The clean energy sector is moving so fast it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. Lacour Energy director Mark Rayner looks back at the past two decades in wonder.
How has the industry changed in 20 years?
The industry has changed dramatically over time, it’s pretty stunning when you think about it. When I started studying my Masters in Renewable Energy in 1998, the largest wind farm in Australia was just over 2MW at Esperance and solar PV was virtually non-existent in urban areas. Now we have gigawatts of capacity being built each year and most importantly have reached the point where no subsidies are required for large-scale renewable projects. The passion of everyone involved in the industry has remained the same, though.
What’s your favourite technology and why?
I admire the simplicity of solar PV and its infinite scalability, but I equally like standing underneath a large wind turbine and watching the blades slice through the air with elegance and power. I have seen some large-scale solar thermal in the US and would love to see a project go ahead here but the economics still look very challenging.
Ever had your doubts about whether clean energy would go mainstream?
Definitely. When the initial MRET was not expanded in the mid-2000s the industry had a significant pause and the future looked grim for a year or two. Then when Tony Abbott tried to “kill the RET” in 2014 it was definitely a period of high anxiety for the industry.
What’s the biggest headache in renewables at the moment?
Network connection and marginal loss factors are probably the biggest issues across the industry. Our wide brown land provides boundless opportunities for renewable energy projects but integrating them into our electricity grid, in a technically stable and an economically efficient manner, is an ongoing challenge.
Do you have any funny stories about projects you’ve worked on?
I led the first large-scale solar farm in Australia, for Verve Energy at Greenough River. The site was an old WWII artillery range and we had to conduct unexploded ordnance surveys before we began construction. We were only a week or two into construction when the landowner turned up and told me he had a “present” for me. He proceeded to take from his ute tray an intact unexploded shell. He was confident it wasn’t live, but both myself and the First Solar team on site weren’t, so we immediately enacted the safety protocol around unexploded ordnance. I would have preferred a nice bottle of red.
Is this a dangerous industry? Is it hard on families?
In general terms I don’t think it is a dangerous industry, but it depends on your role. I wouldn’t want to be abseiling down a wind turbine blade to do maintenance, but the people who do that work are well trained and manage all the risks accordingly. Any role where you are away from family and friends on a regular basis can be tough and I know my wife is always happy to see me come home to share the load with our children.
What’s the best job in renewables?
I think any job you love is great, whether that’s installing panels on rooftops, studying power system dynamics or researching the latest battery storage chemistry. I love my role as a project developer because there is so much variety and I am across just about every part of a project from talking with landowners about cattle prices to defining financial model inputs to the third decimal place – and everything in between.