Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Journalists Are Being Taken For Fools Over Energy

Something is missing from the Rudd Government’s energy policies – energy.

We have a lot of theories, plans, committees, voluminous reports, good intentions and ambitious targets, but we don’t have a credible plan for supplying the energy we will need in coming years to maintain our economy.

The fault here lies not just with the Government, but with us in the media.

We in the media have to take responsibility for the fact that, when it comes to energy, the public’s perception has become totally detached from reality. Our politicians, in order to remain popular, have been forced to present two faces – one for mainstream journalists and the public and the other for the energy industry.

When speaking to the former they present beads and trinkets – or more accurately, propellers and mirrors. Yet when speaking to the energy industry they are at pains to demonstrate that they haven’t lost the ball.

Take for example the mixed messaging coming out Canberra on renewable energy. The public’s perception of renewable energy is essentially wind, solar and biofuels – energy that is widely believed to be clean, green, available and the way of the future.

However, this is not the reality. To quote the Government’s own energy experts at ABARE: “Australian production of renewable energy is dominated by bagasse (sugar cane waste), wood and wood waste, and hydroelectricity, which combined accounted for 86 per cent of renewable energy production in 2006-07. Wind, solar and biofuels (which include landfill and sewage gas) accounted for the remainder of Australia’s renewable energy production.”

Few people outside the energy industry will hear government spokespeople explaining that we get most of our renewable energy from damming rivers and burning forests.

Whenever politicians – Labour, Coalition, or Greens – talk about renewable energy, they love to highlight solar. That’s the one we all love. That’s the one we really want to be the answer. We should use the sun's power to stop blackouts, instead of causing them,” thundered The Age’s editorial during last summer’s heatwave (2 February 2009).

But sadly today’s solar technology suffers from fundamental flaws in terms of cost, scale and reliability. The only solar energy running in urban areas anywhere in the world is there because it’s subsidised – governments are paying for it because the people want it.

The Rudd Government’s energy experts again: “Most solar energy is used for residential water heating and this represents less than 1 per cent of final energy consumption in the residential sector.”

We are facing a major crisis in providing for our future energy needs, while our politicians engage in feckless arguments about targets and schemes. Kevin Rudd is driving energy policy merrily towards a tree like Mr Magoo. The Greens are angry because he’s not going fast enough while the media commentators just bark at the tyres.

We really need journalists to shine a light on what’s really happening. But in order for that to happen we journalists must first stop being advocates. When it comes to complex technical issues like energy we don’t have the answers – we are the communicators. Our readers, viewers, listeners rely on us to break down the complex technical information and translate it into simple concepts that they can understand.

Right now the debate is dominated by the beliefs and opinions of politicians, academics, economists, scientists, financial market analysts, industry leaders, and journalists. Each brings important input into the deliberations. However, they are all essentially theorists. We are hearing very little from the pragmatists – the engineers.

It’s the absence of engineers from the debate that has resulted in our energy policies failing to take the curve on the way towards tackling climate change.

Scientists have done an excellent job in identifying where we have to get to. But our political leaders have designed a path forward without adequate input from the engineers. Yet it’s our engineers who will have to do the heavy lifting in getting us there.

Our current energy policies are based on wishes, and dreams, assumptions and beliefs. But the fact is, no matter how strong your mandate, no matter how large your majority, no matter how well-meaning your intentions, you can’t legislate to change the laws of thermodynamics.

The Governments has introduced legislation increasing the Mandatory Renewable Energy Target (MRET) and it has bipartisan support. However, the Greens don’t think it goes far enough.

So let’s do the maths.

The legislation says we will get 20 per cent of our electricity from renewable energy by 2020. The Government’s forecast says we will need 1258 petajoules (PJ) of electricity per year by 2020, bearing in mind that one petajoule is the energy equivalent of 29 million litres of petrol.

