Print this page

Published: 2011

Skilling up for a low-carbon future: vocational education and training

Cheryl Desha and Charlie Hargroves

Given the need for both short and long-term training for sustainability discussed in the first of this three-part series (ECOS 158, pp 22–24), it is clear that the vocational education and training sector will play a major role in building capacity for our nation over the next five years.

The VET sector is already demonstrating leadership in curriculum renewal, going beyond ‘greening’ traditional trades like plumbing into new areas such as apprenticeships in wind farm technology.
Credit: Plumbing Industry of SA/Suzlon Energy

The Australian government’s second national action plan for education for sustainability,1 published in 2009, outlines ambitious strategies and actions for creating a sustainable future. Elsewhere, federal government departments have been working intensively on building capacity in energy efficiency knowledge and skills to deliver the national energy policy framework.2,3

In fact, the vocational education and training (VET) sector is already demonstrating leadership in curriculum renewal. Compared with universities, the VET sector’s curriculum is heavily regulated. This turns out to be a major advantage for rapid curriculum renewal, as policy can quickly translate to action in the classroom.

Several national and state policies and programs around the country are driving the VET sector’s momentum. These include the Australian government’s 2009 Clean Sustainable Skills Package,4 a $94 million investment in green jobs and training opportunities; and the 2009 Skills for the Carbon Challenge5 initiative, which provides national leadership for industry to develop and prosper in a sustainable, low-carbon economy.

The 2009 Green Skills Agreement6 commits all state and territory governments to working with trainers and businesses to ensure that relevant skills for sustainability are part of all VET curricula. In 2009, the Ministerial Council for Vocational and Technical Education endorsed a National VET Sector Sustainability Action Plan7, which provides a national framework to support curriculum renewal within the context of these national agreements.

With such comprehensive regulatory support for education for sustainability, how is the VET sector responding to the challenge? By far the most progress has been around the topic of energy efficiency. With support from the National Framework for Energy Efficiency (NFEE)’s National Strategy on Energy Efficiency8 and state energy efficiency industry groups, training materials are already being developed through collaborations between universities, state and federal agencies.

According to Ms Val MacGregor, from NFEE’s Training and Accreditation committee, what has been missing is practical guidance on how the required knowledge and skills can be developed.

‘At NFEE, we have been bridging this gap,’ says Ms MacGregor. ‘Last year, we commissioned research into the functional skills needed to undertake rigorous energy efficiency assessments, which have subsequently informed a summary list9 for VET training providers. Curriculum developers and trainers can use this immediately, which reduces their cost of developing materials and also creates a common language for training across the country.’

The importance of collaboration is also evident in early examples of energy efficiency training in Victoria, NSW and Queensland. In Victoria, Swinburne University – through the National Centre for Sustainability – has developed a Vocational Graduate Certificate in Energy Efficiency for Facility Managers and a Vocational Graduate Certificate in Building Energy Analysis (non-residential).10 The centre developed these courses in partnership with industry groups and NFEE. The centre has also developed a Diploma in Carbon Management, Australia's first accredited course in Carbon Accounting; a Diploma and Graduate Certificate in Sustainability; and, most recently, a Vocational Graduate Certificate in Education and Training for Sustainability.

In NSW, the Australian Research Institute on Education for Sustainability at Macquarie University is developing a teaching unit on Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,11 for inserting at the diploma or graduate diploma level in higher education or vocational education and training. This resource has been funded by the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations, as part of its Skills for the Carbon Challenge initiative, and will be trialled within state VET institutes teaching energy efficiency.

In Queensland, the Department of Education and Training (DET) has several programs under way in collaboration with SkillsTech Australia, including the vocational graduate certificate (VGC) in Managing Sustainability Projects. Energy Skills Queensland (one of the Centres of Excellence established by DET) also established the Queensland Energy Efficiency Industry Leaders Group in 2009, which subsequently developed an ambitious Industry Action Plan for building capacity. The group has also helped to facilitate the development of energy efficiency assessment units within SkillsTech’s VGC program. Written in collaboration with The Natural Edge Project, the units help professionals access content previously developed under the ‘Energy Transformed: Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change Mitigation’ education program.12

As Mr Des Harms from Queensland’s Department of Education and Training points out: ‘With so much happening in each state, we have a significant opportunity to benefit from sharing resources, to quickly build the capacity that has been targeted by the federal government’.

The VET sector’s progress also provides several lessons to universities considering curriculum renewal for education for sustainability. First, even with a topic such as energy efficiency, one training package will not satisfy all requirements. Rather, a suite of capacity building materials should be developed to provide a systematic response to different national and state issues.

Second, in addition to technical training, capacity building should incorporate a sense of what it means to be a change agent, and how to identify and overcome common barriers to effectively deliver sustainable solutions.

Finally, curriculum designers need to have an appreciation of which skill sets are being targeted, from ‘active’ (eg allowing for detailed knowledge of electrical and air conditioning systems), to ‘passive’ (eg understanding how to manage processes such as energy efficiency assessments, rather than knowledge of the actual systems).

