Australia has the resources to become a renewable energy powerhouse, but transitioning to a clean energy future requires a national plan with engineering expertise at its heart.
Engineers are the mechanism turning policy and planning into reality and must play an indispensable role in Australia’s energy transition, said Engineers Australia Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster FIEAust CPEng.
“Access to energy is provided by way of complex engineered systems, which underpin our quality of life,” MacMaster told create.
“Transitioning these systems to provide energy from sustainable sources requires that engineering perspectives are considered through the entire lifecycle — from project conception through to end-of-life.”
These systems will only become more complex as Australia’s power network evolves with the growth of renewables and customer-owned generation such as rooftop solar.
This means engineers should be involved at every level, said Engineers Australia Fellow Graham Town FIEAust, Honorary Professor at Macquarie University’s School of Engineering.
“This includes in developing government policy and long-term goals, in the strategy development and decision-making teams in industry, and of course taking a central role in designing and operating the key technology and systems underpinning future energy infrastructure,” he said.
“Engineers are trained to deal with complex problems and systems and are best placed to plan, design, build and operate future energy systems with the required levels of reliability and resilience.”
The need for engineers to have greater involvement in Australia’s energy transition was outlined in a recent discussion paper from Engineers Australia, Energy Governance and the Engineering Voice.
“A lot of our members expressed concern that the market voices are very loud these days, but that the engineering voices are not,” said Grant Watt, Engineers Australia Senior Policy Advisor — Energy, who authored the paper.
“The concern with this is that we might have a discussion about how the market should work, but is it actually technically feasible? What are the technical solutions? How do we make this work?”
An independent advisor
One way to ensure engineers’ expertise informs decision-making and policy discussions is to establish an independent technical authority for the energy sector with a clear charter to provide advice to government.
This authority could play a similar role to that of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI), which provides technical counsel to the Federal Minister for Health.
According to the discussion paper, the responsibilities of the proposed technical authority could include:
- systematic engineering advice and insight at critical decision-making junctures
- advice on engineering capability development
- definition of technical and performance standards or deviation
- interpretation of good engineering practice
- reviewing and auditing
- risk assessments
- ensuring conformity with legislation and standards.
“Governance arrangements in the energy sector need to be reviewed to create a clear role for independent engineering advice,” the paper says.
“Engineering skills must be at the heart of decision-making for systems that rely on engineering to succeed.”
National transition plan required
Australia is undergoing an energy transformation at an unparalleled pace and scale, but it currently has no comprehensive national transition plan that charts a path to clean, reliable, cost-effective and affordable energy.
While the need to reduce emissions will drive changes in the energy sector regardless, Engineers Australia is advocating for a national plan “based on science and facts that outlines a clear transition from fossil fuels to clean, reliable, low-cost energy”.
One reason for the lack of a national strategy is the fractured nature of the energy debate — and not only between the major political parties. While the states and territories are responsible for energy policy, a national electricity market was established in 1998 and is regulated by the Federal Government.
The biggest challenge for Australia’s energy transition is “the lack of integrated national leadership and strategy”, Air Vice-Marshal John Blackburn (Retd) told create.
“The topic of energy has become so politicised in Australia … that our national interest and security has been subsumed by both party and personal interests,” he said.
“We need an energy strategy and plan for Australia that is correlated with strategies for national security and resilience, economy, environment, industry and research.”
Town agreed a national vision is required. He said there is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” for engineers, industry and government to innovate and work together to develop new technical solutions, policy and regulatory frameworks and business opportunities.
“As a nation, we must learn to stop politicising issues of national interest and damaging our long-term prospects,” Town said.
“The renewable energy will always be here in abundance, but the opportunity to develop new technologies to support its use and export are already diminishing … We should have started working on the energy transition over a decade ago and be leading the global energy transition, not following.”
Blackburn said that, due to the nation’s considerable expertise and resources, the actions Australia must take to advance its energy transition are possible, but they must happen soon.
“Engineers will design the technical solutions — a systems engineering approach will be critical,” he said.
“We need the engineering community to become more vocal in order to help build the shared awareness and understanding of the need to act now.”