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Power-up for clean technology: John Dyson opinion piece in The Age

Tuesday, 31 March 2009
Power-up for clean technology: John Dyson opinion piece in The Age

AMID the gathering clouds of the global economic storm, clean technology innovation can offer Australia a ray of hope.

Clean technology is more than energy solutions for a polluted planet. It is promoting innovation in all industry sectors, from water preservation and quality to housing, food supply and security.

Australia was behind the first wave of clean energy innovations now powering the world. Twenty years ago, solar photovoltaic cell technology left for Spain. Shortly after, evacuated tube technology went to China. Then evacuated glazing technology went to Japan.

In 2001, Dr Shi and his solar cells developed at the University of NSW went to China — and his company Suntech is now the world's biggest producer of solar panels. In 2002, crystalline glass technology went to Germany. In 2007, the solar thermal compact linear Fresnel reflector from the University of NSW went to the US.

If we can develop the next wave of clean technology industries, we will be rewarded with hundreds of thousands of green infrastructure and manufacturing jobs, export industries, and investment and re-investment in Australian science and entrepreneurs.

Australia has abundant resources when it comes to wind, solar, tidal and geothermal power generation. Despite past losses, we have a new crop of clean technology companies poised to become world leaders, capable of growing into huge export-earners and job-creators.

We are world class in developing solar thermal technology, concentrating photovoltaic systems, developing thin-wafer solar cells and harnessing wave and tidal energy, with companies such as Ausra, Solar Systems, Oceanlinx, BioPower and CETO garnering attention overseas, and geothermal companies such as Geodynamics, Petratherm, Green Rock and Panax leading the field. We need to invest in these industries to enable them to become competitors with wind technology — an important industry, with imported technology and equipment. As yet, however, most of the benefits are flowing to other countries.

But to create these new industries, we need the right national investment structure to nurture our scientific research, support on-shore commercialisation and establish standards.

Globally, clean technologies have attracted serious investment. New Energy Finance found new investment in energy technologies expanded by 4.7 per cent, from $US148.4 billion ($A216.5 billion) in 2007, to $US155.4 billion in 2008. This includes venture capital, project finance, public markets and research and development expenditure. And some clean technology investments have already justified their early investment. Global revenues from the solar photovoltaics, wind power and biofuels sectors increased 53 per cent in 2008 — and are predicted to reach US$325 billion in the next decade, the latest Clean Energy Trends report shows.

Yesterday Australia's clean technology investment leaders met in Melbourne to review the return on investment potential and how governments and the private sector could support the growth of this national asset. Starfish Ventures, among other venture-capital firms, is investing in clean technology and searching for companies with the technology and leadership to ensure Australia develops the next crop of leaders.

In recent weeks, the Federal Government has committed itself to an $83 million Innovation Investment Follow-on Fund to help more than 20 venture-capital fund managers licensed by the Commonwealth under existing programs. This is a welcome move and a step in the right direction.

Federal and state governments are also playing a key role in creating the right regulatory structure to attract investment for local and international firms. This so far includes the proposed emissions trading scheme and renewable energy target.

While it is important to get these policies right, the investment community urgently needs regulatory clarity so investors can plan funds allocations and nurture current investments for the years ahead.

In the latter part of the last century, Australia developed strong manufacturing, construction and natural resources sectors. It is now time to seriously commit to a clean technology innovation and commercialisation program — and keep backing these companies until they grow into national brands.

By supporting research, innovation and entrepreneurship, Australians stand to reap the much-needed financial and intellectual benefits for decades to come.

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