Australia Needs a Solar Snowy Mountains Scheme

By Leigh Ewbank. Published by the ABC, Australia's national broadcaster.

Australia needs a Plan B for climate policy. We need a nation-building project on the scale of the Snowy Mountains Scheme to invest in renewable energy and sustainable infrastructure. This is the fresh approach needed to drive Australia's transition towards a clean economy and protect the nation from dangerous climate change.

The Prime Minister's announcement yesterday that the government will delay its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme until 2013 is a tacit admission that pricing carbon is not viable in the current political environment.

Labor and proponents of emissions trading have been living a fantasy for too long. They have ignored the realities of politics to pursue a policy that had no reasonable chance of being implemented at a time when climate change experts agree we must act. Now, Australia is set for yet more inaction.

Community-led climate advocacy group Beyond Zero Emissions, in contrast, seeks to deal with the technological problem at the heart of climate change: how to power our nation while producing zero carbon emissions.

Our organisation has recently released the executive summary of its Zero Carbon Australia 2020 plan — a detailed blueprint for Australia to transition to 100 per cent renewable energy by the end of the decade.

Beyond Zero Emissions call for public investment in concentrated solar thermal power — renewable energy technology that is capable of generating electricity 24 hours a day — alongside a whole raft of infrastructure projects to decarbonise Australia. We believe our plan is capable of winning wide public support and delivering quantifiable carbon reductions.

Australia is a sun soaked continent, yet the great potential to power our economy from solar sources is unrealised. It should shock Australians that there is currently no operating baseload solar power anywhere in Australia. Deploying solar thermal technology should be at the centre of national climate policy. It is the best way to reduce the nation's carbon emissions while continuing economic development. With political will and direct action, the Rudd government can spearhead the development of a national solar thermal power system to secure energy supplies and our climate.

Ideally, this direct measure would be coupled with the construction of additional climate-friendly infrastructure. This will include a renewable electricity grid connecting Australia's population centres to our vast renewable energy resources, and creation of a high-speed rail network between our largest cities. The former will bring down the costs of renewable energy for Australians, while the latter will displace the carbon now generated by some of the busiest domestic air routes on the planet.

Without realising it, the Rudd government has taken a small step towards this framework. In last year's budget, the Rudd government invested $1.5 billion to build up to four large-scale solar thermal power plants in Australia. The aim of the so-called Solar Flagships program was to establish up to 1,000 megawatts of solar power generation capacity by 2015. At face value the plan looks impressive, but when we consider that Spain is aiming to have 2,500 megawatts installed by the end of 2013 it is clear that this form of renewable energy is a low priority for the government.

Labor's lack of commitment is more clearly demonstrated by the discrepancy in government investment between solar thermal projects and the national broadband network. The $1.5 billion Solar Flagship program pales in comparison to the $42 billion to be invested in the rollout of the national broadband network (NBN) over eight years. With a funding differential like this, it would be reasonable to assume that the Prime Minister considers slow internet a greater moral challenge than climate change. Government investment on sustainable infrastructure should match the investment in the NBN at a minimum.

The inadequate funding for the Solar Flagships program will stifle the emerging solar thermal industry. Despite Minister for Energy, Martin Ferguson having more than 20 fully costed and engineered baseload projects for consideration, he is planning to choose only one.

But why limit the prospects for the industry when we need decisive action to turn this winning technology into a serious power source for the nation's future? The number one priority for Labor's climate agenda should be ramping-up investment in concentrated solar thermal (CST) power. By pioneering CST Australia has the opportunity to create thousands of jobs and gain a competitive edge in the global growth market of the future.

We'll soon know whether Rudd is ready to lead on climate change. On the second Tuesday of May the government will announce the 2010 budget. The Prime Minister has a choice: his government can abandon its responsibilities and put climate policy in the 'too hard' basket, or it can usher in a new era of climate policy by investing in nation-building for climate change. Let's hope the Rudd government, having failed Australia with climate policy thus far, makes the right choice on budget night.

Leigh Ewbank is Director of Public Policy for Beyond Zero Emissions.