I went to Brisbane to join a panel discussing the which of the “Big Five” Energy Options that could replace fossil fuels. It was very, very interesting. Read the review from an audience member.
I consider it a real privilege to be able to run reviews of events written by audience members rather than by me, the participant. In this case previous DSA guest post-er Rachel Bailey calls it like she heard it in Brisbane recently in this review of the University of Queensland Big Five Energy Panel discussion. Thanks Rachel. I would love to see some comments from others who were there. What did you take away from the event?
Wednesday 29 August 5.30-7.30pm, Customs House, The Long Room, Queen Street, Brisbane
Well, let me start this review by saying that the starting premise of many aspects of this event cannot be questioned. It truly was the epitome of axiomatic progression. The quality of the sparkling wine served at the end, being a case in point. This student appreciated every drop, and yes, progression to the night getting better and better followed from there.
The focus of all panellists on outlining the conundrum of successfully delivering secure energy in the face of forecast rising global energy demands, coupled with increased global population levels, changing demographics, and the subsequent link to increased greenhouse gas pollution is another case in point. The logical progression from here was to outline the necessity that we have to deliver higher standards of living for all, most especially to the developing nations, without continued mounting levels of pollution. And here is the rub. In the past, as all panellists were keen to emphasise, this was delivered through the coupling of rising energy consumption via rising economic status, with rising pollution levels. The conundrum? To decouple this link. Other aspects of the starting premise were questioned through the night as we will come to see by the end of this jaunty article.
The theme of the night was “predator or prey”. Which of the top five renewable energy sources will turn predator or prey in the fight with fossil fuels to establish their territory in Australia’s future energy landscape?
Biofuels – The Rhinoceros
Enter the first so called predator, biofuels, represented by Associate Professor (A/Prof) Ben Hankamer. Despite a discouraging piece of scribble written in my notes saying “way too many stats!” this learned gentleman outlined a pertinent point very neatly. Namely that most energy policy focuses on the electricity market, despite only 44% of market share of fuel consumption being for this use, according to calculations done by his Biofuels consortium. What of the remaining 56%? This is the market share that biofuels can occupy according to A/Prof Hankamer.
This then is a different starting premise to the other renewable energy sources, especially in the face of lowering costs to enter the market as the cost of traditional petroleum fuels rises in line with the increased costs of extraction. This, it was contended, is what will enhance the viability of biofuels, turning them into a true predator.
The more alluring prospect of the role for algae was cut tragically short by the call of “times up”. This indeed was to become the bane of all the presentations on the night. Complex matters it seems cannot be broken down into sound bites, at least not by the majority of people who continue to think in fully formed sentences.
Fortunately the advantages of using algae as the feedstock for biofuel and how it elegantly sidesteps the ethical quagmire of using food crops for fuel was highlighted in the discussion at the end. Algae also has the advantage of being able to use saline water, occupy non arable land, facilitate the recycling of nutrients, as well as occupy an enormous market share on the energy landscape. In conclusion I am not sure that the “Rhinoceros” title was fair nor accurate, as biofuels heads inexorably towards a brighter future. Not at all resembling a short lived sprinter in cumbersome armour.
Geothermal – The Leopard
If Ben Hankamer got to outline an alluring prospect for algae’s use as a biofuel, then the most alluring introduction would have to go to Susan Jeanes, who was described by the MC Liz Minchin, as having the ability to get “hot and steamy” by representing the geothermal industry. A pithy quip I thought. An introduction to Geothermal 101 and how it all works was quickly detailed. A talking up of the technological capability of Australia’s skills base was presented. Proof of concept for several companies working in this arena was tabled. But it has to be said that although geothermal was listed as being adaptable especially when being deployed in tandem with mining sites, or delivering to other remote infrastructure, it faces large cost curve barriers. Investors shy away from an industry that has so much potential, until more research and development is deployed. This scenario means that little research and development is occurring due to lack of private finance. A classic “Catch 22”, involving first movers disadvantage. The title fits with Leopards being described as the smallest of the big four cats, and not likely to put a dent in fossil fuels predator status for several years yet, at least not in an Australian context.
Nuclear – The elephant in the room?
Well…That’s a bit much really! But is it? Ben Heard from Decarbonise SA outlined the energy challenge detailed above succinctly, with a staccato of bullet points. Thrown into this mix was the danger to our health and the environment that traditional fossil fuel use elicits. The largest benefit that Nuclear could deliver was that it acted like a fossil fuel and therefore was a perfect match to dovetail straight into our already existing electricity infrastructure. The flexibly to move the fuel efficiently due to its incredibly high energy density was emphasised. The safety record when viewed through different measurement lenses such as in comparison to the risks that cumulative fossil fuels represent to human health was emphasised. The Generation 4 “IFR” technology and its potential to deliver energy as well as clean up the waste stockpiles was emphasised.
