Startup Analysis

“Bloody smart people”: It’s up to startups to tackle climate change, and bring jobs to regional Australia

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Redback Technologies chief Patrick Matweew. Source: Supplied.

Earlier this month, the re-election of Scott Morrison led to mixed reactions from the startup scene, with some founders dismayed and calling for a re-focus on innovation.

However, there was also another strong message coming from the tech community, one of serious concern for the environment.

Recent StartupSmart research found that climate change was the number one social concern for founders. And, while the Morrison government may not be as committed to tackling climate change as many would hope, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we mere tech mortals can do to help.

Speaking to StartupSmart after the election result, Girl Geek Academy founder and chief Sarah Moran said while the result wasn’t good news for the planet, she will be focusing on building up a business that can help.

“If we live in a capitalist society where business can actually make effective change, then fuck it, that’s what I’ll do,” she says.

If change isn’t happening through politics, she plans to make it happen through business.

“Politics is one way change happens, but there are multiple ways that social change comes about,” she explains.

And this is particularly true when it comes to finding solutions for tackling climate change.

“The tech industry is a bunch of really bloody smart people with the tools to build great stuff,” Moran says.

“If we go into startups to change the world, and the world is about to be cooked, then maybe we should all be taking a good hard look at ourselves, and what our businesses are doing, and whether our businesses are doing the most to solve climate change, because politics clearly isn’t.”

For Moran, if the government isn’t going to make tackling climate change a priority, the community should feel a “collective responsibility” to do what they can. That includes the startup community, whether their product is energy-focused or not.

“We’re technologists, we solve problems for a living,” she says.

“This is the biggest problem we will ever face, and so it’s time to put our shoes on and start pounding the pavement to make sure that gets done.”

Girl Geek Academy

Sarah Moran and the Girl Geek Academy team. Source: Supplied

Bernie Woodcroft, director of University of Queensland’s iLab accelerator, tells StartupSmart startups are, by definition, used to getting things done in an innovative way and with very little money.

When you apply that ethos to creating industries that can work and be sustainable, “that attitude works quite well”, he says.

Woodcroft also notes, as a general statement, that young founders tend to be focussed on tackling big-picture issues.

“That energy from these young founders finds a natural home in these big problems facing the world,” he adds.

In emerging startups and tech companies, “building a culture that encourages no waste, that encourages healthy living, that encourages good use of power is again more prevalent”.

However, for startups, this sentiment can only go so far, especially when they’re in the early stages. Unless they’re a renewables-focused business, sustainability may not be top of their priority list.

Many startups have “much more pressing agenda items”, Woodcroft explains, whether that’s getting traction in the market, acquiring customers or securing funding.

The broader climate change issue might be important to them in terms of “culture and the way they think about things”, he says.

“But if they’ve got no cash, that’s not what they’re going to think about.”

A bipartisan approach

Since the election, new Energy Minister Angus Taylor has refused to shift from the Liberal party’s plans to cut emissions by 26% by 2030. The Labor goal was to cut emissions by 45%.

In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald, Taylor instead called on Labor to adopt its own plan “which was accepted by the Australian People”.

“Now is the opportunity for Labor to accept the policy we took to the election and create a bipartisan approach to these issues,” Taylor said.

However, modelling from energy analytics firm RepuTex released today predicts that if there is no change at all in federal policy, 52% of the National Energy Market in Australia could be generated by renewables by 2030, anyway.

This is due in part to state energy targets, but also to growing numbers of rooftop solar panel installations and additional capacity from new wind and solar developments.

“As this capacity is added to the system, competitive pressure from new low-cost supply is modelled to significantly limit demand for coal-fired energy, even without a direct emission constraint,” the RepuTex report says.

A lack of federal energy policy framework, however, could ultimately lead to price hikes.

“Without a robust policy framework to incentivise new investment prior to large coal-fired generation retirements, energy investment is again expected to slow,” the report said.

“The long-term absence of a federal energy policy framework is therefore likely to be felt in the form of elevated wholesale prices and increased volatility in the future.”

Speaking to StartupSmart, Patrick Matweew, chief executive low-cost renewables startup Redback Technologies, points out the “rapid decline” in the cost of solar technology, which means it is now possible to build small-scale energy generators for houses, factories, farms or anywhere else.

“This gave people the ability to participate in a market that otherwise they were locked out from,” he says.

Households now have the opportunity to lower their electricity bills and invest in renewable energy at the same, thereby disrupting the way the market consumes energy as a whole.

“We don’t really wait for policy anymore .. we’re taking things into our own hands,” Matweew explains.

“There’s a huge underserved market there,” he adds.

While government support is helpful, and welcome in terms of faster adoption of the technology, policies have to be clear and consistent.

“It needs to be a policy that is transparent and easy to enact, and not a bureaucratic monster,” he says.

Opportunities ahead

Another aspect of the renewable energy argument is the potential effect it would have on jobs in rural Australia. Moran suggests this was part of the reason for Queensland’s swing to the Liberal party; there was a threat to mining and other traditional industry jobs, and nothing there to fill them.

“If we want to make long-term action on climate change we have to think about the short-term impact on jobs,” she explains.

“You can’t tell someone to vote against them having a job … it’s just not an option you can give yourself unless there’s a clear path to what’s next,” she explains.

However, Matweew says the renewable energy industry itself is well placed to pick up the employment slack.

A lot of the jobs created by solar farms, for example, are “scattered around the country, not just in the big cities but in the fringe areas of the states”.

There are jobs in maintaining and servicing equipment, he adds. And Redback itself works with partners supplying solutions to customers, and offers upskilling opportunities.

“There’s a lot of value and job creation that happens, it just happens differently,” Matweew says.

“If you’re in a mining community you might not have that boom anymore, but I think it’s much more sustainable job creation because the service … is perpetual.”

At the same time, he says there are future opportunities in renewable energy.

“We’re at the beginning of the technological curve,” he explains.

“There are so many opportunities that we don’t know about yet.”

energy

Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor. Source: AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts.

According to Moran, if the startup community is going to push for action against climate change, it has to consider the impact on people working in traditional sectors — jobs usually in rural Australia, Moran says.

“When we’re looking at old sector jobs what is our role in as new-sector job creators in bringing people along in that journey,” she explains.

“As startup creators we know that new growth comes from our sector, so we can’t just sit in our little city bubbles and expect that the country will come along with us – we need to bring them along on that journey,” she adds.

“That is part of our role and our responsibility.”

Woodcroft agrees that this isn’t something the tech industry has always managed well.

In sectors such as mining or agriculture, “we haven’t done a great job at really being able to, in concrete terms, demonstrate how the innovation that will come from tech startups will influence their lives for the better”, he says.

This is, again, partly a generational thing. People are now growing up in a world where technology is a part of life, and where networks are being rolled out to support more technology development.

“These things will allow some of those benefits to be more clearly felt and understood, and will allow some of those communities to play in this new world a lot better,” Woodcroft says.

However, it’s also the responsibility of the tech industry to involve the regional community directly. Although a lot of the time startups are talking about making a global impact, and many are involved with the city community hubs, they should also be aligned with what’s happening in between.

“It’s important that we always remember, as we think about our future and the way we go about things, that if we don’t take our whole community along then that’s really going to be to the detriment of all of us,” Woodcroft explains.

“I do believe that when we do something that disrupts people or when we do something that is exciting for us but has no impact for other people, we have to recognise that, and spend more time engaging with those communities.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].