The Federal Government’s Technology Investment Roadmap flags 140 technologies to reduce Australia’s carbon emissions while stimulating the economy. But sound engineering, effective policy tools and rapid adoption are needed to make them count.
To avoid the most devastating consequences of climate change, global emissions need to reach net zero by 2050. According to Engineers Australia Senior Policy Advisor Steve Rodgers, targeted technology investment in the wake of the pandemic can help.
Rodgers added that engineering expertise is needed to deliver the best bang for our public bucks.
“As a matter of priority, the government should be building an independent engineering advice body,” he told create, explaining that such a body could deal with the system challenges involved in delivering and integrating new technologies efficiently.
To build Australia’s competitive edge in areas such as exporting clean energy, Rodgers said the government needs to use policy tools to make sure funded projects advance the knowledge and practice of engineering for the benefit of the community.
Engineers Australia will advocate for these measures in their submission to the government’s Technology Investment Roadmap discussion paper. Submissions are open until 21 June, and Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel will host a public webinar about the roadmap at 10am on Friday 12 June.
Electrical energy security
Electricity generation contributes more than a third of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, and the roadmap identifies integrating renewable energy sources into the national grid as a key focus area.
In 2019, renewables made up 21 per cent of national electricity generation. According to the Australian Energy Market Operator’s recent Renewable Integration Study report, wind and solar sources could be securely increased to 75 per cent of total generation in the next five years.
However, Rodgers warned an exclusive focus on market driven solutions and price signals will not deliver a secure, reliable and resilient grid.
“It’s Australia’s biggest ‘machine’. Engineers need to be directly involved in system security,” he explained.
Rodgers added that there is no driver for independent, competent engineering in decision making in the current electricity market design.
“This has led to a chronic under-investment in engineering skills and capability,” he said.
Time is of the essence
According to Anna Skarbek, CEO of ClimateWorks Australia, the greatest challenge to reaching net zero emissions by 2050 is the rapid deployment of zero-carbon technologies at scale.
“The real challenge as it relates to climate change is the ticking clock, and that’s why acceleration matters,” she explained, adding that the necessary technology already exists, but is not being adopted fast enough.
Skarbek said the roadmap reflects the broad range of technologies needed to slash emissions across the electricity, transport, building, industry and agriculture sectors. These include priority technologies identified in ClimateWork Australia’s Decarbonisation Futures report (released in March).
As well as clean electricity generation, these technologies span energy efficiency, demand management, and switching from fossil fuels to alternatives such as biofuel and green hydrogen. For example, in the building sector, it is now cost effective for new homes to switch from gas to all electric, which will reduce emissions as electricity generation transitions to renewables.
But Skarbek emphasised that measures such as government commitments to buy zero-carbon technologies, combined with supportive investment to upgrade manufacturing plants to run on renewable energy, would determine our success in accelerating decarbonisation to the required level.
She added that well-targeted government investment could set Australia up to be a global player in a zero-emissions energy export economy.
“We hope that this year the stimulus investment can build the first stages of these new facilities to accelerate transition,” she said.
Engineering, not politics
Steve Posselt, Chair of the Engineers Australia Sustainable Engineering Society, said he welcomed the roadmap’s recognition of key issues such as the broad economic linkages of electricity generation and opportunities to adopt pumped hydro storage and harness methane leakage from landfill.
“This is a good step forward,” he said.
But Posselt expressed concerns about the use of ‘transition’ technologies such as gas and carbon capture and storage (CC&S) in the next few years.
ClimateWorks Australia modelling indicates several areas where existing low- or zero-carbon technologies could eliminate the need for transition technologies, Skarbek said.
For example, the gas industry itself is transitioning to lower emissions, and many gas companies have committed to net zero emissions targets.
However, these targets did not necessarily include decarbonisation of the gas produced, which is still a fossil fuel. Export customers such as Japan have also signalled their interest in clean alternatives such as green hydrogen.
Posselt emphasised the need for engineers to be able to put their expertise to work to find the best solutions to address climate change.
“Engineers are pretty good at solving problems, but not if they are constrained by political ideology,” he said.
“We need to be given the objectives and told to get on with it.”