Many Australians not convinced renewables can replace fossil fuels

Major new study finds public support for renewables at risk without better communication about their ability to replace fossil fuels.

Governments and industry still have serious work to do to get the Australian public all the way behind the shift to renewable energy, with a major new report revealing major gaps in education and engagement still loom as key barriers to a smooth transition.

The report, conducted by Essential Research for Australian renewables gentailer Zen Energy, is based on a 12-month study of community opinions, values and motivations currently affecting the country’s shift from coal and gas-fired electricity to renewable power.

Zen says it commissioned the research to understand “why doubt and opposition emerges and 
sticks to something inherently good for people and the planet;” an insight the company says is vital to its success as a renewable energy developer.

Just last week, Zen – which specialises in supplying cheap renewable energy to industry and business – broke ground on its first big battery project, the 138MW/330MWh Templers BESS being developed near Gawler in South Australia.

It has also unveiled plans to develop a 1GW pumped hydro project to supply up to eight hours of “firmed” renewable energy to the New South Wales grid as it transitions away from fossil fuels.

“A successful transition to powering the nation with clean, renewable energy depends on all Australians understanding and supporting what’s required and how to get there,” Zen says in a white paper released alongside the study.

What the survey found, however, were warning signs that public support is at risk if communication to communities about the ability of renewable technologies to replace fossil fuel generation isn’t consistent or reinforced over time.

According to the polling, a majority of 1,100 people surveyed weekly over the 12-month period don’t believe that renewable energy technology is advanced enough to fully replace fossil fuels.

As the chart below shows, this was one of two main reasons people gave when asked why the country’s energy transition is facing difficulties, alongside the belief that governments haven’t provided enough leadership.

According to the research, the belief that there have been insufficient renewables advancements to transition from fossil fuels was most widely held by Coalition voters (31%), while 24% believe the necessary infrastructure isn’t in place, which is the top reason among Labor voters (29%).

This is perhaps not entirely surprising, consider the the federal Coalition’s current campaign painting renewables as “reckless” and unreliable and pitching nuclear power as the best replacement for fossil fuels.

Achievements such as South Australia’s 75 per cent share of wind and solar over the last year, and its target of 100 per cent net renewables by 2030 get little mention in mainstream media.

Messaging from the Nationals, in particular, has been relentlessly anti-renewable, with senior MP Barnaby Joyce variously describingrenewables as a “swindle,” wind farms as “filth” and solar farms as “industrial factories.”

Just last week, Sky News reported that Joyce, the federal member for New England in regional New South Wales, has boycotted RM Williams boots in protest against the brand’s owner, Andrew Forrest, building “swindle machines” – Joyce’s latest name for wind farms – in the state.

Still, it is a concern that this sort of blatant anti-renewables messaging might be winning out over the reams of high level research and major reports showing firmed solar and wind can indeed replace fossil fuels on Australia’s grid, and do it more cheaply with significant economic and environmental benefits.

“People are vulnerable to negative, oppositional messaging, particularly in regional Australia where the greatest benefits of the transition can and will be realised,” Zen says in the This is Transition white paper.

“[They] are… looking to government, rather than the private sector, to drive the transition, remind them why it is necessary, inform them of the facts about the ability of renewables to replace coal and gas and drive down electricity prices.”

More encouragingly, the research found that 57% of Australians believe the main benefits of the renewable energy transition will be meaningful action on climate change, lower energy costs and new career opportunities, while only 17% do not believe there will be any economic benefits

Further, 54% of Australians, and 61% of young Australians – 18-34 years – believe meeting national climate commitments by transitioning to renewables should be prioritised over local community concerns about project development.

That said, the survey also found that those who think reaching targets on renewables should remain the priority still point out the importance of meaningful community engagement.

And this appears to have been lacking, with a majority of respondents saying community consultation is mostly “tokenistic,” when genuine partnership is what’s expected. A total of 53% of respondents want renewable energy developers to collaborate with and involve them in decision-making.

ZEN Energy CEO Anthony Garnaut says the findings of the This is Transition report reinforce the challenges individual renewable projects are having and highlights the need for consistent leadership from industry and government.

“This research demonstrates that people don’t view the transition in isolation or on a project-by-project basis. It reinforces Zen’s focus on solutions that will secure a healthy, safe future for all,” he said.

“The findings show Australians have consultation fatigue and only genuine partnerships will earn a project a social licence. 

“Zen understands this is a transition that cannot afford to fail. We encourage all developers to engage early, involve people in decision-making and co-design of projects.”

The report says what communities want in return for their acceptance of construction “in their backyard” is not all that complicated.

It recommends “early, proactive engagement with locals, Traditional Owners and other important stakeholders that involves people in decision-making and co-designing aspects of projects.

Further, it says that project benefits must be set aside early and allocated based on local needs. To this end, the report warns that “local needs” can no longer be predefined with cash splashed on, for example, new footy jerseys.”

“Instead, deeper systemic issues a community and the region in which it is located face, are important for developers to identify early and contribute to influencing positively,” the white paper says.

Finally, communities expect developers and governments to take their environmental concerns seriously, the study finds.

“More than twice as many people are concerned about the possible impact of new energy projects on wildlife and the natural environment than those worried about possible visual or property price impacts,” the report says.

This article was published first on RenewEconomy. You can read it here.

Sophie Vorrath
Editor, One Step Off the Grid
June 4, 2024
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