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Our energy future: 2016 Zunz Lecture

The 2016 UTS Zunz Lecture considered our electric future with Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel AO.

The Zunz Lecture Series, established in 2001, explores broad community issues relating to engineering and information technology. This year, Dr Finkel considered Australia's energy future, discussing potential sources, technologies, and shifting drivers of demand alongside an expert panel. 

Speaking on the day of the announcement of the closure of Victoria’s Hazelwood brown coal power station, of the NSW government’s goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and the day before the Paris Agreement came into force, Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Zunz lecture addressing Australia’s electricity future couldn’t have been more topical.

Dr Finkel acknowledged current discourse around energy generation – and his own recent appointment to the Federal government’s energy security review following the September blackout that shut down South Australia – in a public lecture which looked back, and forward, to the development and distribution of electricity for Australian towns and cities

Undoubtedly coal has made a major contribution to Australia's economic development, but at what cost? With increasing commitments locally and globally to replace older technologies with renewables and to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, the challenge now for governments and the energy industry is to transition to more viable solutions.

Dr Barr agreed that three elements are vital, but believes that, while any two of the three are currently achievable, greater and cheaper storage capacity is required to attain all three together.

Nicola Ison identified four key drivers for transitioning to alternate energy sources: the Paris Agreement, Australia’s ageing infrastructure, the enormous downward transformation in the cost of renewables and the role of the consumers wanting real value from their energy producers.

The complexity of evolving consumer behaviour, and demand for choice, is a significant factor in the way industry – retailers and generators – will need to operate.

We now have more diverse consumer base, it has more diverse energy needs, is more engaged and requires more consultation – the old assumptions that any two neighbouring houses had the same profile use just can’t be made anyone more. – John Pierce ”

With changes in consumption, systems need to be both productive and efficient.

Think of the expanding range of devices you might want as a consumer – amongst them electric vehicles and home battery packs.  And think of the new ways in which you might want to engage with the grid, like selling the excess electricity from your solar panels directly to your neighbours, peer to peer.

Australians’ uptake of rooftop solar segued into the prospects of energy storage capacity, which also addressed some of the very pointed questions around intermittency raised following the South Australian blackout. Ison said modeling already exists which shows how to take Australia to 100% renewable energy – energy for transport, for industrial processes. This includes solar and wind energy, acknowledged as variable, but predictable, sources. 

We need to move away from a 20th century base load power paradigm and this is a challenge that young engineers really want to tackle. – Nicola Ison ”

Energy storage is a big opportunity for Australian innovation. First, because it is one way we can deal with the problem of intermittency whilst harnessing renewable energy across the grid; and second, because it is a field in which we are starting to play particularly well. 

With goodwill and time on our side, electricity generation can be decarbonised. Whether it’s hydroelectric dams, or solar and wind, there are many viable technology paths to cutting emissions.

ARUP UTS Lecture - Electric Future at The Powerhouse Museum ARUP UTS Lecture - Electric Future at The Powerhouse Museum

There are challenges in bringing them online, but over time, the solutions will come – just as we have learned to harness new technologies before. Our electricity generation mix is changing, and will continue to change. Ultimately, it is the market and the science that will decide.

The UTS Zunz Lecture Series is named in honour of Sir Jack Zunz, the brilliant engineer and Arup ex-chairman who led the design team on the Sydney Opera House. His passion for both engineering and education has remained an inspiration to both UTS and Arup in the ensuing years. Since 2001, the UTS Zunz Lecture has aimed to improve public discourse in matters of engineering and information technology.