The pioneering scientist who sought to save the world through renewable energy

By David Russell

If you ask renewable energy researchers today what drives them, they may cite their love of the technology or the desperate need to slow climate change. For Senior South Australian of the Year and renewable energy pioneer Monica Oliphant, it was nothing short of a desire to bring peace to the world.

“I got into renewable energy during the Middle East conflict and oil embargo in the early seventies,” Monica told Inside South Australia.

“(Nobel Prize Winner) Macfarlane Burnet came on the radio and said ‘if we have solar energy then we wouldn’t have to fight over oil’ and I thought, ‘yep, that’s the area I want to go into’… environmental and climate benefits were an added bonus.”

After the death of her husband, Monica, then living in Melbourne, moved home to Adelaide and applied to do research on renewables at Flinders University, where she worked on developing new types of solar concentrators.

“At that time solar was for water heating and wind was for wind pumps and power for small generators on farms – it was very basic… I wanted to be part of the group of people that believed in it.

“It was very much a fringe activity at that time; in the eighties and early nineties the focus was on looking for new coal fields… It was a necessity that we developed renewables.”

Science wasn’t foreign to Monica; she and her late husband had masters degrees in physics, and her father-in-law was world-famous nuclear physicist and later Governor of South Australia Sir Mark Oliphant.

“Both he (Sir Mark Oliphant) and I came to solar energy around the same time. He moved from his interest in nuclear to hydrogen and solar generation, and I moved in my direction and that gave us some common ground to talk on.

“Right in the very early days he was interested in solar ponds… he asked me to go and look at the solar ponds in Israel, so I went over and wrote a report for him.”

After Flinders Monica started work at ETSA, where she worked for 18 years researching developments in renewables, with a focus on wind power. She conducted a wind survey of the state that was eventually used to determine where to position wind farms.

But the work Monica is most proud of was working to reduce the energy costs of families in need. “I did quite a bit with the South Australian housing trust to look at the impact energy efficient appliances and education has on the energy consumption of low-income families.”

Monica went on to become the President of the International Solar Energy Society, which took her to Iceland, South Africa, Peru, China “and everywhere in between”. Most recently she has been a member of an international team looking at establishing a United Nations university research institute on renewable energy in China.

Monica is very optimistic about the future of the renewable energy sector. “There’s now a lot of countries talking about wanting to go towards 100 per cent renewables…. That’s really pleasing to see.”

She’s also immensely proud of the growth in the use of renewables in South Australia. “Our transition from virtually no renewables 10 or more years ago to 41 per cent of energy from renewables today is actually really outstanding. I spruik how great we are wherever I go around the world.”

Monica Oliphant is South Australia’s entry into the Australian of the Year Awards, which will be announced in Canberra on Australia Day.