The Prime Minister’s comments that low and zero emission technologies will never replace “cleaner coal” and nuclear power demonstrates one of two things: political obfuscation of the challenges of climate change or he has been poorly briefed on our energy market. Either way, they are just plain wrong.

First, much of our ‘base load’ demand has been artificially created over many decades by deliberate policies to price overnight electricity at artificially low prices in order to keep our inflexible coal-fired power stations operating. Off peak electric hot water services, inefficient street lighting and widespread waste of energy in industry and business drive the base load power demand. These loads can be dramatically reduced.

Second, much of our ‘base load’ industry demand can be satisfied by cogeneration (from renewable energy or gas). Like Queensland’s sugar mills, overseas pulp and paper mills are net exporters of base load renewable electricity (essentially through gasifying biomass and black liquor, then burning it in gas turbines).

Most importantly however no-one is advocating the replacement of current dirty power stations with wind or solar power. As has been accepted around the world for sometime now, in a low emission economy greenhouse gas, abatement will come from the mix of sources including renewables, natural gas, energy conservation and yes, even cleaner coal and possibly nuclear at some point down the track.

The reason for this is because of the economics of energy. This has been recognised by China who now has a 15% renewable energy target compared to Australia’s MRET target of an additional 2%. Southern Australia has a fantastic wind regime capable of providing up to 20% of South Australia and Victoria’s energy needs. Indeed by the end of next year, 15% of South Australia’s power will come from wind and will include base load generation for the local market.

As already identified, bioenergy is currently supplying a significant amount of electricity to the Queensland market and has the potential to supply much, much more. And we have a fabulous geothermal resource in central Australia which is capable of supplying a significant level of base load power.

The obvious source however is natural gas. At just ten percent more expensive than conventional coal fired generation in Australia, gas accounts for 14% of our power at present and could readily supply double this amount over the next ten years.

The gas industry (utilising coal seam gas) in Queensland is currently booming in response to the Queensland Government’s market based scheme which requires 13% of the states power comes from gas. Let’s not ignore that gas is also used extensively to meet much of Europe’s intermediate and base load power needs.

Australia is well endowed with alternative resources that can meet our growing power needs – including base load power – without increasing our greenhouse gas emissions. We have the technology, we have the resources, and just as importantly, we have the private sector finance ready to be invested. All that is required is a transparent market price signal that accounts for the costs of greenhouse gas pollution.

According to ABARE, to continue with a business as usual approach – including the current focus on technological development and agreements such as AP6 – our emissions from stationary energy alone are set to explode by 65% over the next twenty years. Clearly this is not sustainable, particularly as the rest of the world seeks greater commitments from the leading economies to reduce emissions.

Given our potential for cleaner energy, the political and economic pressure for action and the price and technological advantages over longer term options such as geosequestration and nuclear power, why are we delaying the inevitable?

The Business Council for Sustainable Energy is the leading advocate for cleaner energy in Australia and covers renewables, water-to-energy, gas-fired generation and energy conservation. The common feature of its membership is an interest in meeting Australia’s energy needs with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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