Q&A With Christopher Wright on the Reinvention of Renewable Energy

SEI talks to Christopher Wright about the potential and challenges for a sustainable energy future in Australia.

Image: Rooftop solar panels in Sydney, Australia via Shutterstock, Stock photo ID: 233491468

What will a global shift to renewable energy entail?

There is a range of exciting developments taking place in the renewable energy space. These include the ongoing reduction in the costs of renewable energy generation such as solar photovoltaic and wind as well as innovations in tidal and wave power generation. Recent advances in the last year or so are innovations in battery storage and the ramping up of industrial scale battery storage production, as evidenced by Tesla’s construction of the Gigafactory in the Nevada desert. Even established energy companies, like Australia’s AGL, are now aware of the rapid shifts that are occurring in renewable energy technologies and have established their own business units to lease solar PV and battery storage to consumers.

Is there large scale renewable energy transformations currently occurring in the global energy market?

If you want to look for a model of renewable energy transformation China is a good place to start. As Professor John Mathews (a keynote speaker at the Renewable Reinvention Sydney Ideas) has documented in his recent book Global green shift: when Ceres meets Gaia, China has emerged as the world’s renewable energy powerhouse, leading the world in solar and wind energy investment. These investments are occurring at a pace and scale that dwarf Western economies. However, there are also other examples globally we can point to such as Germany’s Energiewende, which is transforming energy production in Europe particularly via wind energy and the movement towards community owned energy production, as well as new start-up companies like Sungevity in California’s Silicon Valley that are revolutionising how consumers access energy.

How do we move past the political battles over energy and climate, to allow for a shift towards renewable energy?

This is a tough one. On the one hand, technological innovations mean the cost of renewable energy is dropping all the time and solar and wind energy are now often price competitive, or even cheaper than established coal-fired electricity generation. New technologies like battery storage and smart grids mean we can move away from centralised, rigid baseload models towards more distributed, community-based models of power generation and consumption. However, just as fossil-fuel based energy has evolved over a century or more through government-based subsidies and investment, renewable energy requires state involvement via economic incentives and constructive policy if it is to supplant the established model. The current political battles over energy are really about Twentieth-Century models of energy generation and distribution seeking to fight against the inevitable tide of technological and market innovations that define the Twenty First Century energy systems.

What is the potential for a renewable reinvention and the transition from fossil fuels to renewables in Australia and do you see our government seriously embracing decarbonisation in the near future?

As we have seen in Australia, this is now a key political battleground and established fossil-fuel interests and their political allies are fighting a die-hard battle to push back against this tide. We’ve seen this in the repeal of carbon pricing and the clean energy legislation in 2014 and the ongoing battle to weaken or even do away with the Renewable Energy Target. Against this however, it is clear that most Australian consumers like renewable energy (for instance, Australia has the highest per capita uptake of solar PV in the world), and with innovations like battery storage there is the potential to shift energy from a centralised, rigid service to something that every citizen can play a part in contributing to. This is potentially a more democratic outcome.

The topic of a Renewable Reinvention and what a renewable energy future might look like will be explored further at the public seminer Renewable Reinvention – Global Green Shift, presented by the Sydney Environment Insitute and Sydney Ideas. For details, and to register, click here.

Christopher Wright is Professor of Organisational Studies and leader of the Balanced Enterprise Research Network at the University of Sydney Business School. His research focuses on the diffusion of management knowledge, consultancy and organisational change. His current research explores organizational and societal responses to climate change, with particular reference to how managers and business organizations interpret and respond to the climate crisis. He has published on this topic in relation to issues of corporate citizenship, emotionology, organizational justification and compromise, risk, identity and future imaginings.