ATSE President's Reflection

Powering up a clean energy future

July 17 2020

Hugh Bradlow headshot

Professor Hugh Bradlow FTSE

President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering

The current economic disruption presents a rare opportunity to re-set Australia’s approach to meeting our power needs, and developing a clean energy export market.

For some time, ATSE has advocated a technology-agnostic approach to energy generation – within, of course, the guidelines of safety, reliability, and lowest possible emissions. The same approach has been supported in our recent response to the Government’s Technology Investment Roadmap Discussion Paper.

Our team of world-leading experts, ably led by Fellows John Burgess and John Soderbaum, pulled together a formidable response which makes fascinating reading. For example, the paper points out that “Photo voltaic and wind now constitute two thirds of net annual global capacity (GW) additions; in Australia, the comparable statistic is 99%.”

Despite this excellent progress towards an emissions-free economy, I still feel that ATSE’s fundamental approach to energy production is not being recognised. Government policy should set the parameters for the constraints of safety, reliability and moving towards zero emissions, and then allow the market to choose the technologies in which it wants to invest.

If we, as a country, adopted this approach we could obviate all the debates around renewables, coal, gas and nuclear. There would be no reason to ban some technologies (e.g. nuclear) and subsidise others (e.g. renewables).

Unfortunately, while the parameters for safety and reliability (dispatchability, stability) are not controversial, the vexed constraint is that of emissions. The only logical choice is for the emissions from any provider (whatever their generation mix) to be limited to a maximum level.

That maximum level for providers should be set to decline over a (hopefully short) period of time to zero, but politics has presented us from reaching this obvious conclusion. This would assist in achieving (and hopefully exceeding) Australia’s international obligations to reduce emissions – to see how we’re tracking against those promises I commend once again our emissions targets explainer.

If we did adopt such a policy, including an emissions limit for generators, decisions such as renewable plus storage, versus coal plus CCS (carbon capture and sequestration), versus nuclear, would be purely economic. The market would very quickly come to its own conclusions based on current and future technology trends.

The responsible position for ATSE is to be pushing for technology neutrality within the constraints I mention above (including zero emissions). This implies that, in addition to advocating for solar, wind, hydrogen and any other viable technologies, I suggest we should also consider advocating to lift the ban on nuclear technology. While many will argue that nuclear is not economically viable, that would be for the market to decide, particularly in the light of the emerging small modular reactor technology.

We should not preclude Australia capitalising on the current opportunity to re-form and re-set our domestic power production, and build capacity to become a premium exporter of clean energy.