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When It Comes To Zero Emissions - Renewables Won’t Cut It

In her recent Quarterly Essay “The Coal Curse – resources, climate, and Australia’s future”, Professor Judith Brett argues that our best prospect for a prosperous future is to move to a manufacturing economy powered by renewable energy. As the essay makes clear, Professor Brett is a political scientist who knows nothing about electrical and energy engineering.

At the same time as Professor Brett was compiling her essay Australia was being visited by Professor Chris Greig of Princeton University who heads up the Rapid Switch Project, a project involving universities in Australia, India, China, Europe, and the United States and who was a recent guest on an Energy Policy Institute of Australia webinar. He said the essential aim of the project is to develop a deeper understanding of viable pathways to achieve zero emissions futures and explores how fast we can expect to decarbonise the whole of any economy.

In response to calls from American politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for a rapid transition to a carbon-free economy, the so-called ‘Green New Deal’, Professor Greig and academics at Princeton developed a Net Zero America Project.

Multiple scenarios were developed to get to net-zero economy-wide, with varying assumptions and levels of things like net induced electrification, varying contributions of

renewable energy and on the supply side, varying levels of energy productivity and transition periods.

The first main finding was that every scenario involved sustaining unprecedented rates of one technology or another, that is, several times the historical annual deployment rate seen anywhere in the world. That could involve hundreds of gigawatts of wind and solar being installed year on year for three decades, along with a 10-fold increase in long-distance

transmission and with massive investment in batteries and very low-capacity factor flexible resources to allow us to balance supply and demand in a renewable dominated system or, in a renewable constrained scenario, with tens of gigawatts of new nuclear capacity being added along with gigatonne levels, billion-tonne levels of carbon sequestration.

The other main finding is that all scenarios are capital-intensive, and all involve very significant social change and physical impacts on landscapes and resources. The plant and infrastructure site structure will be immense. Planning is very sensitive to stakeholder engagement. All scenarios will test industrial capacity and supply chains and will result in the stranding of some asset classes.

Professor Brett's policy formula for a future Australia is very close to the ‘Green New Deal’ and subject to the same flaws. The difficulties propounded by Professor Greig have also been recognised by the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, who is leading the technology investment roadmap reference group.

On Monday the Minerals Council of Australia released a submission to Professor Finkel’s panel that called for priority to be given to small modular nuclear reactor technology as a source of base-load power that can provide stability to the grid during the transition to low emission energy.

The MCA argues in its submission that SMR’s will be available commercially within this decade so to wait for a decade before making a decision on whether they can be used in Australia is unnecessarily slow. The submission also recognizes that carbon capture and storage and battery technology need further rapid technological development.

This is all in line with Professor Greig’s Rapid Switch conclusions which are likely to constitute the dominant paradigm when it comes to the transition to zero emissions.

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