Chief Scientist: we need to transform our world into a sustainable ‘electric planet’


Alan Finkel, Office of the Chief Scientist

I want you to imagine a highway exclusively devoted to delivering the world’s energy.

Each lane is restricted to trucks that carry one of the world’s seven large-scale sources of primary energy: coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear, hydro, solar and wind.

Our current energy security comes at a price, the carbon dioxide emissions from the trucks in the three busiest lanes: the ones for coal, oil and natural gas.

We can’t just put up roadblocks overnight to stop these trucks; they are carrying the overwhelming majority of the world’s energy supply.

But what if we expand clean electricity production carried by the trucks in the solar and wind lanes — three or four times over — into an economically efficient clean energy future?

Think electric cars instead of petrol cars. Think electric factories instead of oil-burning factories. Cleaner and cheaper to run. A technology-driven orderly transition. Problems wrought by technology, solved by technology.




Read more:
How to transition from coal: 4 lessons for Australia from around the world


Make no mistake, this will be the biggest engineering challenge ever undertaken. The energy system is huge, and even with an internationally committed and focused effort the transition will take many decades.

It will also require respectful planning and retraining to ensure affected individuals and communities, who have fuelled our energy progress for generations, are supported throughout the transition.

As Tony, a worker from a Gippsland coal-fired power station, noted from the audience on this week’s Q+A program:

The workforce is highly innovative, we are up for the challenge, we will adapt to whatever is put in front of us and we have proven that in the past.

This is a reminder that if governments, industry, communities and individuals share a vision, a positive transition can be achieved.

The stunning technology advances I have witnessed in the past ten years make me optimistic.

Renewable energy is booming worldwide, and is now being delivered at a markedly lower cost than ever before.

In Australia, the cost of producing electricity from wind and solar is now around A$50 per megawatt-hour.

Even when the variability is firmed with storage, the price of solar and wind electricity is lower than existing gas-fired electricity generation and similar to new-build coal-fired electricity generation.

This has resulted in substantial solar and wind electricity uptake in Australia and, most importantly, projections of a 33% cut in emissions in the electricity sector by 2030, when compared to 2005 levels.

And this pricing trend will only continue, with a recent United Nations report noting that, in the last decade alone, the cost of solar electricity fell by 80%, and is set to drop even further.

So we’re on our way. We can do this. Time and again we have demonstrated that no challenge to humanity is beyond humanity.

Ultimately, we will need to complement solar and wind with a range of technologies such as high levels of storage, long-distance transmission, and much better efficiency in the way we use energy.

But while these technologies are being scaled up, we need an energy companion today that can react rapidly to changes in solar and wind output. An energy companion that is itself relatively low in emissions, and that only operates when needed.

In the short term, as Prime Minister Scott Morrison and energy minister Angus Taylor have previously stated, natural gas will play that critical role.

In fact, natural gas is already making it possible for nations to transition to a reliable, and relatively low-emissions, electricity supply.

Look at Britain, where coal-fired electricity generation has plummeted from 75% in 1990 to just 2% in 2019.

Driving this has been an increase in solar, wind, and hydro electricity, up from 2% to 27%. At the same time, and this is key to the delivery of a reliable electricity supply, electricity from natural gas increased from virtually zero in 1990 to more than 38% in 2019.

I am aware that building new natural gas generators may be seen as problematic, but for now let’s assume that with solar, wind and natural gas, we will achieve a reliable, low-emissions electricity supply.

Is this enough? Not really.

We still need a high-density source of transportable fuel for long-distance, heavy-duty trucks.

We still need an alternative chemical feedstock to make the ammonia used to produce fertilisers.

We still need a means to carry clean energy from one continent to another.

Enter the hero: hydrogen.

Hydrogen is abundant. In fact, it’s the most abundant element in the Universe. The only problem is that there is nowhere on Earth that you can drill a well and find hydrogen gas.

Don’t panic. Fortunately, hydrogen is bound up in other substances. One we all know: water, the H in H₂O.

We have two viable ways to extract hydrogen, with near-zero emissions.

First, we can split water in a process called electrolysis, using renewable electricity.

Second, we can use coal and natural gas to split the water, and capture and permanently bury the carbon dioxide emitted along the way.

I know some may be sceptical, because carbon capture and permanent storage has not been commercially viable in the electricity generation industry.

But the process for hydrogen production is significantly more cost-effective, for two crucial reasons.

First, since carbon dioxide is left behind as a residual part of the hydrogen production process, there is no additional step, and little added cost, for its extraction.

And second, because the process operates at much higher pressure, the extraction of the carbon dioxide is more energy-efficient and it is easier to store.

