It’s fascinating to see how the Australian media has gone into
paroxysms of orgasmic delight at the prospect of selling uranium to
China. But one issue has been conspicuously absent from the media
coverage of Chinese Premier Wen’s visit (including Anthony Phillips’s
otherwise excellent Crikey contribution yesterday) although it holds
far greater prospects for Australian export dollars and for reducing
greenhouse pollution.

Only the Hobart Mercury has mentioned that, concurrently with
the uranium deal, a joint enterprise involving Hydro Tasmania –
Roaring Forties – signed a AU$300 million deal to build three 50MW
windfarms in Eastern China. Those windfarms are part of China’s plans
to expand its wind industry to 30,000MW by 2020 in order to meet its
legislated target of 15% renewable energy by that year. Over that same
period of time, some commentators expect nuclear power to meet perhaps
5% of China’s energy needs, although China does not necessarily expect,
or want, that target to be met.

Put simply, China’s renewable energy market will be at least three times as
large as its nuclear power market, and possibly far larger still. China
already has more installed solar hot water than the rest of the world
put together. It also has huge plans for photovoltaic solar power,
which UNSW-educated Dr Shi Zhengrong has tapped into.

The Australian citizen has become a billionaire, and the richest man in
the world’s fastest growing economy, by taking Australian PV
technologies to the huge Chinese market with his company, Suntech. It’s
a pity Australia’s world class renewables developers aren’t getting
government support to follow his example.

In addition, as Suntech and Roaring Forties show, the cash from
renewable energy developments can start flowing today. Regardless of
yesterday’s announcements, uranium sales aren’t expected to eventuate
for up to a decade while mines expand and plants are commissioned. And,
while we’re waiting, greenhouse pollution will continue to grow.

Why are the Howard Government and the media so excited by uranium and
so uninterested in renewable energy? Perhaps it’s because they’re more
interested in political point-scoring and helping out big fundraisers
than in Australia actually reaping the economic and environmental
benefits.

Renewable energy sources are growing tremendously and lining up to be
able to power the globe in the coming decades – without polluting the
atmosphere and throwing our climate out of equilibrium. Nuclear power,
on the other hand, could only ever contribute a tiny amount to reducing
greenhouse pollution and, while achieving such small ends, would create
a whole new environmental and security disaster.

But there’s no political capital in renewables, while uranium satisfies
the agenda of one of the Liberal Party’s biggest fundraisers, Crikey’s
friend and former WMC head, Hugh Morgan. Best of all, uranium generates
a fabulous wedge against the ALP, doesn’t it? Renewables can never
compete with it on that level. That makes uranium a political story for
the media, and the details – the facts about what China actually wants
– become a mere inconvenience.

Isn’t it time the debate about China’s energy future, and Australia’s
role in powering that, actually started to reflect reality rather than
government and big corporate spin?

Peter Fray

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