Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROpod. I’m Glen Paul. There appears no single solution to solve the energy puzzle, and to achieve a secure, prosperous, low carbon energy future in Australia multiple technologies will be required, including a mix of existing and new technologies. Although natural gas and oil combined currently constitute Australia’s third largest resource export, the future availability and competitiveness of these resources on the global market is far from assured, hence the need for a balanced approach and a combination of energy sources.
CSIRO’s response to the energy challenge is already well under way, and joining me on the phone to discuss it is Dr John Carras, Director of CSIRO’s Advanced Coal Technology portfolio. John, I don’t think you need to be told it’s a tricky and sometimes emotive topic, but how do you see Australia’s energy future unfolding?
Dr Carras: Thanks, Glen. You’d be aware, as indeed all Australians would be, that we’re currently very heavily reliant on fossil energy in Australia, in particular coal, gas which is increasing, and of course petroleum for our transport fuel. As we come to grips with the issues around global warming and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, then our energy mix is going to change quite substantially as a whole range of new technologies will come into play.
In particular in the future we’ll be looking at renewable energy technologies that currently are making some in-roads into our energy mix, but we would anticipate this would accelerate to quite significantly out to 2050. And at the same time we need to do something about the carbon dioxide that’s being emitted particularly from our coal-fired power stations through developing technologies around carbon capture and storage.
Glen Paul: And how effective is carbon capture and storage?
Dr Carras: Well, it’s a technology that has been used in different parts of the world at the sort of demonstration scale; it’s early days in the technology but it’s a pathway that needs to be developed in order for us to achieve the reductions that are going to be necessary.
Glen Paul: But what about cost? From my understanding capturing and compressing CO2 requires a lot of energy and would actually increase the fuel needs of a coal-fired plant – how can you address problems like that?
Dr Carras: Well we’ve got quite a significant research program directed specifically at this issue. Going back to the comment you made about costs, all the low emissions technologies that we’re looking at globally will cost more than simply burning coal, which is what of course the world’s been doing on a hard scale to date.
So while it’s true that carbon capture and storage will be more expensive that conventional coal-fired power stations, so will almost everything else – in fact everything else. So that in itself is not something that’s peculiar to the carbon capture and storage technology.
In terms of research that CSIRO has in this space, there are a number of areas that we really need to focus on. One of these is to do with making the process of capturing carbon dioxide and concentrating it more efficient, and that requires development of new solvents through molecular design, it also requires better process integration of the whole system to reduce the total energy demand. And this is a pathway that will ultimately lead to reduced cost.
Glen Paul: And when do you think coal will pass from being the main source of energy?
Dr Carras: Hard to say. There are lots of people predicting things about coal. The International Energy Agency’s projections on coal use globally, that it will still be in significant use worldwide certainly out past 2050. So my sense would be that coal will be in significant use out to that time, with carbon capture and storage.
Glen Paul: Right. Just getting back to the carbon capture technology, is Australia a place that has the right kind of geological formations for storage?
Dr Carras: Yes, Australia has – based on studies that have been conducted, Australia has got very prospective areas for storing carbon dioxide deep underground. Many, many hundreds of years of our current emissions could be stored, so this is actually quite a good buffer that will allow us to transition ourselves away from a high emitting, greenhouse gas emitting base that we currently have.
Glen Paul: Right, so if we move away from coal, are solar, wind, and geothermal flexible enough to fill the gap left by it?
Dr Carras: All those technologies will develop; many of those technologies are still in their infancy as well. Wind is perhaps the most developed, and indeed under the current schemes we are seeing a large increase in wind energy. The other technologies still need to be developed, and they’re in their early stages as well. But in my view yes, those technologies will be developed over the next decades, and will be able to step in and provide a pathway for Australia’s electricity production.
Glen Paul: Are there other sorts of technologies on the drawing board now?
Dr Carras: I think the main ones are the ones that we’ve identified, that we’ve talked about. There’s some prospects for ocean energy, but that’s perhaps at an even earlier stage of development. And there’s also a pathway through bio-fuels. In the case of bio-fuels, then there’s of course the balance that needs to be reached between agriculture, ecosystems, and bio-fuel production.
The one point I didn’t make, which I should, because the focus in coal naturally in many ways is focused very much on electricity production, but of course one of the uses of coal, a major use internationally, is in making steel. And so coal will continue to be used to make steel, and in the Australian context that is a major route for the coal that’s mined in Australia and exported.
Again the International Energy Agency, in looking at a 50 per cent reduction over 2005 emissions – globally this is – suggests that carbon capture and storage would account for about 19 per cent of total emissions reductions globally, renewable is about 17 per cent. And of that 19 per cent of carbon capture and storage reduction, some ten percentage points would be associated with industrial uses, including steel making, and some 9 per cent would be from electricity production.
Glen Paul: That’s some interesting figures. Now, you recently presented the Energy Mix message to Federal Parliamentarians – how was it received?
Dr Carras: There was a lot of interest in what CSIRO is saying in the context of energy and the approach that CSIRO has taken. We must recall that energy gives our society two really, really important things – one is security around our economy; and the other key issue that Australia currently gets from its energy mix is around affordability. But going with that of course is the requirement that we also have clean energy. And so these are the three key pillars on which CSIRO’s energy strategy is based. And that was a message that was well received.
Glen Paul: And did they have any questions or ideas that they threw at you for a response?
Dr Carras: There was interest in carbon capture and storage; there was interest in geothermal energy; interest in potentially other uses for carbon dioxide that might be captured; and interest in solar thermal technology.
Glen Paul: So how does CSIRO’s visualisation of a pathway towards a low emissions future stack up to that of Government and industry?
Dr Carras: I think the CSIRO view is fairly well aligned with other major players internationally in terms of how the energy technology pathways are likely to unfold in the future, given the uncertainty around some of these issues that exist.
Glen Paul: Right. And I guess it is called an energy puzzle for good reason. Thank you very much for discussing it with us today, John.
Dr Carras: Thank you.
Glen Paul: Dr John Carras. For more information find us online at csiro.au. You can like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter at CSIROnews.