Former Chief Scientist Alan Finkel, with whom I worked on the Climate Change Authority a few years back, has a new Quarterly Essay, on Getting to Zero (emissions). Some quick observations
- It’s far too generous to the current government. However, it makes sense for Finkel to be diplomatic and diplomacy abhors frankness
- A comprehensive and readable wrapup of the main issues in managing an orderly transition with the current system
- Most notable, Finkel is very cool on nuclear energy and carbon capture, both of which he has discussed sympathetically in the past
It’s paywalled, but I’ve posted a couple of relevant passages over the fold
When faced with a huge challenge, we should stock our armamentarium with all the tools at our disposal and go into battle with both hands at the ready, but many of the clean electricity generation methods are denied to us, or are incapable of making a significant contribution.
Uranium and plutonium nuclear fission power stations produce electricity and heat at massive scale and do not emit any carbon dioxide. However, populations around the world live in fear of nuclear disaster – even though the actual safety record for nuclear electricity shows that it is one of the safest energy technologies ever developed. Rejection is further exacerbated by the nearly universal failure of national governments to show leadership in solving the problem of permanent nuclear waste disposal. In addition, the cost of electricity from new conventional nuclear reactors is high, too high to compete with solar and wind supported by batteries. There is a chance that a new style of nuclear reactor called a small modular reactor (SMR) might overcome the issues plaguing conventional nuclear reactors, but the first approved SMR will not be built in the United States till the end of this decade, which would push any conceivable adoption in Australia into the following decade.
Other forms of nuclear energy, such as hydrogen fusion and thorium fission, are under development, but despite decades of effort they are still far from being proven at demonstration scale, let alone commercial scale. So if they are able to contribute commercially, it will not be in the next two decades.
Carbon capture and storage will be needed in industrial processes that cannot otherwise eliminate emissions, or those in which the cost of capturing the carbon dioxide is essentially free, such as hydrogen production from fossil fuels. CCS is currently operational at large scale at nineteen industrial facilities internationally, including the Gorgon storage project in Western Australia. On the other hand, CCS has only been implemented commercially at two coal-fired electricity plants and only one remains operational.