Sustainable energy

This morning The Australian has front page: Climate target to cost $75bn.

AUSTRALIA’S best hope of making affordable but deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to reach global targets is by using clean coal, nuclear and gas technologies rather than renewable energy sources.

It’s interesting to note that first paragraph includes clean coal and nuclear as solutions to reach that target. Neither of these technologies are available today. Clean coal is still just a dream (as the article says further down “Capturing and storing emissions from coal-fired power stations, if viable” – emphasis mine).

Nuclear will take at least 10 years to be introduced, even if the decision was made today to start down that path. That means that it will be 2015 at least before we’ll see the benefits. In fact the report suggests 2020 as the year.

The Australian goes on to report that the infrastructure cost for these technologies “could double the cost of electricity generation”. I’m sure that’s the high-end figure (thus the “could”). I’d like to know how they came to that conclusion – but it’s fairly well understood and accepted, by both the government, business and the public, that the cost of shifting our energy infrastructure is going to cost more.

Higher infrastructure costs present a two pronged problem: 1) it’s more expensive to create clean energy infrastructure than existing coal technologies, so the market is reluctant to invest unless there is clear incentives to do so; and 2) it’s going to cost more at the point of use (i.e. our bills will be higher.

Point 1 can be addressed by the introduction of a carbon tax, which is being considered by the government at the moment (I suspect as a result of the nuclear energy inquiry). This brings the cost of coal into line with competing clean technologies, by taking into consideration the environmental cost of burning coal.

Tim Flannery presents an interesting solution to point 2. He suggests that with though prices increase with the introduction of a carbon tax, the government can reduce PAYG tax by roughly the same amount. The government continues to receive the same revenue through the carbon tax. Tax the bad, not the good is the basic principle. The net result, he suggests, is that we, as consumers, will not notice the difference. Our bills will be higher, but the tax breaks would ease, if not neutralise the pain.

But there’s another measure that can be taken, one that often seems to be ignored: efficiency. If we use less, the overall cost to us is less.

When I started reading the article, the main question I had was who produced the report? The Energy Supply Association of Australia. From their homepage: “The Energy Supply Association of Australia represents Australia’s electricity and downstream gas businesses.” So in other words, the electricity industry. The industry has a vested interest in protecting their existing practices, which I suspect is why clean coal features prominently.

The article goes on to point out this interesting tid-bit: “The report uses lower cost estimates for clean-coal technology than the Switkowski review of nuclear energy in Australia and also assumes that nuclear technology is not available until 2020.”

Perhaps the Switkowski review used an inflated figure (which is plausible); or the electricity industry is citing deflated figures (which is also plausible). So, if clean coal technology does become possible, the actual cost is probably some where in between those two reports.

I think the chief of the ESAA hit the nail on the head with this quote:

ESAA chief executive Brad Page said the report, based on best available estimates of costs and technology changes, demonstrated the need to develop the widest portfolio of technologies possible to minimise the cost of greenhouse emissions cuts.

He also said that “Over the next 25 years, if you are seeking to achieve fairly deep cuts in emissions, then polices that favour a particular renewable technology are probably poor choices,” which I also agree with.

This is where a carbon tax can be effective – let the market decide the best solution. The government is pushing nuclear, but it shouldn’t push any one technology. However, where there is a significant public interest in not pursuing a particular technology (like dirty coal, or I would argue nuclear) the government should intervene, in my view.

WWF CEO Greg Bourne was quoted saying much the same thing: “WWF chief executive Greg Bourne remained opposed to nuclear energy and called for market mechanisms to accelerate the development of lower-emissions technologies.”

At least the Oz got WWF’s and Greg’s position on nuclear right this time 😉

As an aside, I wonder if a report was released showing that renewable energy could meet that need, would it be front page? Or do only controversial findings make the cut?

Reason I ask is that the Clean Energy Future reports, released a few years back by WWF, show how our energy requirements can be met with renewable energy and gas-fired power (for base load – not renewable, but with much lower CO2 emissions than coal-fired power). Is that not newsworthy?

