The following guest post is republished (with permission from the author) from Opinion Online. Tom Biegler, who wrote this piece, worked with Martin Nicholson and me on our 2010 Energy paper, How carbon pricing changes the relative competitiveness of low-carbon baseload generating technologies. Tom noted to me that he:
carefully avoided mentioning nuclear, which can do the job, only because it would deflect attention from my arguments
For the audience of BNC however, I’m sure this conclusion about nuclear as a viable and proven fossil-fuel replacement comes as no surprise!
Guest Post by Dr. Tom Biegler. Tom is a physical chemist and former CSIRO divisional head, spent much of his career managing technological research and development related to the resources industry. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.
To go with Clean Energy Week comes a new report from The Climate Institute telling us that Australians overwhelmingly support renewable energy but don’t understand how carbon pricing will work. Not surprisingly, they are also sceptical about the political motivations behind its introduction. I think their scepticism is misdirected. Their target should be the carbon tax itself.
Carbon pricing (of which the tax is a temporary start) is the standard economic remedy for problems like carbon dioxide emissions. As Tim Colebatch, an economist, wrote in The Age recently: “Give us a price incentive, and we find ways to reduce emissions with little damage to profits or our standards of living”.
The tax should work in two ways. It should encourage substitution of high-emission fossil fuels by lower-emission alternatives (“our clean energy future”, as the government puts it); and discourage energy usage in general (“behaviour change”) by raising energy costs. Clean energy will cost more. After all, if low-emission technologies were not more expensive there would be no need for a tax.
Fine in principle, but will it work?
I need to assert here that I am not a climate sceptic. And I see the timing of Australia’s tax and its explicit contribution to global climate change as important but separate issues.
The carbon price policy is based on two premises: the right technologies will be there when needed; and significantly less energy will be used as its price rises.
Underlying the whole matter is energy’s key economic role. Energy is the lever that multiplies the output of human personal effort to give us our unprecedented productivity and prosperity. Energy builds economies. Whatever its shortcomings, the bonanza of fossil fuels we inherited has given us our present living standards.
Both of the above premises have major problems. Firstly, in my opinion (after all, this is a journal of opinion) the expectations regarding renewable energies have been raised to quite unreasonable levels. The proposition as accepted by the public is that feeble, intermittent solar, wind, ocean energy, etc, can effectively replace intensely combustible, high energy fossil fuels as drivers of prosperity. The enormous scale and associated cost of collecting and processing this weak energy is what makes the proposition extraordinary. Extraordinary propositions need extraordinary evidence. That’s the sceptics’ slogan, and that’s why I am sceptical about renewables.
The evidence is in fact very ordinary.