Leading the transition
The movement includes the country’s biggest coal power generator, AGL, which has outlined its vision for life without its main fuel source, and corporate giants such as telecoms carrier Telstra, airline Qantas and software star Atlassian.
AGL chief executive Brett Redman says the energy company is one of Australia’s largest private investors in renewable energy.
“I believe in the science of climate change and we are listening to the concerns of our investors and customers,” he says.
Redman says AGL is a leader in the transition to a low emissions energy future and is working to reduce emissions over time from its thermal fleet.
“We believe Australia will become a sustainable energy global powerhouse with our abundant renewable energy resources, the right investment in technology, the grid and in our homes,” he says.
AGL survived a push by shareholder groups last year which demanded its close its coal-fired power plants two decades earlier than currently planned in 2050.
The company plans to close the coal-fired Liddell power plant in 2023, despite repeated government objections.
AGL has a $1.9 billion development pipeline which includes, wind, solar, hydro, gas, battery storage and improvements to the efficiency of its existing thermal generation.
The energy giant has a further $2 billion worth of projects in the pipeline across the National Electricity Market.
It would be easy to say we cannot fix this, but we will not shy away from our responsibility to reduce our environmental footprint.
Telstra chief executive, Andy Penn
It has partnered with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency on a number of initiatives including a virtual power plant, a grid-scale battery, a demand response trial and a peer-to-peer distributed ledger technology assessment and others.
AGL also led a world-first pilot project in the La Trobe Valley to convert brown coal to liquid hydrogen which the energy company describes as a clean energy solution with the potential to reduce carbon emissions.
Telstra chief executive Andy Penn says the telco has been actively managing its climate change impact for several years and is seeing “good progress” against its targets with emissions intensity down 50 per cent on 2017.
“We know what is at stake if the global community doesn’t act on climate change,” Penn says. “We have seen firsthand how changing weather patterns are affecting our customers and our infrastructure.”
Penn says Telstra has invested $61 million since 2011 in improving its energy efficiency by deploying smart energy meters, optimising heating and cooling systems, and improving lighting and fans.
“But there is more we can and should be doing,” he says.
Penn says the telco is seeing increased demand for capacity, coverage and faster speeds, which puts pressure on its greenhouse gas emissions.
“It would be easy to say we cannot fix this, but we will not shy away from our responsibility to reduce our environmental footprint,” he says.
The telco has committed to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement and, when its carbon emission targets expire this year Penn says Telstra will put “tougher and harder” targets in place to get closer to this.
A big responsibility
Heavy carbon emitters such as Qantas are also investing in initiatives to help cut emissions.
Qantas’ total emissions in the last financial year hit 12.4 million tonnes. The airline is working to double the number of flights offset by its flyers by matching every dollar spent by customers who tick the box to fly carbon neutral and awarding frequent flyer and business rewards customers with points for offsetting.
A spokesman for Qantas says the airline has committed $50 million over the next ten years to help develop a sustainable aviation fuel industry.
“We recognise that airlines have a responsibility to cut emissions and combat climate change,” he says. “We’ve already made some good progress, especially by investing in newer aircraft that have a much smaller carbon footprint. We’re effectively doubling our carbon offsetting program and we’re capping our net emissions across Qantas and Jetstar from 2020 so that all new flying will be carbon neutral.”
UK-based energy giant company BP is championing emissions trading schemes and its alternative energy business.
“We know that the world needs more energy with fewer emissions and we have a number of strategic projects underway to help advance the energy transition – working to reduce our carbon footprint, improve our products and create low carbon businesses,” a spokesperson for BP says.
“In Australia we are working hard on our low carbon goals via alternative energy solutions, technology and as a gas producer.”
BP’s solar business, Lightsource BP, has about 800 megawatts of power production at various stages of development in Australia with the potential for solar to generate 12 per cent of total global power by 2040.
Construction of BP’s first Australian project, The Wellington Solar Farm, started in December 2019.
“We are also progressing local investment in carbon capture use and storage (CCUS), building on Australia’s deep expertise in CCUS technology,” the spokesperson says.
We are the lucky country, but there is a lot of money tied up in the old system.
