Thinking big and fast on renewable energy

There is an old saying in strategic communications. Repeat your key point, again and again. Then repeat it once again. Keep doing this. When, at last, you are sick to death of saying it and can’t possibly imagine anyone would want to hear it again… say it again. That’s about the point when people really get it.

So, I do harp on a lot about large-scale renewables. But in many spheres, it’s starting to sink in, and get real traction. Many other highly credible people are saying it. This is no pipe dream. This is our future – so let’s start thinking big – fast.

In this context, I recently published an Opinion Editorial on which pushed hard on the renewable energy ‘vision thing’. As I’ve remarked previously, I think a vision for installed capacity in renewables is a far grander and more attractive target than clutching at the straws of an emissions reduction goal. Read below, and let me know if you agree…



Can it Replace Coal, Gas, and Oil?
Solar Thermal Electricity: Can it Replace Coal, Gas, and Oil?

I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100% of its electricity from clean energy within 10 years” – Al Gore

Al Gore says the United States should embark on a “man on the moon”-style effort to satisfy all of America’s electricity needs by renewable energy within a decade. Just 10 years. That’s an incredibly bold vision – a real stretch goal. But it is also what’s needed to avert a climate crisis. 

So why not do the same in Australia? Here, it could become a “nation-building” symbol of pride, akin to the 19th Century construction of the Overland Telegraph Line or the post-WW II Snowy Hydro Scheme.

Eighty per cent of Australians support carbon trading. A carbon price will open up huge new 21st Century markets, as price signals lead to a retooling of our energy economy away from dirty power sources like coal. 

Australia has more than enough wind, geothermal and solar energy to make it happen. The question is not the availability of resources. It is national will, adequate leadership and sufficient commitment. 

Al Gore says his plan is “achievable, affordable and transformative.” It is, both in the US and in Australia. 

Fossil fuels like coal and oil are rising in price due to scarcity and supply bottlenecks, coupled to spiralling demand. Meanwhile, the costs of renewables are falling due to innovation, research and development, and rapidly-increasing economies of scale. Just like computers and mobile phones, the more you invest in these technologies and the more widespread their use, the cheaper they become.

Also, unlike fossil fuels, there will never be scarcity in renewables – ever.  “Peak sun” and “peak geothermal” remain billions of years away.  “Peak oil” and “peak coal” are right around the corner.

It’s a win-win

Australia has never had such a perfect opportunity to make the shift. The Australian economy has been ignited over the past decade by mining prosperity due to unprecedented terms of trade for coal, gas and oil.

If Australia uses near-term export windfalls to invest in decarbonising the economy, Australia will have intellectual property and experience in “sunrise markets” to sell internationally later.  Fossil fuel exports now, renewables exports just around the corner.  It’s a classic win-win. 

Renewable energy economics is radically transformative. Civilisation has never experienced a long-term epoch of declining energy costs such as it will see in renewable energy. Scarcity could become irrelevant. Renewable energy is an infinite resource that’s falling in price due to rapid technological research and development. 

“Moore’s Law” has been successful since the early 1970s in predicting that computer prices will halve, and processing power double, every 18 months. This literally transformed modern society.

Falling energy prices due to the uptake of huge amounts of “flat price” (free once built) renewable energy could be even more positive. We only need to choose to follow this obvious path. 

The time is right. We have a huge windfall of export receipts to invest in decarbonising our economy. Carbon trading will provide tens of billions of dollars more per year to invest in upgrading to cleaner energy sources. 

If coupled with proper economic reform that progressively eliminates $10 billion of annual domestic fossil fuel subsidies in Australia , we could lay the groundwork for a “long boom” akin to the early years of the 20th century when our nation got rich on agricultural commodities 

In the 21st Century, clean energy can be our export.  Instead of riding on the sheep’s back, we can bask in the sun. Change isn’t Australia’s greatest future danger. Stasis or old-fashioned thinking is. 

High energy prices, the mess in the Middle East, global warming and the need to upgrade aging electricity systems dominated by coal-fired power plants and threadbare power lines. The world is being hit by a confluence of events that makes dramatic solutions not only possible, but imperative. 