At 20 percent, that means we will require 251.6 PJ of renewable power generation in about 10 years time. We currently deliver about 92 PJ – 63 PJ of which is hydro-electricity.

Hydro’s growth is limited, in fact it has been decreasing, which is not surprising given the state of our water supplies in the hydro areas.

But let’s put it down for the projected 68 PJ the Government says we will get by 2020. That leaves 183.6 PJ to come. There are new technologies on the horizon, wave, geothermal and hot-rocks, but they are, to quote Minister Penny Wong, “yet to be developed”.

According to the Government’s forecasts wind will increase by 1 PJ to 16 PJ in 2020, biomass (that’s wood) will almost double to 15 PJ and biogas (gas from tips and landfills) will rise to 7 PJ. So that leaves 145.6 PJ of renewable energy we will have to find to meet our MRET target.

What about solar?

We have all, no doubt, heard about Australia’s ambitious plan to lead the world into a solar future. We have the much-heralded plan to build the world’s largest and most efficient photovoltaic power plant in Victoria. If we succeed, this one plant will provide more than twice the amount of solar electricity we get from all the solar panels and plants currently installed across the nation. That will reduce our 145.6 PJ target by 1 PJ. So if we throw in our current solar industry we can call it an even 144 PJ we will still require.

In the May Budget, the Rudd Government announced its ambitious $1.6 billion Solar Flagship Program. “The Solar Flagship Program is expected to comprise up to four solar power stations operating within the energy market, with a total capacity of 1000MW.”

If they succeed, and remember they need private investment to take the total to over $4 billion, they will add an amazing 6.6 PJ.

So on the Government’s own figures and forecasts we are currently 138 PJ short on meeting its MRET target. This shortfall would require 138 more of the “world’s biggest” solar photovoltaic plants, and at current costs that would be more than $55 billion. Or perhaps we could find somewhere to put an extra 2484 square kilometres of wind-turbines.

Major energy infrastructure projects can typically take 10 years from concept to completion so we need to be starting this right now to deliver the energy in 2020.

Never forget that this 138 PJ shortfall is just to meet our MRET target. We are not talking about finding an alternative to fossil fuels here. These numbers assume that we meet all our energy efficiency targets and that fossil fuels can increase their annual output by 225 PJ.

These foolish targets lead to absurd consequences like Australia and America exporting wood to Europe (WSJ, July 8) to burn in coal-fired power plants in order to meet the EU’s absurd 20 percent renewable quota.

So as our politicians are out there bragging about their targets, where are all the journalists asking them to explain where the energy is going to come from? Are they, for example, planning on burning down more forests? Or perhaps they want to revisit the Gordon-Franklin hydro scheme now that we have Bass Link tying Tasmania’s electricity to the mainland.

Far from grilling the Government on these basic fundamentals, we have many intelligent, rational journalists, academics and politicians seriously suggesting that we should extend this shortfall by replacing coal-fired generation with renewable energy.

Just for the record, that would make the missing 138 PJ grow to 988 PJ.

To give you some idea of the complexities of the energy industry, let’s look at the aluminium industry. Our wind turbines and the towers they sit on are made from aluminium. If we wanted to power only our aluminium smelters from wind it would require more than 2000 square kilometres of wind turbines. That’s the equivalent of a wind-farm one kilometre wide stretching from Melbourne out way beyond Brisbane.

To attempt this, of course, would create a significant increase in demand for aluminium, which in turn would require more power and therefore more wind turbines etc, etc, etc.

This is why we really need to draw more engineers into this debate. They are the ones trained to deal with these practicalities. Engineers tend to be more doers than talkers, which probably explains why so few of them go into politics.

However, 2009 is the 90th Anniversary of the Australian Institute of Engineers and maybe we can make this the year we started to change all that.

If we are going to make any serious progress in the global challenge of meeting the world’s energy needs while tackling climate change we are going to have to hear more from our engineers. And we in the media are going to have to resist the urge to advocate and go back to asking the fundamental questions.