Paul Gleeson: I’m Paul Gleeson, Aurecon’s Managing Director for Energy, Resources and Manufacturing and I am talking to Professor Peta Ashworth from The University of Queensland about the challenges we face in transitioning to a low carbon future.
Question: What was the challenge that brought The University of Queensland and Aurecon together?
Peta Ashworth: So, the challenge that brought The University of Queensland and Aurecon together was really about a small group of people that were really positive and motivated to do something different. And within the context of a university, that’s all about education, it’s not actually that easy. There was a lot of different processes and things that were met along the way, and I think that’s where having a partnership was actually really useful and fruitful to moving it forward.
Paul Gleeson: In the Australian energy market context, it could look very much like this project that we are highlighting, The University of Queensland Warwick Solar Farm, where big consumers take action into their own hands, because they can now. I think ultimately the whole system will start to follow that, you know. But the fact that, as a big consumer, you can now choose to what level you want to participate in the energy market, that’s really the big change. That, combined with the fact that it’s now economic to do these things. So it’s no longer just reliant on someone’s sustainability drivers. It will often make sense for someone to do it commercially.
But the idea that you could choose whether you want to own and operate an asset and be a market participant, or whether you just want to contract with someone else who is developing one, or do it through a retailer in a more conventional way, but you’ve got ways now of choosing where your electricity comes from, and just how much impact it has on the environment. So, I think that’s really driving the change.
Question: What is the future vision that we are seeking and what are we doing to get there?
Peta Ashworth: The future vision I think for The University of Queensland and Aurecon going forward, is this commitment to low carbon, finding a future, you know, that is sustainable. And while the Warwick Solar Farm is one thing that we can do locally, in my role as Chair of Sustainable Energy Futures, I look after the Master’s, which has a real mix of domestic and international students. And so that changes the conversation quite a lot for me, because it’s not just about what’s happening here, but also internationally. And I guess that’s what motivates me to do the job that I do, because we all know there’s a billion people that don’t have access to electricity, and that’s the most basic form of electricity, to LED lights and some mobile phone charging.
Paul Gleeson: So, I think you’ve got a couple of things going on in the world. So you’ve got developing economies, which are trying to get electricity for the first time, and then you’ve got developed economies like ours, which are looking to how do they transition over the coming decades to a lower carbon future. And I think for the developing economies, in some instances it may be possible for them to leapfrog from no electricity to the ultimate solution, but for economies like ours, it’s possibly trickier to go from a well-established entrenched system, to what the one of the future looks like. So, Australia really can play a role in modelling that just transition and looking after everyone on the way through.
Question: How does what Australia is doing play into the broader international stage?
Peta Ashworth: I think while most of us would acknowledge, we are in a transition, and that’s the things that we have been talking about in our partnership with Aurecon and The University of Queensland. I think where I see in the world is this disagreement on the time it will take to transition, and that’s where all the tension comes. So, it also creates an opportunity. So for Australia, where we are very heavily reliant on fossil fuels, both for our energy, but also for exporting and the royalties that that returns, that’s a big ask to think about what is going to replace that.
And I think in many ways, that is sort of part of the crux of the problem as we transition, is how do we move away our reliance and come up with alternatives that we can actually bring royalties, bring new jobs and new skills. That said, I think there are some real exciting opportunities that are emerging in different technologies, and I guess that’s what we’re exploring with our partnerships.
Paul Gleeson: There’s been a bit of discussion about how big or small of an emitter we are, and whether we should bother doing anything about our own emissions. To me, there’s a couple of reasons why we need to do as much as we can. One is because we have the capability and the capacity to do so, and the other is that it’s largely economic for us now to make that transition, and I’m talking about low carbon energy sources. I think the other role that Australia should play is it can model what that transition looks like, largely from fossil to renewables over the coming decades.
And when we talk about transition, there’s a phrase that gets used a bit, a ‘just’ transition, and it’s really important to understand the impact of these changes, not just to – I guess the physical assets, but more importantly, to the communities, the regions. Will jobs be in the same places or of the same type? So, modelling a just transition and how you go from one course of energy to another over time, without creating massive disruption, both in terms of systems stability, but also in terms of the communities and the regions.
And I think Australia has already been playing a role in doing some of the modelling of that over time. If you look at programs like the Solar Flagships Program, which ran ten years ago, the role that that played in helping drive the cost of solar down globally is quite well documented. You know, and that’s something that at the time, technology wasn’t quite there, or it certainly wasn’t price competitive. If we hadn't embarked on something like that, we wouldn't have solar as affordable as it is today. So, that’s something that has impacted on the world stage.