Quarterly Essay 81 - Getting to zero: Australia’s Energy Transition was written by Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist from 2016-2020.
Nick Reeve looked at comments on Finkel’s views.
Alan Finkel’s Quarterly Essay was reviewed in the following Quarterly Essay by twelve experts in the field of climate science and economics.
He receives praise for his clear presentation of the issues: Global Warming, Climate Change and the Theory of The Greenhouse Effect; leaving no room for the opinions of climate sceptics and denialists. He is also given credit for his optimism concerning the technical feasibility and availability of solutions for transitioning from our present global economy, dependent on fossil fuels: coal, oil and gas. He argues that an economy based on renewable energy, (RE) including hydrogen is technically feasible, and will become increasingly competitive with energy from fossil fuels. Initially hydrogen will be produced with methane gas plus Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). Eventually ‘clean’ hydrogen will be produced from renewable energy in quantities and at a cost to become the energy source of the future, replacing both oil and gas.
Finkel says that renewable energy will first be used to replace coal for electricity generation (with gas as a back-up for when ‘the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow’). Next, transport will be converted to electricity, with small vehicles using batteries and larger ones using (hydrogen) fuel cells.
Then hydrogen will be used to replace coal and gas in industry: in a revitalised steel industry, and for aluminium smelting and cement production. Finally hydrogen (and ammonia) will become used as a transportable fuel, both in Australia and as a major export. All this is technically possible now, however a prodigious amount of renewable energy will be required: seven times the current production from solar, wind and hydro, and another three times that amount to provide for replacement of fossil fuels in transport, industry and for export. All this says Finkel “will take some time; so we need to temper our ambition with patience”.
Unfortunately ‘time is what we do not have’, argue Alan Finkel’s critics. It is this call for patience in the face of the imminent threat to our survival, together with the reliance on methane gas, itself a potent greenhouse gas, that arouses strongest criticism from many of the twelve reviewers of his Quarterly Essay. Finkel, who has the last word and is able to comment on the reviews, is dismissive of calls for more urgent action; “immediate closure of coal-fired power stations is impossible”. In response “That is a straw man argument,” says Tim Flannery (of the Climate Council). Immediate closure is not suggested. What is required is for electricity to be generated from renewable sources by 2035 or sooner, not 2050 or some time later. To procrastinate means not only breaking our ‘Paris 15’ agreement but risks further warming of the planet and triggering a catastrophic cascade of tipping points from which there may be no recovery.
By appealing for plenty of time to achieve the transition to an economy powered by renewable energy, under-pinned by gas, Finkel gives comfort and credibility to those with an interest in continued use of fossil fuels, and enables the policy of a ‘Gas-Led Recovery’.
On the other hand, with only a short transition to 100% renewable energy, new gas infrastructure: wells and pipelines, and the gas itself will become ‘stranded assets’. Finkel and the ‘gas lobby’, including politicians from both major parties, claim that methane gas is required both as a stop-gap measure, to back-up the grid, ‘when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine’, and to replace the lost supply when older coal-fired power plants are retired, and before sufficient renewable energy has been developed. Critics point to the recent decision to subsidise, (with $600 million of government money,) the building of a new gas-fired power station at Kurri Kurri in NSW, against the (then) advice of the authority responsible for maintaining grid supply, the AEMO, who advised that by the time the old power stations are retired there will be sufficient sources of renewable energy, backed up by new grid inter-connections and large scale batteries. Toxic gas is not required.
- Nick Reeve