I started my career as an engineer, but ended up in a consultancy, working on the equator principles. These were a set of principles that the banks signed up to to help them make decisions on what were good investments and what weren’t, from a social and environmental point of view. I got to assess a coal-fired power station and basically delivered a report to one of the big four Australian banks which said, “You shouldn’t do this,” and received a strong response back from them saying it wasn’t right, that I shouldn’t be making such a strong assessment—and yet it was based on the principles that they’d signed up to.
It was around that point that I really started thinking about what’s right and wrong in the world. I was seeing in my professional life people not accepting their moral and social responsibilities. At the same time, my wife and I were reading David Suzuki’s book, Good News For A Change: How Everyday People are Helping the Planet, which was charting all the really positive things being done globally. So all of this came together in my head and I realised I couldn’t keep working with non-renewables. I couldn’t work in that environment. I suppose the light bulb moment was around David Suzuki’s message of what’s possible—that you can change the world by the way you do business. So I left that job and joined Pacific Hydro. I basically transitioned my career into sustainable activity.
At the time, Pacific Hydro was owned by the industry super funds—CBUS, Australian Super and HESTA were the big ones. The idea was to take Australian super capital and invest it into clean energy. I was involved in the construction of wind farms, which met some resistance. When you put large infrastructure into a regional or rural area that’s highly visible, you’re going to create a reaction. I think that’s fair comment. A lot of people who go to live in rural, regional areas do it because they want to get away from infrastructure or industry, and want to live peacefully on beautiful green land. But it means you have these forces getting in the way of new renewables such as wind farms—forces that create a sense of trepidation by propagating falsehoods. They take a kernel of possible truth and expand it beyond belief. I remember reading an article literally saying that wind farms chop up birds and that birds explode when they get near the spinning blades. The lies that come out of there are just bizarre. But the one that has probably been most effective with local communities is that wind farms will make you ill. Pacific Hydro, back when I was there, really took that on front and centre. We worked with a community who was against a wind farm that was already there and operating. We got an acoustician of their choice and let them choose exactly what they would measure and not measure and didn’t get in the way of anything. At the end of the day the report came up with nothing. But people still didn’t accept it.
These days, I work with solar a lot in my position as head of renewables at Impact Investment Group. We’ve recently built solar farms near airports in Canberra and Karratha. Impact investing is where you create investment opportunities that are commercially based, which means reasonable returns, but you’re only doing it where there’s a positive social and environmental benefit as well. So we’re trying to provide something positive that’s also good for your bank balance. Renewables are an obvious choice for investment for a number of reasons. On the economic front, they’re often regionally or rural based so there’s economic activity that comes in new skills and jobs. On the social side, it’s obviously providing clean energy, so it’s benefiting the health and wellbeing of people who live around current fossil fuel infrastructure. The more renewable energy we create, the less coal we have to burn.
While we try to dwell on the positives, there are real risks if we don’t invest in renewables. On the macro level, Australia has signed up to the Paris Agreement, which aims to limit climate change to 1.5-2° of warming. So we need to set some post-2020 policies that actually meet the requirements of what we agreed to. The risk is that we end up with a very carbon-intensive economy while everybody else has moved away from it. Australia is one of the highest carbon emitters per person in the world, but what doesn’t often get talked about is that we are also one of the highest carbon emitters per unit of energy used. So, if there’s an impost on carbon internationally we’re going to be very inefficient and have to transition very quickly. That puts us in economic peril.
At a micro level, here at the Impact Investment Group, we are trying to invest in new clean energy infrastructure. Unfortunately there is a lot of market uncertainty, because we don’t have emission reduction policies post-2020, making it very difficult for investors. Policy uncertainty is also inefficient, resulting in higher costs to transition to clean energy, a cost which is ultimately bourn by the consumer. This is happening already with prices climbing across the country, impacting everyone—whether you’re an industrial user, small businesses or household.
The demise of coal is obvious and certain. So it’s just perplexing why we’re still debating it. Where does it stem from? Incumbent businesses have a power that is often unexpected. You could see, for example, when the Hazelwood Power Station was closed how much fuss there was about those jobs. I understand the pain and the nervousness and all that. But at the same token, if you look at when Tony Abbott came into power there was something between four and five thousand jobs lost in the renewable energy sector over 12 months. And there was not a boo a about that. The unbalanced reporting by some media outlets that have a bias towards fossil fuel energy can annoy me greatly. When I see unfair reporting, it just makes me work harder.
You often hear politicians say we built the economic power of this country on the back of coal-fired power stations and mining. But those days are gone because renewables are now cheaper. And I struggle with the fact that we all know coal-fired power is not only producing emissions that are powering climate change, but it’s also imposing a health impact on the community. If you do the numbers based on US data—because no one has done them here—somewhere between three and five thousand people die early because of coal-fired generation in Australia. But you’d never hear that said. More people die from vehicle pollution than they do from road accidents. But you don’t hear that as well. It’s something we just accept.
I think that in 20 years’ time our children and our grandchildren are going to look at us and say, “What did you think you were doing? You knew what was happening and you didn’t transition quickly enough.” Either they’ll be saying, “Our environment is terrible, our weather is terrible, we’re struggling through this” or, “You caused a massive economic impost on us as a generation”—or both. I don’t want my children looking at me and saying, “You didn’t do anything.” My wife Fiona and I have talked a lot about how we see the future evolving if we don’t do something about reducing emissions and climate change. We spend a great deal of our time working towards a future, both in our work and the way we live, that will be better for our children.
The good news is that renewables are getting so cheap. They’re becoming so cost-effective that it almost doesn’t matter now that governments aren’t leading on this. It’s going to happen anyway, it’s just not going to happen as quickly as it could or should. But it’s absolutely inevitable. Investors are getting behind it, businesses are getting behind it. Look at the Business Council of Australia today. They’re now advocating for some form of price on carbon or a clean energy target. That council is kind of the last bastion of resistance. So it’s an exciting time. We have so many opportunities to create a future for ourselves which is cleaner, safer and healthier. And it’s great to be part of this change. Working in an industry which creates jobs and regional investment while reducing our impact on the world feels really rewarding.