A discussion with Monica Oliphant, solar energy pioneer.
The journey of a woman who has been dedicating her life to solar energy research and projects for more than 40 years.
“When I started, people who promoted renewable energy were regarded as tree huggers.”
This article was published in The Beam #4 — Subscribe now for more on the topic.
Monica Oliphant is a pioneer in solar energy research, and we were very honoured to get the chance to speak with her. Amongst other things, the British-Australian scientist has been President of the International Solar Energy Society, worked as an energy research scientist for the Electricity Trust of South Australia for 20 years, and taught in three Australian Universities. Despite an incredible life-trajectory, Monica Oliphant doesn’t seem keen to retire anytime soon, currently running her own consultancy, working on developing community-owned solar and developing energy efficiency projects together with local governments.
Monica has received several awards in recognition for her work in renewable energy and has served on a number of Australian Federal and State Australian Government Energy Related Committees. We spoke with Monica about her past and present experiences working in this field, her role as a leader in a male-dominated industry, and what keeps her motivated.
Hello Monica, thank you so much for taking some time to speak with us. Could you tell us the story about how you first got involved with solar energy? Do you remember the day you told yourself you would make a career in the industry?
I certainly do remember the day I first decided to work in the area of solar energy. It was in the early 1970s, my husband had recently died of cancer aged 35, a few weeks before our second daughter was born. I was not sure what work I was going to do and finances were tight. I had done research in laser physics but knew I did not want to continue in that field. It was the time of conflict in the Middle East and oil embargos. I was washing the dishes at home, my two daughters nearby, and listening to the radio, when virologist Nobel Prize winner Sir Macfarlane Burnett came on. He said that if we used solar energy then we would not need to fight over oil. I immediately thought — that’s the area I would like to work in, and so started my 40+ year interest in working towards a renewable energy future.
I’ve read that you were the only female physics graduate in your group at the University of Adelaide. How was it studying in a very much male-dominated area in the early 60s?
I was the only physics student in my Honours course at University of Adelaide, then the only one in my Master’s Course at London University, and later only one undertaking solar research at the Flinders University of South Australia, but I must admit that I never felt discrimination through being female. It was only when I joined the very male-dominated area of the Electricity Supply Industry that I encountered problems — and then mainly from one person — who when I tried to show initiative would not read my work and asked me if I was trying to take away his job — which I certainly was not. Initially people automatically thought that being female I was a clerical assistant.
You contributed to setting standards for women in science, environmental and renewable energy research. How do you think women are progressing in these areas today?
When I started there were not many women in the wind and solar fields but now there are many in all aspects of renewable energy research, business, policy development and implementation — as there always are in areas of science that have benefits for humanity. I was for a while part of the women in science program but cannot lay claim to being an activist but am very appreciative of those who are. However, I have never wavered from the conviction of the need for a renewables future and have worked hard to that end — as have many others. It is definitely an area women do well in and are attracted to.
Renewables were viewed with suspicion when you began your career and it’s now becoming pretty much mainstream. What do you think the turning point was? And how did you find the motivation to keep up your research when everyone was doubtful about it?
Back when I started, solar was mainly used for water heating, wind for farms, small scale water pumping and electricity generation and PV for providing power for satellites. And at that time people who promoted renewable energy were regarded as “tree huggers”. Now, as you say, renewables are pretty much mainstream, and it won’t be long before there will be few areas of energy use, electricity, low and high grade heat and liquid and gaseous fuels that will not be replaced by some form of renewables.
The late 1980s and 1990s for me was a period when it was hard to see much progress in the use of renewables and I spent much of this time working in the area of Residential Energy Efficiency — which really was very useful as renewables and energy efficiency must always go hand in hand and this helped me keep motivation.
I don’t think there was an exact turning point in time to the acceptance of renewables, but several events have been important contributors to change, starting with the Kyoto protocol on Climate Change in 1995 followed by the IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] reports which helped achieve a majority acceptance of the scientific fact that climate change is being exacerbated by global use of fossil fuels and the need to do something about it — a transition to renewable energy being a definite part of the solution. Another major event was the introduction in 2000 of the feed-in-tariff policy in Germany that then went global and resulted in renewables, especially photovoltaics, to become financially accessible to more people. Also Germany became somewhat of a role model showing that renewables could be integrated reliably into homes and into grids. In addition there was much good research being conducted globally in wind and solar to improve efficiencies that were being implemented commercially in larger projects.
Also one should not forget that large scale production of PV in China has been driving prices down together with that country’s desire to move away from the use of coal. By virtue of its size, what happens in China has large global impact. China has for some years now been the largest producer and user of solar water heaters, wind generators, hydro, PV and electric vehicles. This has been aided by the realisation that air pollution as a result of fossil fuel use was affecting people’s health and reducing life expectancy in some regions and was affecting quality of life and the environment. Also China could see the clean energy sector was a new source of jobs and export revenue. This has resulted in direct and indirect ways of increasing the renewables market and investment globally.
