News & Media Opinion Pieces Clean Energy For Eternity and Matthew Nott

Clean Energy For Eternity and Matthew Nott

Clean Energy For Eternity is a project run by community groups and initiated by surgeon Matthew Nott. His story which follows, is inspirational and is a model that could be applied to many rural and regional communities around Australia. I urge you to look at the web site — Editor

I am an orthopaedic surgeon, based in Bega on the Far South Coast of NSW. The Bega District Hospital attempts to provide a trauma and elective orthopaedic service to South East NSW, covering a population of 100 000 people. The service is growing. We now have three orthopaedic surgeons; there are plans for a new regional hospital, and a new private hospital is in the planning stages. As it is for most rural surgeons, life is extremely busy. Three years ago, I decided to make my life a whole lot busier by starting a community campaign looking at regional solutions to climate change. Why on earth would I want to take on such a big task?

Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers was the catalyst. It sets out a convincing argument, demonstrating the catastrophic environmental cost of human induced climate change. After reading his book in 2006, I decided to read whatever I could get my hands on regarding climate change. I read what the sceptics and deniers had to say. I read what the politicians, the economists and scientists were saying, and a clear pattern emerged.

There is some uncertainty in the science of climate change. If the planet is warming, why was 1998 (according to the Hadley Institute) the hottest year ever recorded (or 2005 according to NASA). Are we in fact starting to see a cooling trend since 1998? Sea levels may be rising, but they have risen before. Sea level has been 30 meters higher than current levels, so who cares if sea levels are rising? The polar ice caps may be melting, but some say that Europe is cooling…how do you explain that? Although Australia is facing its driest period ever, the Federation drought in the early 1900’s was almost as dry. It wasn’t as hot or as long as the current drought, but maybe the current drought is just part of a natural variation. If you are sceptical about climate change, then it is these uncertainties that you will focus on. What you are unlikely to dwell on is atmospheric concentrations of CO2.

Climate change presents a pretty straightforward equation. Atmospheric CO2 is increasing at a rate of 2ppm a year. At that rate, CO2 may be 4 or 5 times higher than it has been for the last 400,000 years by the end of the century. A climate change sceptic is going to have a hard time demonstrating that a rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 will have no impact on my grandchildren. The alarming fact is that the rate of increase of CO2 is increasing. By the end of this century, there may be 40% more people on the planet than there were at the start. Each of those people will be consuming more energy, and producing more CO2. Given those facts, it would seem sensible, rather than alarmist, to at least consider the worst case scenario. No matter what criteria you look at, whether it be rising sea level, melting ice caps, rising atmospheric CO2, or global temperature, the planet is heading towards worst case scenario International Panel Climate Change predictions. I am written off as alarmist by several of my colleagues, but the science of climate change is pretty bloody alarming!

The other side of the climate change equation, and the reason why I, as a rural surgeon, became involved is that solutions to climate change present rural communities with enormous opportunity. In SE NSW, our two biggest industries are tourism and agriculture. Both are set to struggle under the dual impact of climate change and rising petrol prices. The global economic crisis puts our regional economy under further stress. Now is the time to be looking at attracting new business to our part of the world. What better business than renewable energy, which is set to become one of the fastest growing industries the planet has ever seen. Attracting renewable energy business to our part of the world will provide our region with jobs, investment opportunity and attract tourists. How could the most strident climate change denier oppose these sorts of changes? How could an orthopaedic surgeon help attract renewable energy business to SE NSW?

Step one in developing SE NSW as a centre of excellence for renewable energy is to call yourself a centre of excellence.

In 2006, I managed to convince 3000 people to stand in neat lines on Tathra Beach to form the human sign “Clean Energy For Eternity”. 10% of the shire turned up for the day, and Tathra doubled its population for a few hours. Out of that day the community group Clean Energy For Eternity was formed. Since then we have been involved in more than 50 human signs across SE NSW, Canberra and Sydney, and our community group has expanded to now include groups right across that region. Since 2006 we have been working on three community based projects to take action on climate change. The first is our 50/50 by 2020 target, the second is “LifeSaving Energy”, and the third is to build Australia’s largest community owned solar farm in the Bega Valley.

The 50/50 by 2020 target is a 50% reduction in the consumption of energy, and a 50% production of energy from renewable sources, by the year 2020. It started off as a bit of symbolism, but looking at the emerging science of climate change, I would say that our target is bang on. That target has been adopted by the Bega Valley, Eurobodalla, and Snowy-River shires, and the Cooma-Monaro and Palerang shires are considering joining. There has been strong interest from Manly and Mosman in Sydney, opening up some exciting possibilities for rural/urban partnerships. The target has been adopted by the entire electorate of Eden Monaro at a Federal level. The fact that we have set a challenging target is already starting to attract renewable energy business to our region.

LifeSaving Energy is a project run by Clean Enenrgy For Eternity to help community groups get set up with renewable energy. So far we have managed to get 5 surf clubs set up with solar panels, solar hot water and wind turbines. We have made the money by running a LifeSaving Energy Big Swim series around SE NSW, which with local government support, has allowed us to install about $250 000 worth of renewable energy infrastructure onto the roof tops of surf clubs. We have money to get a further two surf clubs set up with renewables, and money for wind turbines for two public schools in the region. We are also set to install solar panels on a local church. In 2009, we aim to focus on getting rural fire stations set up with renewable energy. Of course, these community installations of renewable energy make no difference to the big picture. They do however allow us to demonstrate that renewable energy technology is ready to go right now. It is changing attitudes as these grid connected installations start to save money for community organisations. I allows us to start talking seriously about the big picture stuff, and for us, it is community owned power stations that could start making a big difference.

In November 2007 Clean Energy For Eternity was given a grant from the Federal Government of $100 000 to look into the feasibility of a community solar station in the Bega Valley. That study will be completed by April 2009, and if feasible, we will qualify for a further $1 million in federal government funding to proceed with the project. To build Australia’s largest community solar farm will cost about $8 million, so we will have a long way to go, but plan to have the solar farm completed by 2010. We aim to build a 2 mW solar farm that will cover about 20 hectares, and will provide enough power to look after about half of Bega’s electricity needs. We then want to set up a replicable model for a community owned power station, and export that model right across our region, setting a solid platform for meeting our regions 50/50 by 2020 target. The only way it will work is if investors make money out of the scheme, and the only way that will happen is if a national feed-in tariff is introduced. A feed-in tariff is a direct Government incentives for people to invest in renewable energy.

SE NSW will suffer as a result of the impacts of climate change, peak oil and a global recession. Clean coal technology and nuclear energy will not help our regional economy. The smart thing for our region to embrace is renewable energy business, whether or not you are worried about a steady and accelerating rise in levels of atmospheric CO2. Can an individual, group, or region make a difference to a global problem? One way or another, SE NSW will be answering that question sometime in the future.

Matthew Nott