Compromise and trade-offs

An inconvenient truth about the future of regional energy generation

I’ve been to many rural conferences, expos and field days in my 30 plus years of working in rural and regional industries*—mostly in agriculture and natural resource sectors, but I have never been to one of these conferences as an artist. I recently had the opportunity to look at a very familiar industry through a different lens. Attending as an artist was also quite a conversation starter.

National Renewables in Agriculture Conference, Albury NSW, 18 August 2022

On 18 August, I attended the National Renewables in Agriculture Conference in Albury, which is about investigating on-farm renewables as a valuable opportunity for farmers to cut costs and emissions. Conference delegates included farmers, agriculture and energy consultants, peak bodies and Government representatives, networking and sharing stories of innovative on-farm renewables, the business case for them, and looking at the drivers of energy use transformation in agriculture.

My self-assigned brief at this conference was to listen to the language used in the discussion around renewables in agriculture. The notebook I used on the day has 19 pages of notes—phrases, words and quotes from various speakers. I underlined words and phrases such as rising costs, social licence, exposure, disrupt energy markets, productivity increase, self-sufficiency, carbon neutral, optimisation, leveraging carbon markets... Listening to language is also about noting the omissions, one being the word environment. It was briefly mentioned in relation to the stockpiling of woodchips for burning as environmentally friendly energy storage, and in reference to issues with large scale solar, but most presenters ignored it, glossed over it, or cloaked in other turns of phrase such as sustainability, green energy, clean energy, co-existence. Business cases for renewables are clearly about the economic bottom line.

Few who understand the implications of climate change and accept the need for the world to urgently transition away from fossil fuels, dispute the need for renewables and their place in our major industries of the future, just as long as it’s not in their backyard. The bottom line being pursued involves trade-offs for the natural environment—be it impacts on land and ecosystems where renewables are located, or the mining that’s required to produce the raw materials for the turbines, panels and batteries. Even biofuels are dependent on monocultures, or waste from monocultures, to produce the raw materials.

More-than-human impacts

Recording subsurface vibrations at the base of a wind turbine, June 2022
Recording subsurface vibrations at the base of a wind turbine, June 2022

Part of my Regional Futures work has been looking at the impact of renewables on the more-than-human world. My time reading books, poring over research papers, editorials, social media threads, and talking to knowledge specialists and interested community members has raised a number of issues about our push to renewables impacting on more-than-human species—things like wind turbine placements impacting the flight paths of bats and birds; earthworms and other macrofauna being impacted by their sensitivity to low-frequency vibrations from wind turbines; and large scale solar farms changing the movement of water through the landscape. Even small coastal off-grid, co-operative lifestyle set-ups require land to be cleared to be productive or to provide enough light for solar energy production, in turn creating imbalances in the environment. Humans dominate the narrative at every turn.

At a time when human activities have become so deeply embedded in earth surface processes that even the molecular composition of the atmosphere bears our signature, the most urgent task for all fields of human endeavour is to reframe our relations to the more-than-human world. We don’t need more modernist constructions like bridges; we need a different mode of relating to the river, a conversation about what it is like to all be standing on the same bank. – Lesley Head, More than human, more than natureGriffith Review. 2011.

Social licence before environment

I was discussing the environment’s lack of presence in conversations in the Renewables in Agriculture conference proceedings with my roadtrip partner, Orana Arts’ Executive Director Alicia Leggett. She was very surprised by my observation. She had assumed the environment was front and centre of agriculture’s consideration of renewables. As I explained, those who do put the environment higher on their list are far fewer in number, and they know it won’t sell the message to mainstream agriculture.

When the 2021 Australian State of the Environment Report was released in July this year, there was outrage from farmers and farming groups about how the report overlooked the contribution of farmers looking after large tracts of land and natural assets, and the millions of dollars being spent to address the industry’s impact on the environment. I saw some of this outrage expressed on social media, and I know farmers who believe they shouldn’t carry the burden of caring for the environment alone. If the wider community benefit, there should be compensation.

