RENEWABLES

When Sydney held the first Earth Hour event in 2007, renewable energy made up just under 5 per cent of the power produced in Australia.

It now stands at 10 per cent, and that total must be doubled again over the next eight years if the national target for wind, solar, hydro and biomass energy is to be met.

This represents a vast, fast change for Australia's coal, oil and gas-dependent society, yet the country still lags a long way behind most other developed nations.

An index developed by the non-profit think-tank the Climate Institute and the energy company GE, released this week, placed Australia 16th out of the G20 countries for its ability to remain competitive in a low-carbon environment.

“Looking at the index, countries that performed well in the rankings are those who have recognised the inextricable link between economic resource security and climate change policies and are acting accordingly,” says the institute's director, John Connor.

Australia's performance is likely to improve when the carbon price legislation – under which heavy-polluting businesses have to buy emissions permits at $23 per tonne of carbon dioxide – comes into force on July 1.

This will make fossil-fuel power more expensive and renewable energy cheaper by comparison.

European nations, along with Japan and Korea, lead the list. Despite the recent surge in renewable energy use, Australia's is the only major economy that has become more dependent on coal and oil over the past 20 years.

This week, Germany revealed plans to build offshore wind farms covering about 5000 square kilometres. At a cost of US$263 billion ($251 billion) – about 6 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product – it plans to decommission all 17 of its nuclear reactors and replace them solely with renewable power.

"The energy transformation is the biggest modernisation and infrastructure project in the coming decade,” Germany's Energy Minister, Philipp Roesler, said in a televised speech. “Whether other countries follow our model will depend on whether we succeed.”

This level of ambition is not limited to Germany, and enormous renewable energy projects are under way in China, the US and elsewhere. Even New Zealand, with a population about the same as Sydney's, now gets 77 per cent of its power from renewable energy, mainly generated from hydroelectric turbines. It plans to reach 90 per cent renewable power by 2025.

The shift to wind and solar power in Australia has been driven in large part by the purchase of GreenPower, a scheme under which people pay slightly higher energy bills, with the difference invested in energy generated from renewable sources and bought by their energy provider.

In the last quarter of 2011, 548,658 megawatt hours of renewable energy were bought under the scheme by the 730,000 households and businesses that took part.

Government subsidies for renewable energy installation are being wound back across most of the country, but have resulted in a massive surge in solar panels and solar hot water heaters since 2007.

Contrary to some reports, rooftop solar panels are not a middle-class luxury but a prudent, money-saving investment in more working-class and rural areas, according to detailed studies of the postcodes where they are installed.

In NSW, rural areas have by far the highest uptake of solar installations, with one in 10 homes in some districts now acting as mini-power stations, producing more electricity than they can use and feeding the surplus back into the grid. In Sydney, the Blacktown region has the highest proportion of panels.

Yet solar power remains a tiny proportion of the country's renewable energy mix. According to a report produced by the industry body the Clean Energy Council, hydroelectric power still dominates the sector, producing about 67 per cent of emissions-free electricity. The burning of carbon-neutral biomass sits at 8 per cent, with solar power at just 2 per cent.

The fastest-growing renewable source is wind power, with about 22 per cent of the overall mix, and much more planned. South Australia now gets just over a quarter of its electricity from wind turbines.

Late last year, Australia had 1188 wind turbines in 57 operating wind farms – if you include a small one in the Australian Antarctic Territory.

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