Returning to the electrolysis production route, we must also recognise that if hydrogen is produced exclusively from solar and wind electricity, we will exacerbate the load on the renewable lanes of our energy highway.

Think for a moment of the vast amounts of steel, aluminium and concrete needed to support, build and service solar and wind structures. And the copper and rare earth metals needed for the wires and motors. And the lithium, nickel, cobalt, manganese and other battery materials needed to stabilise the system.

It would be prudent, therefore, to safeguard against any potential resource limitations with another energy source.

Well, by producing hydrogen from natural gas or coal, using carbon capture and permanent storage, we can add back two more lanes to our energy highway, ensuring we have four primary energy sources to meet the needs of the future: solar, wind, hydrogen from natural gas, and hydrogen from coal.




Read more:
145 years after Jules Verne dreamed up a hydrogen future, it has arrived


Furthermore, once extracted, hydrogen provides unique solutions to the remaining challenges we face in our future electric planet.

First, in the transport sector, Australia’s largest end-user of energy.

Because hydrogen fuel carries much more energy than the equivalent weight of batteries, it provides a viable, longer-range alternative for powering long-haul buses, B-double trucks, trains that travel from mines in central Australia to coastal ports, and ships that carry passengers and goods around the world.

Second, in industry, where hydrogen can help solve some of the largest emissions challenges.

Take steel manufacturing. In today’s world, the use of coal in steel manufacturing is responsible for a staggering 7% of carbon dioxide emissions.

Persisting with this form of steel production will result in this percentage growing frustratingly higher as we make progress decarbonising other sectors of the economy.

Fortunately, clean hydrogen can not only provide the energy that is needed to heat the blast furnaces, it can also replace the carbon in coal used to reduce iron oxide to the pure iron from which steel is made. And with hydrogen as the reducing agent the only byproduct is water vapour.

This would have a revolutionary impact on cutting global emissions.

Third, hydrogen can store energy, not only for a rainy day, but also to ship sunshine from our shores, where it is abundant, to countries where it is needed.

Let me illustrate this point. In December last year, I was privileged to witness the launch of the world’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier ship in Japan.

As the vessel slipped into the water I saw it not only as the launch of the first ship of its type to ever be built, but as the launch of a new era in which clean energy will be routinely transported between the continents. Shipping sunshine.

And, finally, because hydrogen operates in a similar way to natural gas, our natural gas generators can be reconfigured in the future to run on hydrogen — neatly turning a potential legacy into an added bonus.

Hydrogen-powered economy

We truly are at the dawn of a new, thriving industry.

There’s a nearly A$2 trillion global market for hydrogen come 2050, assuming that we can drive the price of producing hydrogen to substantially lower than A$2 per kilogram.

In Australia, we’ve got the available land, the natural resources, the technology smarts, the global networks, and the industry expertise.

And we now have the commitment, with the National Hydrogen Strategy unanimously adopted at a meeting by the Commonwealth, state and territory governments late last year.

Indeed, as I reflect upon my term as Chief Scientist, in this my last year, chairing the development of this strategy has been one of my proudest achievements.

The full results will not be seen overnight, but it has sown the seeds, and if we continue to tend to them, they will grow into a whole new realm of practical applications and unimagined possibilities.


This is an edited extract of a speech to the National Press Club of Australia on February 12, 2020. The full speech is available here.The Conversation

Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, Office of the Chief Scientist

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Great Barrier Reef Foundation chief scientist: science will lie at the heart of our decisions


Peter J Mumby, The University of Queensland

Much has been made of the federal government’s decision to invest A$500m into management of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR), A$443.3m of it to be administered by the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, of which I am the chief scientist.

If my conversations with colleagues in the reef research field are any guide, there is still a lot of confusion over the intended use of these funds, the disbursement process, and whether big business will interfere with how the reef is managed.

Filling funding gaps

Over the past five years, the foundation has funded or managed multiple research projects that aim to support long-term management of the reef. Many of these projects would be considered either too risky or not “pure science” enough to be funded by the Australian Research Council (the exception being the ARC Linkage program).

I mean “risky” not in the sense of posing a risk to the GBR, but rather to describe research plans that are at the cutting edge, where the potential rewards are high but so is the risk of failure.

In this way, the GBR Foundation has filled a critical gap in funding researchers who are working at the interface of science, climate change, and reef management. This has included teams from multiple universities, the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), and CSIRO.

Decisions over funding allocations are made through a conventional procedure involving external and internal review and two scientific advisory committees with representatives from each of the major research organisations (the University of Queensland, James Cook University, AIMS and CSIRO), the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, and an independent chair.




