Australia's new chief scientist: renewables loving, EV driving, nuclear fan | RenewEconomy

Australia’s new chief scientist: renewables loving, EV driving, nuclear fan

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Australia’s new chief scientist is a big fan of renewable energy, drives a Nissan Leaf electric car, and supports nuclear. But he also says Australia can “do it” with wind, solar and storage.

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Australia’s new chief scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, drives a renewable-powered Nissan Leaf electric car and says wind, solar and storage could power all of Australia. But he is also a supporter of debate about the potential of nuclear power.

finkelFinkel’s appointment was formally announced on Tuesday by prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. He replaces Professor Ian Chubb.

Finkel is an electrical engineer, neuroscientist and the publisher of COSMOS magazine. He has been chancellor of Monash University since 2008 and was also chief technology officer for the failed EV network provider Better Place Australia.

The new chief scientist is in no doubt where the energy system is heading, and should be an eloquent speaker on the major technology trends and their impact.

“The energy revolution has begun,” he wrote in a recent article on Cosmos. “Almost daily reports trumpet price breakthroughs in solar and wind electricity while fossil-fuel generation facilities are disparaged as stranded assets.”

He went on to say that the key will be in energy storage, both small-scale and large-scale – batteries and pumped hydro, as well as hydrogen (electric and compressed air), among other options. He hailed the push into battery storage by Tesla, and others such as Mercedes, along with LG, Samsung, Panasonic and Toshiba.

In another article, Finkel talks of the “electric planet”, underlining his views that the only way to reduce emissions is to switch to electric transport and focus on clean sources of electricity to replace fossil fuels. He dismisses the so-called “hydrogen economy.”

“Conversion to the Electric Planet need not be traumatic, either, as it is little more than an extension of what we already know, building on the existing transmission and distribution systems,” Finkel writes.

“If the shift were not rushed, it would not be significantly more costly than business-as-usual nor compromise our high living standards.

“Coal-fired electricity generators can be closed down and replaced with clean alternatives as they reach the end of their design life; electric cars can replace internal combustion engine cars as consumers upgrade their vehicles.”

Finkel also talks of nuclear, but he is under no illusions as to its limitations – being both slow to build and expensive, and not able to provide a short-term solution.

“Nuclear can generate massive quantities of clean electricity but it will not make a contribution above its current levels in the next 30 years because of rising construction costs, licensing delays, politics, proliferation, waste management and safety concerns, and the long design cycle,” Finkel wrote.

“If these problems can be overcome, nuclear will make a hugely important contribution in the second half of the century.”

That shows that Finkel can bring a dose of reality to the nuclear debate. The pro-nuclear lobby is largely populated by those who either do not accept climate science, wish to retain the old centralised model of electricity generation, or who are trying to limit the proliferation of renewable energy in the near term.

As Finkel says: “With enough storage we could do it in this country with solar and wind.” That is something that most pro-nuclear advocates refuse to accept. Finkel appears to have an understanding of the benefits and potential of renewable energy, and the potential and limitations of nuclear.

Finkel’s efforts at creating a renewable-energy powered EV charging network with Better Place came to a premature end. But he still loves his EV and also wrote an interesting piece on why it is “green” rather than black.

That’s because he buys 100 per cent renewable energy for his household, where he charges his Nissan Leaf.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that electric cars are the transport technology of the future,” Finkel writes. “One day, everyone’s driving could be close to emissions-free, like mine is. The more of us who buy electric cars and power them with green electricity the faster that day will come.”

Finkel says it is not conceivable that any “fossil fuel” alternatives such as diesel, petrol, or gas could achieve emissions as low as electric vehicles charged by renewable electricity.

“There are other reasons to drive electric cars. First and foremost, the driving experience is superb. Electric cars are more responsive to the throttle, providing a vigorous feel that has to be experienced to be believed.

“And at least in our electric car, because of the mass of the battery down low, the car drives with the surety and smoothness typical of a heavy limousine.  Another advantage is that charging the car at home every few nights is more convenient and uses less of my time than a weekly trip to the petrol station.”

