The federal election result in 2010 was notable not just for the hung parliament that it delivered, but by the fact that the highest percentage gains in voting numbers went to The Greens, the Sex Party and The Shooters Party.
In the state by-election in Melbourne last weekend, the Greens and the Sex Party again registered the biggest gains. Voters are getting greener, and randier, and even more disillusioned with the mainstream parties.
The disillusionment takes many forms, but it seems clear that energy is one of them – electricity seems to be costlier and dirtier – with Australia renewables making up a smaller percentage of our generation than they did in the 1960s.
The Climate Commission on Monday highlighted the untapped potential of both wind and solar resources in the state, and a report from The Climate Institute released on Tuesday underlined the overwhelming support among voters for green energy, particularly solar. It found that 81 per cent of respondents placed solar energy within their top three preferred options when presented with nine sources to choose from. Wind came second with a preference from 59 per cent.
The irony is that Victoria did, once, have a plan to become a leader in solar energy. The Brumby Labor government unveiled a plan in 2010 to source 5 per cent of the state’s energy from solar by 2020. A task that would have required around 1,500 megawatts of solar to be built over a decade, though he wanted 285MW to be built by 2015.
The idea was to have a large-scale feed-in tariff, probably with a rate set by a series of auctions – a policy device now being adopted in the ACT and South Africa, and used in numerous other countries such as India, the US, China, and the Americas. (The difference between the Grattan Institute proposal is that the Victorian solar initiative, like the ACT’s, would have been additional to the renewable energy target, rather than replacing it).
The Baillieu government actually supported that 5 per cent solar target in its campaign, but has quietly dropped it, along with many of its climate and energy policies, and instead introduced prohibitive wind planning laws and hopes to establish a brown coal export industry. The state government didn’t bother contesting the Melbourne by-election.
It now seems clear that leadership for the development of solar – both concentrated solar power and utility-scale solar PV – will now take place in Saudi Arabia, which is planning the biggest solar auction of them all: 4,500MW in the next two years.
While most of the initial deployment of these massive solar farms have and are being built in Spain and now in the US, the real push for scale will come in Saudi Arabia’s determination to free up as much of its oil resource as it can for export.
On a utility scale, solar is really only competitive with diesel, and Saudi Arabia is effectively the world’s largest diesel grid. Not that it uses much diesel – most of its capacity is oil-fired generation – but the difference between what Saudi power generators pay for oil and what the state-owned firms can get from oil exports delivers a massive arbitrage for solar to play in.
Saudi Arabia last month announced that it would install 41,000MW of solar over the next two decades (25,000 in solar thermal and 16,000 in utility-scale solar PV). But unlike other governments that make such grand announcements, the Saudis are not wasting time – there’s too much money to be saved. The cost of the initiative is estimated at $100 billion, but it is estimated to save 523,000 barrels a day, or more than $19 billion a year at current oil export prices). This month the Saudis announced that the first of their solar auctions, totaling 2,000MW, will be held early in 2013. The second round of 2,500MW will be held in 2014.
Solar energy companies, including many who have canvassed opportunities in Australia – such as the much-derided and delayed Solar Flagships program – but have moved on to greener pastures, are queuing up to bid. The sheer weight of capital being deployed in Saudi Arabia mans it will displace other countries such as South Africa, India and Chile, who were seeking to exploit solar thermal technologies. Australia has a massive opportunity to be a major player too, as this report pointed out, but seems disinterested, apart from prescribing to the Lomborg solution – limiting funding mostly to an R&D level.
But while Saudi Arabia has its own fossil-fuelled reasons to turbo-drive its solar ambitions, other countries with no oil and gas are being equally ambitious. Sun-drenched Morocco has announced plans to source 40 per cent of its energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020 – double the European target.
The program includes 2GW of wind energy (300MW have already been installed) an another 2GW from five solar plants. Ironically, the solar program is being kick-started by Saudi Arabia’s International Company for Water and Power (ACWA), which is co-funding a 160MW solar thermal facility at Ouarzazate, the first stage of a 500MW plant. Morocco currently imports much of its energy from Spain, but could become an exporter to Europe under the ambitious Desertec project plans.
The irony is that this push into solar is being led by a country – Saudi Arabia – which has been one of the most recalcitrant when it comes to climate change negotiations. That underlines the fact that solar energy is moving beyond a “climate policy” issue to an energy security one, or, in the case of Saudi Arabia and other countries, an issue of cost. Still, for these and a bunch of other reasons, there seems little chance that the Greens or the Sex-Party would poll as well in Riyadh or Jedda as they do in coal-powered Melbourne.