The authors are from The Natural Edge Project, an Australian sustainability think tank, hosted by several universities in Australia. This is the second of three articles exploring the capacity building challenges facing the Australian tertiary education sector.

1 Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (2009) Living Sustainably, The Australian Government’s National Action Plan for Education for Sustainability, Canberra.
2 Ministerial Council on Energy – National Framework for Energy Efficiency,

Published: 9 March 2011

Zero Carbon Australia plan, revisited

Matthew Wright and Patrick Hearps

In 2010 the Beyond Zero Emissions group released a report with the University of Melbourne’s Energy Research Institute claiming that Australia could be powered by renewable energy sources by 2020. Here its lead authors reply to some of the points raised by Dr Mark Diesendorf’s review of the report in ECOS 157.

This Gemasolar CST plant in Seville, Spain, is despatching electricity to the Spanish grid.
This Gemasolar CST plant in Seville, Spain, is despatching electricity to the Spanish grid.
Credit: Torresol Energy/SENER

The Zero Carbon Australia (ZCA) Stationary Energy Plan sets out strategies for powering Australia with 100 per cent renewable energy by 2020. While the plan stands alone as the only technical blueprint for completely decarbonising the domestic energy sector, it is a work in progress. There are areas to improve and some clarifications we would like to make about some of the recommendations.

Our research was undertaken with two explicit parameters: energy technologies selected had to be both commercially available and from carbon-free renewable energy sources. This explains why the ZCA Plan identifies a 60/40 mix of concentrated solar thermal (CST) power and large-scale wind developments as the backbone of a decarbonised energy system. Together with existing hydropower, investment in CST with molten salt storage, backup from a small percentage of biomass power, an upgraded electricity grid, and comprehensive energy efficiency measures, Australia can reliably meet its energy needs from renewable electricity generation. The technologies selected were not preordained; rather they were chosen on the basis that they worked within ZCA’s parameters.

The ZCA scenario also includes natural gas. Under the plan, Australia would use existing gas infrastructure in a staged scale-back, until the last gas power plants are mothballed in 2020. The most carbon-intensive coal power plants must be first to be decommissioned as large-scale renewables come online, made possible by the deployment of CST power towers with molten salt storage for 24-h operation.

CST is a nascent, commercially available energy technology. At November 2010, there were 632.4 electrical megawatts (MWe) of CST operating in Spain, including 250 MWe with storage, and a further 422 MWe in the US. Another 2000 MWe are in advanced stages of construction and development in Spain. This project pipeline amounts to over a US$20 billion investment. Meanwhile, in the US, federal loan guarantees and cash grants have fostered the approval of over 4 000 MW of CST, many of which have begun construction.

The CST plants in the ZCA Plan are modelled on the Spanish Gemasolar plant, which is now dispatching electricity to the Spanish grid. Our cost projections are based on those from existing projects in the US and Spain, with provisions for significant cost reductions following the first 1000 MWe installed.

The infrastructure rollout proposed under the ZCA plan, including these CST plants, is well within Australia’s industrial capability. Dr Diesendorf presents a global shortage of electrical engineers as a constraining factor. However, CST plants constructed under the ZCA plan would be replicated with a standardised series of plants, reducing the need for electrical engineers who are mostly required during the design phase.

As to the value of an east–west transmission link, more detailed modelling will be conducted for version 2.0 of the ZCA plan. Even without this data, it is premature to rule out the cost effectiveness of a transcontinental grid. Siemens proposes an east–west link in its 2010 report Picture the Future: Australia – Energy and Water. High-voltage direct current (HDVC) infrastructure is already in widespread use in the US, Canada, Europe and South America, and China has now commissioned the 2071 km Xiangjiaba-Shanghai 800 kV Ultra HVDC link.

The ZCA plan puts forward a single scenario largely in order to identify the specific challenges around implementation. We do not claim that the current iteration of the ZCA plan is the optimal solution. We would like to invite engineers and scientists from around Australia to provide their services as pro bono researchers with the Zero Carbon Australia project and make version 2.0 an even stronger document than the first.

We don’t think the Zero Carbon Australia initiative is brave. We think it’s necessary.

Matthew Wright and Patrick Hearps are lead authors of the Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan. Matthew Wright is Executive Director of Beyond Zero Emissions and the 2010 Environment Minister’s Young Environmentalist of the Year. Patrick Hearps is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Energy Research Institute.

More information

Mark Diesendorf’s review of the ZCA plan (‘Ambitious target does not quite measure up’):
ZCA plan:
Basis for cost projections for CST plants:
US National Energy Renewable Laboratory –

ECOS Archive

Welcome to the ECOS Archive site which brings together 40 years of sustainability articles from 1974-2014.

For more recent ECOS articles visit the blog. You can also sign up to the email alert or RSS feed