By Wilson da Silva
SYDNEY – The Australian government has abolished the country’s energy research funding agency and slashed by half a national energy efficiency program in a move that critics say is an abandonment of alternative and renewable energy policy.
Tucked away in its second budget since coming to office was a measure by the conservative Liberal-National coalition of Prime Minister John Howard to close down the Energy Research and Development Corporation (ERDC). The measure was not announced officially and has only come to light following protests by the Australian research community.
Created by the former Labor government, the ERDC had been spending about US$8.6 million a year investing directly in innovation projects from concept to commercialization, ranging from traditional energy and storage sources to alternative and renewable energies such as solar, wind and fuel cells. The move follows a halving of the ERDC allocation in last year’s budget.
Researchers fear that the same scenario is now set for the National Energy Efficiency Program, which was cut by US$2 million in this month’s budget, representing half its annual income. Funding for coal research, handled by a separate agency, has continued.
In comparison, Japan has recently tripled its budget to US$95 million in solar power alone.
Australia has an electricity generating capacity of 37,200 megawatts and produces an annual 157,000-gigawatt hours. Coal–fired power stations provide about 80 per cent of the country’s electricity needs, with hydroelectric dams and gas supplying 11 and 9 per cent, respectively.
The country had been seen as a leader in alternative and renewable energies since the 1970’s. It is the fourth largest manufacturer of solar cells and the biggest exporter of solar–powered water heaters. Researchers estimate that the abandonment of energy funding will see 2,000 jobs lost and imperil a nascent industry that has only recently started to pay dividends for the country.
In comparison, Japan has recently tripled its budget to US$95 million in solar power alone, while Germany has boosted research to US$41.2 million. The United States continues to operate a strong program between industry, government and academia, with US$105 million a year coming from federal government funding.
Commentators in Australia say that alternative and renewable and energies had been seen as a “Labor pet project” by the new government, even though only between $2 and $3 million of the ERDC’s funding was ever directed to such research. Before losing office in March 1996, Labor had foreshadowed the development of a White Paper on a national sustainable energy policy by June of that year.
The budget decision comes at a time when the Howard government is lobbying Germany, the United States and Japan for Australia to be exempted from greenhouse gas reduction targets to be passed at an international meeting in Kyoto, Japan, in December this year.
“The budget decision undermines the Australian position at Kyoto,” Dr. Andrew Blakers, chief of a leading solar power research program at the Australian National University in Canberra, told The American Reporter. “Groups like Greenpeace will loudly draw attention to this fact and accuse the Australian delegation of hypocrisy.”
Wilson da Silva is a freelance journalist based in Sydney, Australia