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The Forum > Article Comments > Australia’s energy policy options: a realist perspective > Comments

Australia’s energy policy options: a realist perspective : Comments

By Chris Lewis, published 1/2/2010

Australia will talk the talk, but fail to walk the walk, as its reliance upon coal exports alone quashes any environmental bid at the domestic level.

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Australia's coal exports show the staggering hypocrisy of pretending to seek reduced global emissions. I believe Australian coal be it brown, black or exported contributes about a billion tonnes a year to global CO2 emissions of about 30 bn tonnes. We have .3% of world population yet our coal creates 3% of emissions. Australia not only aids and abets high emissions but shows off an enviable lifestyle making us doubly guilty. The good news is that Australian exports cannot possibly make up for China's looming coal shortage. They burn 2.5 billion tonnes a year which will be unsustainable past 2015 or so. A world coal peak is expected around 2030.

I also agree that wind and solar are too expensive and intermittent to make any significant dent in coal burning. Natural gas fired electricity could increase but we will want a lot of that gas to fuel trucks when diesel gets expensive in a few years. That leaves nuclear. To put the 1986 Chernobyl accident in perspective only 56 people died directly and that reactor design would not be built today. I believe nuclear power and efficiency are the realistic alternatives to coal. The longer we kid ourselves otherwise the harder the eventual adjustment will be.
Posted by Taswegian, Monday, 1 February 2010 8:36:47 AM
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At the current consumption rate for uranium there is about 85 years supply from known resources. if we all "jump on the band wagon" and go nuclear we may well be back in exactly the oil situation...peak uranium in 20-30 years (or less)!

Hard to see much of a future for mankind, less someone invents a new energy source :)
Posted by Peter King, Monday, 1 February 2010 9:20:44 AM
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'even coal is not an inexhaustible industry' That would have to be the understatement of the year! I think current estimates are that coal, uranium and oil will all be in very short supply by the end of this century, so we really need to be looking at solar, wind, geothermal and tide power, as these are the only sources of energy which are likely to outlast the human race. I'm sure we have the ingenuity to make them work effectively. One of the reasons I am against Rudd's ETS is because it will pour billions of dollars into a dinosaur industry like coal, when we should just be leaving it to burn itself out while we invest in new energy.
Posted by Candide, Monday, 1 February 2010 10:05:49 AM
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Chris has provided a useful starting point for a thorough-going discussion on this important topic. I hope it will be more instructive than the Monckton saga still being played out on OLO (

My first contribution is to point out that the costings used on renewable systems do not reflect the likely long-term costings. For example, prices for photovoltaic (PV) systems have been tracked for many years. Using highly reliable "learning curve" analyses (see, the US Department of Energy has predicted PV prices to be competitive with fossil fuels by 2015 ( By that date, about 100GW of PV systems will have been installed world wide (present total electric generating capacity is about 2000GW). There is no reason, given economies of scale and inexorable technological improvements, that PV prices will not continue to fall and become even more competitive. Windpower installations already amount to over 130GW and rising quickly and are subject to similar learning curve effects. China intends to install this amount itself in six large wind farms now starting construction.

Obviously wind and PV solar, in their present for can't meet all of our electricity needs- this is a straw argument. As Peter King has pointed out- neither can nuclear. The grim nuclear data of about 85 years of supply that he presents- and that I have previously presented on OLO- is usually countered by blythe comments about the future installation of nuclear reactors of a kind that have yet to be proven. Maybe so- but why not accord solar the same degree of optimism?

Renewables don't need "major breakthroughs"- they only require "general progress". I doubt that nuclear will get there just with "private development".
Posted by Jedimaster, Monday, 1 February 2010 10:23:24 AM
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The article appears to conclude that nuclear power generation is the only option for meeting Australia’s electricity needs, while accepting that coal fired power generation and increasing greenhouse gas emissions are likely, at least in the medium term.

I do not agree. An option Mr Lewis does not examine is use of geothermal energy to generate base load electricity. Australia has better access than any other country to this energy source and over 30 companies are now engaged in heat mining. Electricity can be generated from this source for the same cost as nuclear with the added attraction that it produces no residual waste requiring lengthy storage.

What makes coal generated electricity cheaper are on-going public subsidies paid to its producers and users, as well as future subsidies promised by government in the form of free emission permits. This protectionism is prompted by a desire to safeguard a valuable source of revenue – royalties to the states and other taxes levied by federal government. Vested interests find these arrangements quite satisfactory but how long will they last?

Once a price is put on carbon, on-going use of coal to meet our future electricity needs becomes more problematic, as does implementation of public policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Governments of either political persuasion are confronted with a choice: Increase subsidies for production and use of fossil fuels to maintain the status quo or use scarce resources to fund competing demands such as social welfare, defence, etc.

Political expediency will force withdrawal of assistance currently provided to coal production and use in favour of cheaper, temporary assistance to generating electricity from geothermal and other clean energy sources, such as tidal, to stimulate advances in solar technology and assist in establishment of new industries in these areas.

And as an afterthought? Oh yes! Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Not even Australia can afford the consequences of global warming or to maintain its proud record of being the worlds’ largest coal exporter and its highest per capita greenhouse gas emitter
Posted by Agnostic of Mittagong, Monday, 1 February 2010 11:18:46 AM
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I rarely post comments but I must congratulate Chris on a well balanced article.

I would like to correct some misconceptions about uranium resources and the ability of wind and solar PV to make big inroads into replacing fossil fuels.

First uranium. In my opinion piece published in December on nuclear power joinly authored with Barry Brook,

we pointed out that if current technology nuclear plants were the only ones build over the rest of this century then indeed we would be facing a uranium shortage by century's end. But the next generation of reactors (fast reactors) will use only a small fraction of the uranium ore and there will be enough proven deposits to supply the entire world for many thousands of years.

Nuclear power is not resource constrained. It is politically strangled.

I can accept that both wind and solar power will get less expensive as the technologies develop. The problem is not one of cost but variable resources. We need a big proportion of our electricty generators (both big and small) to generate power when we need them to, not just when nature chooses. We can handle a small proportion of variable generators (may be 10-20% only) in the network but the rest must be reliable. Energy storage could provide the answer but will add significantly to the cost.

We have some very reliable renewable energy generators in Australia - hydro, biomass, and may be in the future concentrated solar thermal and geothermal. Hydro growth is limited by water resource. Biomass growth is limited by land - although we could use more municipal waste. CSP is expensive and will need to be installed well away from the major cities with long transmission lines which will make it even more expensive. And geothermal is in a similar boat to CCS. Technically feasible but as yet unproven commercially. Geothermal will also suffer the high transmission cost.

We can either wait and see if energy storage, CSP and/or geothermal can deliver at a cost we can live with or we can take out a nuclear insurance policy.
Posted by Martin N, Monday, 1 February 2010 1:42:07 PM
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