“We believe CCUS has a vital role to play in meeting the objectives of the Paris Agreement. It can achieve deep emissions reductions in existing power infrastructure and energy-intensive industries that rely on the use of fossil fuels.”
The spokesperson for BP says the miner is also “actively exploring” opportunities in Australia’s hydrogen energy value chain which is “a work in progress”.
Holding to account
The push comes after some business leaders expressed frustration with the government’s failure to back green technology including billionaire tech entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes who has been outspoken on the need for businesses to take action.
The Atlassian co-founder this week criticised the influential lobby group the Business Council of Australia for opposing further cuts to emissions targets as “economy wrecking.”
And Paul Bassat, a respected technology investor, co-founder of employment website Seek and AFL board director pleaded with the government to take more action on climate. He described the recent bushfires as a ‘Port Arthur’ moment, referring to the 1996 massacre that prompted the then Howard government to drastically tighten gun laws.
Atlassian has committed to net zero emissions by 2050 and Cannon-Brookes is an early backer of several green technology investments including $20 billion solar project Sun Cable.
“It’s a huge project on a world scale,” he says of his investment in Sun Cable. “It’s not just big on an Australian scale, it’s big on a world scale. If we get this done it will be innovative on a global level for years to come and it is a massive potential export market for Australia.”
Last year, Cannon-Brookes outlined how the business can lead on climate.
“We believe that companies like ours have a responsibility to act on climate,” Cannon-Brookes said at a renewables event held at Atlassian. “We can’t criticise from the sidelines, without holding ourselves to account at the same time.”
‘Atrocious’ on clean energy
Despite the progress being made by big businesses, clean energy startup founders say Australia’s attitude to their sector remains “atrocious”.
“The conversation that is this polemic approach, that we’re doing ‘everything or nothing’ [on emissions reduction] doesn’t make any sense,” says chief executive of Redgrid, Dr Adam Bumpus.
Redgrid raised $825,000 through equity crowdfunding last year to build the “internet of energy”. The startup has developed software to allow existing electronic devices to talk to each other, allowing communities to build “mini grids” where devices can communicate to more efficiently manage power use, including allowing them to turn on or off or redistribute energy to where it’s needed.
Bumpus says the startup is preparing to roll out its systems nationally this year, and after an approach by global venture capitalists, expects more interest from investors this year.
He says while there are plenty of startups working on simple clean technology ideas, it is frustrating that politicians and policymakers aren’t talking to Australian consumers about a transition to clean energy in a simple, actionable way.
“The level of the conversation just blows my mind. It should be, ‘here are the small steps you can do, to make things better’.”
More support needed
South Australian-based Powerdiverter is one startup working to harness renewable energy better and use less energy overall.
Powerdiverter expands ‘solar diversion’ technology with devices which attach to hot water systems so that households with solar power can maximise excess energy and get free hot water.
Run by UK founder Daniel Lawson and business development manager Tyler Jackman, the company, which has sold $2.8 million worth of units here and overseas, is now turning its mind to manufacturing in Australia.
Jackman says Powerdiverter is well-placed to be a key piece of the global transition to clean energy, however it’s clear Australia is still focused on traditional energy industry.
“We are the lucky country, but there is a lot of money tied up in the old system,” he says.
Jackman says overseas growth may be a better solution for the startup.
“We’re starting to recognise we have a huge opportunity to export,” he says.
Clean energy finance corporation senior investments associate Zoe Parkin says more support is needed for businesses developing clean technology.
“Current initiatives such as the Clean Energy Innovation Fund have been really effective in increasing the amount of investment in the clean tech space,” she says. “As the number of viable clean tech ventures continues to grow, any further incentives to attract capital to the clean tech sector will go a long way to supporting more growth across the industry.”
Parkin says early-stage incubator and accelerator programs, such as the ones provided by EnergyLab and supported by the CEFC, are critical for the clean tech industry in order to bridge that first funding gap between concept and commercialisation.
“We have a strong education system in Australia when it comes to energy science and I think we have the capacity to be a leader in a lot more areas of clean tech in the future,” she says.
Cara is the small business editor for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald based in Melbourne
Emma is the small business reporter for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald based in Melbourne.