Read more:
$500 million for the Great Barrier Reef is welcome, but we need a sea change in tactics too


As a professor of coral reef ecology at the University of Queensland, I participated in the foundation’s technical advisory group for several years and collaborated on several of the funded projects. As my own research focus includes how management can improve coral reef resilience, I was invited some months ago to serve as the GBR Foundation’s chief scientist, a part-time role alongside my main job as a University of Queensland professor.

I accepted this position for several reasons. First, scientists and practitioners have been calling for a major government investment in the GBR and I am keen to help steer the process in the most cost-effective way possible. I can help by ensuring that the right people are engaged in the process and that projects are subject to intense scientific scrutiny.

Second, having been involved with the GBR Foundation for some time, I know that its approach is both inclusive and merit-based, soliciting the best minds irrespective of which insitution they work for. This is important if we are to deliver the best value for taxpayers’ money.

Third, the foundation’s decision-making process is science-led, and I have never seen any interference from the board. Although some people have expressed concerns over the board’s links to the fossil fuel industry, climate change has been the focus of the foundation’s funded research for as long as I can remember.

Funding focus

The government’s decision to entrust environmental management and research to a private foundation is not unprecedented internationally. The US National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, for example, receives funds from both government agencies and private donations, which it uses to fund a range of conservation programs.

The A$443.3m provided to the GBR Foundation is intended to pursue a range of aims:

  • improving the quality of freshwater reaching the reef (A$201m)

  • reducing the impact of crown-of-thorns starfish (A$58m)

  • engaging traditional owners and the broader community in reef conservation (A$22.3m)

  • improving monitoring of reef health (A$40m)

  • supporting scientific research into reef restoration, with a specific focus on tackling challenges created by climate change (A$100m).

The latter is particularly significant because this program aims to expand the toolbox of interventions available to reef managers as climate change continues to intensify.

Of course, reef researchers and managers can’t fix climate change on their own. Other funding and incentives will also be needed to help our wider society reduce greenhouse emissions.

But here’s the important point: dealing with climate change will necessitate a wide range of responses, both to address the root cause of the problem and to adapt to its effects. The A$443.3m will help Australia do the latter for the GBR.

Clarifying misconceptions

I’d like to clarify some of the misconceptions I have heard around the funding awarded to the GBR Foundation.

The funds do indeed consider the impacts of climate change, specifically in helping coral reefs – and the associated management practices – adapt to the coming changes.

Science will lie at the heart of the decisions over how best to parcel out the funds, and although the foundation’s board will sign off on the approvals, it will have no say in what is proposed for funding.

Those research and management projects that do receive funding will be carried out by the most appropriate agencies available, whether that be universities, small or large businesses, other charities, AIMS, CSIRO, Natural Resource Management organisations, and so on. All of these agencies are well used to applying for funding under schemes like this.




Read more:
The science and art of reef restoration


Finally, I have heard concerns about the involvement of major corporations on the Foundation’s board. Everyone is, of course, entitled to their view on the appropriateness of this. But for what it’s worth, my own is that progress on climate change will be strengthened, not weakened, by a close dialogue between those responsible for managing the impacts of climate change and those in a position to exert significant change in our society.

Many of world’s greatest innovations occur in major industry, and I hope this will also apply to the Great Barrier Reef.The Conversation

Peter J Mumby, Chair professor, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Chief Scientist’s report lays a solid foundation for reforming Australia’s electricity network


Anne Kallies, RMIT University

Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s preliminary report on the National Electricity Market (NEM), released on Friday, sets the scene for a comprehensive review of the electricity network.

The report identifies that energy and emissions reduction policy must be brought together. There is no doubt that the electricity sector will be central to any emissions-reduction efforts in Australia.

However, the report also appears to see the rise of renewable energy in the electricity system as a disturbance rather than an opportunity.

The report discusses how the NEM should be reformed in response to a changing mix of generators – coal, gas and renewables. But it does not proactively seek to discuss the role of the NEM in achieving the emissions reductions and renewable energy targets of federal and state governments.

Transition doesn’t have to break the grid

The new National Transmission Network Development Plan 2016 by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) shows what such a proactive approach might look like. It shows that transmission investment within and across state borders will be crucial for Australia’s energy transformation.

International examples can provide insights into what these strategic investment solutions could be. The Finkel report mentions, for instance, the proactive designation and connection of wind zones in Texas. Other examples are the facilitation of offshore network development in the UK, and the German north-south interconnectors.

A similar mechanism could allow the NEM to access renewable energy resources in new areas, as well as upgrade existing networks to increase renewable uptake. As the AEMO plan shows, these types of measures can “smooth the impact of variable renewable energy” and “improve system resilience”.

