Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Electric Vehicle Challenge

By Ian Lowe

Installations of solar and wind energy will need to maintain their pace to ensure that the coming demand for electric vehicles won’t be powered by fossil fuels.

There is good news and bad news about the Australian electricity system. The bad news is that total electricity demand, which had been stable for a few years, has increased significantly in the past year. The environmental impact of this growth has been compounded by a larger share of the power coming from coal-fired generators. Down to 72% in 2013–14 when we had a price on carbon dioxide emitted, coal accounted for 76% of the generation last year.

The other worrying factor is that the growth in electricity use is almost entirely due to the coal seam gas industry in Queensland, a combination of the power being used to develop the gas fields and the need to liquefy the gas for export. It’s been projected that the coal seam gas industry will add about 8 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year to Australia’s emissions when it becomes fully operational.

The good news is that the harnessing of solar energy continues to expand. Curtin University’s sustainability professor Peter Newman recently commented on the number of solar panels now being used in the south-west of Western Australia, covering the greater Perth region. About 20% of homes there now have solar cells on the roof, generating about 500 MW of peak power. This makes the combined power production “the largest power station in WA,” Newman said. The output of solar panels is equivalent to about 15% of the greatest peak demand last year. The expansion of air conditioning in buildings means that electricity demand now peaks on summer afternoons, roughly coinciding with the time when solar cells are most productive. Newman expects that as many as half of the households in the region will have solar energy installed by 2020.

What we are seeing locally is a reflection of the global revolution. Last year the number of new installations of wind (63 GW) and solar (47 GW) worldwide was comparable with Australia’s total installed capacity of wind and solar (about 50 GW). The growth rates are startling. The new solar generation added 37% to the 2014 capacity, while wind power grew by 17%. Together with hydroelectricity, bio­energy, geo­thermal and marine power systems, more than 150 GW of renewable generating capacity was commissioned last year.

That sort of revolution is needed in Australia if the promise of electric vehicles is to be realised. With more than 75% of our electricity still coming from coal, electric cars would actually increase greenhouse gas emissions.

The controversy over CSIRO’s proposed cuts to public-good science continues to rumble around. A Senate hearing provoked one senior manager, Alex Wonhas, to deny the impression that CSIRO will abandon public-good research. That view was fuelled by 700 pages of internal documents that were brought into the open by the Senate inquiry. The e-mail exchanges between CSIRO managers contained statements about not doing “science for science sake” (sic) and “public good is not enough, needs to be linked to jobs and growth”. One message specifically advocated a “clean cut” to get rid of “public good / government-funded climate research” on the grounds that anything less radical would keep some scientists who would “no longer be aligned with the new CSIRO strategy”.

As I write, there is still no clear picture of the specific job losses. The Senate inquiry was told that the director of the division concerned had proposed cutting 35 scientific posts in the climate area, but was told by the chief executive Larry Marshall that 100 should go. A meeting between Marshall and scientists in the Land and Water division ended with staff walking out.

Senators questioned Marshall for 2 hours at an early April Senate hearing, but Senator Janet Rice described the CEO as “completely evasive”. It came out that senior managers had decided at a November 2015 meeting to use private e-mail addresses “to avoid undue stress to other staff”.

While Marshall’s stated goal is to position CSIRO as an “innovation catalyst”, Wonhas assured the Senators that the organisation remains committed to public-good research. I hope it is: studies suggest that every dollar spent returns about $10 to the community.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.