No coal, no petrol, no gas: Australia’s energy future

Wind farms will be an integral part of Australia's coming no-carbon energy grid.

Wind farms will be an integral part of Australia's coming no-carbon energy grid. Photo: AAP

No more petrol or diesel vehicles. Coal-fired power stations will disappear from the landscape. Gas will die. Even the humble servo will be no more.

Instead, vehicles will be powered by hydrogen, batteries or fuel cells. Australia will have coast-to-coast solar and wind generation, and electric heat pumps and heaters fuelled by hydrogen will replace conventional gas heaters. Petrol stations will make way for recharging and hydrogen refuelling stations.

That’s the radical vision of Australia’s energy landscape proposed by one energy market analyst who argues Australia risks being left behind in the global energy transition, and in the race to zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Energy program director at the Grattan Institute, Tony Wood, has unveiled his vision of the future in a “blueprint for success” in which he argues that Australia’s energy market is broken, the victim of scant co-operation between governments, the industry and energy agencies “over several decades”.

And to fix it – and reach our Paris Agreement carbon-emission targets – he said Australia must embark on a radical overhaul of energy generation, infrastructure, regulation and governance of the market.

Mr Wood envisaged an Australia where energy production will move from large, centralised oil, gas and coal plants, to wind and solar – both rooftop and large-scale solar farms.

Those renewables would be supplemented by large amounts of stored energy, such as pumped hydro, hydrogen-fuelled generation and batteries.

“The use of fossil fuels to make steel, chemicals and plastics will be phased out in favour of low-carbon energy and hydrogen,” he said.

“Low-carbon energy”, in this case could be concentrated solar-thermal energy, for example, capable of generating high-intensity energy, Mr Wood told The New Daily.

Natural gas would also play a role during the time that low-carbon storages were built, but gas would be eventually phased out completely.

He even suggested that geothermal and “small-scale nuclear” energy generation could become more viable with further development.

renewable energy future

A thermal solar plant in southern Spain that supplies electricity to 25,000 homes. Photo: Getty

Mr Wood said much work was being conducted globally on small-scale nuclear generation plants, as well as plants employing thorium-based reactors.

“The companies working on this, such as Rolls Royce, for example, are confident this can be viable in a few years,” Mr Wood told The New Daily. “This is something Australia should certainly keep an eye on and keep the option open.”

Mr Wood’s blueprint comes a day after the surprising call by left-wing economist Professor John Quiggin to permit nuclear power in NSW while simultaneously charging traditional power sources for their carbon emissions.

“The [NSW] Parliament should pass a motion … removing the existing ban on nuclear power,” he said in a written submission to a parliamentary inquiry into uranium mining and nuclear power.

Bad, ad hoc policy hurting consumers

Mr Wood said Australia’s approach to energy policy had been ad hoc, at best, and despite repeated tinkering by governments, consumers were still paying too much for energy.

“For more than a decade, energy consumers have been promised lower prices. It hasn’t happened. Instead, electricity and gas prices have risen sharply, and in some parts of Australia the reliability of power supplies has been compromised,” Mr Wood wrote.

“The pain has been felt most by vulnerable families and businesses, and the gulf between the promise and the reality has damaged consumers’ trust in governments and energy providers.”

Instead, Australia needed a “comprehensive and coherent energy policy linked with climate-change policy”, not policies designed for an energy market of the 1990s – the period of deregulation, privatisation and reform of the market.

He also blamed pricing practices of retailers and weak regulation of network companies for Australia’s “energy predicament”.

“Our national energy predicament has been caused by inadequate government policy, rising input costs, market concentration, poor pricing practices by retailers, power station closures with too little notice, and weak economic regulation of transmission and distribution network prices.”

But Energy Networks Australia chief executive Andrew Dillon told The New Daily network companies were on a tighter leash than ever.

“Contrary to the suggestion of a weakened regime, Australian energy networks are today subject to more regulatory impacts than ever before, including allowed rates of return set lower than at any other time in the history of national energy regulation,” he said.

“Network prices and rates of return have been falling consistently across the country for the past five years.”

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