Exciting opportunities but missing a low emissions commitment
It’s a “low emissions technology roadmap”, without a “low emissions roadmap”. And that’s a problem.
The Australian government’s recently published technology investment roadmap is a strange document. It feels like both a bottom-up document written by engineers and a top-down document written to a political script… and with the two parts jammed together without worrying too much about whether it makes sense as a whole. The roadmap promises an exciting future of technology leadership yet without any stated intention to actually commit to a clean economy.
Rather than the exciting possibility of becoming world leaders in future low emissions technologies, the path to a low emissions future will actually be mostly made up of existing, proven, cheap… some might say boring technologies like wind and solar energy. Will we continue to squander our significant natural advantage in renewable energy resources? Or will we commit fully to a clean economy that includes both leadership in future low emissions technologies for the hard-to-abate sectors together with mainstream renewables for the bulk of emissions reduction? Where Australia ends up between these two options will depend on the extent to which we choose rational thinking and risk management over ideology and the status quo.
The roadmap is intended to be “a framework to accelerate low emissions technologies,” and as a new technology development engineer, I find a lot to be excited about. It signals a new possible direction for Australia by highlighting emerging technologies such as clean hydrogen. This new direction would take us to a place where we are not afraid to take risks and lead new technology development in the clean energy space.
It’s ambitious, too. It proposes technology programs designed to address some of the biggest challenges in the move to a zero emissions future, in hard-to-abate sectors such as steel manufacture, heavy transport, concrete.
The body of the report contains analysis that suggests the bulk of Australia’s emissions reduction can be achieved through mature technologies like wind and solar, electric vehicles and building technologies like heat pumps. Challenges with these technologies, like the variable nature of wind and solar, have technology solutions ranging from medium to high maturity such as storage and grid upgrades. But oddly, in the executive summary and politicians’ speeches on the topic, the focus is almost exclusively on “moonshots” — unproven technologies with uncertain business cases, particularly hydrogen and carbon sequestration.
The bulk of work to reduce Australia’s emissions will come from implementing existing technologies that have been used in other countries but need to be adapted to Australia’s specific conditions. This process may not involve highly uncertain technologies, but it will not happen without changing the status quo. And the Australian federal government still has no emissions reduction target beyond the 2030 target of 26–28 per cent below 2005 levels. The lack of a target and a plan towards low emissions suggests that this is not a priority for the government, even while they focus on low emissions technologies themselves.
It is philosophically inconsistent to say that developing low emissions technologies is important, but actually reducing emissions by using proven and cost effective technologies is not.
There are technical inconsistencies too. Future clean technologies such as hydrogen will not actually be clean without a clean electricity grid. Without that, there will be no market for our hydrogen. Technologies already exist to produce brown hydrogen (from coal) and blue hydrogen (from natural gas). But because of the cost and some technical challenges associated with safe transport and storage, the usage of hydrogen is currently limited to some fairly niche applications. It is for green hydrogen from renewable sources that demand is expected to grow from overseas countries without good local renewable resources. This is the expected market for our future hydrogen economy, and they will not want hydrogen produced by electricity from our coal-dominated electricity grid.
Many of the other technology investment opportunities such as sequestration, soil carbon, small modular nuclear and other difficult and high-cost abatement solutions are ambitious targets, having so far defied attempts to mature the technologies and bring down costs.
It is very encouraging to me as an engineer that Australia is willing to take on the challenge and attempt to solve the difficult problems that others have not yet been able to crack. But again, making the case to develop these risky technologies instead of creating programs to rapidly roll out the fast and cheap options is illogical. These technologies combined have the potential to make up only a small proportion of emissions compared to electricity and transport, and their payoff will be many years in the future.
It will prove a costly, risky and slow path to emissions reduction if the emerging technology investment program is not carried out in addition to quickly reducing the bulk of emissions using reliable and low-cost technologies such as wind and solar.
The roadmap seems to have been approached from two different directions: from a problem towards a solution and conversely, from a solution towards a problem. Much of the report comes from the first direction, assuming a problem (Australia needs to move quickly to a low emissions economy at minimum cost and minimum risk) and then systematically assesses the technology options in terms of technology readiness level.
The figure below is taken from the report, and shows the maturity (more mature/ less risky technologies are on the right of the figure below, less mature/ more risky are on the left) and cost potential (cheap on the bottom, expensive on the top) of selected low emissions technologies. The sensible quadrant of low-risk and low-cost technologies is the bottom right, and is dominated by solar and wind combined with various storage technologies. The report’s figures for the national emissions breakdown (see above) show that over half of Australia’s emissions currently come from the combination of electricity (34%) and transport (19%) sectors. And the report shows that there are a lot of technologies in these sectors in the sensible bottom-right quadrant with proven technologies at a low or negative cost. Renewables with either pumped hydro or gas make up the bulk of the low-cost low-risk technologies, followed by some residential buildings technologies (heat pumps, low embodied carbon materials, natural refrigerants) and electric and hybrid electric vehicles.
This is perfect: we have a match between the most important sectors to abate, and the most mature and cheap technologies. If we had a price on carbon then finding the most efficient path to emissions reduction — through these cheap and mature technologies — would be straightforward. Unfortunately Australia’s political history means a price on carbon is not likely any time soon and the federal government has not identified an alternative mechanism. There is currently no federal government plan to take advantage of this opportunity to systematically reduce Australia’s emissions using the low-risk and low-cost approach that can be identified from the report’s analysis.
Instead it seems that the government’s priorities are aligned with the report’s second direction, which starts from a solution (new technologies need to be developed, especially hydrogen) and works its way back to a problem: “helping our overseas partners to lower their emissions through our energy exports (particularly Japan, South Korea and China).”
The two directions don’t quite meet up in the middle, as the low-risk/low-cost technologies identified in the problem-to-solution direction are not those highlighted in the report or in ministerial announcements on the topic, where low maturity technologies dominate. This is also reflected in the title of the report:
It is a “technology investment roadmap”, not a “low emissions roadmap”.
Wind and solar may make up the bulk of Australia’s low risk, low cost emissions reduction potential, but these technologies are already quite mature. They have been developed by governments and industry in other countries and it is too late for Australia to become leaders here.
One optimistic interpretation of the roadmap is to read between the lines. It makes no logical sense to develop emerging low-emissions technologies without a plan to actually reduce emissions, so perhaps there is an unstated plan to reduce emissions. You could argue that it is no longer even necessary for the federal government to have a zero-emissions target since every single one of Australia’s states and territories are now committed to a target of zero-emissions by 2050, along with much of industry including the Business Council of Australia. However, even if Australia is readying itself to move towards zero-emissions without leadership from the federal government, a bipartisan federal commitment to this goal would allow national coordination which would reduce inefficiencies and speed progress.
There are fantastic opportunities for Australia at this moment to start the journey towards a clean economy and a strong future as a technology innovator, and I am looking forward to being part of that journey. But all of this must be concurrent with a plan to quickly reduce Australia’s emissions.