Twenty years from now, obscure names like Innamincka, Ceduna, Woomera and Mildura could hold the kind of instant energy associations that old-style coal era names like La Trobe and Hunter valleys hold today. And instead of talking about constant “technologies in development” like carbon capture and storage, we could talk instead about solar chimneys, parabolic troughs, big wind turbines and oceanic wave machines. These are the new, limitless energy sources of the future. 

In this new vision, the Outback’s huge solar and geothermal resources could become the centre of our domestic energy complex. Instead of crusty explorers trekking into the interior with mules and shovels, they’d be equipped with drill rigs, mirrors and high-voltage power cable. Fatal mine accidents like that at Beaconsfield, Tasmania will become a rarity because renewable energy is intrinsically much safer than fossil fuels.

Crisis + opportunity

Climate change is an existential handwringer. It’s no doubt the thorniest global problem we’ve faced as a civilisation, world wars included.

But the urgency of solving it also represents a huge opportunity for Australia to move early to exploit her clean energy resources and progressively export that energy to the world. Doing so will make Australia richer as the world rapidly moves beyond coal and oil. 

In the next 50 years, humanity will either go to hell in a hand basket, or it will totally revamp the way it does business. If it takes the bleak “do as little as possible, slowly” pathway, interior Australia may see a tide of climate refugees fleeing flooded coastlines, a destroyed national food bowl, a devastated tourism industry, and huge dislocation.

But if Australia has vision, plays its cards right, and becomes a leader in the global climate solution, we could be humming with global exports of clean energy as world-leading discoveries make exploitation of unlimited energy resources ever cheaper. 

Australia is incredibly well placed among developed countries to move completely to renewable energy. We have huge, unexploited solar resources in our continental interior akin to the oil fields of the Middle East in the early 20th Century.

When the Seven Sisters oil companies exploited that resource, the global energy system changed forever. Today, Australia has all the makings of a global “green energy” superpower. 

It’s impossible to overstate the significance of this “comparative advantage” in such a key 21st Century sunrise industry as cleantech.

In the early 1960s, South Australia, with its Woomera Base, held the lead in the global space race. Australia shouldn’t let the huge opportunities of solar/geothermal cleantech slip away from it now like it did with rockets. 

It’s a once-in-a-century chance to get it right. 


There were a couple of comments posted on the site that were certainly worth asking – and worth hearing the answer to. Here are the questions and my response:

Pallywood said:

The only thing stopping us is a little reality check called ‘PHYSICS’. You may want to cover Australia in swathes of Turbines and Solar Panels and get rid of the coal-fired power plants but ask yourself what happens on a cloudy, calm day? Ask yourself how MANY turbines and panels are required to take on the baseload power of this country, and how much it costs to build them/install them/maintain them. Ask yourself about the issue of electrical resistance in cables that stretch for very long distances from the power source. Barry Brooks has written a piece of pure fantasy that doesn’t stand up to the slightest bit of scrutiny.

Art Vandelay said:

This guy is a professor at an Australian university? Like most environmentalists and academics these days, Brooks does not understand simple economics. Claiming that taxes actually create jobs and industry is completely ludicrous. I suggest the Professor read up about the ‘broken windows fallacy’ before he expresses his poorly-informed and erroneous opinions again.

My reply:

Pallywood, the PHYSICS of the proposal is just fine.

1. You have a distributed grid (wind is always blowing somewhere, sun is always shining somewhere during day).

2. You have a diversified portfolio, including baseload renewables (geothermal, wave, solar thermal molten salt storage, compressed air ‘batteries’ for wind power).

3. How many? It’s not as bad as you think. As an example, a solar thermal array at today’s tech efficiency (20%) would require an area of outback desert of 50 x 50 km to supply all of Australia’s projected power needs in 2020. Similar figures for microalgal biodiesel for total liquid fuel supplies.

4. Cost? Plenty for a ‘revolution’, but less than Coal with carbon capture and storage – and basic coal costs plenty too. Our energy infrastructure, even for an ongoing fossil fuel supply, needs a major overhaul, to replace ageing equipment and increase its capacity to supply more energy to an expanding economy. The International Energy Agency¿s price tag is $US 22 trillion globally by 2030. 5.

