Contemplating the role of the Australian Wind Industry in a 21st century energy system

As the sun sets on the Pacific Education and Development Forum at Hawaii’s Pacific University I am heartened by the stoic determination of my peers from America’s leading Universities. I suppose it is always the same. When leadership fails the rest step up to fill the void! It was not surprising to hear the measured criticism of the Trump decision to step away from the Paris accord. More interesting was the determination by America’s leading institutions to invest into Asia Pacific development programs. Specific targeted programs aimed at expanding Climate solutions with identified research, student and teacher exchange projects linked directly to industry investment opportunities where high on the agenda. This positive agenda was marred by the now ubiquitous reports of marginal projects that failed to integrate with individual country visions, or lacked integration and compliance with overall development goals. Once again the role of Australian DFAT associated NGO’s and agencies warranted mention. None compliant TAFE programs, substandard education programs and research support services mixed with reports of wasting up to 38% of funds on internal administration. The prevalence of employing local education / ex-pat staff who did not have the necessary qualifications to undertake duties described in the original funding brief was noted in a raft of related practices by several organizations. This included:

  • Poorly drafted briefing notes designed to employ specific individuals
  • Employing locals to do the task of specialist advisers at lower pay rates then specified by funding proposals approved by the ADB and related funding bodies
  • Using funds for entirely unrelated activities
  • Supplementing the income of influential locals for the purpose of retaining exclusive contracts

These ongoing issues where frequently mentioned as part of a wider discussion on how to improve the effectiveness of the money spent in remote island communities.

It was not long before the conversation moved to the regional influence of China. As we discussed how best to engage China, news of Australia’s first offshore wind farm proposal filtered through the meeting. Many of my peers from CalTec, Harvard, Berkley, MIT and others asked whether I would once again waste four years of my life on lobbying Australian governments and Universities to support a $300 million Asia Pacific certified wind training and research industry. My response to this question was guarded. After wasting four years from 2008–2012, I am reluctant to spend another quarter of a million dollars without a glimmer of hope. I don’t relish the thought of wearing out another set of shoes travelling the government corridors of South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra in an attempt to convince the various department heads that Australia needs an internationally compliant wind industry training program because there are 15000 islands stretching from Papua New Guinea through Indonesia and across the Pacific to Manila that could benefit from it. There is little point when the Australian Skills Councils specifically undermined negotiations with UK City& Guilds in 2012. It is one of the reasons Australia still does not have a internationally compliant wind energy training certificate with the provision for the training of TAFE and University staff who could run such a program. There is even less hope for such a valuable education industry training package when the Australian wind sector maintains the position that internal industry training is simply too valuable to allow someone else to run it. It doesn’t matter that current industry training programs are not certified under Australian or international training standards. After all, the industry position is very simple. Even if the first Australian offshore wind farm should get federal and state approval we have more than enough trained people in India, China and Europe to build and support the Victorian offshore array. So why would anyone train or employ local people when the North Sea super array is nearing completion and the workers can simply be brought into Australia under a 457 visa arrangement? Besides, we have no intention of handing a multi-million dollar value add education business to any institution here in Australia.

Here is the nub of the question. Does the Turnbull government actually want a viable onshore and offshore wind industry, or does the Turnbull government want an industry dependent on fly in and fly out workers? This was the questions several US and European Blade and wind turbine component manufacturers asked me nearly 10 years ago. We like the idea of using Australia as a spearhead into the Asia Pacific region. We like the idea that Australia offers a relatively robust basic education system. We like the idea that Australia is politically stable. However, if we have to spend money on training technicians and PHD graduates to meet our industry needs then we might as well relocate directly into Asia and bring our people from the US or Europe. Why? Because we have the training courses and the PHD programs as well as the expert academic staff in place. So why train up Australian workers and the staff in Australian Universities.

My friend from CalTec made his point eloquently over dinner. You know that we have all been through the same experience in dealing with Australia. You know that the Universities will argue that we should pay them so they can submit a funding proposal to Canberra before considering any positive industry engagement. It just doesn’t work that way in the US or Europe. Leading institutions are leading institutions because they invest in training and applied research. They work with industry because there is a tangible benefit to both. In Australia we have to put money on the table so the Universities can employ the staff to write a grant application before they start the courses and train the teaching and research staff. This is a three to four year commitment before we see any return for our dollar. You saw that yourself when you tried getting traction for both the ICS (Industrial Control System ) training program as well as the large Wind Turbine training courses from 2008-2012. Even India decided to source the ICS courses directly from the US, Canada and Europe when you tried again in 2013-2015. So why do you want to go through another four years of pain in a country that simply lacks the vision to invest in supporting a renewable industry from the ground up? We might be suffering a Trump hiccup, but we have not stopped out investment in renewable education. We have not stopped in supporting world leading climate research at institutional level.

The problem I see in Australia is that the entire country and all its institutions are suffering from a colonial hangover. You basically need a warder to give you permission to take a piss. Mind you! We in the US like the idea that we can simply buy your best and brightest ideas because as a country you lack the guts to develop anything useful on your own. You like to sell anything and everything because you long for our approval. Even China has worked it out! Look at the Indian coal miner running you guys ragged in the full knowledge he doesn’t have two coppers to rub together. As an American I can see the irony in that! Hell! Your industry advisers still haven’t work out that the world has a shortage of HVDC cables and if the Victorian offshore wind project actually does go ahead, Australia will need to import those cables because they ignored your advice to build a HVDC manufacturing facility years ago.

So why don’t we just build an Asia Pacific wind training program through the US. After all, we already have everything in place. We know how to build local smart-grids. We know how to build virtual power stations and we know how to integrate those with large solar and wind arrays. Take a drive around Hawaii and you will see that a state 90% dependent on fossil fuel and with the highest electricity prices anywhere in the US, is transforming it’s grid to peer to peer rooftop and grid embedded storage. In Australia you don’t even have a rational national electricity policy framework and your government is trying to sell the idea of clean coal and fund it from money earmarked for renewables. Why do you want to go back to Australia and chew stones for another four years? It just doesn’t’ make sense! At this stage my friend from CalTec had certainly made his point. Beer and a seafood platter looked a lot better on a warm Hawaiian evening. Certainly better than ruminating over another one of Australia’s many lost opportunities!