Exploiting WA’s natural advantages

27/08/2008 - 22:00


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Whether or not you are a fan of the Olympic Games, this wonderful event does highlight the competitiveness of nations, exposing what can be achieved by investment of resources and exploitation of natural advantages.

Exploiting WA’s natural advantages

Whether or not you are a fan of the Olympic Games, this wonderful event does highlight the competitiveness of nations, exposing what can be achieved by investment of resources and exploitation of natural advantages.

As I mentioned last week, there are lessons that can be learned from this for our economy. And with an election campaign under way, it's worth reminding politicians that, if they are looking for vision, they really ought to take these lessons into consideration.

I suggest a bit of vision because, at the time of writing this column, it was decidedly lacking.

Previously, this newspaper has highlighted solar energy as an opportunity for Western Australia.

With ample sunshine providing our natural advantage, solar power could play a much bigger role in our economy than it does today.

While solar water heaters have long been a feature of WA suburban roofs, little development has taken place in this field. The federal Labor government's decision to means test rebates for those seeking to invest in solar panels for energy was disappointing. The state government has responded with a new scheme to boost household use of solar power.

This is a relatively small contribution to overall energy production, and will not have a marked effect on industrial needs due to the limited availability of solar energy to the daytime.

But it is a start, helping to insulate the residential population from gas dependence for their household needs and therefore free-up supply for industrial usage.

More importantly, having an active industry might stimulate bigger developments.

Of course, governments are not always needed.

This month, a consortium headed by WorleyParsons said it was embarking on a major study to develop a series of 250-megawatt advanced solar thermal power stations across Australia, including in the Pilbara.

The study will be jointly funded by industry partners Rio Tinto, Fortescue Metals Group, BHP Billiton, Woodside, Wesfarmers, Western Power, Verve Energy, and Water Corporation.

Increasingly, big corporations are driving the vision in WA, not government. That is appropriate if, like me, you believe in the way markets work, but it's worth remembering this is not a level playing field.

In places like California and Spain, both blessed with sunshine, solar development is being boosted by government policies. That is the equivalent of racing for a gold medal, focusing on investment in areas of natural advantage.

And such policies don't have to be expensive.

I liked one suggestion, which came from the recently released Comparative Capital study released by arts think-tank FORM, based on research by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

The study compares Perth's creative resources and considers ways to improve it.

Among a host of initiatives, Comparative Capitals' authors suggested the historical carrot of a monetary prize be offered to help develop solar power in WA as one way to stimulate creative sector activity in a field aligned to our natural advantage.

"There is a long history of offering large prizes to stimulate innovation," the report says, pointing out that in 1714 the British government offered a reward for measuring a ship's longitude, then a great issue for the global and naval power

"The (WA) prize should seek a solution to a specific local issue. One potential task is the development of solar power generation technology, which is economic at large scale (greater than 100MW).

"If Western Australia can harness its exceptionally high rates of sunshine hours to provide distributed power at competitive prices, it will reduce carbon emissions, increase its international gas exports and develop a world-leading solar technology industry."

Last week, I also mentioned the role a rich and community-minded group like the RAC could perform in this respect.

The motoring organisation's members face higher fuel prices, like their peers around the world. One answer to that is to move to electric cars.

To encourage such a shift, infrastructure such as car parking bays with solar recharging facilities could be considered - even if they are merely generating power for the grid until enough cars appear to use them.

A group like the RAC, or any motoring-minded consortium, could do much to encourage this. They could import electric cars for their own fleet, provide power options and train their mechanics on this equipment.

There could even be investment in local conversion or, dare I say it, the manufacture of electric cars.

This might sound a bit far fetched, but electric cars are already being produced, notably outside Detroit, the city whose key industry is dying as traditional car makers fail to grasp the need for change.

And WA has actually spawned some creative motoring innovations. Oribital's injection technology, Oka's off-road workhorse vehicles, Kinetic's suspension systems and Advanced Engine Components' natural gas technology are all examples.

If we won a gold medal for solar development, the glow would last longer than any sporting medal achievement.


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