My Quarterly Essay Getting to Zero traces a pathway to a clean-energy future for Australia, a crucially important task that I began to dabble in before my five-year term as Australia’s chief scientist began, and which turned out to be a major component of my work in that role, way beyond anything I imagined when I started.
In the essay, I tackle some of the controversial and difficult questions, such as the role of natural gas in the coming decades, and share some confounding personal moments from Australia’s recent climate debate. But my overarching thesis is that just as 19th-century technology has brought us to an urgent moment in the history of our planet, 21st-century technology will light the way forward.
How do we change the practices of our civilisation? We make a plan. The plan must recognise the realities – of scale, difficulty and uncertainty. The plan must be ambitious but not naive, must start by acknowledging how difficult decarbonisation will be, and must keep costs for the consumer as low as possible and ensure service remains reliable.
At length in the essay, I discuss what I call “The Electric Planet” and the solutions to the different sectors in turn but in a few sentences it goes like this. Step 1: Replace all the existing electricity generation with zero-emissions electricity. Step 2: Generate lots more zero-emissions electricity, so that we can use it for stationary energy and transport. Step 3: Generate lots more electricity, so that we can use it to make hydrogen for those instances where electrons are not ideal and a high-density molecular fuel is needed, or to replace natural gas and coal in some cases as a chemical feedstock for industry. Step 4: For Australia, generate many times more electricity, to produce hydrogen for export. Step 5: Produce lots more electricity, to produce goods that embody large amounts of energy, such as zero-emissions steel and zero-emissions aluminium. All these steps can happen in parallel.
Change is in the air. The global momentum and enthusiasm for solar and wind as our future primary energy sources, supported by big batteries, hydrogen, other storage technologies, distributed energy generation, managed loads and digital technologies, across all sectors of our economy, including transport and industry, is growing every day. I sense we will live through a technological revolution this decade as exciting as the conquest of space in the 1960s.
If Australia handles the challenge well, we can build an economy that takes advantage of the transition. If we cling to the past, we will miss opportunities that the rest of the world will seize. The last thing we want is to be cave dwellers, watching the future march back and forth outside the cave opening. The scale of the job is vast and it will take decades. But we must be part of the revolution rather than left behind. As the Borg said in Star Trek: The Next Generation: “Resistance is futile.”
Alan Finkel was Australia’s chief scientist between 2016 and 2020, and is currently special adviser to the Australian government on low-emissions technologies. This is an edited extract of his Quarterly Essay, Getting to Zero: Australia’s Energy Transition, published on Monday.