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The Chief Scientists Energy Plan

There are criticisms from all quarters that the Government lacks an energy plan. The green left, including most of the media, seems to think that independent Zali Steagall’s bill that will legislate a target of zero emissions by 2050 is sufficient to drive an energy plan that will lead Australia into a clean energy future. The Steagall bill has received support from the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group, albeit with the qualification that we don’t know how to get there or what it will cost.

Well, on Wednesday at the National Press Club, the Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, described how to get there, at least for the energy and transport sectors. The interesting thing about the Finkel plan is that it is totally consistent with current government policy.

Dr Finkel’s plan is based on four pathways to low emissions energy production. These are wind and solar with storage, gas as a transition fuel, and hydrogen. He ruled out nuclear energy because of the lack of public acceptance.

He said that three quarters of global emissions come from the production of energy but the world cannot function without energy. That means that there has to be an orderly transition to an economy based on clean electricity.

At the moment the bulk of our energy comes from fossil fuels but to have clean electricity we have to have a technology transition away from fossil fuels. The Chief Scientist said that this is the biggest engineering problem the world has ever faced and the transition will take many decades.

Renewable energy is booming world-wide. In Australia, there will be a 30% cut in emissions from energy production by 2030. Because nuclear energy and new hydro-electricity face opposition from the public Australia will have to rely on gas as a transition fuel. Britain has used gas as a transition fuel to significantly lower emissions. However these three sources of energy will not be enough to achieve a carbon free economy: we still need a transportable source of energy to fuel transport and manufacture fertilizer as well as replace coal as an energy export. Dr Finkel believes that hydrogen is the answer to this problem.

Hydrogen can be manufactured by splitting water or by using the heat from coal and natural gas to make hydrogen and then burying the resultant carbon dioxide in the ground. Carbon dioxide capture and storage from hydrogen production is likely to be efficient and relatively cheap.

Dr Finkel says that there are limits to the extent to which renewables can power the planet because of the limits on the resources needed to manufacture them. Renewables require enormous amounts of steel which in turn requires enormous amounts of coal. Eventually hydrogen can replace this fossil fuel. Moreover gas powered generators can be converted to hydrogen power and hydrogen is an easily transportable fuel that can be exported.

The Commonwealth has committed $370 million to the development of a hydrogen production plan and Australia is well placed to become one of the three major exporters of hydrogen globally.

He concluded by saying that it was impossible to achieve a clean economy by relying on wind and solar alone even with storage. That is why gas will be necessary to enable a transition to hydrogen which will take many decades.

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