Saturday, May 21, 1977

1977 Canberra Alternative Energy Festival while Prime Minister Fraser spruiks coal over solar for energy research

John Englart assisting solar hot water demonstration system on Parliament House lawns, Canberra

It's November 2021. In 1977 I was photographed helping install a demonstration solar hot water system on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra at the end of the 1977 Ride Against Uranium.

It was part of an Alternative Energy Festival organised by Friends of the Earth. This followed the conclusion of the Rides against Uranium from Sydney and Melbourne to Canberra.

It paved the way for my long advocacy for renewables. It has taken the world a long time to catch up. At a time when we face a climate emergency. Of course I didn't realise the full implications way back then, nor the many scientific papers and blog posts I would do to highlight the complex issues.

Club of Rome report highlights accelerating carbon dioxide emissions

In 1972 the Club of Rome published the Limits to Growth report, which highlighted the exponential growth in CO2 emissions, and hoped that fossil fuel burning could be stopped "before it has had any measurable ecological or climatological effect." Nuclear and limited hydro power were the only carbon neutral mature energy technologies at that stage.

Alternative Technology and the glimmers of renewables power with wind and solar

Early wind turbines and the first solar panels were being utilised, called 'Alternative technology'. One of the early proponents of the need to develop renewable energy sources in Friends of the Earth was Alan Parker. Writing in the Friends of the Earth journal Chain Reaction, he highlighted  how he thought wind energy should be organised and developed: 

Most Australians are in favour of developing renewable energy sources, and many also want to see their introduction promoting more decentralisation of political and economic power. To achieve these ends I believe it is necessary to create a solar and wind engineering industry in Australia, but an industry which is self-managed by the workers involved in it, and one whose production is geared not to maximising profits but to meeting democratically determined social goals. Without such an industrial base the desired technical change either will not take place, or will be imposed from outside in a perveted (sic) form by multinational companies.

While commercial grid scale wind farms have been the primary form of wind power that has developed over the last 20 years using the Mandatory Renewables Energy Target established by the Howard Federal Government in 2001, there have been community models also pursued, the first and most successful being the Hepburn Wind Community Energy Project. (As I write this, the 2021 AGM of Hepburn Wind Energy has just concluded, advised it is diversifying to add a solar farm and battery storage. I was one of the original investors in this community energy project in 2008)

But even in the 1970s solar hot water was recognised as an important form of solar energy which many Northern Territory residents and a few businesses used.

"Production of solar water heaters increased steadily during the 1960s, and the Australian Government’s decision to install these systems in Government owned houses in the Northern Territory gave the then fledgling industry the necessary boost to expand and develop their solar R&D and manufacturing facilities. By 1970, the Australian solar water heater industry was well established and Darwin was well known internationally for its extensive use of solar water heaters for domestic hot water." writes Colin Ward in the 2011 article Solar hot water systems for CSIROpedia.

University researchers in the early 1970s were making some headway into solar thermal, and solar photovoltaic research, but Government funding was still fairly scant. Solar wasn't fully recognised as a possible energy source by government until the 1980s. 

"In 1981 the Energy Authority of New South Wales published a report on the potential of solar ponds for electricity generation in remote locations."

The federal government did not start recognising the potential for solar energy to ‘make a growing contribution in specific market niches’ until 1988, 

"specifying solar water heating systems, solar industrial process heat systems and electricity production from solar thermal or PV processes as ‘new technologies’ that had emerged or shown promise over the previous two decades." according to Robin Tennant-Wood in the 2012 history of the development of solar energy - Following the sun.

Prime Minister Fraser prioritises coal research over solar

In May 1977 it was the young activists in Friends of the Earth on their pushbikes campaigning against uranium and the dangers of nuclear energy, who also highlighted the potential for alternative technologies of wind and solar energy.

"Demonstrators rode bicycles and walked, peacefully, carrying placards, to Civic from the lawns of Parliament House, where, organisers said, more than 500 demonstrators had set up tents as part of an 'alternative energy festival'. They went to the Department of Natural Resources, in Hobart Place, where they put up placards and chanted. About 70 of them invaded the department's office in the AMP building, putting up stickers. They were ushered out by policemen. They then went to the department's office in Tasman House to talk to the Secretary, Mr James Scully. Policemen stopped them in the foyer. Then they went to the Civic shopping area. An organiser, Mr John Holmes, said the protest was aimed simply at getting media exposure on the uranium-use issue." (Canberra Times 21 May 1977 Page 9)

The politicians weren't listening much then regarding energy directions. There were some noteable exceptions, including Labor MPs Jim Cairns and Tom Uren.

While the Alternative Energy Festival was taking place in Canberra, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser was taking question from High School students in Hobart on solar energy. Asked by the students specifically on solar energy he devoted most of his response on the importance of coal, and that there seemed to be very little foreseeable industrial use of solar energy, and that coal was a much better prospect.

"A lot of people have advised me that research into coal is likely to have a greater importance in terms of the needs of the Australian community than solar energy research. I think that's also the view in the US, that coal research is more important." said the Prime Minister.

Looking back from November 2021, I'd like to know who was advising Prime Minister at the time? 

It is important to reflect on the energy path not taken in the 1970's to develop solar and wind energy, and perhaps even geothermal and the various ocean energy technologies. 

Canberra Times, 21 May 1977 story on coal and solar


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