A new Australian National University Grand Challenge points to opportunities in the burgeoning field of renewables.
As national economies swing towards renewables, Australia’s position and reputation as a powerhouse of global energy might increasingly rely on four specific pillars.
Those pillars, according to the multidisciplinary group of academics and industry specialists that make up the Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific program at Australian National University (ANU), are the export of electricity, the export of green hydrogen, the export of green metals and the export of knowledge.
“Australia is well-positioned, and it is developing this expertise in how to do zero-carbon systems and economies,” said chemical engineer Dr Emma Aisbett, a Fellow at the ANU School of Regulation and Global Governance and Associate Director Research of the program.
In fact, Aisbett said, renewable energy exporting and Australia is “a match made in heaven”.
“Australia has this incredible potential, in terms of its renewable energy exports, but also in terms of institutional and human capital in this country, to very rapidly ramp up and expand renewable energy production and generation,” she said.
The Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific Grand Challenge at ANU is a $10 million, five-year, high-impact research program. It brings together specialists from engineering, law, economics, computational chemists, Indigenous scholars, political scientists, physicists and many more to develop a framework in which a renewable energy industry can thrive.
“ANU is developing an integrated framework for ensuring that the operating environment, including regulatory and customer markets, is in place to facilitate new kinds of trade,” said Steve Rodgers, Senior Policy Adviser with Engineers Australia.
The challenge ahead
Why is such a framework so important to our future?
Rodgers believes the opportunity offered by renewables is not renewables themselves, but instead the energy-creation mechanism they will offer to Australia.
Such a mechanism will be necessary to enable a substitution for coal and liquefied natural gas, as climate policies encourage a shift away from non-renewable resources.
The challenge for engineers, Rodgers said, will not be building more of the same types of systems that we are already familiar with, but to instead develop and upgrade new and existing infrastructure that creates greater value in terms of investment in productive capacity.
“The challenge is to work out how to make the most of the current circumstances: renewables that are increasingly affordable and for which Australia has, in some cases, already developed supply chains and workforce capability,” he said.
“The areas in which engineers have a key role to play are in the scale-up of renewables, energy conversion, storage and transport, etc.”
And why are engineers at the heart of the Grand Challenge?
Because their experience and knowledge mean they are perfectly suited for the planning and integration of technology, evaluation of process and real-world know-how around the implementation of systems and processes, and the development of infrastructure.
“If it’s a physics question, such as, ‘What are all the ways we can make hydrogen?’, the physics answer would be, ‘You can do it in many different ways’. Physics can even tell you which way would be more thermodynamically efficient,” said physicist and electrical engineer Dr Fiona Beck, a Senior Research Fellow and ARC DECRA Fellow at the ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science, and convener of the Hydrogen Fuels Project in the ANU Energy Change Institute’s Grand Challenge.
“But that’s not actually the question we need to be asking. The question we’re trying to solve is, ‘What is the best way for us to make hydrogen to drive decarbonisation, and at the same time develop an export economy for Australia?’. You can’t write an equation for that. You need to look into the policy settings and economic realities, into what the shareholders and communities want … We’re looking for the best real-life solution, and that’s what engineers do.”
At the same time, the broader framework absolutely requires the other disciplines to ensure the science is flawless and the markets are ready.
The ANU project is taking the multidisciplinary idea one step further by ensuring Indigenous policy is central to all developments, too.
Collaboration with Australian Indigenous communities is an important aspect of the Grand Challenge, Aisbett said. Engagement of these communities is vital, as is the maximisation of their benefits from Australia’s energy transition.
“Much of the renewable resource infrastructure that Australia has, and will have, is on Traditionally Owned lands,” Aisbett said.
“Following [the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies] guidelines for when you’re working with Indigenous peoples, you don’t turn up and say, ‘This is what we want to do’. Instead you say, ‘How can we do work that is of interest to you, and what would that work look like if it’s helpful to you?’.”
The project’s co-ordinators have a similarly inclusive attitude towards industry and government.
If this very important framework is to be successfully developed, one that will potentially ensure future prosperity for generations of Australians, then it must be developed in a truly collaborative fashion.
“We’re engaging with industry leaders and providing an objective and neutral forum for different groups to get together,” Aisbett said.
“Our idea is not to do research on our own and then write a policy brief that a policymaker can understand. Our plan is to co-design and co-produce our research with all of these other groups, including Indigenous communities, organisations and government.”
Enter the engineers
This project asks a broader question of engineers about their role in contributing to a prosperous future, Rodgers believes.
Productivity means doing more with less, and so we need to invest in and develop energy infrastructure that will do more of the heavy lifting than it has in the past, he said. This will involve innovation.
In the right environment — and that’s exactly what the team at ANU and their collaborators are hoping to create — innovation should thrive.
“The world is now shifting on a climate change basis, as are our own internal politics around energy security. We’re going to need to do something different if we’re going to continue to prosper,” Rodgers said.
Right now, he said, Australia’s energy needs are 94 per cent satisfied by fossil fuels.
But if engineers can help create solutions around such industries as hydrogen, then our nation and others will begin to accelerate in the right direction.
“The hydrogen export opportunity, as an example, looks like a good way of balancing national accounts by substituting one export industry for another,” Rodgers said.
Steps to a zero-carbon Asia-Pacific
The ANU Grand Challenge, Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific, consists of five interrelated projects.
- Renewable electricity systems;
- Hydrogen fuels;
- Energy policy and governance in the Asia-Pacific;
- Renewable refining of metal ores; and
- Indigenous community engagement.
The stated objectives are to:
- Transform the way Australia trades with the world through the development of zero-carbon export industries;
- Create new paradigms in benefit sharing; and
- Develop technologies, policies and approaches that can be applied in the Asia-Pacific and beyond.
This article originally appeared as “Global energy powerhouse” in the April 2020 edition of create magazine.