Flat White

Australia’s power paradox

12 July 2022

11:00 AM

12 July 2022

11:00 AM

Energy, energy everywhere,

And all the lights did dim;

Energy, energy everywhere,

Nor any watts to glim.

 

Or so a modern-day (albeit less eloquent) Coleridge might lament the peculiar energy crisis facing Australia, a first-world country, in 2022…

Despite promises by the Labor Party prior to its election win to save $275 a year in energy cost cutting, prices have been shooting up without a ceiling in sight. 


This should not happen if we consider the facts.

Australia is the sixth-largest country by size, but by population ranks only 55th in the world. It is also blessed with an abundance of energy resources which has left it awash with coal and has long been one of the world’s top exporters of both metallurgical and thermal grade coal. Coal also generates almost two-thirds of the energy used in Australia.

Another 30 per cent of energy in Australia is generated by gas. In terms of natural gas reserves, Australia ranks 27th in the world and is one of the top gas exporters. Strangely, countries that buy gas from Australia often get a better deal than Aussies do. 

Australia also has approximately one-third of the world’s uranium resources, but no nuclear power plant (only reactors used for medicine etc). This is in stark contrast with many advanced countries such as France (69 per cent of total electricity), Belgium (50.8 per cent), Finland (32.8 per cent), Sweden (30.8 per cent), Switzerland (28.8 per cent), South Korea (28 per cent), US (19.6 per cent), and the UK (14.8 per cent), who make ample use of nuclear fission energy. 

The energy crisis was clearly not for a lack of resources, but a lack of will to use them. This is driven in large part by the green agenda, whose narrative can be condensed without too much simplification to: solar and wind energy good, fossil fuels, and nuclear bad. But this narrative is dangerously illusory and Utopian. 

Coal remains the most abundant, cheap, and energy-dense material we have. While it is considered the ‘dirtiest’ fuel, there simply isn’t another source that is as bountiful, economical, stable, and reliable to replace it with. Gas, also cheap and abundant, emitting half of the CO2 in relation to energy produced compared to coal. Furthermore, new carbon capture technology has proven to be successful with the first carbon neutral gas power plant giving power to the grid in 2021 in Texas. Such technology may conceivably work with coal power plants in the future. Yet those fixated on ‘green’ energy abhor gas too. 

The agenda-driven politics means that, despite the energy crisis Australia just had, few are willing to invest in better technology to make coal power plants cleaner and more efficient, though evidence shows that this can be achieved. 

Then what about nuclear? It produces virtually no CO2 emissions. It is estimated that since 1970, nuclear plants around the world prevented more than 70 billion tonnes of CO2 from being emitted into the atmosphere. In the face of the well-known incidents at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima, deaths from nuclear power is actually far fewer than either hydro or wind energy. Nuclear energy is also the most reliable form of energy production, with a capacity factor 2.5-3.5 times higher than solar or wind. For this reason, power-hungry China and India are actively building 16 and 8 nuclear plants at this moment, respectively. But despite its merits, nuclear is also shunned by environmentalists, notwithstanding many of their usual arguments being misleading

On the flip side, the so-called green energies of solar and wind are not as wonderful and untainted as their advocates may suggest. 

The most vital aspect is that both solar and wind are notoriously unreliable. Solar and wind do not generate energy when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. You cannot, therefore, rely on power being generated from these sources to satisfy demand, especially at night or in winter, when energy use increases. Batteries are also enormously inadequate and expensive, and more dangerous than has been advertised. Europe, in 2021, only has the battery capacity to back up about 90 seconds of its average electricity usage. South Australia’s supposed revolutionary Hornsdale battery farm was recently fined almost a million dollars for falling short of its energy promises when tested. This is after years of governmental subsidies. Countries that are moving quickly towards ‘zero-emission’ will inevitably see astronomical electricity pricesGermany is a classic example.

Solar and wind energy are not that clean either. Both solar and wind, as well as the batteries that accompany them, all require substantial amounts of rare earth metals. Mining of such metals excrete a lot of carbon emissions and is very toxic and harmful to those who mine them as well as to the environment. Human rights violations are also rife in countries that produce the vast bulk of such metals, such as in the Republic of Congo, where tens of thousands of child labourers are used to mine cobalt, in inhumane conditions, for about $2 a day. At the end of their lifespan, toxic elements, such as copper, lead, gallium, selenium, and others will need to be treated as special waste. Both solar panels and wind turbines also result in millions of tonnes of unrecyclable waste. 

The lack of realism and absolutism when chasing the magical utopia of Net Zero should concern everyone. The old adage of ‘do not make the best enemy of the good’ is forgotten. And the grand irony underneath it all is that while Australia is well-positioned to avoid expensive power and worries about scarcity, we are choosing policies that will ensure both.

 

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