Peo­ple care, but baulk at pay­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Clean Energy - Keith Orchi­son

THE ‘‘ seis­mic shift’’ in Aus­tralian pub­lic opin­ion about cli­mate change is en­cap­su­lated by a new poll in Queens­land. Ninety per cent of 1,800 peo­ple in the state in­ter­viewed by CSIRO’s Queens­land Cen­tre for Ad­vanced Tech­nolo­gies now rate cli­mate change as an is­sue vi­tal to the coun­try’s fu­ture — tre­ble the re­ac­tion polls were elic­it­ing na­tion­ally on the is­sue three years ago.

The Queens­land poll is in line with a swathe of sim­i­lar pub­lic opin­ion tests in the past year — last Novem­ber, for ex­am­ple, Newspoll found that 92 per cent of those it in­ter­viewed did not be­lieve the na­tional gov­ern­ment is do­ing enough to en­cour­age clean tech­nolo­gies.

It is rare, says Queens­land State De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter John Mickel, to find such a pub­lic con­sen­sus on any is­sue. ‘‘ This sug­gests a ma­jor shift in pub­lic think­ing.’’ How­ever, he points out, the rise in con­cern is not mir­rored by pub­lic aware­ness of what is be­ing done by gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try to re­duce green­house gas emis­sions. Nor, ac­cord­ing to some mar­ket anal­y­sis, does it re­flect the abil­ity of con­sumers to iden­tify where they can take ef­fec­tive ac­tion.

While strong pub­lic opin­ion on cli­mate change may have an im­pact on the fed­eral elec­tion due later this year, ac­tual pub­lic be­hav­iour on en­ergy use — which along with com­mer­cial and in­dus­trial en­ergy use will be what counts in cut­ting green­house gas emis­sions — tells an­other story.

What is truly in the mind of Aus­tralians on cli­mate change may be re­flected in a study car­ried out late last year by in­de­pen­dent mar­ket an­a­lyst Data­mon­i­tor. In a sur­vey of 2,000 house­holds, Data­mon­i­tor found 81 per cent of cus­tomers would take up green en­ergy op­tions if they could pay the same prices as they do at present — but only 9 per cent would be at­tracted to do so if costs were 6 per cent higher.

The clash in the minds of Aus­tralians be­tween emo­tional re­sponses to en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues and the hard re­al­ity of pay­ing more for en­ergy at a time when many are highly in debt is not only a headache for politi­cians try­ing to win elec­tions, but also for pol­i­cy­mak­ers try­ing to pur­sue ac­tual emis­sions cuts.

Res­i­den­tial elec­tric­ity use in Aus­tralia ac­counts for only 28 per cent of to­tal power con­sump­tion — less than that of en­er­gy­in­ten­sive man­u­fac­ture, which uses a third of na­tional elec­tric­ity pro­duc­tion and em­ploys 1.1 mil­lion peo­ple — but its in­ex­orable rise is part of the emis­sions abate­ment prob­lem.

En­ergy Sup­ply As­so­ci­a­tion data shows that in the three ma­jor con­sump­tion ar­eas of NSW/ ACT, Vic­to­ria and Queens­land, house­holder use of elec­tric­ity has risen by more than 18 per cent, or the equiv­a­lent of the an­nual out­put of a 1,000 MW coal- fired power sta­tion, in six years. On the other hand, mar­ket de­mand for on- grid so­lar PV in­stal­la­tions un­der the na­tional sub­sidy reached a puny 700 kilo­watts in 2006.

Na­tion­ally, res­i­den­tial cus­tomers are now con­sum­ing more than 57,000 gi­gawatt hours of elec­tric­ity a year com­pared with 51,000 GWh in 2002 and 48,000 GWh in 1997- 98 when the Ky­oto Pro­to­col was ne­go­ti­ated.

House­holds and busi­nesses in rural Aus­tralia be­yond the reach of grid- con­nected power are buy­ing 650 mil­lion litres of diesel a year to gen­er­ate elec­tric­ity.

Use of air- con­di­tion­ing has risen from 33 per cent of homes in the 1990s to 60 per cent to­day. The en­ergy sup­ply in­dus­try es­ti­mates that more than $ 24 bil­lion will be spent over the next 10 years on peak power plants, build­ing new ur­ban net­works and up­grad­ing stressed older sys­tems..

In Ade­laide, which is par­tic­u­larly ‘‘ peaky’’ be­cause of bursts of ex­tremely hot weather, $ 1 bil­lion will be spent in the next five years on trans­mis­sion and dis­tri­bu­tion ex­pen­di­ture, rep­re­sent­ing sev­eral thou­sand dol­lars out­lay per kilo­watt hour of de­mand.

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