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The real public opinion on renewable energy

Originally published in ABC’s The Drum.

By Andrew Bray

As the shift to clean energy transforms the competitive landscape of the world economy, Australians face some very big decisions indeed. The cheap, fossil fuel-based energy that has been our economic trump card until now is starting to look more like a dud hand.

So where do Australians want to get their energy from in the future and what do they think about renewable energy as an alternative?

It suits the Opposition and some sections of the media to pretend that the only thing we care about is our cost of living but you’d think Australians would be smart enough to walk and chew gum at the same time. We all watch our bills but that doesn’t stop us from also considering issues like pollution and the costs of energy into the future.

So to test the case, the 100% Renewable Energy campaign decided to bypass the media and get it straight from the horse’s mouth. We wanted to hear directly from our communities what they thought about renewable energy.

From February to May of this year, community groups associated with the campaign conducted over 14,000 face-to-face conversations at people’s doors, in their lounge rooms, at markets and community events and on the sidelines of football matches. Conversations took place from Bega to Bunbury and Cairns to Hobart.

The sheer number of people we spoke to eclipsed any of the focus groups or randomised polls that are traditionally used to gauge the public mood.

The support we found for renewable energy was overwhelming. The people we spoke to support renewable energy and they want to see politicians get on with the job of bringing it online.

Some 91per cent of participants thought that the government should be implementing strong policy to support new jobs and investment in renewable energy while 86 per cent of participants thought Australia should develop a plan to move to 100 per cent renewable energy.

Another finding was that 90 per cent of the people we spoke to thought we should be installing more renewable energy to counter rising energy prices.

This might come as a surprise given recent publicity about rising electricity prices, but it shouldn’t. The Australian Energy Market Commission (AEMC) identified in its recent report that the three main causes of rising prices were investment in ageing infrastructure, increasing costs of fossil fuels and uncertainty about carbon pricing – none of which involved support for renewable energy.

By contrast, the recent history of solar PV in Australia has demonstrated that the more it is installed, the cheaper it becomes. The cost of small grid systems dropped in price by 40 per cent last year according to the Australian PV Association and we can expect to see a similar trajectory with large scale solar as installations begin here.

But perhaps more interesting than the survey figures were the over 4,000 comments we recorded when the conversations switched to general discussion.

Madge, an 82 year old woman from Townsville interrupted her daytime TV to speak with us. After being reassured that building more renewable energy won’t mean giving up her air conditioning, she told us “Well of course I want solar, I’m a Queenslander!”

David, in Dulwich Hill, Sydney, exclaimed “I can’t understand why we aren’t just using the sun and the wind. It’s just common sense.”

Indeed, the common sense we heard directly from thousands of Australians was the most valuable discovery of the conversations and “just get on with it!” was the sentiment we heard the most.

Common sense isn’t generally associated with government decision making and nor is it readily apparent in the din of vested interests bellowing at the government through the headlines.

So if the government wants to introduce some of this common sense into its carbon pricing package, how would they go about it?

Julie from Tasmania expressed it well when she told us “Tax big polluters. Use the profits of the tax to fund research for renewable energy. Make substantial change and jobs and investment will come.”

The plan to price carbon pollution has been a difficult sell for the government but if they could tap into people’s attraction to renewable energy and deliver significant new funding for research and commercialisation, they could find their plan much more popular than it currently is.

And that kind of leadership would be applauded by the likes of Paul in Orange, NSW: “Australia should be a world leader in renewable energy. Instead we lag behind the rest of the world.”

The final word should go to Dot, a 92 year old woman from Campbell’s Creek in Victoria.

“Go ahead with renewable energy. God gave us a brain and it’s up to us to use it. There has been enough talk.”

You wouldn’t have thought it was rocket science.

 

Andrew Bray is an organiser for the 100% Renewable Energy campaign.

Publisher: Yarra Climate Action Now on Jun 30, 2011