The good, the bad and the ugly: What Australia's getting wrong with renewable energy

Australia needs to transition to renewables, but experts are warning a better approach is needed.

😃 The Good: Mining set to boom.

😔 The Bad: Destroying endangered species.

😢 The Ugly: Contributing to modern slavery.

Wind and solar are being marketed as the saviour to our climate crisis worries, but cracks are beginning to form in their squeaky-clean veneer.

For some Australians, the processes used to manufacture many solar panels are so dark they struggle to look at them.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't convert to renewables, but we are being offered an opportunity to get things right as we leave the dirty fossil fuel industry behind. This is why Australia needs to improve.

Australia importing solar panels made by slaves

This week, the latest Global Slavery Index found the problem has dramatically worsened in nations Australia imports from.

  • There are an estimated 5.8 million slaves in China.

  • Up to US$1.3 billion ($2 billion) worth of solar panels imported into Australia in 2021 risk of being associated with slavery.

Much of the silica used in solar panels is believed to originate from Xinjiang, a formerly autonomous region the Chinese state now controls. There are credible reports many ethnic Uyghurs are being forced into labour and other human rights violations by the government.

Left - the door of a Uyghur activist after he was arrested in China. Right - Uyghurs going through a barbed wire checkpoint in Xinjiang.
There are credible reports that ethic Uyghurs in Xinjiang are subject to human rights abuses. Source: Reuters/Getty

Uyghur woman Ramila Chanisheff left the region in the 1980s. "Every Uyghur in Australia has a very close family member who has disappeared," she told Yahoo. "With two cousins I don't have any evidence as to where they are, if they're dead or alive."

While she supports renewable energy, seeing solar panels on houses near her Adelaide home is "extremely difficult".

Brian Kraft from consultancy firm Ndevr Environmental doesn't think the situation needs to remain "grim". It just requires companies to pay more for traceable products — something he thinks consumers are signalling they want.

"Yes, buying traceable products is a challenge, but it's definitely doable," he said.

Koalas habitat is being bulldozed

In the rush to convert to wind energy, regulators in Queensland are allowing project managers to bulldoze threatened species habitat.

The issue made headlines in April when tech giant Apple boldly pulled out of a $1 billion wind farm project associated with mining mogul Andrew "Twiggy" Forrest, because of its likely impact on endangered koalas and gliders.

An aerial shot of the Kaban wind farm.
Construction of this wind farm could result in 172 hectares of habitat removed. Source: Supplied

But it's not just one project that's leading conservationists to urge the Queensland government to reform its regulations. In 2022, Yahoo revealed concern that koalas would be displaced by the noise of turbines because they would compete with male mating bellows. "We can move the wind farms, but we can't move the koalas," biologist Roger Martin warned.

Australia's miners set to get richer

Traditional mining industries are polluting the planet and need to be quickly phased out, but that doesn't mean our resources boom is over.

There's expected to be domestic and global demand for critical minerals used as components in solar panels and wind turbines.

Many of our minerals are sent overseas for processing but the Clean Energy Council believes Australia has an opportunity to further benefit by increasing onshore manufacturing. This could create more jobs. One simple solution proposed by its chief policy officer Arron Wood would be setting targets for locally manufactured products.

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