Wrestling with complexity

You won’t be surprised to know that I prefer to be informed about electricity issues by experts rather than via rhetorical flourishes from media figures, be they ever so highly regarded in their field.

As it happens, the latest of such flourishes – in a national newspaper, declaring no future for coal power and talking up renewables – has coincided with CSIRO publishing its Low Emissions Technology Roadmap.

While almost all the public focus in recent months has been on Alan Finkel & Co, whose task force report will be delivered to CoAG at the week’s end, this Roadmap is also part of a process that includes the concurrent federal government review of climate change policies – a reminder that the Finkel report is not a last word.

The first critical point of the new CSIRO report is that it examines pathways (note the plural) for the energy sector to contribute to Australia’s emission reduction efforts – and is not just another paean of excitement over the green brick road.

Whatever route is chosen, CSIRO says, a choice must be made between dispatchable power from flexible generation or opting for storage to support variable renewable energy.

Now the CSIRO work is contained in two documents totaling 450 pages and trying to synthesize it in one short commentary is a mug’s game. What I want to do here is to focus on just one of the four pathways and just on its electricity aspect.

This pathway examines – please note, it doesn’t predict or propose – the use of wind and solar power, up to a limit of 45 per cent in the market, plus low-emission, dispatchable technology, including concentrating solar thermal power with storage, high efficiency, low emissions fossil-fuelled generation with carbon capture and storage, nuclear energy and, surprisingly perhaps, given recent experience, geothermal.

The pathway includes a scenario that that sees a transition to low-emissions dispatchable power with less requirement for expensive grid transformation than others canvassed. Such steps need, CSIRO says, to be considered with their benefits in terms of dispatchibility balanced with their cost and risk (technology, commercial, social licence) profiles.

The whole point of drawing attention to this Roadmap is that, if one stands sufficiently far back and looks with both eyes, its overall message is to highlight the great complexity of the decisions Australia needs to make – as one example, a section that sees development out to 2030 restricted to wind, solar PV and gas also envisages a slower decrease in coal-fired generation.

The CSIRO papers should be seen as an essential reading backdrop to the issue of “technology neutrality” that is rising towards the top of the energy debate and is far from simple in implementation even as it offers the Coalition a means of coping with its own unruly members for whom the climate change issue is a red rag.

The chances are that we will hear a great deal about technology neutrality in the rest of this month, flowing from both the Finkel report and the push by the federal government for consideration of this direction (a path strongly supported by some large lobbying bodies).

“Neutrality” is more jargon, of course, and, in itself, is highly complex.

In just one example, does technology neutrality embrace a situation in which Australia’s younger coal-fired power stations are refurbished using HELE and CCS rather than pursuing greenfields developments? The green boosters, their political acolytes and energy investors with vested interests will, naturally, scream “NO!!!” but, in standing-back mode, it is an option that shouldn’t be ignored.

In one of dozens of observations across hundreds of pages of the Roadmap, CSIRO observes that “HELE technologies allow for the continued use of fossil fuel feedstocks at significantly lower emissions – (and) they also provide a platform which significantly reduces the cost of staged CCS deployment.”

I should interpolate here that the Australian Academy of Technology & Engineering (ATSE) has just released a statement calling on policymakers to “make some decisions about CCS,” arguing that “no matter how earnestly we push towards renewables and lower emissions, large-scale fossil fuel use will continue for some time to come for industrial processes and generation”.

ATSE adds that “retrofitting CCS to existing power stations has been carried out successfully in Canada and the US,” asserting that it is also an option here.

The CSIRO Roadmap also discusses at length an ongoing role for gas in generation and notes that, in order to meet the large additional demand for the fuel raised in one of its pathways, taking in to account the ongoing LNG trade, “it is likely that significant additional unconventional gas reserves will be required,” another challenging issue bearing in mind community attitudes to coal seam gas and to hydraulic fracturing.

As we contemplate all of what is going to be heard this week, it is useful, I suggest, to read the “next steps” advice from CSIRO contained in the Roadmap executive summary.

Policymakers, the organization says, face a range of strategic decisions that need to be made now in order to inform policy design as well as to inform priorities for research and community engagement.

These decisions, CSIRO adds, include whether policy should be national versus jurisdiction-specific, whether policy to drive uptake of low emissions technologies should be economy-wide versus sector-specific, whether policy should be technology neutral versus technology specific and whether Australia should develop technology locally versus acting as a “technology taker”?

There are also, it says, specific key questions for policymakers regarding the future of nuclear power and domestic gas supply.

“While action would be required in the short term to maintain optionality regarding low emissions dispatchable electricity generation technologies, there is a further set of strategic decisions that can be made post-2020 on whether to decrease or increase support for each of these technologies.”

Just thinking about this no doubt makes many heads hurt, but it is necessary to remind ourselves about the big picture each time we read blowhard commentary given high billing in the main media – and, as we snarl at politicians to do better, we need to remind ourselves that this is just one of several areas in which our leaders are wrestling with similar complexity.

So far as electricity supply is concerned, the Roadmap, assuming it is actually read where it matters and not treated as part of the background noise, can be a useful decisionmakers’ tool for the weeks and months ahead.

 

 

 

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