Wind turbines. You either love them (like 75 per cent of us), or hate them (15 per cent). Or, you couldn’t care less.
Coal mines: you either love them, like those who reap their profits (20 per cent), or you hate them (80 per cent), like those who have to live near them.
The problem of differing public attitudes to energy sources has been discussed at great length and with an increasingly hollow invective. To break the logjam, we need a mechanism of comparison that satisfies people’s intellectual, emotional and political intelligence.
With coal and wind, we have two power plant technologies that achieve similar outcomes: they both send electricity into the national electricity market. Coal currently provides around half of the world’s electricity today. Wind is a more recently exploited resource, but in Denmark, one of the world’s leading green economies, it is going to power half of its economy by 2020, and Scotland is aiming for 100 per cent renewable electricity by the same date, with most of that also coming from wind.
Australia’s wind resource is twice as good as Denmark, so we could, perhaps, also run half our economy on wind. Solar power, already beloved of rural and urban Australians, is a given, and it’s uptake will steadily track up as costs of panels and solar baseload plants with storage go down.
So if both coal and wind can power the remaining portion of our future energy needs, which should we choose?
One choice is coal: it’s considered cheap by its supporters, though opponents pointing to associated health costs and fossil fuel subsidies would beg to differ. The other choice is wind, which costs a little more at the moment, though it’s price is rapidly coming down (it’s already matching fossil fuel costs in Europe and Brazil) and supporters cite benefits for the environment, the climate and a sustainable future.
So here’s a proposal for what we could do to break the deadlock, in a style suited to the latter-day Australian political environment. Given the flashpoint of the public’s opinion on coal and wind comes from those who have to live nearby, we could run House Swap, a reality TV-style program where the participants exchange their home’s proximity to one energy source to another
First, we recruit people who live in Anglesea, the outdoor-loving, surfing community and holiday resort on the Victorian Coast. At one end of town, 800 metres from the primary school, is a coal mine and coal-fired power station. Despite the protests of locals, it has recently been delivered an entitlement to expand and continue polluting for a further 50 years. Another option could be the people of Wybong in the Hunter Valley, where the local mayor recently apologised and expressed “a deep sense of shame” for allowing a coal mine to proceed.
At the same time we offer a swap to the handful of residents complaining about the Capital Hill wind farm near Canberra, or the Waubra wind farm in central Victoria. Those opposing the wind farms in NSW and Victoria will swap houses with those opposing the coal mines.
It would be interesting to see how residents cope with a different technology and the impacts that each has on the community – wind turbines with their questionmarks over noise and visual amenity, and coal mines, with the soot, and smell, and documented health and community issues.
At the end of the 12 months both groups will be asked if they want to return to their original homes.
Given that half the residents of Wybong in NSW have already abandoned their homes, we can probably assume a relieved return to bucolic paddocks by 50 per cent of the participants. For the poor buggers leaving country properties for grubby houses in impoverished towns beside coal mines, we’ll play a misty eyed recap of their last year and hope that reality TV fame translates to a lucrative new career path.
Alternatively, we could play the role of TV fairy godmother, Backyard Blitz style. We could redirect some of the $7 billion per annum of fossil subsidies, recently identified by the Grattan Institute, to shut down the coal mines and the coal-fired power plants they feed. We would back-fill the overburden as part of site remediation works (put the piles back into the holes), offer existing employees a share buy-in and erect wind turbines where the coal mines used to be. It’s already been done at a number of coal mine sites in the USA.
Matthew Wright is Executive Director of the climate and energy security think-tank Beyond Zero Emissions http://beyondzeroemissions.org