TOMORROW NIGHT, AUSTRALIA will be among the world’s first nations to turn off the lights for Earth Hour. Famous national landmarks such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Federation Square will be plunged into darkness along with hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses to draw attention to the climate crisis.
The massive challenge of climate change is driven largely by our dependence on fossil fuel energy. The coal, oil and gas the world burns each and every year produces billions of tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. Securing a safe climate will require nothing less than an unparalleled restructuring of the global energy system.
With that in mind, many will wonder how switching off the lights for one hour a year helps. Is this approach really the best way to tackle climate change?
We must remember that a quarter of the globe’s population is without access to electricity at all, and not because they choose to.
The world is fast approaching a population of nine billion people by 2050, and China and India are rapidly approaching super-power status. Does anyone really want to tell those who have experienced energy poverty that they must now restrict their usage?
Electricity has profited human civilisation beyond measure. When people lack access to electricity they are denied all of the benefits it brings, including – but not limited to – lighting, heating, transport, refrigeration, communication, and information. If such benefits sound like basic human rights, it is because they often are. Even if it were possible to argue that electricity is not essential for accommodating socioeconomic development, it is clearly impossible to prevent people using it at ever-increasing rates.
In any case, energy usage is not to blame for climate change; energy sources are. There would be no need to turn off our lights if they were powered by clean, renewable energy sources. That way we could both celebrate energy and its many rewards and be comfortable in the knowledge that we aren’t jeopardising our climate and future generations.
Australia is rich with renewable energy resources. Powering our homes, schools, hospitals and industries entirely with the sun and wind is well within our reach.
Last year, my organisation Beyond Zero Emissions partnered with the University of Melbourne’s Energy Research Institute to create the Zero Carbon Australia – Stationary Energy Plan. The Plan outlines a strategy to wean Australia off fossil fuels for good, using commercially available technology to harness the country’s bountiful supply of clean energy. Such a strategy would cost households just eight dollars a week for ten years, and ensure a future less at the mercy of dwindling fossil fuel supplies and the adverse impacts of a changing climate.
Many people express concerns that solar and wind power is too variable to rely on for a constant source of energy. This concern is misplaced.
Concentrating solar thermal (CST) power plants operate differently to the solar panels commonly found on neighbourhood rooftops. They consist of thousands of mirrors that reflect sunlight onto a central receiver tower, which stores the sun’s heat in tanks of molten salt. These solar power towers with storage can generate electricity for seventeen hours straight, without any sunlight at all. Our modeling shows that this game-changing technology coupled with geographically dispersed wind installations, existing hydro and a small amount of biomass can easily meet the nation’s baseload electricity demands.
In contrast to Earth Hour’s current focus, the energy future presented in the Zero Carbon Australia plan will not be achieved through simply reducing our electricity use. Of course increasing the energy efficiency of buildings and automobiles is important, but it is renewable energy substitutes for fossil fuels that will ultimately decouple our modern energy-intensive society from carbon emissions.
When we reconsider the problem of climate change as an energy challenge, human civilisation can turn its undivided attention to deploying the renewable energy technologies already at our disposal.
With renewable energy, every hour can be Earth Hour.
Mark Ogge is director of operations for Beyond Zero Emissions
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"Earth Hour 2009" Hoodie (dark)