Efficiency, reliability and reduced emissions

The Finkel report queries whether the National Electricity Objective (NEO) needs to be amended to achieve the integration of energy and emissions-reduction policy. The current objective is:

…to promote efficient investment in, and efficient operation and use of, electricity services for the long-term interests of consumers of electricity with respect to – price, quality, safety, reliability and security of supply of electricity; and the reliability, safety and security of the national electricity system.

The objective sets the parameters for developing electricity market rules and limits the scope of regulatory decision-making.

It reflects the purpose of the NEM at the time it was introduced. The NEM was initially introduced as a market-based governance framework to achieve the public service of electricity as efficiently and reliably as possible.

The report states that we need to find solutions to address the so-called “energy trilemma”. Energy policy needs to strike a balance between “security, affordability and environmental objectives”.

While the first two of these objectives are covered in the electricity objective, the last – environmental objective – is not. The NEO should reflect these changed consumer expectations.

In the age of climate change, we expect our electricity system to be reliable, affordable and green. A rephrasing of the NEO would allow for more innovative approaches to proactively develop market rules to facilitate renewable energy.

Expanding the objective would also see Australia in good company. Both the UK and German regulatory objectives contain express links to emissions reductions (UK) or environmental compatibility and renewable energy (Germany).

Putting the puzzle pieces together

The report argues for a “whole-of-system approach” to developing the energy system. The report discusses especially to what degree states and other institutions in energy markets need to work together to achieve this.

However, we also need national oversight to develop the grid. More advanced energy transition experiences in Europe show such a refocus of market reform.

Coordinated planning across the NEM will be crucial to achieve this whole-of-system perspective. While the market operator, AEMO, has a limited planning role in the NEM – identifying opportunities for network investment – there is currently no mechanism to encourage planning for the reliability and security of the whole of the NEM. Network businesses invest to ensure the reliability within their networks – contained within state borders.

Germany provides an example of how a whole-of-system approach could be achieved. German law compels the different network businesses to cooperatively develop a national grid development plan based on scenario frameworks and overseen and approved by the Federal Network Agency. Similar cooperative mechanisms could be introduced in the NEM regulatory framework.

What about climate adaptation?

The report mentions two examples of the challenges climate change might pose to the network, the black-out in South Australia and the drought in Tasmania. In both cases, a natural event combined with an interconnector (transmitters between states) fault triggered a challenge to energy security. Not mentioned in the report are the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, when a significant number of devastating fires were caused by failed electrical assets.

All of these kinds of extreme weather events can be linked to climate change. The need to adapt to more frequent and more severe weather events should be an essential part of a review into the security and reliability of the electricity sector.

While this is a preliminary report only, it picks up on many pertinent issues. This short analysis covers only some of the issues raised in the report. The prelimiary report is now open to public submissions. This provides an outstanding opportunity to consider and shape the future of the electricity network.

The Conversation

Anne Kallies, Lecturer, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate science will be sourced elsewhere after CSIRO cuts: chief scientist


James Whitmore, The Conversation and Michael Hopkin, The Conversation

Australia must ensure that climate programs are maintained following cuts to climate science jobs at CSIRO, according to Chief Scientist Alan Finkel.

In a statement and appearance before a Senate estimates hearing on Wednesday, Finkel said there was a large capacity for climate science outside the CSIRO.

Last Thursday, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall announced 350 positions at CSIRO would change under a new strategic direction, in a move criticised by experts.

On Monday, Marshall clarified that critical scientific programs, such as the measurement of carbon dioxide levels at Cape Grim and ocean and climate research aboard its vessel the RV Investigator, would continue.

He also said the Oceans and Atmosphere Division of CSIRO would likely lose 65 positions out of 420 staff.

Climate science is one of the commitments under Australia’s National Science and Research Priorities, which lists as one of its goals:

Build Australia’s capacity to respond to environmental change and integrate research outcomes from biological, physical, social and economic systems.

Finkel said his most pressing concerns were the maintenance of long-term data collection and modelling.

“The critical obligation that the CSIRO fulfils is in some of the continuous data sets that have had 40-year histories. If you have a gap in the data set, that can never be replaced retrospectively. If you’ve got a continuous data set you can decades on always come back and refine your models and analysis,” he said.

However, he said he was pleased CSIRO had committed to a transition process that would ensure research capacity was maintained, and highlighted the contributions of research outside of CSIRO.

“Australia has a large climate science research community. It’s not just the CSIRO. So my view is we have to look across the capacity amongst many organisations, including the university and research sectors, to assess our climate science research capacity.

“For us to fulfil our obligations internationally as the premier climate research country in the Southern Hemisphere we need to ensure our capacity is preserved. But there is very substantial capacity outside the CSIRO as well as within the CSIRO,” he said.

The Conversation

James Whitmore, Editor, Environment & Energy, The Conversation and Michael Hopkin, Environment + Energy Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.