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  1. Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

    Giles says “The pro-nuclear lobby is largely populated by those who either do not accept climate science, wish to retain the old centralised model of electricity generation, or who are trying to limit the proliferation of renewable energy in the near term.”

    As part of the “pro-nuclear” lobby I can safely say that among my colleagues – none of them would support ANY of those statements.

    First – why would they bother with nuclear if they didn’t accept climate science? It’s the main reason for nuclear to replace coal. Nuclear is a low emission source that can be built in the GW scale to directly replace existing coal plant.

    Second – the centralised model is not “old”. It is the preferred method for nearly every country in the world. Wind farms and CSP plants are just as much a part of that centralised model as coal and gas plants.

    Third – None of my pro-nuclear colleagues want to get rid of renewable energy sources. They see them as part of the mix – unlike the anti-nuclear lobby that only wants renewable energy.

    • Mike Ives 5 years ago

      Well said Martin. If we can all manage with 100% renewables, well and good. But how about we test this theory before we all find out their overall shortfalls the hard way

      • Myla Reson 5 years ago

        Of course we’ve already found out about nuclear power’s potential for great harm the hard way…numerous times…what part of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima, et al do we not understand?

        • Mike Ives 5 years ago

          So which is the lesser evil Myla? The reported deaths from all three amount to around 4000 exclusively at Chernobyl. What do you reckon untamed global warming will do or a half baked so far unproven energy conversion program?

        • trackdaze 5 years ago

          Way More people affected by coal. Nuclear fission is getting better and nuclear fusion via iter will start to move along. Still at least 15years away though

    • Giles 5 years ago

      Martin, you know that is absolute bollocks. Nuclear is the preferred technology of many climate deniers – Maurice Newman and Dick Warburton and the IPA to name a few. The “EcoModernists” who favour nuclear energy made their UK launch at the right wing think tank that denies climate science.
      The centralised model is old, the world is moving on. The UK National Grid says so, the biggest utilities in the EU and the US say so, so does the owner of the Hazelwood power plant. All say half of all future demand will come from “prosumers” – much of the rest will come from micro grids.
      The anti-renewable theme – and ridiculous costings of solar and wind – lie thick within the pro-nuclear brigade. Geoff Russell being one of them, a former co-author of yours Peter being another. It is the common theme of many of the submissions in the royal commission.
      I agree with Finkel – if nuclear can do the job cheaper and quicker some time in the future, so be it. My argument has always been on cost, and right now it is ridiculously expensive, and I object to the nuclear efforts to stop renewables. Let it roll out as quick as it can. It is important. And if in a few decades there is room for nuclear, then OK. As Finkel says, this country can be powered by wind and solar and storage. Why don’t you admit that.

      • Martin Nicholson 5 years ago

        Giles I was expressing my views and those of my close colleagues. None are climate deniers or anti renewable energy. As you know, I had solar panels and batteries back in 2008 – much to your surprise if I remember rightly. Perhaps you need to broaden your own views beyond so called renewable energy when it comes to alternative sources of energy. Oh and by the way, Alan Finkel is also one of my colleagues who I have worked with on several energy research projects.

        • Chris Fraser 5 years ago

          Those anti-renewable Nukes on the Right (whom you don’t know) had better take care in future. Their views may well spoil everything for those on moderate ground.

      • Coley 5 years ago

        Aye, like I have said before, if the nuclear industry comes up with something,safe affordable and doesn’t produce piles of dangerous waste than abandoned wind farms and solar arrays will quickly become ‘stranded assets’
        Bit until then-;)

      • onesecond 5 years ago

        There will be no case for nuclear in the future, as there will be no case for baseload. Renewable electricity totally destroys the case for any baseload electricity with fuel costs greater than zero.

        • trackdaze 5 years ago

          How does one power their tenth floor apartment?

