Climate debate missing the point

Adelaide University professor Barry Brook has just published a useful, very concise, op-ed on Australia’s ABC “The drum”. Wisely, the essay doesn’t boil it down to the absolute minimum (FOE are dishonest ghouls by my reckoning), but the essay does offer standards for evaluating real-world-implementable energy policy options.

(…) First up, it can’t bankrupt us. Actually, I’d go further than that. If we really want to guarantee that a plan will get majority support, it can’t really afford to cost more than our current system. Here I’m reminded of a quote from a friend of mine, Californian entrepreneur Steve Kirsch:

Pouring money into token mitigation strategies is a non-sustainable way to deal with climate change. That number will keep rising and rising every year without bound. The most effective way to deal with climate change is to seriously reduce our carbon emissions. We’ll never get the enormous emission reductions we need by treaty. Been there, done that. It’s not going to happen. If you want to get emissions reductions, you must make the alternatives for electric power generation cheaper than coal. It’s that simple. If you don’t do that, you lose.

Is it possible to find ‘clean energy’ alternatives that are cheaper than coal, oil and gas? Not immediately, no, but it should be possible – indeed, inevitable, when future supply constraints are considered – if we avoid unnecessary and unfair regulatory and investment burdens. I suspect that if a proposed plan requires massive, permanent subsidies to work (such as ongoing feed-in tariffs, purchasing mandates or energy certificates), it’s probably a dead duck. Loan guarantees to kick-start private investment – which are not subsidies, but risk management aids – seem like one of the most effective forms of government intervention to making things happen.

Second, the plan must be logistically and technologically feasible. Massive transmission grids linking Australia to Asia to Europe might be a great concept, but it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Space-based solar arrays or fusion power are far distant prospects, probably well beyond our lifetimes. We need to get serious about what’s here and now, or at least just on the horizon.

Finally, it must be technology neutral. All systems that meet certain underlying goals (low carbon, safe, able to effectively manage waste, sustainable, and so on) should be allowed to compete on a level playing field. A plan that says “no nuclear” or “no carbon capture and storage”, or one that imposes severe regulatory burdens on some technologies but not others, is really risky. Why? Because there is a good chance that the cheapest and most efficient solutions will be ruled out on ideological grounds, or for short-term political convenience: always a bad idea.

My considered view is that nuclear power will end up forming the backbone of any effective real-world clean energy plan, but I’d be just as happy if other prospective technologies, such as concentrating solar power or enhanced geothermal systems, are able to take a major role.

Yet, even if you disagree with my plan (or anyone else’s for that matter), you shouldn’t seek to ‘block’ any qualifying technology. And if you wish people to take your plan seriously, you must be prepared to tell them how much it will likely cost, what sort of support it will need to be put into action, and consider its implications for electricity grid stability, energy storage and sustainability.

In short, real-world energy plans have to work in the real world. Does yours?

Please read the whole thing.