5. Tranmission loss: You are correct for standard A/C, but High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cables have about 2% loss per 1000km. This is the same type of cable used in Basslink to provide Tasmanian hydropower to Victoria and Murraylink to connect SA with VIC. So it’s already proven tech.

So no fantasy in my piece. Whatsoever.

Art Vandelay: It is not a claim that taxes create jobs. It is a requirement that externalities (in this case, environmental cost of carbon) is properly costed. Once this is done, renewables are simply on a level playing field with fossil fuel energy sources. As it stands, there are various perverse subsidies to fossil fuels that is anti-market and anti-competitive, as Garnaut and Stern have both noted. Market failures are no fallacy.


By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

27 replies on “Thinking big and fast on renewable energy”

Hi Barry,

The Australian Energy Market Commission are currently conducting a review of the National Energy Market with respect to the likely impacts of climate change policies (mainly the CPRs and the expanded RET through COAG.

Their initial scoping paper was released last friday and calls for submissions by the 14th November.

My initial reading of the scoping paper suggests that it is somewhat top heavy with assumptions regarding the likely future dominance of gas and potentially CCS in the Australian electricity market. Solar thermal, embedded solar pv, wind, wave and geothermal barely rate a mention and only in an ‘intermittent’ sense.

Mine is not a technical background, however if what you (and a number of other are saying) in relation to the base load potential of solar thermal, geothermal and others is correct, then I believe this would be a very appropriate inquiry to which a submission could be made outlining this renewable technology potential. If you were interested in doing a joint submission, we would be more than happy to work with you as we are members of the Consumers Advocacy Panel to the National Energy Market reform process and will be preparing such a submission to this review.


Damien Moyse
Alternative Technology Association


First a question rather than a comment. If every roof had its
solar cells and sliver technology in building windows, then how big
much extra would be required? How many industries are such that
their energy requirements exceed their … locally
available surface area?

And a comment. The language of almost all climate change commentators is
full of language like those of Barry in this post. Every body
talks about “opportunities” and “comparative advantage” and “leader
in global climate solution” as if we are trying to win something
and/or maintain our priviledged position in the world. I reckon this
competition paradigm has given us huge global inequities,
and the current financial meltdown — everybody wants to exploit an
advantage. We need a more cooperative, gentler, paradigm. Do we really
want to be leaders in solar tech just so we can set prices and
clean up on the international market? What’s wrong with wanting to
be the first to develop good cheap solar cells so we can give the
technology away before some greedy b.stard gets the patent and wants to
screw everybody.


GjRussell @ 2

I suspect that most climate change commentators, and certainly Barry, would agree with your proposition that the reason for us to advance quickly in developing alternative technology, should be to pass it on gratis, or cheaply, for the benefit of all on this planet. Unfortunately, to get Joe Public (and business) to become interested you have to gild the lily and talk up any financial benefits. I hope that our government and business leaders can put altruism and the health of the planet, and its people, before profit. First we have to get them interested, listening and willing to engage.


Gjrussell i think the words used are used because it’s what will motivate those that invest. i also think that addressing major environmental issues like climate change can bring opportunities to diverse peoples in the world. the solutions that barry talks about can bring great opportunity to indigenous australia. ie these thermal stations might be placed in the vicinity of outback communities and can bring further royalties (rent) and employment. and changing our meat eating habits can lead to further eating of game which in australia would mean roo meat and this is the sort of work that would energise many indigenous men and help break the cycle of welfare and poverty.

large tracts of rainforest can be bought and employment such as land management can be created for impoverished locals. and money can be paid to governments to fund health or education initiatives in these countries of an equivalent amount that they would’ve raised through taxes in resource industries operating in these areas.

no “greedy bastard” gets the patent to screw everyone if a lot of the research is funded in public institutions like research departments in universities.


notallright @ 4,

A) do you really think CSIRO has been locked in
a WiFi patent dispute for the past 3+ years because it wants to give away
the technology?

B) The CSIRO has patents on resistant starch products which
promote bowel health by reducing the DNA damage caused by red meat.
This is win-win for CSIRO, first they sell you a diet which damages your
DNA (Total Wellbeing), and then they sell you a product
to reduce the damage. Of course,
reducing the damage isn’t the same as eliminating it, but it might reduce
your cancer odds.

