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Renewable security linkages

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COMMENTS

21 August 2009 13:25

The Australian Government’s new renewable energy bill mandates that twenty percent of Australian domestic electricity must be drawn from renewable sources by 2020. Whatever environmental benefit, the bill’s passage is a timely event to reconsider the opportunities Australia can derive from linking renewable energy, security and foreign policy, especially in regard to fragile states.

Erecting wind turbines – Province Nord, New Caledonia, 2007.

Provision of reliable energy outside urban centres in many countries is terribly problematic. Even in capitals such as Baghdad, locals can bank on only a few hours of electricity supply per day – worse now than the average of 10-12 hours when I was there in 2006. One can only imagine what it's like in rural areas.

Transmission is one of the main challenges, particularly in the incredibly rugged, remote or archipelagic topographies of places like Papua New Guinea (where only three percent of roads are sealed), Afghanistan (where only ten percent of the population have access to electricity) and Indonesia (with over 221 million people and over 17,000 islands). 

These challenges are compounded where there is little in the way of indigenous energy sources – like virtually all of the Pacific island states. The Cook Islands, for instance, are about ninety percent dependent on imported refined petroleum fuels. (Surfing the Renewable Energy & Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP) website is a great way of reinforcing how comparatively vulnerable countries like Australia aren’t in terms of energy security.)

Physical security and legitimacy of local governance also link with energy security in developing states. Where local or tribal leaders are part of energy provision to communities, this provides a reciprocally supporting arrangement. National or state-owned 'macro-grid' solutions for energy provision are already hobbled by the topography, bureaucratic incapacity and lack of investment capital, but can also weaken the social contract between local leaders and the people who look to them. 

By contrast, locally provided energy can reinforce key local polities and garner buy-in from the populace to guard such 'micro-grid' generators, whether from insurgents or natural effects. Local energy generation systems also provide redundancy and community resilience against catastrophic power failure from larger grids with fewer power sources.

Renewable energy has advantages in such circumstances — it is often small scale, modular and relative simple. Granted, renewables also have drawbacks — difficulty in technology transfer and relatively high unit cost (as noted here) — but these are surmountable through well-targeted policy. Australia’s government — and the industry itself — is as of yesterday in a strong position to reconsider its development assistance strategies towards renewable and sustainable energy.

Such a change of direction has clear advantages, many of which were recommendations from the recent Lowy Institute Pacific Islands and the World Conference:

  • The vulnerability and energy dependency of Pacific states on imported fossil fuels is reduced, enhancing state viability.
  • Multi-sector (ie. government, business and civil society) partnerships are encouraged through support for microcredit initiatives.
  • Positive elements of traditional society and leadership are strengthened.
  • Australian renewable energy industry diversity and depth is increased through research and development, technology investment and supply. 
  • Development partner societies become more resilient, thereby reducing likelihood or need for future direct Australian intervention.

Oh, by the way – the planet might just benefit as well.

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