Environmental Philanthropy Award 2020

A vision for the Northern Territory’s renewable future

Eytan Lenko was living in the Northern Territory when the Territory government lifted its moratorium on fracking. It wasn’t a popular move but there was an understanding among Territorians that something had to be done to help revive the local economy that was in dire shape. Eytan heard the discussions and took part in the conversations at the school gate when he dropped off his kids. What he heard was that Territorians didn’t feel they had a lot of choice: fracking was something that had to be done, on economic grounds.

Eytan reflected on the big environmental campaign of the time – the fight against the Adani coal mine in Queensland. "In some ways [that campaign] was successful and some ways it wasn’t but the big weakness was that it was saying, ‘We just have to stop something’ and the people who were depending on that for jobs, just heard ‘You don’t want us to have jobs, you don’t care about us economically’,’’ Eytan says. “So, there was a worry that the fracking campaign in the Northern Territory was going to go down the same path and the sense I got was that the people felt like they were being told that it had to be done on economic grounds.’’

In one critical sense it is that observation – about the need for building something for the economy, rather than taking something away from it – that underscores what became the 10 Gigawatt Vision.

The Vision was an alternative economic plan for the Territory, where locals could support an initiative because they wanted it to happen, rather than aligning themselves against an idea. As chair of Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), Eytan was integral to working with the Environment Centre Northern Territory on the plan behind the vision. The plan’s simple foundation is using the Territory’s abundant sunshine and low-cost solar energy to drive investment. According to this vision, the Northern Territory would become a renewable energy superpower, driving investment in 10 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2030 – or 20 times the current renewable energy target. And more than 20 billion tonnes of carbon would be prevented from entering atmosphere, while creating more than 8000 jobs.

The important ingredient was the collaboration with the Environment Centre Northern Territory, which Centre co-director Shar Molloy describes as a genuine partnership in a location that needs such alliances to help build momentum for change. The coming together point for BZE and the Environment Centre was the common desire to create an alternative economic plan for the Territory, based on renewables rather than gas.

The Vision document that resulted from the collaboration helped create an atmosphere for private investment that has become a catalyst for other projects that puts the Territory at the forefront of the global move away from fossil fuels. The world’s largest solar farm – Sun Cable’s Asia-Singapore Power Link – is poised to be built on a 12,000ha site halfway between Darwin and Alice Springs. (Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes was one of the early investors in Sun-Cables’ power link.) While some of the power generated will feed into the Darwin electricity grid, about two-thirds of it will be exported to Singapore by high voltage undersea cables.

The 62-page report, The 10 Gigawatt Vision: How renewable energy can power jobs and investment in the Northern Territory, was launched in Darwin, at the Northern Territory Parliament in June 2019. The original goal was to provide the Territory with an alternative path to prosperity and then, in Eytan’s words, the Vision “started getting legs.’’

“It turned out that there was business that was interested in investing that way and we brought business together and we brought research and we brought government and you could see the lightbulb turn on in government,’’ Eytan says.

“Oh, there is something in this…this is an opportunity we can’t not explore…’’’

Shar Molloy says with a Territory election looming it was vital that the Vision had bi-partisan support. A grassroots campaign was started and a local by-election in February became the testing ground to see how the candidates would respond to the notion of an economic future built on renewables. It became clear that candidates realised that the community understood how important renewables had become. “Parties kept upping each other,’’ Shar recalls. The mood was changing: in the Territory election campaign in August, all the main parties backed renewable energy.

BZE and the Environment Centre’s vision was perhaps assisted by working on a simpler playing field than Queensland and NSW, where fossil fuel businesses have been operating for years. The stakes in those states are high for making changes that may imperil jobs and the local economy. “In the NT, we’re talking about a proposed new industry, so there aren’t people working there yet,’’ Eytan says.

“The people in the NT have a pretty interesting philosophy: they see themselves as pioneers, they see themselves as self-reliant, who can get stuff done,’’ Eytan explains.

“I think everyone gets that this is the way of the future, so why would you muck around basing your stuff on the past? And also, the gas stuff has issues - there’s issues of social licence, people don’t like it. All around Darwin there are people driving cars with the yellow triangles, saying “Stop fracking’’. There’s no opposition to the kinds of things we’re talking about, so it’s just another pathway forwards. The NT is a different situation because whatever you’re talking about, you’re talking about the future whereas other states you’re bumping up against current reality.’’

But for all of that, Eytan is certain that philanthropy was “completely critical’ to getting the Vision off the page and into reality.

“Who else would be thinking about the economic direction of the NT? Maybe a consulting company… where the standard approach is to start where we are and there’s a default future that you do the traditional economic modelling, which is very evolutionary, rather than revolutionary,’’ Eytan says. “To take a different or alternative approach to how the NT could develop, that is only ever going to be done by an independent organisation that needed to be backed by philanthropy.’’

And once all that work has been done, there is no reason not to keep growing the idea and its application. “We’ll be damned to do all this work and do it only this once,’’ he says. “The bigger vision is to do this 10, 20 times.’’

In the interim, Eytan has been appointed to the NT Economic Reconstruction Committee, which gives him a bigger stake in the potential economic future and a clear view about how renewable energy can provide alternative investment and manufacturing outcomes.

“There’s opportunities for exports, there’s opportunities for making stuff, in aluminium, steel or hydrogen and exporting that itself,’’ Eytan says. “All of which diversifies the NT economy, which will make it a more sustainable economy, and [help] to withstand shocks in the market.’’

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