Energy systems underpin modern life, but Australia’s systems are becoming increasingly fragile.
A colleague recently asked me why more engineers don’t speak up about the risks and challenges of the faith-based transition away from fossil fuels. I’ve noticed this gap myself – a void in place of noisy debates between the likes of engineers, economists, traders, and developers.
When was the last time you saw an objective opinion allowed on Q&A or Insiders, or a professional engineer (not an academic) on mainstream media?
The reasons paint a worrying picture:
- Professionals who are aware of the risks and challenges, but cannot get publicly involved without risking their livelihoods.
- Those who are well aware of the issues, but deliberately obfuscate and mislead the public in order to push an agenda.
- People outside the sector who don’t know much about our electricity and energy systems, and don’t care enough to find out.
- Professionals in the sector (or adjacent) who have never been triggered enough to look into it (this was me up until 2017).
- Others who believe we are heading in the right direction, or close enough to it.
The fact that you are reading this means you are interested in what others have to say, and perhaps would like to improve your knowledge on public interest stories.
If you are in group A, ask your colleagues which of them believe we are going down the right track, or if they think we might end up like Venezuela. If you are in group B you will disagree with me on almost every level. That is okay. I wish you well in life, but I urge you to speak the truth (or at least don’t lie).
That brings me to groups C, D, and E – please start asking questions. Think about what your comfortable middle-class lives will look like with rationed power, and when your electricity bill triples to $5,000 per year. If that sounds ridiculous, consider the UK where the average energy bill is nearly £2,000 (AUD$3,500) and rising. On top of rising interest rates and inflation, the energy cost will hit you hard. Solar won’t help much when the regulators cut feed-in-tariffs and add a network connection charge.
You spend hours investigating holiday destinations and the best travel deals, comparing the towing capacity of a Prado to a Hilux, and calculating how to best leverage company salary sacrifice plans. There is a golf day, a fishing trip, dinner at a new restaurant, or a weekend trip to visit relatives. Maybe the wife gets a coveted handbag, or the husband gets a watch.
It’s the reward for a couple of decades spent hard at work, preceded by a few more years at university or an apprenticeship; or simply starting a small business and not giving up. It’s the dream.
It’s why you spend your 30s, 40s, and 50s slogging away to support families, get ahead, buy a house, renovate, reduce the mortgage, grow the super, buy some shares, and watch the kids flourish. Hobbies, sports, friends, injuries, and illnesses come and go. Life happens and you get on with the job.
But this lifestyle we all strive for is underpinned by electricity and energy; and the freedom to use as much or as little as we please, as our tastes and incomes dictate and allow. We are in danger of taking it all for granted.
Do you think a career union official, elected and installed as an energy minister, is more qualified than you to make policy decisions that make and break complex infrastructure? No chance.
When you hear about a renewable energy target, ask if it’s nameplate capacity (megawatts MW) or output (megawatt-hours MWh). When you hear that billions of dollars are to be spent on new transmission, ask why and where. Find out where the money comes from; understand the components of your electricity bill and how the wholesale market works. Who sets the wholesale price, and when? How does that affect you? What is a renewable energy target and where does the money go?
You do not need to be an engineer or an economist to take on these questions. The internet is your friend. It won’t take long for you to start noticing patterns, and become familiar with names, organisations, and publications.
Do not believe the first answer you come across. The truth is buried under years of activism. Dig further. Find supporting information. Sometimes the answer will use industry data. When that looks good, ask yourself if anything has been excluded and if the time-frame is reasonable. Sometimes the answer will be based on modelling. Find the assumptions in that modelling and challenge yourself to locate the fundamentals. Use your professional experience and a lifetime of common sense to uncover the truth.
Faith cannot guarantee a secure energy future. Interrogate that faith, challenge that belief; but do not take the energy system for granted.
Ben Beattie is an electrical engineer in the power and natural gas industry.
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