Australia’s chief scientist has challenged the resurgent political alarmism about renewable energy, saying energy security isn’t about locking in the status quo, it’s about ensuring the successful decarbonisation of electricity generation.
In his first public comments since being asked to lead an energy security review for federal and state governments, Alan Finkel delivered an upbeat assessment of renewable energy technologies, saying they provide “many viable technology paths to cutting emissions”.
The Finkel review was preceded by a pitched political battle between the Turnbull government, which launched a rhetorical assault on state-based renewable energy targets in the wake of a statewide power blackout in South Australia in September, and state governments, who argue the commonwealth will not be able to meet its international emissions reduction targets without the state RETs.
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Malcolm Turnbull and his energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, have declared energy security their No 1 priority, and have created the impression that the state RET schemes are prompting too rapid a transition from fossil fuels to low emissions sources.
On Thursday, Frydenberg said state governments needed to wind back their renewable energy schemes to match the federal target of 23% by 2020. He contended a lack of harmonisation was leading to “imperfect investment decisions”, and wasn’t doing anything positive for the environment.
But Finkel said in a speech delivered on Thursday evening that securing Australia’s energy supply did not mean “locking in the status quo – on the contrary, it means being able to navigate change”.
“Looking to the future also brings awareness of the global challenge of climate change, and being mindful of the international commitments that our government has made to lower carbon dioxide emissions,” he said.
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The chief scientist said fossil fuels had delivered tremendous advantages, and coal, oil and gas remained “a reliable source of energy to feed into the electricity grid”.
“Coal, contrary to the common assumption, continues to rise as a percentage of the global energy mix,” Finkel said. “But human progress has come at a price, in the form of climate change.”
While Turnbull and Frydenberg have made much of the intermittency problems created by technologies such as wind, Finkel delivered a more measured assessment of the challenges associated with decarbonising the electricity grid.
“Electricity has been made safe, it is versatile, and it is easy to distribute,” he said. “The regulatory structures and the physical bones of the grid are already in place. We don’t need to reinvent them to make use of them.
“And, with goodwill and time on our side, electricity generation can be decarbonised. Whether it’s hydroelectric dams, or solar and wind, there are many viable technology paths to cutting emissions.”
The chief scientist acknowledges there are “challenges” with bringing low-emissions technologies online “but over time, the solutions will come – just as we have learned to harness new technologies before”.
Finkel said the required transition would ultimately be led by the market and the science, “not by the chief scientist”.
His speech follows confirmation on Thursday that the Hazelwood coal-fired power station in Victoria’s Latrobe valley will close next March. Both the federal and Victorian governments announced transitional assistance packages for the workers affected by the closure.
The Australian Energy Market Operator issued advice saying it expected there would be sufficient capacity available to continue to operate the national electricity market reliably after Hazelwood’s retirement – although it warned the supply/demand balance would be tighter during times of peak demand.
It said unusually hot weather conditions could require an additional supply or demand response to meet all projected demand in Victoria and South Australia, “particularly if these conditions coincide with low wind availability, or generation or transmission outages”.
Finkel was also upbeat about the prospects of battery storage, and other new forms of storing energy, as a means of dealing with intermittency problems from technologies including wind power.
“It’s one of the big opportunities I see on the horizon for Australia; and one of the questions that the … review will have to consider,” Finkel said on Thursday night.
“First, because it is one way we can deal with the problem of intermittency whilst harnessing renewable energy across the grid; and second, because it is a field in which we are starting to play particularly well.”
But he said Australia shouldn’t limit itself to storage solutions. “Let’s think about other fields for Australian firms that could flow from our success in managing our grid.
“In particular, let’s think about something that Sydney and Melbourne do particularly well – build platforms to grapple with complex systems.”
Read this article online at The Guardian