Virtue signalling as the nation burns

Greenies who back costly renewables over workable nuclear energy are doing more than anyone to keep coal in business.

This article originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 21 January 2020

If this is a climate emergency, then it’s time for us to demand actions that produce results.

We don’t need a royal commission into the bushfires. A royal commission would be a costly way to find out what past reviews and royal commissions have found: namely that the Australian bush is full of highly flammable trees and that, as population increases create suburban sprawl and lifestyle preferences entice treechangers into leafy regions, more people and assets are at risk.

Refusal to accept nuclear means a longer dependence on coal. Not for Syndication

It would probably also find that climate (1983 reports and before) and climate change (royal commission into the 2009 Black Saturday fires) are exacerbating factors.

If this is a climate emergency, we must be clear about our objectives and ensure that every action is measured against their attainment.

For a start, that means undertaking a realistic assessment of the capacity of renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. The objective of reducing emissions is often replaced with an objective of increasing renewable capacity, though they are not at all the same.

The government likes to answer questions about its climate change commitments by boasting that Australia has the world’s highest per capita investment in renewable energy. A constant stream of upbeat news about developments in renewable energy make it hard to understand why we’re not already running on 100 per cent renewables – especially in a country with as much sunshine and wind as Australia.

Energiewende initiative

Some of the reasons emerge from the most recent McKinsey report into Germany’s energy transition, released in September last year. The Energiewende is considered a world-leading initiative, spearheaded by a nation renowned for engineering.

But McKinsey finds that Germany is expected to fail the majority of its own 2020 energy transition targets. The transition process has made itself more reliant on gas from Putin’s Russia. In the medium term, its withdrawal from nuclear and coal power also threaten to compromise energy provision “if these sources aren’t replaced in time”.

“In time” is not tracking so well. It has been 30 years since the government first began to subsidise renewable energy. In that time, Germany has managed to raise the percentage of the total energy requirement delivered by renewables to 37.5 per cent – a glass almost half full for some, but also over 60 per cent empty.

Getting there has cost the government €32 billion ($51.7 billion) in subsidies over the past five years. ESYS, which describes itself as “a joint initiative of the German academies of science project “Energy Systems of the Future” estimates the cost to complete Germany’s transition out of fossil fuels by 2050 at €2 trillion to €3.4 trillion. Until then, the German Energiewende remains a “triumph of the will”: pure propaganda.

If the solution is renewables, the question is not how to lower emissions quickly, reliably or cost effectively.

Nuclear power could be an answer to that question, could have significantly lowered Australia’s emissions by now, but it was banned in Australia over 20 years ago.

Opponents of nuclear argue that it is not a viable alternative to renewables, because it would now take so long to build that renewables might have reached maturity just as the nuclear source came online. Though safety concerns have been repeatedly shown to be exaggerated, a generation raised on images of Hiroshima has trouble separating nuclear energy from nuclear bombs.

Coal stance

Energy industry professionals point out that nuclear is not attractive to power companies which can green up their image by investing in renewables – naturally backed up by plenty of their traditional fossil fuel product. Investors are concerned with the size of the commitment, time to realise a return, and risk of government policy changes that could endanger an investment into nuclear power – presuming it were an available option.

The old guard might have given up on it, but nuclear has found a new type of champion among “ecomodernists”: environmentalists who see it as the best option for providing enough greenhouse gas-free power to support a quick transition away from CO2 emissions, while renewables are brought on line.

Like the renewable lobby, the nuclear lobby make a fair few assumptions about how quickly and cost effectively new technologies could be deployed. Small modular reactors might cost as little as $1 billion to build, and could, so they say, be completed in hree to five years from government approval.

A good quality, full scale reactor, of the type used elsewhere in the world, would take upwards of five years to build – estimates suggest 10-15 – but relies on proven technology.

Given government approval in Australia now involves reversing a decades long ban, the chances of either type are slim. As the Irishman said to the traveller, to get where you’re going, I wouldn’t start here.

And that is why Australia still relies heavily on coal, and likely will for the foreseeable future.

Unless a government finds the wherewithal to tackle the enormous task of untangling the spin, subsidies and prohibitions in the energy sector and linking incentives to our real objectives, progress will remain painfully slow. If this is a climate emergency, we are virtue signalling while our country burns.