Getting to Zero

Getting to Zero

Australia’s Energy Transition

Alan Finkel


How do we change the practices of our civilisation? We make a plan. The plan must recognise the realities – of scale, difficulty and uncertainty. The plan must be ambitious but not naive, must start by acknowledging how difficult decarbonisation will be, and must keep costs for the consumer as low as possible and ensure service remains reliable. The plan must focus on large-scale technology and policy solutions.

Technology does not live in a vacuum. It lives in a policy-driven world of markets, fiscal settings, taxes, government decisions and consumer preferences. This essay is about the technology, not the policies, which are for our democratically elected political leaders to determine. Governments have to balance competing priorities across economic growth, scientific advice and community values. Pursuing economic growth as the only priority would have environmental consequences; pursuing emissions reduction as the only priority would have economic consequences. But the overriding goal of our national plan must be to lower emissions across the whole of the economy.

To this end, we need market designs that support the adoption of low-emissions technologies. We need incentives that encourage investors. We need stretch goals to motivate industry and calibrate performance.

We have combined regulations, technology and ingenuity to great advantage, again and again. Consider cars. In the 1920s, there were 240 vehicle fatalities per billion miles driven in America. It would have been tempting to ban cars! Instead, over many decades, we worked at the problem with a combination of regulations and technology. Regulations include speed limits and severe punishments for drink driving. Technology includes airbags, seatbelts and crumple zones. Today, the fatality rate is down to 12 per billion miles, a mere 5 per cent of the high point.

Or consider pollutants. Until the 1950s, automobiles and trucks released ever-increasing amounts of toxic pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide. Then, in 1959, California introduced novel legislation to force car manufacturers to clean up their act. Facing a series of ever tougher legal requirements, automobile manufacturers developed catalytic converters, engine management computers and fuel injection systems that perform so well that nowadays, according to some manufacturers, the exhaust fumes from their cars are cleaner than the inlet air sucked into the engine. Just as technology got us into trouble through its propensity to generate carbon dioxide emissions, it is technology that will save us.

However, even a very good plan needs a measure of good luck and good timing. Consider the experience of Germany, a leader in renewable energy. Its Energiewende, or “energy transition plan,” was launched in 2000. In the nineteen years that followed, the share of primary energy derived from fossil fuels fell from approximately 84 per cent to 78 per cent. In the United States, both ambition and planning have fallen well short of Germany, but the share of primary energy from fossil fuels fell about the same amount over the period, from 86 per cent to 80 per cent. In Australia, because we have no nuclear power, our starting position is much higher. The share of primary energy derived from fossil fuels fell from approximately 96 per cent to 91 per cent. But these numbers do not tell the whole story. The remarkable thing about Germany’s commitment is that its investment helped to forge the global solar and wind industries and underwrite falling prices.

The best way to deliver planned obsolescence in the energy sector quickly is by an adaptive approach – that is, an approach that can adapt as technologies evolve and prices reduce. Time and again, the renewable technology industry has delivered new capabilities and lower prices ahead of expectation. We need to target technologies for investment – as is done in the Low Emissions Technology Statement – but we need to be prepared to shift as technologies shift; thus, the need for annual reviews.

Which brings me to a much-debated issue. Australia is under increasing pressure to set a date for net-zero emissions. The majority of countries, and very many states, territories, companies and investors, have committed to a net-zero target by 2050 or 2060. Some, like the United Kingdom, have articulated a clear pathway. However, not all have a plan for how to get there, and in some cases sectors of the economy have been excluded. For example, New Zealand does not fully include methane emissions from agriculture and waste, which contribute about half of its emissions. In other places, the target has not yet manifested itself in the necessary investments. For example, China has announced a 2060 net-zero target, but on current plans it will build up to 200 gigawatts of new coal generation between now and 2025, balanced in part by an intention to close down small and inefficient coal plants.

In Australia, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said that “our goal is to reach net-zero emissions as soon as possible, and preferably by 2050” and that getting to zero “is no longer about if or when, but importantly, how.”

So, let’s get started

It begins with electrons. They spend eternity darting around in a frenzy, never stopping, never tiring, never ageing. They are so tiny that the most powerful microscope in the world cannot see them. It takes huge numbers of them to have an impact. They have underpinned my career and they have profoundly influenced the existence of all of us.

When they work together, electrons create electricity. To heat one litre of water in an electric kettle, approximately 60 billion billion electrons must flow through the kettle every second. In the ten minutes it takes to boil the water, 36,000 billion billion electrons will each have contributed a tiny amount of effort to heat the water for your tea or coffee. An industrious, well-behaved, predictable army.

The taming of electricity was arguably the most significant technological advance in the history of humankind. The rapid developments from the year 1800, when Alessandro Volta invented the first electric battery, have been astonishing. Electricity is everywhere. Without it our world would be bereft of kettles, street lighting, cars, trains, refrigerators, washing machines, televisions, computers, phones and the internet.

My personal fascination has been life-long. For me, electricity is a tool, a colleague, a friend and an opportunity. As a young boy, I played with crystal radios; as a youth, I made digital clocks. As a neuroscientist, I designed equipment to measure the electrical activity of brain cells. The electrical activity in brain cells is exquisitely small. The current is measured in nanoamps (a billionth of an amp) and the voltage is measured in millivolts (a thousandth of a volt). For the technically inclined, this means that at the level of a single brain cell the power is in picowatts (a millionth of a millionth of a watt).

Later in my career, I worked at a company specifying and implementing charge stations for electric cars. There, the currents are in the tens of amps, the voltages are in the hundreds and the power is in the thousands of watts (kilowatts).

Then, quite suddenly, in late 2016, my world of electricity scaled up, big time. On 28 September 2016, South Australia was hit by a series of storms, accompanied by micro-tornadoes, that toppled steel pylons holding up long-distance transmission lines. Fault currents surged and coursed through other parts of the network, causing the interconnector between Victoria and South Australia to close down to save itself. This resulted in more fault currents, and ultimately the disconnection of a number of wind farms that were exposed to the surges. Then, as the fault currents rippled through the system, the South Australian network collapsed and the state was in blackout.

A week later I got a call from the then energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, to ask me to chair a review of the National Electricity Market. At once, I had to think in thousands of amps, hundreds of thousands of volts, and billions of watts (gigawatts). Fortunately, the physics of electricity scales linearly, so I was able to apply my training in microelectronics and brain cell electrophysiology to electricity grids. Since then, my focus has expanded to energy in all of its facets, but electricity remains at the heart of it.


This is an extract from Alan Finkel's Quarterly Essay, Getting to Zero: Australia’s Energy Transition. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Alan Finkel was Australia’s chief scientist from 2016 to 2020. He is a neuroscientist, engineer and entrepreneur. He led the 2017 National Electricity Market Review and the 2019 development of the National Hydrogen Strategy, and chaired the 2020 panel developing the Low Emissions Technology Roadmap. He is currently special adviser to the Australian government on low-emissions technologies.


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