Solving the world’s energy problem
Let’s not beat around the bush; the science of climate change is settled. Ninety-seven percent of scientists actively working in the field not only believe it is happening but also believe humans have had a role in the current warming trend being experienced on the planet. This much at least has been settled despite the outcries of a vocal minority. While scientists continue to refine the models to work out exactly how much damage we have done it’s time the conversation moved forward. If coal is so bad then where should Australia get its energy from?
There are many options to consider and many of those options have significant pros and cons.
Solar power in our sunburned nation is a no-brainer. It has been calculated that to meet the predicted power needs of the entire world in 2030 an area of 500, 000 square kilometres spread out across the planet is all that would be required to make use of sunlight at all times. I make it sound like a small amount of land because, well, it is in a global setting. It would be like smashing two Victorias up and sprinkling them around the globe and there are certainly enough deserts to hide that amount of land. This number doesn’t even take into account improvements in technology, so you could expect that number to drop significantly.
But how do you clean them? How do you make them sustainably, with existing technology? How do you get operational agreements from a wide array of geopolitical landscapes? All valid questions, without easy answers.
A rich geological history in Australia has also gifted us with options such as geothermal energy. Although various techniques exist this essentially involves drilling and pumping water down into the heated bedrock where the water boils into steam, rising to the surface to spin a turbine and generate electricity. These systems can be exceptionally efficient and consume approximately 20 litres per mega watt hour (MWh, a standard measurement of electricity consumption/generation) compared to 1000+ litres per MWh used by coal. Despite this, CO2 is still generated (if at only a fraction of coal’s production rates) and toxic compounds leeched from the bedrock settle in the cooled water at the surface, posing a potential environmental problem if spilled.
Australia is blessed with coastline for wind farms and tidal generators and yet these promising options are often discarded for aesthetic reasons and increasing number of health complaints are made, despite a lack of any significant clinical support for these concerns. Is it time Australia traded some coastline for a low cost energy future?
Finally, nuclear. A political hot-potato that promises clean, green energy for a very long time. It will take up less land space allowing more development and provide jobs in a market where Australia owns a good share of the fuel. Having said that, nobody wants a nuclear power plant or its waste in their backyard; they also occasionally break, causing massive disruptions globally.
So where should Australia get its energy from? It’s a nuanced and complicated question that is often as scientific as it is political. At RiAus on 22 May we will be stripping away the politics to examine the science and the attitude of the media to Australia’s energy options in our latest Science Behind the Headlines event. You can book to listen to the experts and join the discussion.
By James Byrne