The incentive for change in agriculture has rarely been about putting the environment first. Even those considered innovative leaders in agriculture today, who have made significant changes to the way they farm through a variety of regenerative practices, have done so because issues of land and soil degradation, productivity losses, rising input costs, and the impact of one natural disaster after another becoming too hard to ignore. It’s been reactionary. Then there’s the whole thing of social licence—or what the consumer thinks of you, and how that affects your markets. This is an issue I’ve done extensive work on for industry groups over decades. If environmental outcomes are achieved in the process, it’s often a by-product…unless there’s money in it.

Drone footage of farming country on the Western Plains, 2019
Drone footage of farming country on the Western Plains, 2019

Just another chapter not likely to end happily ever after

In the 234 years since colonisation, our regions have been explored, claimed, cleared, carved up, renamed, fenced off, stocked and planted with introduced species, ploughed, grazed, traded, developed, manipulated, and irreversibly changed. There are still many farmers in business today who have never undertaken environmental works on farm—they’re just very quiet about it. Some are still clearing large tracts of land, over-stocking, over-grazing, over-farming, while relying on a reasonable relationship with their bank, a few good seasons, and off-farm income. The many hectares of solar-panel and wind turbines covering the hills around my home region in Central West NSW have dramatically changed the rural aesthetic, but they are just another chapter in Australia’s history of exploitive land use and resource harvesting. Solar farms are as much a monoculture as any crop that might produce the soy, almonds or oats for those vegan lattes many of us enjoy—they simply power the coffee machine and keep the ‘milk’ cold.

The Renewable Energy Zones (REZs), like the one here in the Central West, will be energy hubs of the future—supplying power and food to people often far removed from the on-ground realities of life in the regions. Author and Guardian Australia rural and regional editor, Gabrielle Chan gave the keynote address at the Renewables Conference, saying the public’s expectations of rural Australia are often contradictory.

2018 poll commissioned by Greenpeace indicated more than 70 percent of Australians wanted the government of the day to set a high renewable energy target to put downward pressure on power prices. The reality of how we achieve this is incredibly complex, even wicked. My Regional Futures colleague and collaborator, disabled artist Allison Reynolds has said many times in recent months that the issues of the future we’re now facing as a nation/world are the same issues people with disabilities have always faced. For the Regional Futures project, she’s been considering a solarpunk future not quite as bright and shiny as some might imagine. Post-transition won’t be Nirvana.  

Former CSIRO research director now renewables entrepreneur and consultant, Glenn Platt made the somewhat controversial final conference presentation of the day. He stressed the transition to renewables will be hard—not impossible, but very, very difficult. By 2030, we need three times today’s grid scale wind and solar, the cheapest renewables available to us. Within this same time frame, electricity consumption will double. We’ll also need big increases in storage capacity and rooftop solar. There’s no escaping the reality that regional NSW will bear the load of these required increases and there’s no place for contradictory expectations. If we want to maintain the quality of living we’ve become accustomed to, the future will be about compromises, trade-offs, and behavioural change. End-users of our energy supplies—the power and food, need to know this.

My personal hope is that the more entangled we allow ourselves to become with the more-than-human world that supports our life on this planet, the more we’ll consider behavioural change the easier option, and the less we’ll all lose in the trade-offs.

Addendum: This post is provocative. This is an intentional action within my work. As an artist, I don’t wish to lecture or direct, but simply question and reflect. This is a fine line to walk and I don’t always get it right. I have been and continue to be heavily invested in the future of rural and regional NSW and that can make it difficult to say some things. Not everyone will agree, but surely, that’s better than indifference.

*I have worked as a media and communications consultant in a range of rural and regional sectors and industries since the mid-1990s, including Landcare groups and grower groups in conservation agriculture, regenerative farming, and irrigation. I grew up on a farm, my family are still farming, and my partner and I farmed for 10 years during the Millennium drought.

Recording the sounds of worms and millipedes in humus-rich soil
Recording the sounds of worms and millipedes in humus-rich soil

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