Doctor of Philosophy
School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication
Bunting, Andrea Maree, The social shaping of wind power in Australia, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Social Sciences, Media and Communication, University of Wollongong, 2003. http://ro.uow.edu.au/theses/2073
This thesis examines the history of wind power in Australia from the late 1970s to the early 2000s, informed by the body of theory known as the Social Shaping of Technology (SST). Until recently, wind power played a negligible role in power generation apart from for remote area power supplies. Following the introduction of two renewable energy support mechanisms in the late 1990s, Australia experienced the beginnings of a 'wind rush'.
It is argued that the treatment of wind power should be explained using a synthesis of a contextual historical approach and an interpretive approach.
The contextual approach focuses on the structure of and changes to the Australian electricity sector, and the evolution of environment policy. It highlights the importance of plentiful, cheap electricity supplies for Australia's economy. Much of Australia has abundant fossil fuel and hydro resources, and wind power was regarded as too expensive to be a viable alternative. Exceptions included windy remote areas, where wind power could supplant diesel fuel, and for a time some state grids, when future supply of conventional fuels looked uncertain. During the 1990s, the greenhouse effect became a public policy issue, in effect redefining the meaning of wind power as a greenhouse gas-free energy source. From the mid 1990s, the electricity sector was restructured: the electricity utilities were disaggregated, corporatised and in some cases privatised; and a National Electricity Market was introduced. Falling electricity prices initially made it more difficult for wind power to compete with electricity from conventional fuels. From the late 1990s, green power schemes and a Mandatory Renewable Energy Target were introduced, providing a new market for wind power and other forms of renewable energy. The thesis shows how attempts to introduce wind power facilities were influenced by these contextual features.
However, this does not enable adequate explanation of attitudes towards wind power, or debates over how wind power should be deployed. Thus the contextual analysis is integrated with an analysis of how different actors have interpreted wind power during the period under examination. The thesis explores two themes that have emerged from analysis of the positions taken by protagonists: the interpretation of wind power as an environmental technology, drawing on literature in Environmental Sociology; and the interpretation of the technical capability of wind power in the electricity grid, drawing on literature in the Social Construction of Technology.
The first interpretative theme deals with the construction and evolution of the idea of an environmental technology. In the 1970s and early 1980s, many environmentalists depicted wind power as an 'alternative technology', a holistic notion incorporating visions of sociopolitical change. These visions have changed over time, as wind power has increasingly come to be regarded by governments, business and sections of the environment movement as potentially offering new business opportunities. Renewable energy support mechanisms introduced as part of greenhouse policies have accelerated this trend. Yet, as the number of planned wind power installations has increased, a movement opposed to the development of wind farms in scenic areas has also grown. This opposition has highlighted the tension between local and global environmental protection.
The second interpretative theme deals with the technical capability of wind power in the electricity grid. Unlike most conventional energy sources, which are predictable, controllable and centralised, wind power is intermittent, relatively unpredictable and diffuse. Electricity supply and use patterns, and practices in the electricity industry have evolved around the characteristics of conventional energy sources. There have been debates about how wind power's technical characteristics impact on wind power's value to the grid and how it should be deployed. This thesis draws on the concept of interpretative flexibility, which has been used to illustrate how negotiations over the technical meaning of a new technology shape its design and usage patterns. At the time of writing, no clear consensus has emerged.
The thesis demonstrates that no simple explanatory framework can deal with the complexity of the history of wind power in Australia. It argues that a contextual historical approach can be integrated with interpretive approaches to provide a more comprehensive account of the fortunes of this new technology. While the thesis does not directly address the policy question of how greater usage of wind power could be advanced, it concludes by asking what would have had to be different in order for wind power to have been more widely adopted, and what lessons wind power advocates can draw from this study.