The new Asia-Pacific Greenhouse Agreement offers Australia a great opportunity to take full advantage of both its brains and its energy resources.
The energy debate is often, simplistically, characterised as coal v nuclear, or non-renewables v renewables. In reality we will need a mix of energy sources to power our economy cleanly into the future. The issues are cost, environmental protection, national security, skills and security of energy supply.
The bottom line is, if we wish our economy to continue growing at present rates, we will need 50 per cent more energy in 2030 than we use today - and it isn’t too soon to start planning how we’ll produce it.
In coal, we have around 500 years’ supply of low-cost resources at present rates of usage. Power generation from coal is capable of achieving zero, or near zero, carbon emissions using technologies such as oxy-fuel combustion or IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle) in both of which the CO2 can be captured and stored underground.
The greenhouse debate has revived interest in nuclear power generation in Australia. The cost of generating electricity using nuclear technology is much the same as for clean coal. However, we would have to start a nuclear power industry from a very small base, buying costly generation plant and training or importing an entire, highly-skilled workforce, in competition with other countries which are also expanding their nuclear industries.
Waste disposal is an issue for both coal and nuclear energy. For coal, the main option is carbon capture and its storage in deep saline aquifers. This technology is well understood and widely used by the oil and gas industry but we have to determine the most suitable places and techniques, and we have to build the infrastructure. Nuclear waste storage is also well understood. Which technology we choose depends on an evaluation of both short and long term risks for the community and environment.
One thing that Australia absolutely must get right is the economics. The wrong decision will cost us jobs, if not entire industries. While renewables like solar and wind are unquestionably part of our future energy mix, trying to implement them on a large scale without a regulatory framework that puts a value on carbon emissions will be costly and the costs will fall on both industry and the community. We must, nevertheless, continue to pursue their development and introduction over the medium term.
Clean coal offers a number of attractions. Apart from being cost-competitive with other forms of energy, it can also help solve a far larger problem for Australia: our growing dependence on imported transport fuels and the greenhouse emissions of our transport sector.
Because it is a chemical - not a combustion - process, IGCC is capable of producing a range of products from coal: syngas, clean diesel fuel, hydrogen (the cleanest fuel of all), fertiliser and other industrial materials. In other words coal-IGCC can provide motive power for the new ultra-efficient diesel engines, for hybrid cars or for vehicles powered by fuel cells. This is a big advantage over technologies that only produce electricity.
The transport sector contributes 14 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse emissions. If we are to overcome the greenhouse problem, we need to cut emissions from transport as well as from electricity generation. Clean coal can help achieve this.
Also, Australians are already world leaders at mining, handling, analysing, processing, burning and exporting coal. We will need to grow those skills to pursue the clean coal route, but we already have a head start in our skills base.
The new Asia-Pacific greenhouse partnership between Australia, the US, Japan, China, India and South Korea offers us an opportunity to be among the world leaders in the clean energy game. We can be an exporter of clean energy, of energy-rich products (like aluminium or magnesium) and of clean technology and know-how. In other words, we can use our brains as well as our resources.
This will not only sustain our own future but will also help our trading partners to maintain growth and to reduce their emissions. That would be a worthy contribution to a more prosperous, peaceable and environmentally sustainable world.