The Liberals, coal and nuclear power (article in Spectator Australia, 26 April 2024)

In a famous 1963 speech, US civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. said: ‘I have a dream that my four little children … will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character.’

There is a less exalted but nevertheless alluring dream concerning our electricity system: that it not be judged by its colour (green or non-green), but by its reliability and cost.

Labor does not share this dream. The Liberals say they do. How, then, do they best implement it? Here is a proposal for the Liberals.

First, take to the next Federal election (due by May 2025) an energy policy that embraces coal and nuclear power.

Argue that, if Australia wants to reduce emissions in the electricity sector, it can do so via nuclear power, but that this will require coal for the next 20-30 years.

Why?

Because nuclear power will play no role at all before the mid-2030s and no significant role before the late 2040s.

There are no sensible alternatives to coal in this period.

Renewables can’t supply reliable electricity and, in any case, are inherently expensive, taking into account high transmission costs, the overbuilding of wind and solar generation (to allow for their intermittency), the need for backup from coal and natural gas, and the cost of frequency control.

Wind and solar power played almost no role in Australia up to the year 2000, when prices were low by world standards. They are now high by world standards.

Natural gas is in short supply in the eastern states and, in any case, has always been more expensive than coal for electricity generation in Australia.

There is little scope in Australia for any significant expansion of hydroelectricity.

In short, ‘we face a black hole in energy supply from the late 2020s to the 2040s’. (Michael Asten, The Australian, March 28, 2024.)

Labor recognises that coal is still needed. e.g. through its support for keeping open the Eraring and Yallourn coal-fired plants, both due for closure in the 2020s. However, its support is reluctant and described as just ‘short-term’.

Second, make clear that the redevelopment of some coal-fired plants, using high-energy-low-emissions (HELE) technology, will be required.

Without such redevelopment, plants are at risk of breaking down in the coming years.

Highlight the point that emissions from HELE plants are up to 30 per cent lower than from current plants.

Third, abandon the commitment to Net Zero emissions by 2050, which Liberals leader Peter Dutton continues to push, based on nuclear power. But nuclear power only applies to electricity generation, which in turn only accounts for one-third of Australia’s emissions

To achieve Net Zero emissions outside electricity generation is a pipe-dream.

It requires getting rid of petrol, diesel, jet fuel, natural gas, and burping cows.

And getting rid of the hundreds of products that contain fossil fuels (notably petrochemicals). Examples: asphalt, fertiliser, insecticides, toothpaste, detergent, blinds, mobile phones, computer screens, keyboards, mouse pads, battery casings, wind turbines, and solar panels.

Abandoning fossil fuels won’t happen.

‘Fossil fuels are the most important factor in explaining the advance of modern civilisation.’ (Professor Emeritus Vaclav Smil, University of Manitoba, Canada.)

The Liberals will not find it easy to adopt the approach here, given that they barely talk about coal and seemingly suffer from self-delusion about Net Zero emissions.

The immediate problem is coal (their approach to emissions does not yet have much practical impact).

Without coal, our energy system is at risk, with serious flow-on risks for the economy as a whole.

If they do not recognise this now, the Liberals will be forced to do so should they win the next Federal election.

In addition, they will lose the opportunity of formulating a coherent energy policy leading-up to the 2025 election, a policy that should stand out from Labor’s faith in renewables, unbending opposition to nuclear power and unwillingness to acknowledge its reliance on coal.

The transformation of economic policy by the Hawke-Keating governments in the 1980s ‘set up Australia for two decades of unprecedented prosperity from the early 1990s’. (Michael Stutchbury, Australian Financial Review, February 22, 2018.)

Can the Liberals mobilise the courage and political salesmanship to do the same in the 2020s for energy policy in Australia?

And perhaps make a contribution to the global approach to climate change, seen by Danish commentator, Bjorn Lomborg, as ‘hugely problematic’:

‘The World Bank is charged with ending global poverty. Yet, the Bank is now aiming to spend no less than 45 per cent of its funding toward climate change. This is hugely problematic. Spending a dollar on climate initiatives delivers low benefits, typically far into the future, whereas smart development policies can deliver upwards of $50 back on the dollar, often near-instantaneously.’ (Presentation by Bjorn Lomborg at Stanford University, April 1, 2024.)

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