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Driving the low-carbon economy: Dr Jane Sargison

/ Mar 06, 2013 7:00AM / Print / ()

Driving the low-carbon economy: Dr Jane Sargison

Long before all the fuss started about climate change, engineers were working on the problem by default — they've always sought to improve the efficiency of energy use to cut fuel costs.

It's what got mechanical engineer Dr Jane Sargison into the lab in the first place. Now she's at the centre of one of the most controversial, noisy areas of public debate in recent history.

But while the up-and-coming businesswoman and spender of government money is sufficiently influential to crack The Power Index top 10, hers is not a voice you'll hear in the high-octane debate over climate change. Nor, come to think of it, do we hear much from other engineers — plenty of whom are working away at technological fixes to climate change. Why the radio silence?

"It's not really in the engineering persona," Sargison told Women's Agenda sister site The Power Index over a juice on a summer's day in a Melbourne cafe. "Engineers tend to be a bit more careful."

The nature of their work means they tend to focus on facts and check cautiously before pronouncing a verdict they can be confident in, she explains. This makes them less inclined to sound off in public.

Sargison, a Rhodes scholar based in Hobart, occupies plum positions on government boards, helping decide the destination of billions of taxpayer dollars in green grants. She's a non-executive board member of the federal government's Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which is spending $3.2 billion on renewable energy technologies. She sits on the selection committee for the government's $200 million Clean Technology Innovation Program.

And she's active in the private sector via Rainbow Bee Eater, a tech start-up working on biochar (turning organic matter into charcoal and storing it in the soil). Biochar is held by some — think the Coalition, and climate adviser Ross Garnaut — as a solution to climate change, but hasn't been attempted at scale. Work is underway to get biochar projects into the government's Carbon Farming Initiative, opening up a lucrative revenue stream for landholders. Sargison's engineering company, JSA, consults to RBE and she's an executive director. The consortium is working on a demonstration project on a Western Australian wheat farm; turning straw into biochar and sequestering it, and turning straw into gas to generate electricity.

"You could offset the emissions of the aluminium industry," she said of biochar (aluminium smelting emits 3 million tonnes of CO2 in direct emissions a year). "The potential of these things, if you had them dotted around the country, is enormous."

So, this self-described "engineer slash company director" is influential and is quite likely to become more so. Why have many industry insiders never heard of her?

At 37, Sargison is a fresh face who only made the switch from research to business and government in the last few years. And from her manner — matter-of-fact, careful, unassuming — she's not yearning to be on the TV news. Her apparently apolitical approach may lend her career longevity; an Abbott government may seek out her biochar expertise.

"There are a lot of good ideas out there ... there are a lot of solutions on the cusp."
ARENA board chairperson (and ex-BP supremo) Greg Bourne says Sargison is unusual in combining deep engineering expertise with financial nous. It's "not often you find people who can do both", he told The Power Index.

Bourne says the ARENA board is equipped with "great bullshit detectors"; Sargison investigates whether projects stack up financially, even if they're not in her area. "She can look you straight in the eyes and tell you exactly what she thinks about a particular issue," he said.

The ex-WWF chief reckons Sargison has a deep sense of values and ethics, and takes an active interest in where the world is heading instead of "sitting on the sidelines". "I can see her as a future governor-general. I think she's going to go a long way," he said.

Sargison traces her interest in sustainability to a high school teacher talking about global environmental crises, and bushwalking with her father in Tasmania — "he used to teach me the names of the different trees and shrubs and all about the different types of forest".

She has successfully morphed a scientific career into a commercial one. The University of Tasmania graduate did a PhD at Oxford on improving the efficiency of jet engines — "engineers have always had to worry about efficiency and reducing fuel", she says — then returned to UTas as a research fellow. She shifted to the private sector, and is now more likely to be found in a suit in the boardroom than in the lab.

"The market is the most powerful approach," she said firmly on climate change. "It's important people are in labs developing these things, but it's important to commercialise ... you have to have a clear commercial edge." She admits it hasn't been easy deciding when to hand over R&D to colleagues and focus on business.

"You have the thrill of the research finding, of a new idea — you never lose that," she said, but she gets the same feeling in business and is not "pining for the lab".

Sargison gives little away on ARENA. It's hard to get renewable energy projects to market when electricity consumption is dropping, she notes (ARENA's remit is grants for demonstration projects, like remote-area solar).

While debate can be polarised between the evangelists of solar, wind, geothermal, etc, Sargison says diplomatically that it's not a winner-takes-all game. "There's not one plane, there's not one laptop," she pointed out. And she reckons the renewable energy sector could learn from the practices and strategies of coal, which dominates Australian energy production.

Hobart may not be a corporate hub, but Sargison doesn't see living there with her three children as a disadvantage — she enjoys feeling closer to nature, and can manage the frequent flights needed for work. "I think Tasmanian people have a lot of interesting ideas, people feel a bit freer to explore things," she said.

It might also help maintain her optimism in the face of catastrophic weather warnings and virulent climate scepticism. "There are a lot of good ideas out there ... there are a lot of solutions on the cusp," she said, before darting to another board meeting.

This piece first appeared on Crikey

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