A woman who has inspired many for more than 40 years, Monica is strongly influencing the energy transition as a maverick researcher and a tireless advocate.
I am very honoured that I got the chance to talk to Monica Oliphant AO. She is a British-Australian pioneer in the renewable energy sector. She is strongly influencing the energy transition as a maverick researcher and a tireless advocate. With a background as a laser physicist, Monica started in the 1970s as a senior research scientist at the Electricity Trust of South Australia (ETSA) enabling grid-connected Solar Power Systems .
After an impressive career of almost 40 years in the renewable energy sector, Monica was President of the International Solar Energy Society from 2008 to 2009. Now, besides working as a consultant to develop community-owned solar and energy efficiency projects with local governments, she is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at three Australian universities [2,3]. As stated in her Senior South Australian of the Year 2016 announcement: "Monica has maintained a lifelong commitment to improving all people's access, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status, to environmentally and economically sustainable energy" .
- Since you have already reached several highest honours, what is your daily motivation to keep on working and promoting the solar sector?
"Well, there are a number of motivations. Firstly, our job is not completed, and the goal is to get to 100% renewable energy, for both electricity and energy in general as soon as possible. And because my children have left home and my work and superannuation provide me with enough money to live on, I can do things I am interested in."
- What is one of the most valuable lessons you have learned in life?
"That if you have a passion for something, you should work towards it. No matter what it is, but hopefully, it is something that will benefit the people around you. Money is important but is not the main motivation. So, you should work towards a job and a career which really is something you believe in."
- What was your favourite moment within the last 10 years?
"It was associated with getting the Order of Australia (AO) but not so much the getting of the award itself. But it was when I did get the AO and all the family was with me and my grandchildren thought I was cool."
- If you had one wish, what would it be?
"Selfishly - to keep healthy, I expect. That is important so one can keep on trying to be useful. Otherwise, it would be for more equity and a sustainable world for all."
- How do you personally use renewable energy? What is the source of electricity and heating at your own house?
"It has been a transition over time – starting up with a solar water heater, then a whole lot of energy efficiency initiatives, adding in double glazing and a glass enclosure sun room. Then I added PV and also started recycling water, because water is an issue here, and put in rainwater tanks. So, I have done several things to reduce energy and water at my place. And because my background is in physics, I get all my electricity bills and plotted the graphs on how the energy changed with time. But the biggest drop in energy was when my daughters left home. Still, since then energy use has been gradually declining as I add small additional energy efficiency measures."
- From a scientific point of view, what are the most astonishing technological developments during the last decade (within the renewable energy sector)? And what needs to change to make even more people use green energy?
"I reckon one of the biggest developments (but it was probably not within the last 10 years) was the feed-in-tariff. That did make a really big change to making PV cost-effective, and the initiative went round the world. But for the individual, it has been PV much more than solar water heating. In fact, the cost of PV is such that you can boost your water heater with PV now and you do not have to go down the thermal route. So, initially residential and then later commercial rooftop solar and then solar farms are probably one of the biggest changes."
Monica thinks that one of the biggest challenges is to properly manage electricity flows and being able to control grids with high penetrations of variable renewable energy.
"Storage is important. And for places with no hydro, batteries are being used more extensively. We have introduced batteries, large scale batteries (Elon Musk has been very helpful). And things are progressing well, especially here in South Australia. And that has been my great pleasure in the last 10 years, to see progress in the right direction and to see cooperation between political parties in our State."
- What do you think about the current movement of young people demonstrating or even striking for the climate?
"I think it is excellent. I am really impressed with Greta Thunberg, how in a very short time she has attracted a movement around this issue. This means that the young people were ready for change and really wanted to be involved with their future. I've been to some of the marches here in Adelaide, and I'm glad they are spread around the world."
Thanks, Monica, for your time and our very enjoyable talk and your interesting answers! Also, thanks to Carolina Huerta for setting up the contact.