a climate affair

Can Solar Thermal energy save the planet and unify a government?

What do Bob Katter, Christine Milne and Malcolm Turnbull all have in common? They all want sustainable, renewable energy infrastructure in Australia. If climate change is indeed “the great moral and economic challenge of our time”, then Labor might do best to pay attention to costed solutions to the problem that delivers zero carbon emissions, jobs and economic prosperity for Australia in addition to aligning their political interests with independents and greens to successfully form government.

Bob Katter laid out his plan for a Clean Energy Corridor twelve months ago to Wayne Swan and Martin Ferguson at a Renewables Business Roundtable forum in North Queensland [1]. At that time, the Sims report into energy options in north-west Queensland found that—pending pricing options—an energy corridor between Mt. Isa and Townsville would best supply the region’s ongoing electricity needs [2]. The report recommended a 12 month competitive process to find a solution. Katter’s solution is a green one. He wants an Advanced Solar Thermal plant in the corridor in conjunction with geothermal energy, biofuel—made from the invasive pest acacia tree—ethanol and electricity from sugar cane. Is his renewable vision feasible?

WorleyParsons, an engineering management service advising Katter, explains that Solar Thermal offers daytime peak load power at precisely the same time as peak demand, that is, approximately 6pm [3]. Even better, Solar Thermal is not a technology of the future, but one with readily available components and a proven ease of implementation.

Independent to that 2009 meeting, the Energy Research Institute has released its vision for a Zero Carbon Australia by 2020 [4]. Endorsed by politicians, engineers and academics across Australia, including Malcolm Turnbull, greens senator Christine Milne and Australian of the Year Tim Flannery, the Institute’s recommendation has striking similarities with Katter’s proposal, particularly the advocacy for solar thermal energy.

Unlike solar panels or old thermal technologies, new solar thermal processes utilize a centralized tower to direct solar to generate steam using flat glass mirrors that track the sun all day. Heat is sufficiently high (550˚C) to allow use of standard Rankine cycle, dry cooled, generation power blocks. These factors increase efficiency and capacity whilst lowering costs and improving plant operations. Molten salt storage improves the flexibility of the system to provide stable, renewable power to meet industrial and consumer needs.

If rolled out on a small scale, solar thermal is about four times the cost of coal-power. However, a larger implementation ensures that costs are commensurate with current energy prices. That is, once 8.7 GW of capacity is installed (slightly less than Victoria’s current stationary power capacity), then costs are equivalent.

Implementing the full Zero Carbon solution across Australia (including wind, solar thermal, biomass, hydroelectricity) is achievable and affordable whilst adding more direct jobs than would be lost by switching from coal and gas from the stationary supply chain. Over 150,000 new jobs would be created in construction, operations and maintenance plus manufacturing, engineering, trades and plant management. Finally, Australia’s expertise building heliostat mirrors and so forth will have roll on effects as we position ourselves to export these technologies offshore.

In conclusion, take a moment’s pause from the personality and rhetoric of Katter and consider his interest in sustainable energy. Now, amplify his small scale vision for Far North Queensland and consider the opportunity to really revolutionize Australia’s energy blueprint for the future. With this sort of thinking Labor might save their government, restore their green credentials and offer some hope for the future.

by Kate Devitt


[1] Fired up over future When it comes to providing infrastructure for the North's industries, veteran MP Bob Katter is excited by the possibilities. Townsville Bulletin, 29th August 2009.

[2] http://www.dip.qld.gov.au/resources/growth-strategies/sims-review.pdf

[3] http://www.worleyparsons.com/InvestorRelations/ASX/Pages/AdvancedSolar-ThermalPresentation.aspx

[4] http://beyondzeroemissions.org/


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