It is an underappreciated fact that government, campaigners, scientists and our brightest business minds do share a consensus on one issue; that Australia is ideally situated for a green energy future. Our treasure trove of wind, wave, sun and geo-thermal heat has the capacity to supply us with all the power we could ever need. Just 1% of our geo-thermal resources alone is estimated to be able to provide 26,000 years’ worth of clean energy nationally. Therefore it seems extraordinary that the Queensland Government, rather than exploring options on home turf, has recently announced plans to support a hydro-power plant in remote Papua New Guinea (PNG), driven by Origin Energy, to supplement the energy requirements of the state’s far north.
A starring role?
Set to reduce its annual green house gas (GHG) emissions by up to 8 million tonnes, the PNG project forms a major component of Queensland’s plan to become Australia’s “renewable energy star”, complementing a host of other ‘green’ initiatives designed to tame the state’s ferocious carbon footprint. Among those to benefit from the scheme are indigenous communities of Cape York and the Torres Strait and residents from PNG. According to the government, this multi‑billion dollar project will not only generate employment opportunities, but improved access to power and infrastructure is expected to attract increased industry investment and contribute to better living conditions.
Although promises of clean energy and regional socio-economic development do seem rather impressive, there is certainly a need for further critical inquiry, especially given the shady history of hydro-electricity schemes and the outlandish funds allocated to the Wabo project, somewhere around the $30 billion mark.
Who gives a dam?
At first glance, hydro-power certainly seems an effective environmentally-friendly option: rivers creating power – can’t get greener right? Unfortunately, the reality is sobering. Hydro-power dams can cause significant ecological destruction and severe social ramifications, estimated to have displaced between 40 and 80 million people globally, drowned millions of acres of fertile farmlands and disrupted fish migration and river-flow. Even more alarming are recent estimates suggesting that annually dams are responsible for as much as a billion tones of carbon emissions and 70 million tonnes of methane.
Increasingly, however, there is movement towards smaller scale hydro projects; known as ‘run of the river’ (ROR) stations that use natural river flow to generate energy via small weirs or micro-turbines. These alternative approaches minimise disruption to rivers and livelihood. While those leading this project have carefully avoided the word “dam”, giving us cause for optimism, it remains noteworthy that ROR hydro-electricity has not been explicitly mentioned.
A matter of choice
Contentious issues aside, the most obvious question is why the Queensland Government feels the need to appropriate energy from PNG’s rivers when genuinely green solutions are literally on our doorstep and, moreover, free from potentially devastating social or ecological impact. This is all the more acute given PNG’s questionable track record in resource exploitation and corporate partnership.
The numbers alone suggest an alarming imbalance. The PNG plant will cost investors around $31 billion and take a decade to complete. Back home, Queensland’s ‘Climate Smart 2050’ will see a mere $50 million invested into renewable energy, while $300 million will go to non-renewable ‘clean’ coal. Meaningful investment in research and development is critical to counter the negative, ‘high-risk’ stigma currently attached to renewable energies which remain largely in their infancy.
Despite their potential, projections for renewable energies remain curiously low and far away. Federal government research projects, for example, that geothermal energy will account for just 1.5% of Australia’s total electricity generation by 2030 and solar just 1.1%. This is nothing short of bizarre in the continent of highest average solar radiation per square metre.
The way the wind blows
According to Origin Energy, Australia’s current measures will not achieve our carbon emissions reduction targets; instead they call for “big ideas and big solutions”. I agree completely. However, how about we think big and think different; instead of investing in mega-projects abroad, try mega-investment in local, renewable energies and show the world it really can be done. With the full feasibility study to be completed in 2012 it is up to Queenslanders to place pressure on their government to commit to local renewable energy initiatives and reducing the state’s rampant energy consumption.