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Published: 25 October 2010

Ambitious target does not quite measure up

Mark Diesendorf

Earlier this year, Beyond Zero Emissions published a report claiming that Australia could become reliant on clean energy by 2020. Is this really achievable?

A clean energy future for Australia is feasible, but perhaps not within the next decade.
Credit: CSIRO

Renewable energy technologies have developed rapidly since 2000, and several are mainstream in terms of investment and employment creation. For example, in 2008 and 2009, wind power provided the biggest contribution to new generating capacity in Europe. In China, wind power capacity has doubled every year since 2005. Bioenergy is a significant source of electricity and heat in several European countries. Concentrated solar thermal power (CST) is growing rapidly from a tiny base in Spain and some US states, and is now at the semi-commercial stage of development.

It is now possible to present a serious case for an industrial society to be run mostly or entirely on renewable energy in the foreseeable future. Recent scenario studies have been carried out for individual countries, regions such as Europe and the whole world. However, the costs of such scenarios cannot yet be determined.

Zero Carbon Australia’s Stationary Energy Plan is the first scenario study conducted since 2000 of a transition to 100 per cent renewable stationary energy in Australia.1

The plan’s strengths are the breadth and sheer quantity of work done by the team of volunteer researchers; the insights and ideas it brings; the educational value of some of the technical material presented (eg on CST); and the positive publicity it has gained for renewable energy, at a time when both major political parties are trying to shift climate change and renewable energy off the political agenda.

However, the study has some weaknesses. These include uneven quality of the work; claims to have done more than it has actually completed – for example, in economics and modelling; and internal inconsistencies, such as in the mix of renewable electricity sources used. Its outcomes also seem preordained. The report asserts, rather than proves, that the transition could be completed within a decade without the assistance of natural gas, with an electricity source mix comprising almost entirely CST with molten salt storage, wind and existing hydro.

The notion that this huge transition could be achieved within a decade depends partly on the report’s incorrect claim that CST is commercial technology. If this were true, then the study’s economic calculations could be based on projections from the actual costs of solar power stations now operating in Spain. Instead, they are based on a 2003 US study, which projects future costs from a single pilot plant that operated from 1996 to 1999. While there is no doubt that CST with molten salt storage works, and could become a major source of electricity within the next 20 years, the particular type of CST technology recommended by ZCA is still at the demonstration stage and not yet bankable. It will be several years before reliable cost projections can be based on experience with relevant commercial CST technology.

The lack of a skilled workforce is another factor ruling out a transition within the next 10 years. It could take a decade just to train sufficient electric power engineers – there’s a global shortage.

The modelling of ZCA’s projected electricity supply and transmission for Australia in 2020 is an impressive initial work, but is incomplete in a fundamental way, placing no limits on the capacity of its new transmission links. It implies that all the renewable electricity in WA could, in theory, be used to smooth fluctuations in renewable electricity generation in the eastern states; and hence, that the electricity supply system needs very little peak-load generation, apart from existing hydro. This result is unbelievable; the ZCA scenario supplies less peak-load electricity than the present system. The unnecessary and expensive transmission link between WA and the east should be discarded, and the eastern Australian electricity system modelled with specified transmission capacities. This will show that fluctuations in supply can be smoothed far more cheaply by installing gas turbines fuelled by gas or biofuels.

Despite its flaws, this brave study prepares the ground for future studies that will be less constrained in their assumptions. The authors deserve recognition for their work.

Dr Mark Diesendorf is Deputy Director of the Institute of Environmental Studies at UNSW, and author of Greenhouse Solutions with Sustainable Energy (available at and Climate Action: A campaign manual for greenhouse solutions.

1 Zero Carbon Australia (ZCA) (2010) Stationary Energy Plan. Full report:

Published: 25 October 2010

Atlas to put ‘citizen apps’ on the menu

How can we better integrate data from the many disparate citizen science1 groups around the country to improve the nation’s biodiversity monitoring and research efforts? Coordinators at the Atlas of Living Australia project have been spending time with members of community environmental groups to identify the most effective features for a citizen scientists’ online ‘toolkit’.

Schoolchildren learn how to use the Biodiversity Snapshots application for mobile devices.
Schoolchildren learn how to use the Biodiversity Snapshots application for mobile devices.
Credit: Museum of Victoria

The rapid development of web, map and mobile-based applications in recent years is making it easier for non-scientists to get access to scientific information and to record observations in the field – sometimes for later scientific use.

For example, Museum Victoria has just launched Biodiversity Snapshots, a new mobile application designed to help Year 3–10 school students and their teachers learn more about native wildlife.

The application includes a field guide with photos and sounds of each animal, and a way to record and upload observations on a mobile phone, netbook or tablet. When a student accesses Biodiversity Snapshots on a mobile device, the application presents information such as the animal’s name, shape, features, distribution, behaviour, habitat, sounds, status and ecology. It also lets students survey species found in school grounds, backyards, urban parks, bushland or coastal environments.

Biodiversity Snapshots is a collaboration between Museum Victoria, the Victorian Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, the Atlas of Living Australia and Earthwatch.