      • trackdaze 5 years ago

        Worth noting Big solar does take up space. As of course does nuclear. Before you do will need to add the mining facilities for wind and solar inputs for direct comparison. Chief scientist is right as eluded to we shouldn’t pick winners. Solar would be wise to heed lessons from windregarding visual encroachment and ammenity

        Investment in nuclear will continue whether we like it or not. And the fundamental principles that applied to move solar down the cost curve apply as much to nuclear. ITER et al that look to bring fusion onboard will be needed for future energy requirements beyond those for which we can currently comprehend.

        Channeling the small % doomsday preper in me for the purposes of the discussion. Imagine for one moment we have a high level volcanic eruption that significantly reduces solar radiation over the course of a few years. If were too reliant on one source such as solar at this point apart from many other crisis we will have an energy one. Energy mix is important

      • Andrew Woodroffe 5 years ago

        The pro nukes types always bang on about baseload like the network actually needs it. It does not, quite the opposite with ever more wind and solar being connected. Small gas peakers that can be ramped up and down quickly are what we need and indeed, already have – can nukes do this?

        Check out for what the demand on a grid actually looks like.

        For fun and giggles, Wikipedia Olkituoto Nuclear; now 3 x original budget, 9 years delayed (so far . . . not finished, yet, so we do not actually know . . . ).In the UK, Hinkley Pt C, already a financial disaster and they have not yet started construction!

        Given nuclear plants cannot get commercial insurance (unlike any other type of power plant), any further conversation about installing nukes should stop right here.

    • Ian 5 years ago

      Give Martin a break, nuclear may be an option. There was talk at one time of factory-sealed small unit thorium reactors. Large enough to power a small city for decades and then safely transportable and recyclable back at the main nuclear factory. Toshiba was doing some work on that. Was that all hot air and fanciful dreaming like carbon capture and storage? Good only as a hoodwink to delay the day of FF’s demise? I know a few good places to put some conventional nuclear reactors Port Phillip Bay, Port Jackson and Morton Bay. These would be close to Centres of Population, have a ready supply of calm water for cooling and have the potential for cogeneration of heat. They could provide a nearby tourist attraction to the respective centres. A smaller one could be sited on the Southern Shore of Lake Burley Griffin.

  2. Rory McGuire 5 years ago

    If Professor Finkel thinks nuclear should be considered an emission-free technology he should have a closer look at the energy and environmental costs of mining, crushing, using sulphuric acid, roasting and other processing of uranium ore just to get to yellowcake. Then we have the further energy costs of separating the isotopes – after which 99.3 percent of all the work done is wasted as the dominant isotope is discarded, or turned into projectiles. Depending on the ore grade there comes a point, much debated, when nuclear power would produce more CO2 than burning coal for the same amount of energy. Friends of nuclear are always keen to spread the myth that nuclear is emission-free, often resorting to the claim that it generates no CO2 at point of use, but, to be honest, the full cycle has to be considered.
    Still, it appears we are fortunate to have Finkel as a replacement for some of the troglodytes the abysmal Abbott was forcing upon us.

    • Damien van Hoogen van 5 years ago

      Source? I wan’t to believe you, it’s just I’m positive these things are taken into account in the LCA. Bet yes declining ore grade will increase the GHG/MWh

    • trackdaze 5 years ago

      That full cycle also applies to wind and solar.

  3. David K Clarke 5 years ago

    Finkel for Chief Scientist would be unimaginable under Abbott. Instead we had Maurice Newman as Abbott Business Adviser, the man who managed nine fallacies about wind power in one sentence.

    This is progress!

  4. Petra Liverani 5 years ago

    Thanks, Giles, for quoting our new Chief Scientist properly unlike the SMH. If the 100% renewable path is not obvious by mid-century (but, of course, it will be and if not, we certainly won’t be able to afford nuclear) I’ll be voting for nuclear too.

