CleanTechnica publishes some of The Beam interviews and opinion pieces every week. The Beam magazine takes a modern perspective on the energy transition, interviewing inspirational people from around the world that shape our sustainable energy future.
This week, Anne-Sophie Garrigou, journalist at The Beam, interviewed Monica Oliphant, a pioneer in solar energy research, who has been, among other things, President of the International Solar Energy Society, research scientist for the Electricity Trust of South Australia for 20 years, and professor in three Australian Universities. Despite an incredible life-trajectory, Monica Oliphant doesn’t seem keen to retire anytime soon, currently running her own consultancy, working on developing community-owned solar and developing energy efficiency projects together with local governments.
Hello Monica, thank you so much for taking some time to speak with us. Could you tell us the story about how you first got involved with solar energy? Do you remember the day you told yourself you would make a career in the industry?
I certainly do remember the day I first decided to work in the area of solar energy. It was in the early 1970s, my husband had recently died of cancer aged 35, a few weeks before our second daughter was born. I was not sure what work I was going to do and finances were tight. I had done research in laser physics but knew I did not want to continue in that field. It was the time of conflict in the Middle East and oil embargos. I was washing the dishes at home, my two daughters nearby, and listening to the radio, when virologist Nobel Prize winner Sir Macfarlane Burnett came on. He said that if we used solar energy then we would not need to fight over oil. I immediately thought — that’s the area I would like to work in, and so started my 40+ year interest in working towards a renewable energy future.
Renewables were viewed with suspicion when you began your career and it’s now becoming pretty much mainstream. What do you think the turning point was? And how did you find the motivation to keep up your research when everyone was doubtful about it?
Back when I started, solar was mainly used for water heating, wind for farms, small scale water pumping and electricity generation and PV for providing power for satellites. And at that time people who promoted renewable energy were regarded as “tree huggers.” Now, as you say, renewables are pretty much mainstream, and it won’t be long before there will be few areas of energy use, electricity, low and high grade heat and liquid and gaseous fuels that will not be replaced by some form of renewables.
The late 1980s and 1990s for me was a period when it was hard to see much progress in the use of renewables and I spent much of this time working in the area of Residential Energy Efficiency — which really was very useful as renewables and energy efficiency must always go hand in hand and this helped me keep motivation.
I don’t think there was an exact turning point in time to the acceptance of renewables, but several events have been important contributors to change, starting with the Kyoto protocol on Climate Change in 1995 followed by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports which helped achieve a majority acceptance of the scientific fact that climate change is being exacerbated by global use of fossil fuels and the need to do something about it — a transition to renewable energy being a definite part of the solution. Another major event was the introduction in 2000 of the feed-in-tariff policy in Germany that then went global and resulted in renewables, especially photovoltaics, to become financially accessible to more people. Also Germany became somewhat of a role model showing that renewables could be integrated reliably into homes and into grids. In addition there was much good research being conducted globally in wind and solar to improve efficiencies that were being implemented commercially in larger projects.
Also one should not forget that large scale production of PV in China has been driving prices down together with that country’s desire to move away from the use of coal. By virtue of its size, what happens in China has large global impact. China has for some years now been the largest producer and user of solar water heaters, wind generators, hydro, PV and electric vehicles. This has been aided by the realization that air pollution as a result of fossil fuel use was affecting people’s health and reducing life expectancy in some regions and was affecting quality of life and the environment. Also China could see the clean energy sector was a new source of jobs and export revenue. This has resulted in direct and indirect ways of increasing the renewables market and investment globally.
A contributor to change in recent times has also been that community, rather than governments, have been leading and demanding change causing governments and high polluting businesses to realize the transition to renewables is closer than expected and changes to the status quo are needed for political and commercial survival.
During your career, what would you say were the most important barriers to solar energy, and renewable energy in general?
The most important barriers in the past have been cost and a belief, by many, that renewables will not work or be able to replace reliably and cost effectively traditional sources of power, especially base load in electricity supply systems and provision of industrial and commercial process heat. The usual comments from skeptics are — “what do you do when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun shine?” Now that this can be shown to be a non-issue, the main barriers are having a good strategic transition plan in place that covers the high penetration of variable renewables into the electricity grid for both large scale generation and small, particularly rooftop solar. Such plans should address regulatory issues, market design, generator scheduling, storage, adequate ancillary services and when part of a large network — sufficient interconnectors for both import and export capacities. In addition there is the big barrier to overcome of deliberate disinformation — particularly from suppliers of traditional fossil fuel and nuclear large centralized power supply system, as well as misinformation from people with a limited knowledge base — all part of the current explosion in “fake news.”
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