John Howard may have done Australian science an inadvertent favour when he called on the nuclear debate, apparently egged on by Chief Scientist Jim Peacock and ATSE president John Zillman.
Given that almost nothing in our society would work without energy and that our use of it will double by the 2020s, it is high time Australia had a sensible discussion about where it is coming from in future, and in what forms, to replace the squalid babble of self-interest and ideological prejudice that has passed for energy debate in the last quarter century.
For decades Australia has managed to ignore the necessity for a strategic investment in research for our future national energy needs. In 1997 we abandoned any pretence to planning when the Government axed the short-lived Energy R&D Corporation (ERDC), with its puny $10 million budget, asserting the private sector would take care of it.
Plainly it hasn’t. Today Australia’s long-range energy policy consists of little more than a squabble of competing interests - coal, oil, gas, nuclear, wind, solar, hot rock, biofuels, hydro and so on - each pushing their own barrow and bagging the alternatives.
Australian energy is a $50 billion business - and will be a $100 billion business by the 2020s. It is hard to imagine a $5 million business, let alone a $50,000 million business so unplanned and with so little idea of where it is heading. We have better plans for managing salinity.
It’s not as if Australia is short of energy. In fact we’re spoiled for choice, with half a millenium’s worth of coal, a century or so of gas (depending on how quickly the Chinese consume it), and any amount of wind, sunlight, hot rocks, uranium, thorium, methane hydrates and bio-fuels. It’s not the form of energy that’s important: it’s finding the optimal mix that is clean, convenient and affordable. And that is why having a good research plan make sense
A troubling aspect is transport fuels. In theory at least, a blow-up in the Middle East could put half Australia off the road inside a fortnight. What that might do to business and jobs, let alone food production in the medium term doesn’t bear thinking about. Despite our growing dependency on imported oil - now running at 20-40 per cent - the 2004 policy white paper largely poo-pooed this possibility.
There are plenty of alternatives, including LNG, gas-to-liquids, coal-to-diesel, shale oil, biodiesel and even hydrogen - but, due to a weak, fragmented and undirected research effort over decades, these are mostly still uneconomic and far from adoption. They certainly wouldn’t be much help in a sudden crisis. In the long run, as even oilman George Bush has acknowledged, society has to get off oil - but do we have a clue what Australia’s future transport fuels will be? (The CSIRO’s David Lamb says no and recently called for a plan.)
Another area of uncertainty is the cost of carbon. Today few companies are prepared to take the risk of installing a new power station, because of the massive loss they could incur. If you build a pulverised coal station and a carbon tax comes in, you will go broke. If you invest in a $1 billion greenhouse-friendly IGCC unit, and no carbon tax is introduced, you’ll go equally broke. Our future energy infrastructure investment is almost at a standstill for want of decision.
Excellent alternatives like oxy-fuel generation and “coalar thermal” (coal generation with added solar) also lack the clear market signals needed for adoption, as does geosequestration (apart from the technical questions).
In nuclear, the current “debate” would strand us with 20th century uranium technology - with all its qualifications - without exploring the scope for cleaner, safer thorium reactors (and we have, apparently, the world’s largest supplies of thorium) or the ultimate, fusion reactors.
Australia does a certain amount of energy supply research - about $300 million a year according to the ABS (below). Industry, universities, several CRCs and CSIRO are all involved. Some of this work is excellent - but it is also fragmented, unco-ordinated, riven with self-interest, ad hoc and devoid of national vision.