Gaia Resources, the consultancy that designed Biodiversity Snapshots, is also developing tools for citizen science groups to collect, organise and edit their data online through the Atlas of Living Australia website (see ECOS 153, p 24). The design process was kicked off earlier this year, with a series of workshops in which members of citizen science groups identified desirable features for an online toolkit. Not surprisingly, ‘easy to use’, ‘portable/mobile’, ‘fast’ and ‘free’ were at the top of their wish lists.

Harnessing the power of people

The combination of citizen science and new technology has produced some interesting projects. Recently, Einstein@home, an online citizen science astronomy project, described what are believed to be the first pulsars discovered through public participation. More than 250?000 volunteers helped Einstein@home to discover more than 100 potential pulsars.

Another international astronomy project, Galaxy Zoo, invited volunteers to judge from images whether galaxies were elliptical or spiral; and, if spiral, whether they were rotating in a clockwise or anti-clockwise direction.

By mid-2007, 80?000 volunteers had already classified more than 10 million images of galaxies. The final Galaxy Zoo datasets contain more than 34.6 million clicks by 82?931 volunteers: a demonstration of the power that citizen science can harness. According to a member of the Galaxy Zoo team, it would have taken researchers years to process the photographs without the volunteers.

Two other unusual initiatives are National Geographic’s archaeology project ‘Field Expedition: Mongolia’, and the San Francisco Neighborhood Parks Council’s ‘ParkScan’ website.

Volunteers in Field Expedition: Mongolia tag potential archaeological dig sites on GeoEye satellite images to assist explorers on the ground in Mongolia (see

The ParkScan website allows San Franciscans to monitor the condition of city parks and submit park observations directly to City staff (see

The first beta public release of the Atlas of Living Australia website – which has been referred to as a biodiversity ‘yellow pages’– has been scheduled for late October 2010. The website will give researchers and the wider community access to Australian plant, animal and microorganism species’ names, photos, lists and distribution maps, mapping and identification tools, occurrence records, online literature, natural history collections and herbaria, and ecological, observational, and molecular data.

With data from museums, universities, CSIRO, herbaria and other biological collections linked together within a single web environment, users will be able to explore and analyse the information in new ways to develop a more detailed picture of Australia’s biodiversity.

Can you name this gecko, or this tree? The Atlas of Living Australia will provide open access to data such as species names, distribution maps, and mapping and identification tools for reliable identification.
Can you name this gecko, or this tree? The Atlas of Living Australia will provide open access to data such as species names, distribution maps, and mapping and identification tools for reliable identification.
Credit: David McClenaghan

‘The Atlas aims to enable any user to quickly locate and access information across the Internet on all aspects of Australian biodiversity,’ says the Director of the Atlas of Living Australia, Mr Donald Hobern.

For example, users will be able to use the Atlas’ mapping and spatial analysis tools to create a species list for a given area, or map the known occurrence for a species.

The Atlas – which is coordinated by CSIRO – will also give users open access to 50 years of archival material from the Australian Journal of Zoology (a contribution from CSIRO Publishing, which publishes ECOS).

From twitchers to storm chasers

People often ask whether citizen scientists contribute to ‘real’ science. With the right support and coordination, the answer is ‘yes’.

In 2009, for example, the North American Audubon Society analysed 40 years of data from its annual bird count, revealing dramatic shifts northward for winter bird populations as a result of warmer winters. This year's count will help scientists understand the impact of the Gulf oil spill on vulnerable species.

In this country, Birds Australia coordinated a continent-wide survey of birds from 1998–2002, in which thousands of members of the public participated – equipped with binoculars, field guides, GPS units and notebooks. These efforts culminated in the 2003 New Atlas of Australian Birds, presenting 4000 distribution maps for more than 650 bird species, including seasonal changes and breeding range.

Currently, more than 7000 volunteers continue to build Birds Australia’s database of seven million records of birds – the largest biological database in Australia, and one of the largest in the world. Apart from being used by qualified scientists in research projects, the data contributes to Australia’s ‘State of the Environment’ reporting.

Birdwatchers are among the oldest communities of ‘citizen scientists’.
Birdwatchers are among the oldest communities of ‘citizen scientists’.
Credit: Rosemary McArthur.

Perhaps the best-known citizen science program in Australia has been the national network of more than 6000 volunteer ‘weather watchers’ coordinated by the Bureau of Meteorology. The volunteers record rainfall, spot storms, and observe river heights and conditions at sea for the Bureau’s weather databases.

Today, members of the public can join any number of citizen science groups, such as ClimateWatch, Frogwatch, Toadbusters, Waterwatch, Operation Spider, Seagrass Watch, Coastcare, Greening Australia, Carnaby's Black-Cockatoo Recovery Project, Conservation Volunteers, Shorebirds 2020 and the Threatened Bird Network.

Of course, an effective citizen science project requires effective volunteer training, technical support, data collection, coordination and encouragement. While data quality can be an issue, innovative tools for ensuring high-quality data are starting to come online. Data collected by volunteers may also need peer review or expert validation.

More information

Atlas of Living Australia,

1 Citizen science is the current term for what used to be called ‘amateur science’ or ‘natural history’.

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