Australia is spoiled for choice among the array of energies we have to power our future, for centuries to come. Concentrated sunlight, huge reserves of coal, gas, hot rocks, wind, wave and tidal energy, not to mention uranium, thorium, biomass, hydro and other possibilities – thousands of years’ worth of energy in sundry forms.
Confronted by such opportunity do we have the world’s best energy system? No. Just the world’s most spectacular energy cock-up by an advanced country.
The problem lies primarily with the corruption of Australian politics by large resources companies, domestic and foreign over decades, each peddling their own particular energy source and seeking rents by purchasing political parties. How else can one possibly explain the stubborn support of Liberal/National and Labor for a coal mine opposed by a majority of Australians?
For time immemorial the energy game has been played in Australian politics by ‘picking winners’, a sport which politicians publicly deride, but privately pursue with almost drunken fervour. Every politician has their favourite energy source and their most hated – just ask them. The result is policy paralysis, as the conflicting and compromised energy outcomes are driven by politics and ideology rather than by rationality, technical feasibility or the market.
What Australia most needs, at this juncture in our history, is not another shoddy government plan, biased towards its transient political goals. It’s a level playing field. A place where all the energies can compete, fairly, for a share of the world’s hungriest energy market – the Asia-Pacific. In other words, a way to get sticky political fingers out of the energy pie.
That level playing field could be created by building an Australian Energy Superhighway.
The superhighway concept calls for a gigawatt DC transmission line starting in southeastern Australia, extending across the deserts to the northwest, then heading north to connect with existing lines in Indonesia and Malaysia, and ultimately, into southern China.
On the way, spur lines harvest energy from a multitude of sources – clean coal and gas from the eastern states, wind and wave from the Bight, photovoltaics, solar thermal and hot rocks from central Australia, hydro from the Snowies and Tasmania, gas, tide, wind and solar from the northwest. A vast national tsunami of Aussie electrons, heading at lightspeed for Asia – and not a single ship in sight.
High voltage direct current (HVDC) power cables are hardly untested new technology. They were invented in 1882 and developed in the 1930s. In their modern form they are cheaper than the familiar AC cables, suffer far smaller losses over longer distances, and can run both underground and undersea. There are more than 220 HVDC lines being operated or built worldwide. The longest, so far, is the 2385-kms Rio Madeira line in Brazil, but China has several around 2000 kms and a 3000km line planned. Ireland recently announced plans for a 700 km line connecting it to France, to shunt energy to and fro.
Costs vary according to circumstances, but to build an HVDC line across Australia from, say, Albury to Port Hedland would, at current prices, cost about US$250,000 a kilometre – or about $1 billion in total for the cable, plus a number of converter stations at $100m apiece, plus spur lines from Queensland, Victoria, SA and so on. By any reckoning, an energy superhighway would be a piece of nation-building infrastructure that would come at a fraction of the cost of the National Broadband Network.
An advantage of HVDC lines, and why so many countries are now using them, is ‘load balancing’. By collecting energy from a multitude of sources the prehistoric argument over ‘base load’ and intermittency simply goes away. Energy can be shunted from where it is cheapest to where it is most needed at a continental scale, which is why Ireland and France have decided to build an interconnector between their grids.
The second great advantage is that it enables Australia to export pure energy direct to our Asian neighbours, including potentially, China by interconnecting with their HVDC lines. At the moment vast amounts of energy are wasted exporting tonnes of coal, much of which is also wasted as gas or ash when it is burned, by ship. The opportunity is for Australia to replace a C19th energy system with a C21st – and take a leading role in the global energy revolution. In this way, every home with a solar roof can earn export income.
An Energy Superhighway will not only power Australia and our neighbours. It will replace the current system where our energy choices are determined by who can afford to corrupt the most politicians. It will be up to each energy source to find its own path to clean, lowest-cost production.
The lousy policy outcomes of the past three decades are the result of a system where it is in politicians’ vested interests not to solve the national energy crisis, but to perpetuate it. It is the proper role of Government to facilitate growth and competition – and create the infrastructure which does that. Not to pick favourites.
An Australian Energy Superhighway would change our entire national, industrial, economic and regional outlook, building a far brighter future for this country and its neighbours.
Julian Cribb is a science writer and author of “Surviving the 21st Century” (Springer 2017)