  5. Robert Comerford 5 years ago

    Some people need to get grip on reality, there is no perfect solution. The ‘environazi’s’ are as loony as the ‘coal is good’ lobby in my book. You’ll find that the vast majority (probably a percentage in the 90’s if my own sample is close to the norm) of people won’t voluntarily contribute to climate change action unless it directly effects them at a given time. That is despite their verbal support for the idea. If we are to achieve change it must be done with their consent or it wont happen until it is too late… if ever.
    Nuclear and other power sources that do not emit vast amounts of greenhouse gases need to be seen to be financially advantageous to the average consumer or we will be howling at the moon for many years to come.
    It is just like the low polluting motor vehicle. Ask your family and friends what would make them change to an electric car. You can bet your life few will quote the need to cease creating petro dollars to fund middle eastern extremism. It will be purchase price and the ability to save on fuel costs while having a vehicle that does exactly what their current one does.

    • Miles Harding 5 years ago

      Hi Robert,
      I think your description of the consumer is spot on.

      Nate Hagens would talk of evolution and future discount factors. The human race is not very good at responding to distant threats or problems in the future, even when we know our actions today are the cause of those future problems.

      Nobody is thinking even 5 years into the future. There is a point approaching when middle eastern fossil fuels will become difficult to obtain and/or unaffordable. It’s difficult to say when this will occur, I think the odds are good that it is less than 10 years away.

      One has only to look at the trajectory of the oil industry to get the idea that this is imminent. The latest great resource find is in the Arctic. The BBC talked of the USGS having mapped Arctic oil reserves which are estimated to be in the 90 billion barrel range**, but what does this mean? With a world consuming 100 million per day, this represents less than 3 years of supply.

      Technical responses such as shale oil have the effect of delaying the inevitable, and are likely allowing a “Seneca cliff” to develop, as they mask the decline in underlying resources. US domestic oil declines have shown this effect when the Alsaka and GOM fields were exploited.
      The US shale ‘revolution’ is showing signs of being over very soon, as finances and steep well decline rates take their toll.

      Most consumers will continue blindly onwards until they are stopped by a “no fuel today” sign at their local servo. Infortunately for all of us, so is essential transport.

      ** It’s likely an optimistic estimate due to the complex geology and
      technical issues with drilling in high lattitudes (wikipedia). Shell has recently
      given up one of their programmes after high costs and a poor show of

      • Robert Comerford 5 years ago

        Running out of economically obtainable oil and gas would be the best thing for us as a whole Miles. It would mean the coal industry would be severely reduced too as it is mined using fossil fuels.
        Sadly if there has been an oil peak, it hasn’t stopped the rush to substitute one fossil fuel for another.
        I’m not holding my breath for any change here as Turnbull demonstrated again only yesterday that he is beholding to the fossil fuel lobby and climate denialists in his party for his position…..keep on digging !

    • Mike Ives 5 years ago


      And therein lies the problem. Nature does not adhere to the edict of Financial Return on Investment and we may not have many more years to howl at the moon in my reckoning, Check out the rate of growth in global fossil fuel use.and adjust IPCC’s 2011 carbon budget accordingly. Certainly well before 2050 to reach 2 deg C increase

  6. Miles Harding 5 years ago

    It’s a pity that he can’t be the Chief Politician.

    I am looking forward to hearing more from him.

  7. trackdaze 5 years ago

    Great we have a chief scientist who straight talks. Allthough chubby was much the same.

    Nuclear (fusion hopefully) may be needed for heavy load geoengineering projects to assist climate post 2040. Additionally it may require less space than big solar and wind.

  8. Les Johnston 5 years ago

    Safe long term secure storage of nuclear waste remains the challenged which must be addressed by nuclear projects. Simply placing this waste somewhere out there in the outback is totally unsatisfactory. It is a similar issue which CSG has avoided in terms of certainty of fracking effects on ground water security of supply. Hopefully the public will be more careful to reject the advice of the nuclear industry to not worry about that!

  9. Rusdy Simano 5 years ago

    Good news indeed. Does this make me somehow related to scientist then, by driving the same car? 🙂

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