BIG HEAVY STUFF

LET THERE BE LIGHT RE­NEW­ABLE EN­ERGY IS READY TO POWER A GLOBAL REVO­LU­TION.

Tracks - - Buzz - BY KIRK OW­ERS IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY STAN SQUIRE

The sun beats down on the an­cient land­mass of Aus­tralia. It feeds our crops, warms our air and sucks mois­ture sky­wards, giv­ing us rain. Our drink­ing wa­ter falls from the sky – clean, cool and free. All you need is a bucket or an open mouth and you're quenched. The sun gifts us all of this and more. It's the Barry White of the el­e­ments and its un­lim­ited love is set to get even less limited. Sun­light – along with other re­new­ables – is poised to power the 21st Cen­tury and ev­ery cen­tury to fol­low. Some en­ergy ex­perts are al­ready call­ing this the be­gin­ning of a third in­dus­trial age – a clean and green one.

Be­fore we ad­dress the like­li­hood of this oc­cur­ring let's jump into the Tracks' Tar­dus and zoom into the not too dis­tant future. It's the year 2050 and re­new­able en­ergy has taken over as the planet's pre­dom­i­nant power source. En­tire build­ings are made from sleek new-age so­lar-voltaic cells. Large-scale wind and so­lar farms dot the arid in­te­ri­ors. Elec­tric cars are the norm. Fuel bills are his­tory. En­ergy ar­rives as free and ev­er­last­ing as sun­shine. Cities are cleaner, qui­eter and health­ier than in all of hu­man his­tory. Un­sightly power lines are com­ing down. Jobs lost to the fos­sil fuel in­dus­try have been re­placed by the green en­ergy sec­tor. Tony Ab­bott has long-since moved to Mars.

Like a for­mer pack a day smoker it's been hard to give up the coal and oil habit but by 2050 the planet's vi­tal or­gans are ben­e­fit­ing in a myr­iad of ways. The air is cleaner, tens of thou­sands of peo­ple aren't dy­ing of pol­lu­tion-re­lated ill­ness, oil spills like Valdez and Deep­wa­ter Hori­zon are im­pos­si­ble and the Great Bar­rier Reef's coal ports have been re­claimed. Farm­ers no longer have to fight to keep gas com­pa­nies from frack­ing up their land. Global con­flicts over Ara­bian oil have ceased and mar­kets are less volatile. The worst ef­fects of global warm-

ing have been limited. The ice caps haven't melted. The po­lar bears kick on. The future looks bright – wind-pow­ered and sun-lit.

This may read like mooshy wish-ful­fil­ment but there are plenty of cred­i­ble ex­perts who ar­gue fos­sil fu­els are al­ready on their way out. Gusty winds of change are upon us as coun­tries strive to meet pol­lu­tion re­duc­tion tar­gets and tran­si­tion into a new en­ergy era. So­lar and wind power are be­com­ing far cheaper and more ef­fi­cient. In 1980 it cost $US35 to pro­duce a watt of elec­tric­ity from a so­lar panel, to­day it costs 70c.

The big draw­back of so­lar has always been its night time cur­few. But that ap­pears to have been over­come. Out in the Ne­vada desert lies a fu­tur­is­tic power plant called Cres­cent Dunes. It con­sists of a cir­cle of me­chan­i­cal poles which tilt 17,000 mir­rors to­ward a cen­tral tower. Sun­light bounces off the mir­rors and heats molten salt in­side the tower which ab­sorbs the en­ergy like a gi­ant bat­tery. That en­ergy can be used night or day and is sched­uled to power Las Ve­gas neon later this year.

Nearby, Cal­i­for­nia has got the jump on green en­ergy thanks to for­mer Gover­nor Sch­warzeneg­ger's proac­tive ap­proach to cli­mate change. The state now boasts the largest wind, geo-ther­mal and so­lar ther­mal pro­jects in the world and an elec­tric car that can do 0-100 in 4.4 seconds. There are al­ready more Amer­i­cans work­ing in so­lar than in coal min­ing or car manufacturing and their num­bers are on a steep rise.

In Europe it's a sim­i­lar story. Green en­ergy in­vest­ment fol­lows gov­ern­ment pol­icy. Ger­many is push­ing to have 80% of their en­ergy from re­new­ables by 2050; Den­mark is aim­ing at 100% while Scot­land is charg­ing to­wards 80% by 2020. They re­gard clean­ing up their en­ergy sec­tor as an op­por­tu­nity as much as an obli­ga­tion and for them the race is on.

In Aus­tralia the pol­icy re­sponse to cli­mate change and en­ergy is now in se­ri­ous flux. We're the first coun­try in the world to walk away from pric­ing car­bon and our mod­est re­new­able tar­get is un­der re­view by a cli­mate change scep­tic. Clean en­ergy in­vestors have grown wary or have al­ready moved else­where. Crit­ics ar­gue the Ab­bott Gov­ern­ment is ty­ing us to a sink­ing coal ship while the rest of the world moves on.

Amer­i­can econ­o­mist Jeremy Rifkin put it this way on Four Cor­ners re­cently. "Aus­tralia is the Saudi Ara­bia of re­new­able en­ergy. When you have so much [wind and sun] why would you rely on a de­plet­ing sup­ply of fos­sil fu­els with all of the at­ten­dant con­se­quences to so­ci­ety and the planet? It makes no sense what­so­ever."

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