Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Energy Trilemma

By Hugh Bradlow

Clear direction is needed to direct the transition to cheap, reliable and carbon-neutral energy technologies.

We have three goals for our energy supply, two of which are uncontroversial: deliver electricity at the lowest cost to consumers and businesses, and ensure that the supply is reliable and secure. The latter implies that enough electricity is available instantly when required, and the former that an event on the grid – such as a wind turbine shutting down due to a lack of wind – does not cause the grid to become unstable.

Everyone agrees on those two, but unfortunately the third consideration – to reduce (actually remove) greenhouse emissions from our electricity generators – turns the rational discussion on energy into an emotional debate.

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering believes that policy-makers should set rules that allow the market to pick the winners in terms of the technologies we use to solve the energy trilemma. However, the rules must ensure that the playing field is level for all technologies.

“Clean” energy is currently more expensive than “dirty” energy from burning oil, coal or gas, all of which release CO2 into the atmosphere (unless carbon capture and storage is added to the generation system). However, this will not be the case within a decade.

This raises a predicament for policy-makers as to whether they should set a price on carbon emissions or subsidise renewables to level the playing field. But to achieve technology neutrality, governments also need to avoid emotional bans on certain technologies that are not based on evidence. For example, there is no evidence to support the ban by some state governments on unconventional gas production, which could possibly increase the supply of lower-cost gas. (It is not clear that it will, but by removing inhibitions on its production it may encourage entrepreneurs to come up with different solutions).

Similarly, it does not make any scientific sense to prohibit the development of nuclear power generation. While there is widespread scepticism regarding its economic viability, a new generation of small modular reactors may change this equation. If that turned out to be the case, Australia would lag the rest of the world.

The influence of technology is already being felt due to the distribution of generation in the form of the 1.8 million Australian households that are generating their own electricity using solar cells. Our electricity distribution system needs to catch up with this development through the use of “smart grid” technologies that coordinate the central generators with the increasing number of distributed generators.

Of course, suppliers of variable renewable electricity generated from the sun and wind need to ensure 24-hour supply through the use of energy storage. While there has been a lot of noise in the media about whether renewables can achieve continuous supply, the answer is very clearly that they can. It will require storage, but the massive investments going into batteries and other grid storage solutions (such as pumped hydro and super-capacitors) give us confidence that we shall be able to meet this need.

On the current technology trajectory, the cost of a reliable and secure renewable supply– will become cheaper than traditional fossil fuel-burning generation. The major issue is that there will be a period, probably of at least a couple of decades, during which we shall need to replace our existing generating capacity with these new solutions.

The longer we delay the start of this replacement cycle, the greater will be the unnecessary emission of CO2 into the atmosphere. At present, a lack of clear policy direction is delaying the investment that is required to bring in this new generation capacity.

On the demand side, a new set of technologies can also be used to reduce electricity requirements and also to improve the overall efficiency of the system end-to-end.

Hugh Bradlow FTSE is the President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.