C) CSIRO has genetic patents on tests to identify genes which result
in more marbelling in meat — this helps farmers produce meat
with more saturated fat to accelerate heart disease.

The bottom line is that I don’t think public funding guarantees altruism,
certainly not from the CSIRO (with sincere apologies to all the
great scientists at the CSIRO not involved with the above mentioned CSIRO
strategic greed).


notallright @ 4, regarding increased kangaroo consumption.

Kangaroo consumption can never be more than a tiny niche market. I have
submitted a response to the recent paper by Wilson and Edwards in
Conservation Letters, so I won’t preempt that here but perhaps we
need to add “peak-roo” to the lexicon!

What has FAR MORE potential as a useful employer is an expansion of things
like outback pride.
My guess is that a bunch of people working in a nursery/garden setting will
have more desirable outcomes than individuals driving round all night
in a 4WD shooting kangaroos. Kangaroo shooting is a lonely, backbreaking
horrible job — which is why they never manage to fill the yearly


I don’t like to contrast technology based policies with policies based on targets and emissions pricing because I think we need both. IMO climate change mitigation policy requires 4 things. The first three are easy:

(1) technology (including research, development, demonstration, deployment and infrastructure);
(2) emissions pricing and reductions;
(3) addressing market failures.

Number (4) is more tricky, I would describe it as empowering sustainable communities or something similar; it is harder for policymakers to understand and easier to organise from the bottom up.

Emissions pricing is not enough because firms discount the future too much, and because of other market failures. Additional policies to encourage the deployment of renewables are required because of these market failures.

If we only focus on renewables we are in danger of neglecting emissions in agriculture and land use. Addressing emissions in agriculture and land use also has huge opportunities associated with it – both for rural communities and for ecosystems. If we get land use policy right, we may be able to reverse the habitat destruction going on and reduce species extinction and biodiversity loss.


The economy is saved, thanks to taxpayers around the world. Now how about turning attention and financial resources to saving the Earth from a meltdown?

It looks as if the Wonder Boys on Wall Street, who caused the current disaster in the world’s financial system, are going to rescue the family of humanity from a meltdown of the global economy.

Is it too much to ask some of these multi-billionaires to provide wealth to save the world from the global “meltdown” of Earth’s ice pack that is occurring in Greenland, Antarctica, the high mountain ranges from the Arctic Cordillera, to the Andes to the Himalayas?

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
established 2001


Don;t worry Steve the Global warming solutions are brought to you by the same people who just saved the banks. The same concerns about this bail-out (ie a solution to prop up a fialing system) are the same voiced by many about the “bail-out” of the climate…

Now I’m no sceptic… but the last month or so has certainly made me much more sceptical of the market based solution… because the markets appear to be an eleborately constructed scam. I posted a comment about a month ago, largely in jest, about a mate of mine advising that the big Govts and Big Banks were creating a solution to AGW that essentially propped up those big banks and the global finance system. Nothing to do with AGW, everything to do with propping up markets… and then once those financial players decided that carbon trading was their big savior then there was to be no more debate, no consideration of alternative science, and a solution put in place…

Rudd the leader in the economic crisis, Europe on board, the US dragged kicking and screaming to the “solution”… sound familiar at all?

I must admit that leads me then to be much more open to Barry’s preferences AGAINST a cap and trade system…

The market is rooted, and for mine the AGW solution is fraught with danger if it is totally market based…

My god I’ve become what I loathe the most – a CEC/Larouche propaganda machine!!!! Somebody help me!!!


As regular BNC readers would no doubt have surmised, my objective opinion is that we’re probably stuffed and nothing can pull us out of it. But my honest appraisal equally is that if anything is going to save us now, it is:

(1) working with (sort-of) the current system, at least in some form recognisable to most marketeers (since people, being people, aren’t going to switch to an alternative until it is far too late, or will manipulate any ‘perfect’ system such as socialism or communism so that it simply becomes a caricature of capitalism anyway, a la China).
(2) Having much more energy, not less (despite the huge short term gains we can make from energy efficiency), including for geoengineering or mass carbon sequestration in some form.
(3) Maintaining and enhancing our global society, not contracting it and encouraging nationalism.

