There is good news and bad for Australia’s nascent renewable energy industry. Listed companies in the sector are significantly outperforming the rest of the ASX, but renewables are still a tiny fraction of the total and coal production and exports continue to rise.
But Telstra, which likes to back a winner, has now entered the game. It has announcing a new energy efficiency team, with a special focus on solar energy and battery technology.
Some interesting numbers have come out in the last few days. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ annual energy report shows that Australia’s energy use is going down. At least it did from 2013 to 2014 – the data is unfortunately 12 months old. And as a proportion of that total renewables are growing, but are still at a minuscule 2 percent – and that includes hydroelectricity.
Australia is experiencing what the ABS calls ‘energy decoupling’, which occurs when the rate of change of energy use is lower than the rate of change of economic activity. In other words, changes in energy usage are occurring for reasons other than changes in the economy.
The data, contained in the latest ABS Energy Account Australia (EAA), shows a slight decrease in Australia’s total energy use, from 21,700 Petajoules in 2012-13 to 21,000 PJ in 2013-14. Of this, households accounted for just 1,057 PJ, around 5 percent of the total. Household energy consumption includes the use of private motor vehicles.
But more than three-quarters of Australia’s energy production is exported, mostly in the form of coal. That means household energy use is significant – they consume about the same as the manufacturing industry, and nearly twice as much as the transport industry. And households use nearly three quarters of Australia’s petrol.
The ABS says that one of the reasons for lower household consumption is increased use of solar energy through photovoltaic roof panels, but the numbers show they are a very small proportion of the total – still only around 2 percent of household energy use.
Total household energy consumption declined, even though Australia’s population increased. And because of the rising proportion of single person households, the total number of households increased at a higher rate than the population. Overall, usage of renewable energy in households is increasing at 5 per cent a year, even as energy usage overall is declining.
The numbers are generally positive for Australia’s renewable energy industry, which has been hit hard in recent years by the Abbott Government’s active hostility. Things have changed since Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister, though that is not yet reflected in the statistics.
One interesting sign on the energy front is Telstra’s announcement that it is setting up an energy efficiency project team, to be headed by Ben Burge, former CEO of renewable energy retailer Powershop.
“As a company with a large portfolio of physical infrastructure across Australia, we see some real opportunities to use technology to become more efficient at managing our energy use,” says Cynthia Whelan, Telstra’s Group Executive for International and New Business.
“Solar energy and improvements in battery technology will be an area of particular focus, and we are looking at potential partnerships with energy and technology companies as well as our enterprise customers.
“The home is another area where technology is creating opportunities in the energy sector. Telstra connects more Australians to the things they love and enjoy than anyone else, and the number and diversity of things to connect is rapidly increasing.” She says the growth of energy related devices in the connected home means that Telstra has an opportunity to help its customers monitor and manage their energy usage.
One set of more recent numbers that does show how sentiment is changing in Australia’s renewables sector is the monthly Australian CleanTech (ACT) Index, which measures the performance of 62 renewable and energy efficiency stocks on the ASX. In January, a disastrous month for the ASX, the ACT Index recorded a 3.6 percent loss, much less than the market as a whole. For the last financial year, the ACT Index gained 16.6 percent, while the ASX lost 2.8 percent.
There remains massive uncertainty around renewable energy in Australia. No new wind energy projects have been announced since Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey declared war on them, and the current government is still full of climate change denialists.
Coal production (up 8 percent) and exports (up 12 percent) are still increasing significantly. That is where the action is – we are a long way from renewables replacing coal. Coal exports last year were worth $40 billion.
All the signs are pointing towards a bright future for renewable energy in Australia. But coal is not going away any time soon.