Power to the People

(As seen on the ABC1 Four Corners Documentary on Monday 7th July 2014)

Newspapers, telecommunications and the entertainment industry have all felt the chill winds of change brought on by new technology. Now science is revolutionising power generation. Technology is making alternative sources of energy cheaper, more user-friendly and, crucially, it’s decentralising production to the rooftops of homes and commercial buildings across Australia.

So why is the Federal Government moving away from its commitment to renewable sources of energy? Why would it consider reducing renewable energy targets, favouring greenhouse-gas emitting coal and gas?

In part the answer is simple. Price. As the Prime Minister explained recently:
“All of us should want to see lower prices and plainly at the moment the renewable energy target is a very significant impact on higher power prices.”

But the renewable energy industry warns that while coal and gas might enjoy a price advantage now, renewables are the future:
“The Government has an ideological agenda. They want to carve out the impact of renewable energy on the network and they want to stop renewable in their tracks.” John Grimes, Australian Solar Council

Next on Four Corners, reporter Stephen Long documents the revolution in power generation taking place across the globe. He travels to California, where successive governments have legislated to have one third of the state’s power come from renewable sources.
He meets the Australian entrepreneur who left home to create a multi-million-dollar solar company in the US.
Stephen Long visits a massive solar farm that not only takes energy from the sun, but can also store it in a massive salt crystal tower. In time, the farm will power the bright lights of Las Vegas.

Meanwhile, back in Australia the Federal Government is being lobbied by power producers using coal and gas to wind back the renewable energy targets that would see 20 per cent of this country’s power generated by renewables by the end of the decade. Little wonder they want the targets lowered. The explosion in wind farms and solar rooftop panels in homes across Australia has already cut the demand for electricity and left them with gold-plated infrastructure that can no longer be justified. For one Queensland company, the decentralisation of power production has been devastating:
“In the last five years of our generation business, we’ve made nothing.”

All this leaves the Federal Government in a difficult situation. If it decides to wind back the policy clock and downplay renewables, it will lose a high-tech cutting-edge industry while it props up old-style big polluters. As economist and author Jeremy Rifkin puts it, the choice is stark:
“It’s ridiculous. Australia’s the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy. There’s so much sun, there’s so much wind off the coast, and so it makes absolutely no sense when you have an abundance of renewable energy, [to] rely on a depleting supply of fossil fuels with all of the attendant consequences to society and the planet.”

Power to the People, reported by Stephen Long and presented by Kerry O’Brien.