Can Canberra rely entirely on alternative energy?

If light rail is the preferred theme for the Canberra Liberals in October's election, it is possible that ACT Labor will trumpet its success in leading the nation in powering the city entirely from alternative energy sources by 2020, or thereabouts. On the face of it, Labor won't have an opponent on that issue, because Liberal leader Jeremy Hanson has been very quiet about it, other than saying that ACT power bills will go through the roof.

If that is all that he and his colleagues continue to say, then the reasonable elector might have a few questions of her own, just as she had about light rail. She recalls Chief Minister Andrew Barr's saying last August, at ACT Labor's annual conference, that "Canberra can and should be a beacon for everyone who realises the world must act decisively now to stave off a future of catastrophic climate change".

We're still a long way from having the capacity to store power from the sun and wind.
We're still a long way from having the capacity to store power from the sun and wind. Photo: Jessica Shapiro

She wants catastrophes no more than the next person, but nonetheless ponders just how Barr's plan would do this. After all, she remembers, when she switches on an electric light, the power that comes is overwhelmingly fossil fuel in origin. How exactly will the ACT "transition" to this new alternative-energy world?

In fact, it's hard to find a sensible answer to such a question. The ACT government has commissioned three wind farms and three solar farms that will collectively supply about 60 per cent of the ACT's energy needs by 2017, if the sun shines and the wind blows as hoped. There's some more coming that will push the equivalent to about 90 per cent of the ACT's energy needs by 2020.

The solar energy farm at Royalla in Canberra's south.
The solar energy farm at Royalla in Canberra's south. Photo: Graham Tidy

Environment Minister Simon Corbell says the government will then work out what is needed to get the total up to 100 per cent. He has said clearly enough that the intention is to provide the "equivalent of the ACT's energy needs", not for the ACT to become independent of the grid.

OK, says the reasonable elector, but how is this forestalling a catastrophe? She knows that when you use alternative energy sources like wind and sun, you have to provide back-up for those days when the wind doesn't blow sufficiently to generate much or any power (about 60 per cent of the time), and those nights (all of them) when the sun doesn't shine. The back-up has to be something that you can switch on at a moment's notice, and means gas-turbines. So the more alternative energy we have, the more fossil-fuelled back-up we also need.


And she also knows, because she has done some reading, that the world is still a long way from having the capacity to store power from sun and wind, apart from in domestic batteries. Yes, you can push water uphill during the day, and let it run downhill at night to generate more hydro power, but it's not a viable option on a large scale. We just don't have a lot of stored water for hydro, and no government is proposing to build more dams. Not yet, anyway.

But the ACT government hasn't gone down that path of explaining why all these wind forms are pushing catastrophes away from the ACT, and nor has Hanson asked it to. What the government has done is to talk up the scheme in terms of its role as an economic development strategy. Yet the wind farms are not in the ACT – two of them are in Victoria and one in South Australia. So while it is good for the ACT to be doing all this economic development, why we should be helping Victoria and South Australia in this way is not instantly clear to the reasonable elector.

At this point the reasonable elector gives up. The alternative energy strategy ought to be an election issue, she thinks, even if the Liberals won't make it one. And she thinks she knows why there's no action. In 2013, the ACT government conducted a survey about popular reaction to its alternative energy strategy, and found to its pleasure that about 70 per cent of those interviewed were in general support: they thought that "climate change" was important, that they themselves contributed to it, that they ought to do something about it, and that the government's strategy was the right way to go.

It may be true that most Canberrans think they will be getting wholly green power in 2025, or whenever the magic year is. It's nothing like that, and they will be paying much more for their mostly fossil-fuelled power than they would have done had the government done nothing at all in this field. But they'll feel good about it – and after all, aren't we the people in Australia who can most afford to feel good about something that is mostly smoke and mirrors?

Don Aitkin, a political scientist, historian and novelist, was vice-chancellor of the University of Canberra, the foundation chairman of the Australian Research Council and a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council.