Taylor puts gas and CCS at centre of technology roadmap, coal and nuclear not excluded | RenewEconomy

Taylor puts gas and CCS at centre of technology roadmap, coal and nuclear not excluded

Taylor’s discussion paper on technology roadmap puts focus on gas and CCS, and appears a desperate attempt to find technology winners that are not wind, solar and storage.

Credit: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas

Federal energy and emissions reduction minister Angus Taylor has outlined the thinking behind the Coalition’s proposed technology roadmap, and it is everything that was feared – a desperate attempt to try and jam new gas infrastructure, carbon capture and storage and even new coal investments into Australia’s energy future.

The Coalition has already made clear that gas is the centrepiece of its post Covid-19 economic recovery plans, arguing – against most evidence – that it is essential to hasten both emissions cuts and cost reductions over the short, medium and long term.

The discussion paper released by Taylor on Thursday cites 140 different technologies – across the electricity grid, and in critical and more challenging sectors such as buildings, transport, manufacturing and agriculture. It wants to whittle this down to a field of favourites of unspecified numbers by the end of the year, before pronouncing its emissions reduction targets before the next climate change conference.

Indeed, Taylor appears determined to try and identify the technologies needed before setting out a long term emissions target, rather than what most people recommend is to set a long term target, and let markets and technology decide how to get there. Taylor, as he has done since being appointed minister nearly two years ago, wants to intervene and control the whole process.

Contrary to media reports, the roadmap does not exclude coal, an astonishing fact in itself. “Technologies that “increase the efficiency of the existing thermal generation fleet” – presumably such as the ones put forward by Liberal Party donor Trevor St Baker for government support – are included, although there is no mention of new coal generation advocated by the National Party and the far right media.

The government places great store in its massive government funded pumped hydro projects, including Snowy 2.0 – despite widespread questions about its economic and environmental viability – and Tasmania’s Battery of the Nation project and its associated Marinus Link to the mainland.

It also canvasses small modular nuclear reactors, a technology pushed by many within the Coalition even though it does not exist in the commercial world outside of the military. The document does note that small nuclear reactors face “engineering, cost and environmental challenges, alongside social acceptability of nuclear power in Australia,” which will be key determinants of any future deployment.

The press release from Taylor accompanying the report is full of fine but largely meaningless rhetoric about economic growth, jobs and Australian innovation. But that doesn’t amount to much if the government chooses to ignore the very technologies that Australia has helped developed (solar through R&D and deployment, and battery technology through deployment) and which are clearly the cheapest and most efficient options.

The graph above makes that clear – the big blue circles deliver the biggest abatement, paired with various forms of storage or gas – so at least the report recognises that, even if Taylor can’t bring himself to say it.

But the biggest fear is that, rather than picking the winners, the Coalition government process will seek to delay, nobble or handicap the likely winners, at least the current leaders.

These leaders are clearly wind, solar, and storage – pumped hydro and battery storage – which the Australian Energy Market Operator says can deliver a near 90 per cent cut in electricity emissions by 2040. That’s one giant leap towards reaching a zero emissions goal by 2050, and if the grid is more or less carbon free, that allows transport, buildings and manufacturing to make major strides towards that too.

Taylor, though, is fixated on gas. He has long decried the amount of wind and solar into the grid, and even though the government has quietly embraced Labor’s 50 per cent renewable target by 2030 – or at least accepted that it is inevitable – it wants to draw the barrier there. Hence the search for new technologies.

“Gas needs to play a significant role,” Taylor told ABC Radio National program on Thursday. “We are the biggest LNG exporter in world … it would be . crazy for us not to use it as part of the journey we are on.”

He also said CCS – which he claimed was using technologies that have “been used for decades” – would be “essential” for cutting emissions and supporting fossil fuels such as gas.

This comes as yet another new report questions the emissions reduction claims of the gas industry. “Greenhouse gas emissions from the processing, extraction and export of gas have likely been underestimated,” says Climate Councillor and former president of BP Australasia, Greg Bourne.

“South Australia provides a real-world example of the feasibility and challenges associated with combining high levels of renewable energy with flexible gas generation to provide reliable, low emissions electricity supply,” the government’s technology report says, noting increases in gas generation since the last coal plant in the state closed.

But the report fails to note that AEMO forecasts gas to play a very very minor role in its future grid, particularly in the South Australia example.

By 2030, even the state Liberal government plans to reach net 100 per cent renewables, and gas is expected to supply a fraction – less than 10 per cent of its supply – because batteries and other technologies will deliver most of the grid services.

The report also questions whether the cost of firming still makes wind and solar the cheapest form of generation, despite new studies by the CSIRO and AEMO that makes it clear it does.

“If significant cost reductions in energy storage are realised, careful and systematic deployment of low-cost renewable generation could re-establish our advantage in energy-intensive manufacturing and enable more onshore processing of our mineral wealth,” the report admits elsewhere.

And then it says, ignoring what is has just pronounced: “However, Australia will not be able to capitalise on these opportunities if we compromise energy security, reliability or affordability in an effort to reduce emissions. The deployment of technology to firm variable supply and maintain grid stability should therefore be a priority.

The report canvasses the need for a switch to electric transport, although the government and its advisors still appear to be convinced that fuel cell technologies will be needed for anything other than cars and light commercial vehicles, which appears to ignore recent developments. It also canvasses upgrade to engine efficiency for fossil fuel vehicles.

Quite rightly, much of the roadmap is focused on those “hard to get to sectors” within buildings, transport, manufacturing and industrial processes, and it signals a shift in the mandates of key bodies such as the CEFC and ARENA (whose future is not entirely clear).

Environmental groups pushed back against the focus on gas, CCS and other technologies less travelled than wind, solar and storage.

John Connor, from the Carbon Markets Institute, however had a more nuanced approach. He described the roadmap as, potentially, the start of one of the “most crucial national conversations in over a decade. It will be a test of our national character, comparative advantage and coordination,” he notes.

That is based on the assumption, or the hope, that the government is listening. Until it can commit to the basic target of zero emissions by 2050, there is little chance of that. Which is a pity, because as Connor notes:

“Australia’s prosperity and security depends on our ability to transition our economy, and help coordinate the global economy, to net-zero emissions by 2050.

“Australia can lead the world in deployment of technologies like hydrogen, soil carbon and renewable energy but we will need to first past another test of national character and coordination to move beyond past squabbles to realise our comparative advantage and opportunities.”

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Giles Parkinson is founder and editor of Renew Economy, and is also the founder of One Step Off The Grid and founder/editor of The Driven. Giles has been a journalist for 35 years and is a former business and deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review.

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