be there for 100 years and that cost of upkeep will be minimal.

In Australia in 2000, the rebate program was enthusiastically taken up. In Queensland some remote locations were eligible for the cost of up to three quarters of their renewable energy system. It was understandably very popular. The demand was overwhelmingly high; the government moved to reduce the rebates within a year. The new Federal government's $75 million Solar Cities program is to replace the solar rebates, which were available to individuals and farmers in remote areas, community organisations and schools. The Solar Cities program will be limited to the four as yet undecided urban locations; meaning individuals wanting to reduce their own use of coal-fired energy outside the selected areas will face higher costs.

This all seems like 'fiddling as coal burns' on the government's part when Australia has just hosted its own international meeting in Sydney involving senior ministers from six countries, including the United States, India and Japan, aimed at finding technological solutions to climate change.

At the inaugural meeting of the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, the Government announced its five year strategy. The Sydney conference focused on a new government / industry liaison in response to climate change and has effectively discounted renewable energy as an appropriate response.

Some of the new technology discussed included geo-sequestration (the burying of CO2 emissions from selected power stations). This is as yet an untried and unproven technology that, at best, may only deal with a small percentage of Australia's total greenhouse gas emissions. If this concentrated CO2 were to leak to the surface, it could asphyxiate entire valleys as CO2 is heavier than air. Our government may claim to have real commitment as to Australia's response to climate change but the more cynical and probably realistic view is that this is a sideshow to global action to take the focus away from the Australian government's refusal to immediately ratify Kyoto.

This allows them to slash every last vestige of support for renewable energy whilst continuing to sell record quantities of coal and uranium overseas, whilst only doing a bit of window dressing domestically.

There's a huge shortage of solar electric panels on the world market, but ironically most of the production in Australia is being exported, the vast majority going to Germany. How ironic is that when we have one of the sunniest continents on earth?

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