Despite the funding cut, ARENA’s glass is still half full – here’s how to spend the money


Andrew Blakers, Australian National University and Richard Corkish, UNSW Australia

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) will suffer a A$500 million funding cut, after being saved from a far worse fate during negotiations over the government’s proposed budget savings package. So does this mean the ARENA funding glass is half full, or half empty?

The 2014 Abbott/Hockey budget aimed to destroy ARENA altogether. Thankfully it was blocked by Labor, the Greens and the crossbench in the Senate. In March this year the Turnbull government claimed to have saved ARENA but intended to divert most of its funds and prevent it from offering grants. The ALP supported that position before the election.

The government’s omnibus savings bill, which in its original form would have chopped A$1.3 billion from ARENA, would have doomed Australian renewable energy research and development (R&D) – despite our country’s recent pledge “to double government clean energy research and development investment by 2020”.

The Greens and Nick Xenophon Team opposed the cuts to ARENA. Labor compromised with the government, allowing A$500 million to be diverted elsewhere and leaving ARENA with A$800 million over the next five years.

The axe that previously hung over ARENA’s granting process has been lifted. So to answer the earlier question, our glass is now half full, because substantial funding will still flow to renewable energy R&D, this time with bipartisan political backing which hopefully confers greater funding stability. But it is also half empty, because clean energy innovation has taken another huge cut.

International support

Two weeks ago, some 200 Australian solar energy researchers signed a letter of support for ARENA, amid a groundswell of community support for the agency – not just here but from abroad too.

Australian solar energy R&D is held in very high regard within the international community. Nearly 300 overseas scientists, engineers and company executives signed a petition calling on Australia’s parliamentarians not to axe grants for renewable energy research, innovation and education. Many included complimentary comments, such as:

The Australian renewable energy program is an international treasure. It would be a disaster worldwide for the Australian government to end the program. These are world-renowned scientists.

For decades Australian scientists have been world leaders in the critical area of renewable energy research and development … the legacy of Australia’s great scientific contributions must be saved and their future excellent work supported.

The ARENA funding program has helped Australia lead the world in photovoltaics for decades, which enabled the worldwide economic boom from manufacturing and installing solar panels.

The quality of the work done by Australian researchers in this field is outstanding… to cut back on funding for ARENA is to cut back on the future of Australia’s science and Australia’s economy.

I have been involved in solar research for 35 years in the United States. Solar technology, including advances made at UNSW and ANU in Australia, have made [a] great impact on the world’s energy infrastructure.

Australia has some of the finest PV research on the planet and has been an inspiration to us all.

Where next for ARENA?

ARENA’s role is to support a rapid transition to renewable energy. So what should it do with its reduced funding of A$800 million over the coming five years?

Given that energy use accounts for three-quarters of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the electricity sector the biggest contributor, the fastest way to make deep cuts to emissions is to accelerate the introduction of renewable energy into the electricity system. This is the route successfully pioneered by the ACT government, which will reach 100% renewable electricity by 2020.

Other important energy goals will be to electrify road vehicles and trains, and to encourage the use of electric heat pumps in place of natural gas for building heating and hot water systems.

Reducing the emissions from other sectors such as shipping, aviation and high-temperature industries will be more difficult. But these sectors are less important in terms of overall emissions, and if we can push ahead with decarbonising electricity, transport and heating, that will give us more time to devise low-cost solutions for these remaining sectors.

It is important for ARENA to provide strong support at the grassroots level; help universities support undergraduate, postgraduate and postdoctoral training as well as research itself. These young people are the future of research, education, engineering and start-up companies.

Consistent grant support for new companies allows entrepreneurship to flourish, encouraging bright people in universities to commercialise their ideas. With the right backing, these people can often cycle back and forth through universities, completing a virtuous circle.

Success stories

Efficient silicon cells have been by far the greatest success story of Australian renewable energy research. With silicon cells now making up 95% of the worldwide solar market and likely to dominate for at least the next decade, improving their efficiency still further should be a prime research focus.

ARENA’s new large-scale solar energy program announced last week represents an outstanding success: A$92 million of ARENA funding has leveraged A$1 billion of investment to construct 0.5 gigawatts of solar farm capacity in three states. Another A$100 million to bring the total capacity to 1GW would give this nascent industry a great start.

Solar PV and wind now constitute virtually all new generation capacity in Australia and half of new generation capacity worldwide. They are being installed at more than 100 times the rate of the other non-hydro renewables because of their lower cost, and are growing much faster.

Soon PV and wind will constitute more than half of annual generation in many states and regions, and so attention has to be paid to managing their variability. Options include detailed integration studies, demand management, mass storage (using both the 99% market leader pumped hydro and the newcomer, batteries), and high voltage powerlines to move energy between regions – all of which will benefit from ARENA support.

