Cities take up energy transition when nations fear to tread

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In Australia just now, there is an extraordinary contrast unfolding in the heart of Canberra, the nation’s capital. And it is about how government should move forward on climate change and clean energy policies.

The newly-elected Australian federal government, a conservative coalition, has thrown climate initiatives into reverse, busily unwinding the climate change policies and infrastructure installed by the previous Labor government.

It is seeking to remove the carbon price, and institutions such as the Climate Change Authority and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, and is under intense pressure from incumbent industry to dilute, or even remove, the 20 per cent national renewable energy target.

Solar panel photo from Shutterstock

Solar panel photo from ShutterStock

In the same city, the local government, which manages Canberra and the surrounding Australian Capital Territory (it’s kind of like Washington DC in the US), has hit the fast-forward button. This year, the city government is scheduled to hold the first of a series of large scale auctions for wind energy installations in and around the ACT.

It follows the successful auction of 40MW of capacity for utility-scale solar farms.   Extraordinarily, the solar farms being built in the greater Canberra district will be the first such installations to be constructed in Australia’s coal-dependent National Electricity Market.

Wind developers believe the ACT auction is the best chance of developing new projects in a country where policy uncertainty has brought an industry to an effective stand-still. The initiatives are part of the ACT’s goal to source 90 per cent of its electricity needs from renewables by 2020.

In Australia, Canberra is by no means alone. In Sydney, the largest city, the Sydney City Council has plans to source 100 per cent of its electricity needs by 2030. In Queensland, the Sunshine Cost Council has announced a unique (for Australia) plan to build a 10MW solar plant to meet half of its own needs.

Internationally, cities are being similarly pro-active, here city governments are taking bold-pro-active action while national governments stall on their own initiatives. In the US, for example,  the city of Lancaster aims to be the solar capital of the world with its ambitious action to source 2GW of solar power in its region, with much of it to be exported to other areas. The global C40 initiative has 63 large cities seeking to lead their national governments.

Importantly, the targets set by cities, rather than governments, more closely reflect the science and the task in hand – and the ability of humans to innovate and adapt – particularly on the important criteria of emissions reductions, energy transition, energy efficiency and water conservation.

Why the contrast? Part of it is politics – conservative versus left wing (The ACT government is Labor, supported by a single Green member of the city assembly). But the ACT’s ambition was even greater than that of the previous Labor federal government. And the mayor of Lancaster, Rex Parriss, is a Republican.

The ability of cities to be more ambitious and pro-active than national government is possibly due to the ability of a city government to cut through some of the politics. Not only are they closer to the general population, they are closer to business, and business (apart from those vested interests who fear they only have something to lose from new technology) is keen to take up the challenge. And they are insulated from much (but not all) of the vested interests who are focused more on national policy.

In the words of ACT energy minister Simon Corbell: “We need more people to imagine and demonstrate that a different future is possible and it is affordable.” Or, as Lancaster mayor Parriss put it:  “This really is a problem that has to be solved in neighbourhoods. That’s where the energy is consumed, in buildings, and housing. (US president Barack Obama doesn’t write building codes. I do.”


  • Rob

    Good point, you could include Port Hedland as well.

    • Michel Syna Rahme

      They could start by requesting all workers in camps bring their own set of cutlery – knife, fork, spoon… The last I heard from an employee out West was that every meal every day in a camp of several hundred was eaten with a fresh set of plastic cutlery and then thrown away… Every meal everyday!

  • Giles

    whats happening there?

  • Michel Syna Rahme

    From little things big things grow!

  • patb2009

    cities pay a fortune for energy. Having autonomous power generation saves the
    city a ton of cash and provides work for their employees and citizens.

  • Iansnz

    During the Bush years, cities in USA, deploring the lack of national climate change and sustainability actions by their country, moved to join the international local-government owned support organisation ICLEI, and began to work together to implement such actions in spite of the lack of a national framework. ICLEI had a strong history in Australia during those years, but this history of local collective action need to arise again – as it has in Europe. Local can mitigate lack of national action.