Polls show that the public wants renewable energy, and believes that they are the way forward. Yet it seems practical solutions that exist today are ignored. Sigh…

Disclosure: I am an employee of WWF-Australia. The views expressed here are my own, and not necessarily those of my employer.

Running out of power – so let’s use less

SMH: We’re running out of power (on the front page of today’s broadsheet).

NSW faces blackouts and skyrocketing electricity prices within five years unless it increases supply, the national energy market regulator has warned.

The article does not take into consideration the most cost-effective method for avoiding the need to increase supply – using less energy.

WWF recently put out a report A prosperous low carbon future. It shows how energy efficiency is one of a potent and immediately actionable technique for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But it has a flow-on benefit: less use means the existing (and future) supply goes further.

Long enough, at least, until renewable energy technologies come into play, and as existing coal-fired power stations begin to be decommissioned.

Of course Costello has jumped on the nuclear band-wagon again. “They’ll be ready in as little as 10 years time” he says (paraphrased). We have solutions now – solar, wind, gas-fired power (which has significantly less emissions than burning coal and is suitable for base-load power) – all these technologies exist today and can meet a significant portion, if not all, of our energy requirements.

We can start reducing our emissions today, not in 10 years, while still meeting demand. I really wish that message was getting as much play as nuclear. Better still – put a price on carbon and let the market decide… I’m confident non-nuclear options will win in the end.

Disclosure: I work for WWF-Australia. The views expressed here are my own, and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

Renewable energy in Australia

I’ve been participating in some interesting discussions over at ActNow! (namely these threads: Nuclear power for Australia and Sustainable energy sources) and they got me thinking.

One of the primary criticisms I hear/read about renewable energy is that it won’t solve the problem by itself – that we need more than renewable energy to support our population’s energy needs.

And I generally agree with that – except it’s often used as an argument not to use renewables (e.g. that we need nuclear)! I think I’ve worked out my response to that line of argument now: “is the glass half empty or half full?”

Let’s say wind energy, in its current form, can only provide 20% of our power needs. And lets say solar can only provide the same amount. (Both of those figures are completely plucked out the air btw, I don’t know what our true capacity would be). And let’s say we agree with the scientists that we need to reduce our emissions by 60% below 1990 levels by 2050. Let’s also say that we can reach full capacity for both wind and solar in 10 years time.

That means that based on current technology (which will improve) we can in 10 years time (the earliest that the government reckons it will take for nuclear power to be a reality in Australia) reduce our CO2 emissions by 40% – over half of a 40 year target in 10 years!

And that’s not taking into consideration energy efficiency (say 10%+) and improvements in wind and solar technology (recent developments suggest that a 30%-50% improvement in efficiency is not out of the question). And in that time we might well have found the right solution to reduce the remaining 20%+ too.

There are obvious political and commercial realities that would impact this, of course. Placement of wind farms and the phasing out of existing coal power stations among them. But don’t you think this can be overcome with some political will?

Certainly it seems this is a much easier path than trying to establish a nuclear industry in Australia. What do you think?

(BTW, I just realised that this all links to what I was saying the other day in my review of Who killed the electric car. Seems to be the same tactic – promising technology, meets part of the demand, but vested interests and political maneuvering see it postponed for some “just around the corner” solution.)

PM’s reasons for nuclear “debate”

I came across this op-ed piece on News.com.au today: Energy debate is running on hot air.

The basic point is that the PM is not so much interested in nuclear energy for Australia, but instead is more concerned with replacing coal with uranium for exports. In other words, it’s all about economics, and the environmental angle was really all about getting public support for Australia “value-adding” (that is, enriching and processing) uranium so more $$ flow into Australia as the nuclear power industry grows in other parts of the world.

I still don’t agree with the PM or nuclear (in or outside Australia), but it’s an interesting take on the PM’s reasoning that I hadn’t quite put together myself.