It is time for all politicians to recognise that the faster we move to renewable energy, the cheaper it will be to cut emissions and adapt to climate change. ARENA has an important role to play in a rapid and sustained shift to renewable energy – and we look forward to a doubling of ARENA funding before the next election.


Andrew Blakers will be online from 9.30-10am AEST on Thursday September 15. Leave him a question in the comments below.

The Conversation

Andrew Blakers, Professor of Engineering, Australian National University and Richard Corkish, Solar-photovoltaic researcher, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

People are ‘blind’ to plants, and that’s bad news for conservation


Kathryn Williams, University of Melbourne

Turn away from your computer screen for a moment and try to remember what you saw in the image below.


All images from http://www.shutterstock.com

The image has an equal number of plants and animals, but chances are that you remembered more animals than plants. This bias in memory is part of a phenomenon known as “plant blindness”. Research shows that people are also generally more interested in animals than plants, and find it harder to detect images of plants compared with images of animals.

Plant blindness is more than an interesting quirk of human perception. It impacts on our efforts to care for and understand plant species. Figures from the United States show that while most federal endangered species (57%) are plants, less than 4% of money spent on threatened species is used to protect plants. Botanical education has been declared under threat in the UK.

In a recent essay, Mung Balding and I argue that overcoming plant blindness requires more than plant education. Instead we need to help people connect with plants emotionally.

Why does it happen?

We aren’t sure why plant blindness occurs. One theory suggests that because plants generally grow close together, do not move and often blend together visually, they often go unnoticed when animals are present.

Another possibility is that we learn plant blindness. For example, biology textbooks give much less space to plants compared with animals, potentially leaving schoolchildren with the impression that plants don’t matter.

But we also know many societies have strong bonds with plants. Among some Aboriginal Australian, Native North American and Maori communities, plants are understood to be different from humans but also to share a common ancestry that brings kinship relationships of mutual responsibility.

Overall, research suggests that while plant blindness is common, it is not inevitable. Here are three strategies that we believe could make a difference.

Identify with plants

Plants can seem very different from humans. Research has shown that animal conservation support is biased towards species that are most like humans.

Unlike humans and many other animals, plants don’t have faces, don’t usually move locations and don’t seem to have feelings. One way to start valuing plants is to notice ways that we actually are alike.

Science can help us see how plants have similarities with humans. Plants are alive, have sex, communicate and take up food. Some young plants share the root system of their parent plant – a “protective” behaviour that many human parents will recognise.

Rituals are another way of identifying with plants. For example, for people living on the island of Nusa Penida near Bali, the coconut palm is an important plant. Early in a child’s life, the father will plant a tree for the child. The tree’s development and life span then parallels the child’s and in ceremonies it is clothed and presented with food.

Coconut palms are an important part of ritual on some Indonesian islands.
Coconut palm image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Empathy with plants

Actively imagining the experiences of plants and animals is another way people can connect with plants. In a psychological experiment, participants were shown images of either a dead bird on a beach, covered in oil, or a group of trees that had been cut down.

Half the participants were told to view the image objectively, while the rest were asked to imagine how the bird or tree felt. The researchers found that people who actively empathised with the bird or tree not only expressed greater concern but also donated more money to protecting the species.

Art, imagination and ritual can all help people to imaginatively empathise with plants. So too can tending plants, as one experiences the joys and sorrows of plant life and death.

Make plants human

A third – and more controversial – way to connect with plants is through anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism means attributing human characteristics to plants, like describing a drooping plant as sad, or a sunflower as turning its face toward the sun.

Facing the sun: these sunflowers look very happy.
Sunflower image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Anthropomorphism of animals is common in entertainment and conservation campaigns but rarely used for plants. Some writers consider anthropomorphism to be unhelpful: it can misdirect thinking about plants, or sentimentalise plants in ways that belittle them. But experiments show that making or reading anthropomorphic pictures and stories can also help people to empathise with nature and want to act to protect nature.

Want to test this out for yourself? Try a thought experiment by watching this 1932 animation from Walt Disney. The dancing, courting and fighting trees are rather bewildering, but do you feel a twinge of anxiety when the trees are threatened by fire, or relief as the woodland recovers?

Feeling anxious?

Plant conservationists view plants as having value in their own right, so it might seem odd to suggest that we promote plant conservation by thinking about the ways plants are like humans. The strategies we suggest draw on theory that proposes that people are more likely to act in the interests of nature if we think about nature as being part of us. Appreciating our connections with plants may be the best way to begin respecting their amazing differences.


This article was written with Mung Balding, a graduate of the University of Melbourne’s Master of Environment program.

The Conversation

Kathryn Williams, Associate Professor in environmental psychology and Director, Office for Environmental Programs, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.