But the fanciest footwork I have ever seen an elephant dance, was displayed when a nimble dodge was enacted during question time. As this was a discussion on denting the market share of the fossil fuel giants, one patron questioned how the nuclear industry could overcome the “not in my backyard syndrome” that is so prevalent within Australia’s policy planning landscape. Proving that this elephant was no Dumbo, the question was quickly turned around by pointing out that Australians needed to have an accurate look at what was already in their backyard, where sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, fine particulate soots, and radiation bearing compounds were being emitted in an uncontrolled fashion. The deleterious effects of these pollutants for people’s health and the environment should provide the first point of comparison, when trying to change the status quo of what goes on in anyone’s backyard.
Does the elephant title fit? Not at all. The dance was far too elegant. Besides, the excessive number of groupies wanting to talk to Ben Heard at the end of the night was a clear indication that this was no “elephant in the room”. They all wanted to talk about it.
Wind – A Buffalo?
Despite wind power having a reputation for being intermittent Ken McAlpine from Vestas, stipulates that wind is rapidly becoming a predator in the Australian market. It has a long technology development lead in time, and as such has been able to refine economic efficiency gains. In comparison to the other options on offer it also has the added advantage of not needing to utilise any water for cooling purposes. A large advantage on the driest continent on Earth. The fuel does not need mining, is endless and free.
Impressive market gains have been made in demand for wind turbines even in the face of the GFC. This, it was postulated, was because the price curve for delivering the technology has rapidly decreased in line with the increased capacity for larger and larger turbine sizes. As all arguments about reality and perception are fascinating (beware, my inner geek is revealed), the claim about the real cost of coal versus wind left me captivated. Namely, that most would cite that the cost of delivering new wind power is markedly more expensive than its cheaper fossil fuel rival in the form of a new coal power station. The reality McAlpine stipulates is that they are very nearly on par.
Of course there was the normal argy bargy about lack of storage capacity, and the cost of selling onto an ever expanding electricity grid, and the way wind power can be used to subversively promote natural gas consumption. But it was clear that the future for wind power is a bright one and by no means is well represented by a “boof headed vegan buffalo”.
Solar Power – King of the jungle, or a toothless Lion?
Paul Meredith representing the University of Queensland clinched the argument for solar power within Australia by reminding us all of the tremendously elevated rates of irradiance that this big brown land is blessed with. Descriptions of the solar flagship programs, the massive uptake rates of private residential rooftop Solar PV installations, and the advent of solar thermal projects herald exciting times for this industry were outlined. However a cautionary note was sounded following drop off rates a year ago. Was it my waning interest levels or was he talking too fast? Me thinks it was the latter. I never did discover why rates dropped off despite terminology like “semi dispatchable, future costs, levelised costs of energy, and deployable technology types” were being thrown around. What did make sense to me was his opening statement that the whole premise of this debate was somewhat contrived. A fundamental objection to pitting renewable technologies against one another was tabled, when the real fight should be taken up to the fossil fuel industries. A plethora of options will be needed to fuel our future, and Paul Meredith thinks all of them should be on the table. The title of King of the Jungle may well be merited in this instance, but like I said I never did get the nuances of it.
Why is it all so hard to explain?
Of course at this junction the floor was opened up for patrons to ask questions, and of course nearest and dearest to my own heart was the one which asked; “Why is energy policy and the real price rises for electricity so hard to explain in an Australian context, and how much of this perceived inability to communicate clearly impinges on the renewables gaining a foothold in the market”? Answers varied.
(1) It is an analogous skewing of the debate by journalists who are trying to present a debate, because that is the format in which they are expected to report, when the domineering view is one of consensus. Similar to what is seen in the reporting mechanisms of the Climate Science debates.
(2) Energy is by nature part of a market that is cyclical and this perception needs to be understood.
(3) Reliability of supply is sought as a political premium, and this skews regulations for distribution.
(4) Energy policy should be viewed through the prism of a “nation building exercise”.
(5) Because it is complex, and cannot be reduced to reductive sound bites.
(6) Elections are fought, lost and won on these issues. No one wants to be responsible for “the lights going out”. The stakes are high.
And finally (7) what is sexy and able to be explained, is often different from what specialists are able to convey.
This inability to translate technical policy and cut through to mainstream media is likely to increase as specialist journalists are facing higher job cuts.
I for one thought the night a terrific success. It gave me fuel for thought, even as it sought to fuel Australia’s future energy needs. My only complaint was that most speakers struggled to fit to the short time frame they were given to outline complex matters, and this detracted from the presentations.
To quote Liz Minchin who was MC for the event “It’s a jungle out there and they’re evolving”. I concur.