Has the Prime Minister let the cat out of
the bag? “You look at coal, and you look at nuclear”, he told Kerry O’Brien on
the 7:30 Report last night.

“China is
trying to get energy from all sources”, he said, “and that’s sensible and what I
would say to the Australian public is that we should be open-minded enough to
try and get energy from all sources. We shouldn’t say, ‘Well it’s either got to
be nuclear, or coal, nuclear or fossil fuels or renewables’, and there is more
renewable energy now than there were 20 years ago. There was virtually none 20
years ago. Why shouldn’t we be open-minded enough to look at all of the
alternative sources? That’s all I’m asking that this inquiry will do.”

That’s not a bad approach to take – but we
need to keep a few facts in mind when we debate energy supplies. Firstly, clean sources of energy will cost
more. We need to determine what the electorate and the economy will wear.

Secondly, we will need a mix of energy
sources. At the moment, wind power is cheaper and more efficient than solar
generation. Yet wind generators won’t work everywhere. Geographical and
physical constraints – even proximity to the electricity grid – will determine
energy solutions as much as price. This means that existing resources and
infrastructure will continue to have an important role in determining our
energy future.

The chief executive officer of the
Cooperative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies, Peter Cook, says
emission-free coal fired power stations are feasible. All it requires is a
relatively simple process involving splitting carbon and hydrogen in coal.

“We’re involved in a project called
Future-Gen which is why I’m over here in the States at the moment”, he told the
“This is a billion-dollar project that the US is putting together, they’re
going to be using coal and they’re going to be producing hydrogen from the
coal, then they’re going to use that hydrogen for powering generators and then
they’ll put the CO2 in the ground, and that’s due to come on stream by 2012.”

The Australianreported yesterday that the
coal industry believes power stations that do not produce greenhouse gases
could be operating across Australia
in the same time it takes to establish nuclear power stations.
“The industry claims the rapidly developing methods of making coal cleaner and
more valuable would make nuclear power plants obsolete”, the report read.

The peak industry body reinforced
this line in its response to the announcement of an inquiry into nuclear power

Australian Coal Association expects reliability, affordability, security of
supply, general security of energy infrastructure, and environmental
acceptability to be the key issues in the new debate stimulated around the use
of nuclear power. “On
all these grounds coal using low and ultimately near zero emissions
technologies is expected to be competitive with alternatives,” Executive
Director Mark O’Neill said today.

Both the Commonwealth and states are
already putting money into clean coal research. And while the states are NIMBYs over
nukes, when it comes to coal they point to what’s already in their back yards –
16,000 workers and a 300-year supply, according to Queensland’s Peter