Geoff, I know what I said might appear to be anti-competitive or nationalistic, but that is not the intent, nor do I think it will be the reality. First mover advantage means that we are recognised as a global leader in the tech, not that we have exclusive rights to it. We do it well, we have the practical ‘know how’, and we have the economic and infrastructure incentives in place to continue to foster innovations in deployment, R&D and those rare ‘breakthroughs’. Not that we foreclose options to others. For example, China is THE world leader in manufacturing of computer tech these days, and makes a lot of money out of it. But Silicon Valley and parts of Europe are still the great innovation hubs in this area, and so also make squillions. You can have both. Same deal with renewables.


A new piece by Monbiot gets right to the heart of the sustainability crunch. To quote:

“This is nothing. Well, nothing by comparison to what’s coming. The financial crisis for which we must now pay so heavily prefigures the real collapse, when humanity bumps against its ecological limits.

As we goggle at the fluttering financial figures, a different set of numbers passes us by. On Friday, Pavan Sukhdev, the Deutsche Bank economist leading a European study on ecosystems, reported that we are losing natural capital worth between $2 trillion and $5 trillion every year, as a result of deforestation alone(1). The losses incurred so far by the financial sector amount to between $1 trillion and $1.5 trillion. Sukhdev arrived at his figure by estimating the value of the services – such as locking up carbon and providing freshwater – that forests perform, and calculating the cost of either replacing them or living without them. The credit crunch is petty when compared to the nature crunch.

The two crises have the same cause. In both cases, those who exploit the resource have demanded impossible rates of return and invoked debts that can never be repaid. In both cases we denied the likely consequences. I used to believe that collective denial was peculiar to climate change. Now I know that it’s the first response to every impending dislocation.”

Read on in link above.


i think roos can be encouraged to graze over much more land then they are now. it wouldn’t be a lonely job for a lot of the indigenous boys out bush. they’d do it for fun. if they got a troopy and a cold trailer and were told to come back with x amount within a certain time frame they’d love it. it would be considered a manly job and they could be paid by piece which would up productivity.

growing bush tucker like that would be a great job in the communities for the women. that could of course start off as a way of providing better nutrition in their communities first but later into some sort of export out.

no reason why real bush tucker restaurants couldn’t open up with this stuff and would be a real hit with tourists. an old man out there told me once that he’d like to farm many bush animals like bush turkey and goanna.

but in more direct relation to the subjects on this blog they could lease out land for thermal power stations.


Call me an economic luddite but I figure there are 2 ways people make
squillions: 1) funnelling little amounts off lots of people or big amounts off
fewer people and 2) pretending things are more valuable than they are and
persuading other people to agree to that pretence and buy them, then these
people persuade others to buy and so on, until the music stops and the
person left holding the parcel is the dummy, unless that person can invoke
method 1).


i think part 2 has 2 parts too gruss. and that would be making people believe something is worth less then it is, or taking advantage of someone very desperate to sell something, and then selling it for its true value or really maximising it by also performing what you called part 2.


“The only thing stopping us is a little reality check called ‘PHYSICS’. You may want to cover Australia in swathes of Turbines and Solar Panels and get rid of the coal-fired power plants but ask yourself what happens on a cloudy, calm day? ”

Barry – as you said in your rebuttal of this crap it is sunny and windy somewhere as long as we have the transmission lines. However does the esteemed Pallywood and his ilk ever think about when the fossil fuel power stations are down for maintenance or failures? All types of electricity generation needs backup. There are nuclear power stations that have been out of action for two years with faults.

The required transmission lines can be HVDC. The beauty of HVDC is that it requires large power converters at either end of the link. Where there are power converters it is easy to add storage in the form of flow batteries or Zebra batteries to even out the flow in the HVDC link.

I did once think about a HVDC link connecting the Eastern Australia with Western Australia. This way surplus Eastern states power could power us in the West in the morning peak and we could supply the East for an additional 2 hours after your sunset. Also solar power plants and superconductor storage could be strung out along the length of the link. Finally the path of the link would go close to the vast geothermal Hot Rocks of South Australia and the equally vast wave resources of the Southern Ocean. Who needs coal?


