Student Q&A: The Premier of South Australia on renewable energy

8 December 2010

David Martin and Toby Neville, UCL Chemical Engineering PhD students, spoke to Mike Rann, Premier of South Australia, about his ambitions for renewable energy, following his lecture at UCL on 1 December.

Premier Rann’s full lecture can be viewed at the bottom of this article or on UCL’s presence on iTunes U.

Premier Rann, you have over 25 years’ experience in government, and you are currently the Minister for Sustainability and Climate Change. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Cancún, do you wish to unveil the South Australian manifesto as a model to be followed by other states and countries, rather than a plan specifically for South Australia?

“What we’re trying to get across in the conference, is that it is important to encourage smaller states, provinces, sub-national governments, as 80% of the decisions that affect the environment are actually made at the regional level.

South Australia Premier Mike Rann with student interviewers

There is absolutely no doubt that what national governments can do in terms of trading schemes is very important, but in so many areas it’s the regional governments and state governments that are actually setting the pace, which national governments tend to follow.

So what we do is basically have a best practice forum, where 62 states from around the world swap ideas and present to each other, then share the findings. We also meet with businesses, to get legislative ideas and project ideas.

Whilst we think that the international conference in Copenhagen was a dismal failure, we felt that our sub-national conference was very successful. For example, in the last couple of conferences I put up some ideas, such as the notion of sponsoring a region in the developing world on climate change policy. South Australia is helping out East Timor, and other regions are sponsoring provinces in Africa, and states elsewhere.

I also put up a proposal last time in Copenhagen for us to plant one billion trees at the sub-national level by 2015, in addition to those already planned. This was then passed unanimously. Places like Scotland have committed to 100 million trees since then. One of the Canadian provinces has also matched this as well. What we also did is call on nationals in a bigger conference, to commit to planting seven billion trees – essentially one for every person on the planet. Unfortunately this didn’t get discussed, but we are going to try again in Cancún.

It doesn’t stop at a physical level; a lot of what we can do is educative – such as the solar panels on schools. Computers can plot how their school is functioning as a power station as well, so then the children go home to their parents and talk about how solar panels are being so effective. We have the Royal Institution of Science in Adelaide, which is the first time in 200 years it has gone to somewhere outside London. UCL similarly has the benefit of an energy institute with excellent resources.”

Part of the UCL Centre for CO2 Technology is focused on developing technology for a hydrogen-based fuel economy. Do you have plans to introduce such an economy to South Australia? Surely, South Australia has a good mix of resources to implement one?

“It does have massive potential indeed; however we haven’t focused on it at the moment. We have a good mix of resources in South Australia, and we are interested, but at the moment we’re sponsoring promising new work on bio-fuels, based on algae. This particular alga is found in saline water off the River Murray. It is highly productive in generating a form of bio-diesel – like a kind of prototype bio-reactor, which we are currently examining.

There is work on hydrogen generation in some other states, but since we are the driest state, on the driest continent on the planet, it’s not really an option. We do however have lots of sunlight for solar power, and fairly good wind resources. Geothermal power from hot rocks is also an upcoming resource. The hot rocks have massive potential but are still in the developmental stage. We have 8% of Australia’s population, but have 94% of the geothermal activity. Fifty-one percent of our power comes from wind. Solar energy is also on the rise, and 250 schools will have solar panels on them in the near future. Major public buildings such as libraries, art galleries, airports and museums also have been fitted with solar panels. One of our convention centres has the largest solar array in the nation. We try to encourage by leading by example.”

Nuclear power is a low-carbon way of producing energy. Are there any plans for South Australia to begin a nuclear energy programme? After all, the uranium deposit in the Olympic Dam is among the largest in the world, and currently all the mined uranium is exported.

“Well, we have close to 50% of the world’s uranium, and one of the larger mineral deposits also has copper, uranium and gold. This is valued at around one trillion US dollars. However, there is no proposal for nuclear power across our state, or in Australia. No business case for nuclear power has ever been proposed, probably because it would actually double the cost of electricity. We have huge gas and renewable resources, and by 2020, 33% of South Australia’s energy will come from renewables, the remainder mostly from gas. So for us, exporting it all, we still are helping to reduce the total carbon dioxide produced, whilst maintaining low electricity cost.” 

Australia is currently in the grip of a severe and unprecedented drought, with low rainfall in many districts and record low inflows to the Murray-Darling basin. Do you have plans to introduce possible solutions to this, such as desalination of seawater?

“We have had the worst drought in recorded history, which resulted in the lowest inflow into the River Murray for six years, the lifeblood of the seaboard of Australia. Computer modelling showed that it was a one-in-1,000 year event in terms of inflow. Whilst we have had a very good year this year, there is no doubt climate change is having a massive impact on state and on our nation. We’re leading the country in terms of water recycling; programmes which use storm water use and also desalination plants. A massive desalination plant is to be built, which can supply up to 50% of Adelaide’s water supply if necessary. This guarantees our water security for the future. Most importantly, however, is that it is 100% powered by renewable energy. It is the greenest desalination plant in the world, and developed by a Spanish company, Acciona.”

The target of increasing South Australia’s renewable energy percentage is “33% by 2020”– what non-renewable technologies will make up the remaining percentage?

“Simply gas, but we do have one coal-fired power station. This one, however, is close to the end of its life, and will be decommissioned around 2020. No more coal power stations will be built in South Australia. Geothermal will essentially kick in very soon, given its base load [the minimum amount of power that a utility or distribution company must make available to its customers] and the fact that it’s continuous, unlike the variable power in solar and wind.

We’ve had several meetings regarding the introduction of wave power, but nothing has really come of it, as of yet. We’ve commissioned a massive study which will look at investing billions of dollars in renewable energy resources, and how other states are going to match the pledge of ‘20% renewable by 2020’. This will include solar thermal, wind power, and geothermal, so we can become a base for providing renewable energy to the different states, so they can reach the set goal – that’s my dream.”

Image from left: Mike Rann, Premier of South Australia, in discussion with UCL PhD students David Martin and Toby Neville. Credit: Kirsten Holst

UCL context

UCL Chemical Engineering is of world-class standing. The department offers a range of first degree and postgraduate programmes, some of which provide the opportunity for one year’s study abroad in Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, or the USA.

Research is a major departmental activity with 75% of staff rated as world leading or of internationally excellent quality in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. Research is grouped into three main areas: multiphase systems, chemical and catalytic reaction engineering and computer aided process engineering.  The Department hosts the Centre for CO2 Technology which is the hub of energy and CO2 technology development in the department and a focus for energy research at UCL. The department is a partner in the Centre for Process Systems Engineering, UCL CoMPLEX and the UCL Materials Chemistry Centre.

UCL School of Energy and Resources, Australia (UCL SERAus) was established in Adelaide in 2009, with a particular emphasis upon energy and resource management and planning. UCL SERAus is a partnership between UCL, the Government of South Australia, and the Australian energy company Santos. Find out more about UCL’s engagement with Australia.

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