Head, School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering
In an energy hungry and more populated world, Australia is in a privileged position. Unlike such regional trading partners as Korea, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, we have abundant renewable energy resources – far in excess of our current needs. The sunshine, alone, falling on our land is sufficient to meet our power needs. But we also have wind, waves, waste biomass, tidal energy and vast geothermal resources. We also have stewardship of a significant fraction of the world’s uranium reserves plus extensive coal and natural gas reserves.
What this abundance means for national security remains to be seen but it’s hard to imagine Australia being unable to supply at least its own energy demands in the future. There may well, however, be intense international pressure to drastically slow the rate of conversion of our underground reserves of fossil fuel into atmospheric carbon dioxide and leaked methane. Following the latest in a series of, thankfully infrequent, major nuclear accidents unleashing an ongoing social, environmental and economic disaster in Japan, another slowdown in the global demand for nuclear energy is likely.
In 2003 the German Advisory Council on Global Change (http://www.wbgu.de) reported on scenarios for global energy supplies through the present century in the context of growing population and global warming. The council predicts an initial rise in demand for fossil fuels with an eventual decline in the latter part of the century and a phasing out of nuclear. Under that scenario, solar photovoltaics and solar thermal electricity generation would be the majority energy supply for the globe. Other renewables would be important contributors.
This leaves Australia in a very important global position as the world’s population grows. Australia has long been at, or near, the forefront of renewable energy technology development. In photovoltaics, solar thermal water heaters and concentrators, hot rock geothermal and wave power exploitation, Australia offers much to the world. These technologies are becoming cheaper per unit as we learn more, and as manufacturing scale grows. If the global community can develop cheaper ways to store and deliver energy, Australia could be a major producer in the sustainable energy economy of the future. Better storage and delivery mechanisms would allow us to collect, convert and export large quantities of renewable energy to our less-fortunate neighbours.
In an energy-hungry, more populous world threatened by climate change, Australia has an opportunity -- and, perhaps, a duty too.