Renewable Energy Lifeline for Australian Manufacturing

By Matthew Wright

Coal’s days are numbered.

The transition to renewable energy is now well underway. It will put an end to the adverse health impacts coal mining and combustion now has on the health of Australian families such as those in the Hunter Valley. The increased rates of asthma, respiratory and cardiovascular illness that affect thousands will be a thing of the past.

In terms on climate change, the shift to renewables will do more for reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions than the carbon price championed by Climate Change Minister Greg Combet and the Labor government.

For a city like Newcastle, whose development is historically linked to the coal industry, the beneficiaries of business-as-usual will no doubt present the decline of coal as a threat.

The truth of the matter is that the rise of renewable energy is an economic opportunity the likes of which we’d be foolish to miss. The Pew Charitable Trust values the economic opportunity at up to $2.3 trillion over the next decade.

New investment, new jobs, and new export industries are all there for the taking. But securing these benefits for Newcastle and Australia will require political leadership today.  

Australia can capture a slice of the world’s booming renewable energy market. To do so, it’s essential that we retool our manufacturing sector to compete with the likes of China, the United States, Spain and Denmark.

If we get to work now the renewable energy boom can revive the nation’s flagging manufacturing sector and put an end to mass layoffs such as those recently retrenched by BlueScope Steel.

So what’s the best way to boost local cleantech manufacturing? Simple: create strong domestic demand for renewable energy with an aggressive deployment plan.

As one of Australia’s manufacturing centres and location of the CSIRO’s solar thermal energy hub puts Newcastle is in pole position to compete in the renewable energy race. It has all the right ingredients to be a leading player.

Now is the time for the Federal government to renew Australia’s energy agenda. Now is the time to establish 100 percent renewable energy as a national goal and lock in direct investment in renewables through a national Feed-in Tariff. A pipeline of projects will provide the cleantech sector with the certainty it needs to invest in manufacturing.

Last year, we published a plan for 100 percent renewables with the University of Melbourne Energy Institute. University of NSW researchers are now in the process of developing their own scenario that will confirm that 100 percent renewable energy is possible. Where’s the government’s plan?

Despite the rhetoric, the Labor government’s carbon price will do little for rolling out additional renewables in the short term.

When getting into the global renewable energy game demands nothing less than the rapid retooling of Australian industry, analysis by the Australian Energy Market Operator shows the carbon price will encourage investment in gas. That means investment will flow to destructive coal seam gas projects rather than the cleantech sector.

The carbon price has put Australia on the path to a ‘clean energy future,’ but may leave us stranded. We just won’t get to the desired destination any time soon without strong measures to support building large-scale renewable energy projects.

The rapid rollout of renewable energy in Australia won’t just strengthen manufacturing and creating new jobs. It will drop the wholesale price of electricity cheaper by deferring the need for expensive fossil electricity to be dispatched to the grid.

 The majority of Australians find burning coal unacceptable. People are fed up with the coal dust from mines, the local pollution from power plants, and of course, the carbon emissions that risk a climate catastrophe.

The fact that Australian’s have awoken to the impacts of coal and gas means the government has no excuse for failing to back renewables and build another great Australian industry. What the country needs right now is real and decisive action. Now is the time for politicians to stop stalling and get on with the job.