Rapid technological innovation – not harmful renewables policy – key to lighting our energy future
by Judith Curry
Framework for a robust transition of our energy systems.
Here is the text of my latest oped for Australia’s Sky News:
Australia’s rapid transition of electric power systems away from fossil fuels is introducing substantial new risks to their electric power systems. A transition of the electric power system that produces less reliable and more expensive electricity acts as a tourniquet that restricts the lifeblood of modern society.
Attempts to speed up the transition away from fossil fuels by restricting the production and use of fossil fuels has backfired by making many countries reliant on Russia’s fossil fuels. The Russian war on Ukraine provides a stark conflict between net-zero emissions goals versus immediate needs for abundant, reliable and secure energy. European and other countries are struggling with inadequate natural gas supplies, after restricting production of fossil fuels in their own countries.
In transitioning to cleaner sources of power, we need to acknowledge that the world will need much more energy than it is currently consuming – not just in developing countries, but also in countries with advanced economies. Constructing, operating, and maintaining low-carbon energy systems will itself require substantial amounts of energy, with much of it currently derived from fossil fuels. Increasing adoption of electric vehicles and electric heat pumps will increase electricity demand. More electricity can help reduce our vulnerability to the weather and climate: air conditioners, water desalination plants, irrigation, vertical farming operations, water pumps, coastal defenses, and environmental monitoring systems. Further, abundant electricity is key to innovations in advanced materials, advanced manufacturing, artificial intelligence, robotics, photonics, quantum computing and others that are currently unforeseen or unimagined.
In the near term, laying the foundation for new energy systems is substantially more important than trying to stamp out fossil fuel use. This should focus on developing and testing new energy technologies. There will continue to be demand for fossil fuels over the coming decades. Countries that restrict fossil fuel production will not only hurt themselves economically. Paradoxically, restricting fossil fuel production in the near term will actually slow down the energy transition, which itself requires substantial amounts of energy to implement.
The best use of the next three decades is to continue to develop and test a range of options for energy production, storage, transmission and other technologies that support goals of reliable, low-cost energy while lessening environmental impacts and carbon emissions. A more prudent strategy is to use the next two to three decades as a learning period with new technologies, experimentation and intelligent trial and error.
Near-term targets for CO2 emissions, such as 75% renewable energy by 2035, drives the energy transition towards using existing technologies in ways that are counterproductive in the longer term. The perceived urgency of making such a colossal transformation can lead to poor decisions that not only harms the economy and overall human wellbeing, but also slows down progress on reducing carbon emissions.
Rapid technological innovation across all domains of the global energy sector continues to accelerate: long-distance transmission and smart microgrids, energy storage, residential heating, electric vehicles and remarkable progress in advanced nuclear designs. Different countries and locales will use different combinations of these innovations based upon their location, local resources, power needs, and sociopolitical preferences.
Australia’s innovation in the energy transition is the rapidity of implementing wind and solar energy while displacing fossil fuels. In a country with low population density and abundant wind and solar resources, Australia is acting as a fast follower and contributing to the learning curve for rapid displacement of fossil fuels by renewables. However, Australia’s contribution to the global learning curve is diminished because few countries have the same geographical resources. Further, the declining urgency of meeting emissions targets (Part I) devalues the global learning curve associated with the rapid displacement of fossil fuels by renewables.
The challenge is to make Australia’s efforts towards transitioning to a 21st century energy system supportive of its economy and efforts to reduce Australia’s vulnerabilities to weather and climate extremes.