It’s on the news; must be true

What does it take, I wonder, for the media to get their collective head around the fact that a research project is just that and not the harbinger of massive change just down the road?

A current example is the way in which both the ABC and the Newcastle Herald newspaper have reported the “Future Grid Forum” exercise being pursued by CSIRO.

The national broadcaster told listeners and viewers today that the forum will bring together generators, distributors, consumer groups and regulators to “help guide an EXPECTED $240 billion investment” in electricity supply “over the next 20 years.”

The Herald says the same thing.

Given how much effort the media have given to shrieking about power prices, how, one wonders, does it not occur to these journalists and their editors to ask what impact such investment would have on consumer bills?

As well,given that both media outlets say this, one must ask how were they briefed by CSIRO?

Most people connected with the industry, of course, will shrug and say that this stuff is par for the media course – but what drives journalists and their editors to feed the public so much gibberish?

In a big part, the answer lies in the incapacity of the media to get the power scene in sensible context.

Now the background paper on the proposed forum produced by the CSIRO starts by saying: “Australia’s energy system is expected to undergo a major transformation over the coming decades.”

And Alex Wonhas, director of the CSIRO Energy Technology Transformed Flagship, says in the media statement about the project that “the industry will be very different in 50 years’ time” and that the role of the forum is to “inform decisions we need to make today to shape future supply, prices and carbon emissions.”

Absolutely nothing wrong with these statements – but how do they get to be shaped by the ABC and the Herald in to telling their audiences that this exercise will lead to an “expected $240 billion investment over the next 20 years”?

There is also nothing controversial about the direction the forum is seeking to take – it is exactly what the federal government, through its “clean energy future” policy, and reinforced by repetition in the recent energy white paper, is saying.

The policy suggests that by mid-century Australian power supply could be about half-sourced from renewables and the rest from fossil fuels, with the bulk of the latter coal and gas plants using carbon capture and storage.

The consultants employed by federal Treasury to advise the government in 2010-11 produced reports suggesting that 2030 supply could be based on fossil fuels (black and brown coal and gas) to the tune of about 70 to 80 percent.

The University of Adelaide’s professor Barry Brook, in a review of the white paper on his “Brave New Climate” website, notes: “(It) shows a gradual phase out of traditional coal (to be replaced by carbon-capture and storage variants after about 2035) and a ramp-up of combined cycle gas (both CCS and non-CCS). Up to half of electricity is coming from wind, solar thermal, solar PV and engineered geothermal by 2050. The estimated cost is more than $200 billion in new generation investment.”

There are really only three controversial aspects to this outlook.

One is whether or not “hot rock” geothermal energy can be brought in to the mix over the next two decades.

By 2050, the consultants believe that it could be delivering an eighth to a fifth of overall power supply.

CSIRO Energy Transformed Flagship itself, in a submission to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly Public Accounts Committee power generation inquiry five months ago, said of geothermal that the technology “still has significant technical and commercial risks associated with it.”

The second issue is whether or not CCS will become commercially viable for power generation.

The same CSIRO submission to the PAC concedes that there are particular challenges for CCS in NSW, the largest power production and consumption area in the country, because it is difficult to find suitable geological locations anywhere near the existing black coal power stations for sequestration.

The third controversial point is the political decision that nuclear energy should not be considered by the consultants or policymakers.

As Brook has said, and I reported in a post here in August: “Nuclear energy at present is uniquely a proven fit-for-service, low-carbon “plug-in” alternative for coal that is commercially available, widely deployed in some countries, highly scalable and comes with a half-century’s operational experience. It indisputably has its own problems, but so do all of our other electricity options. There is no such thing as an electrical free lunch.”

Just so, but the ABC and the Newcastle newspaper feel free to impose a perspective on their audiences that ignores all this stuff.

Meanwhile, the CSIRO, in the forum background paper distributed to the media, says that the project will “complement and build upon” the energy white paper.

So a quarter of a trillion dollar revolution over 20 years is not the starting point.

In passing, I noted Richard Aldous, CEO, Co-operative Research Centre for Greenhouse Technologies, make this point in a recent edition of The Conversation website: “Currently in Australia we have some $30-50 billion of support going into renewable energy and only $3-5 billion going in to CCS, despite the continuing high growth in fossil fuel use globally.”

He adds: “We will increasingly hear calls for urgent action and the deployment of renewable energy. But there must also be calls for a pragmatic approach that deals with growing fossil fuel use and the massive existing fossil fuel burning infrastructure. This approach includes CCS.”

The nuclear energy proponents, of course, make the same point about the need for a “pragmatic approach” to including reactors in the Australian mix.

You could build a lot of them for $240 billion between now and 2030!

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