Barry, I think we have a short window during which we can take the actions that mean we won’t end up stuffed – that we have this window is a great achievement of science. Or else climate change would impact the planet with us unaware of any link with burning fossil fuels. I for one am very grateful for that. Thanks guys.

So the capacity for continuing to do what will eventually cause us harm is quite strong, (exceeded perhaps by the capacity for doing what will eventually harm others), but the record of human achievements is cause for retaining some hope. The crucial part still appears to be convincing the world that it’s real and serious and urgent. I do worry that we could see a combination of factors that will make it look less real, serious or urgent – warming masked by Pacific Decadal Oscillation and La Nina and those other cyclic swings and climate noise, plus economic activity slowing, reducing the price of coal and oil and slowing emissions growth, making renewables less attractive.

Grid improvement and storage are needed, but I’ve never been convinced that utility scale storage is such a difficult challenge – compressed air and thermal storage are pretty basic stuff that would benefit from economies of scale, but with coal running 24/7, there seems like little immediate need even now to develop or build any. Illusory lack of need. The lack of development work on such storage ought not become the catch-22 that means we can’t shut down coal plants, because we won’t need them until after we shut them down. Sure, it would be a massive challenge, but definitely not impossible. Meanwhile can coal plants get redesigned to switch on and off quickly enough to be squeezed into the role of backup for renewables while the work on grids and storage get serious?


Excellent article Barry

Said much the same in regards solutions in my submission to the 2020 Summit climate change stream.

Baseload and think big aside – they will be solved as efficiency, market penetration and competition improves, the problem *right now* is the amount of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere.

We have to reduce that *right now* at every level. And let’s face it, we all know, starting with households, that it’s a doddle. Reduce waste, improve efficiency, increase share.

I’m a convert already – got my 1.1kw grid connect system, my solar HW system, my energy efficient light globes and my house insulated, and most of the other “usual” solutions.

It’s reduced my emissions by more than 50%, to about 4 tonnes py (from more than 12).

Now, just imagine every household in Australia having a similar set up!

There are approx. 6 million single dwelling/semi detached homes in Australia. Not every one will be suitable, but lets get ambitious eh? What say we aim for 50% 1.1kw and Solar HW installed base by 2020?

At the same time, let’s do an audit on the sq metres of retail/commercial, and industrial flat roof space.

I have no idea what it is, but I’ll bet it’s more the 50 x 50 kl.

And home, business* and industry could generate and use a good portion of their energy at source, with the accompanying reduction in transmission loss to compensate for relative conversion inefficiency. Plus – any excess goes back into the grid. Oh and did I mention cheaper power bills?

(* BTW, a mob in California – figures!, are already doing very nicely targeting small businesses with a solar grid connect to their locally owned generating and distribtion system.)

How’s them apples for addressing the “financial crisis”?

From little things big things grow.

We know all the solutions are out there. It merely requires political will to implement, and I’m sad to say that I see precious little evidence of that so far.


P.S. The problem *right now* is the amount of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere.

The problem *right now* is the amount of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere.

The problem *right now* is the amount of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere.

The problem *right now* is the amount of greenhouse gases we’re pumping into the atmosphere.



Greenpeace now have a very detailed paper out on meeting the world’s energy needs from renewables.
Why doesn’t anyone mention hydro when they’re whinging about baseline? I know we don’t want to dam more rivers, but we already have plenty (e.g. snowy mountains). At the moment they supply peak power because they can be brought on and offline quickly, but there’s no reason they can’t supply baseline and solar/wind (which peak at midday and at morning/evening respectively) the peak.


James, I think because hydro is not expected to grow in any substantial way and only constitute ~5% of baseline. Another thing most people don’t realise is that there is some preliminary evidence to suggest that hydropower is by far the most emission-intensive renewable energy supply, due to the large amounts of methane that has been measured as being released by dams covering formerly vegetated lands (for decades, as it rots in anaerobic conditions) – but more work needs to be done in this area.


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