A contributor to change in recent times has also been that community, rather than governments, have been leading and demanding change causing governments and high polluting businesses to realise the transition to renewables is closer than expected and changes to the status quo are needed for political and commercial survival.
During your career, what would you say were the most important barriers to solar energy, and renewable energy in general?
The most important barriers in the past have been cost and a belief, by many, that renewables will not work or be able to replace reliably and cost effectively traditional sources of power, especially base load in electricity supply systems and provision of industrial and commercial process heat. The usual comments from sceptics are — “what do you do when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun shine?”. Now that this can be shown to be a non-issue, the main barriers are having a good strategic transition plan in place that covers the high penetration of variable renewables into the electricity grid for both large scale generation and small, particularly rooftop solar. Such plans should address regulatory issues, market design, generator scheduling, storage, adequate ancillary services and when part of a large network — sufficient interconnectors for both import and export capacities. In addition there is the big barrier to overcome of deliberate disinformation — particularly from suppliers of traditional fossil fuel and nuclear large centralised power supply system, as well as misinformation from people with a limited knowledge base — all part of the current explosion in “fake news”.
Talking about increasing penetration within the community, you are currently working on community-owned solar, and recently went to Beijing to lead a team of scientists from Malaysia, Russia and China to undertake a feasibility study on renewable energy. What keeps you going?
It is an exciting time to be part of the renewables transformation. It is so good to see the enthusiasm of the young and interact with them and see positive signs of progress. As I grow older the areas in which I can make a contribution have changed and I am not so reticent about speaking my mind on issues I believe to be important. Also as my two daughters and five grandchildren live quite far away in different parts of Australia I need something to keep me busy and interested on a day-to-day basis! I am very proud of my family and though I don’t think any will go into renewables, they all have strong environmental and ethical beliefs. Hopefully they will remember me as someone that was part of a movement towards a safer, cleaner future.
“More needs to be done, and we need all renewables working co-operatively together and together with energy efficiency if targets are to be reached.”
If you could only keep one thing you’ve done during your outstanding career, what would it be? What do you consider today as your best achievement?
I don’t think I have done anything really special but I am quite proud of my early 1990s research when I worked at the Electricity Trust of South Australia (ETSA), on the impact of energy efficient appliances, solar water heating and education on energy use in low income families. This was done together with the Public Housing Authority, SA Housing Trust, and involved 42 homes including controls and was the first detailed residential end-use monitoring program in our State and one of the largest of its kind in Australia. It became the forerunner of future innovative household monitoring programs in SA. Another area I am proud of is being part of the Australian Federal Government’s first Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) review committee that in 2003 brought to fruition a 15-year up front deeming period of Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) for small scale PV and wind less than 10 kW. This helped to make PV more affordable. I also have been lucky to have been on the Board of the International Solar Energy Society (ISES Solar Energy) and to serve a term as President which has given me many opportunities to observe what is going on round the world and to interact with many like-minded people and pass on findings. It has been a great experience.
You made a lifetime commitment to improving all people’s access to environmentally and economically sustainable energy. Why is it so important that everyone, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status, have access to clean energy?
I think that the UN Sustainable Development Goal, plus Sustainability for All (SE4ALL) Goals summarises this well. SDG7 states: “Energy is central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today. Be it for jobs, security, climate change, food production or increasing incomes, universal access to energy is essential. Sustainable energy is opportunity — it transforms lives, economies and the planet.”
And SE4ALL objectives, to be achieved by 2030, are:
- providing universal access to modern energy services;
- doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and
- doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
2016 IEA projections show that at the current rate of progress, only 91% of the world will have electricity access in 2030, while only 72% will have access to clean cooking. Improvements in energy intensity are also projected to fall short of the 2030 goal while the share of renewables will only reach 21%. Those estimates underscore the need for urgent action. In the developed world where there is almost 100% access to electricity, in many places prices are so high that they impact on quality of life and the goal is to introduce a secure, reliable and cost effective renewable energy supply that reduces prices to enable more affordable and sustainable living.
You’ve been in the industry for quite a while now. How do you see the future of solar energy? Are you optimistic?
All statistics show that solar energy penetrations are increasing at a rapid rate — but it appears not fast enough to reach SE4ALL and Paris COP21 goals. More needs to be done, and we need all renewables working co-operatively together and together with energy efficiency if targets are to be reached. However, 40 years ago I would not even have imagined that current penetrations would have been achieved. Now I am more optimistic of the future having the knowledge that it is the people — the youth, the community — that want change and are independently driving it and that in the end this will influence governments to deliver the necessary legislation, regulations and conditions for a renewable energy future to happen — hopefully in time.
Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou