Ride the energy superhighway
Nov 28, 2011 - Julian Cribb - canberratimes.com.au
Could Australia become the world's next energy superpower? This is not an academic question. It's about how this country can drive not only its own but also Asian economic development for centuries to come.
When it comes to energy, of all the nations in our region Australia is the one with the richest array of choices. The world's most concentrated sunlight, huge reserves of coal, gas, hot rocks, wind, wave and tidal energy, not to mention uranium, thorium, biomass, hydro and other interesting possibilities. In short, thousands of years' worth of energy in sundry forms.
In the past we have found difficulty making decisions among this bounty of opportunities: politicians who favour one energy form usually get beaten up by all the other lobbies, creating a perfect climate for indecision. This has been going on for decades and will probably continue to paralyse national policymaking, leaving us in the dark ages - unless we find a way to make the choice between energies an easy one.
What Australia most needs, at this juncture in its history, is a level playing field, where all the energies can compete, each according to its strengths, for its share of the world's hungriest energy market - as Asia continues to grow while exhausting its local coal, oil and gas.
That level playing field could be created by the Australian Energy Superhighway. The superhighway concept is a gigawatt DC transmission line starting in the bottom right-hand corner of Australia, extending across the deserts to the north-west, then heading north to Java, on up the South-East Asian peninsula and, ultimately, into southern China.
On the way, its various spur lines harvest energy from a multitude of sources - clean coal and gas from the eastern states, wind and wave from the Bight, sun and hot rocks from central Australia, hydro from the Snowies and Tasmania, gas and tide from the north-west: a national avalanche of Australian electrons, headed for Asia.
High-voltage direct current power lines and cables are not new technology, having first being tested in 1882. In their modern form they are cheaper to build than conventional lines, can carry more energy with far lower losses over longer distances, and can run both underground and undersea.
The longest operational HVDC line in the world is in China, and takes 6400MW over 2100km to Shanghai. This will be surpassed next year by Brazil, with a 2500km energy highway running from the Amazon to Sao Paulo. Europe has dozens of HVDC lines linking its member countries, and is looking to build a cable to import solar electricity from the Sahara Desert. New Zealand has HVDC connecting its two islands and Australia has the 360km Basslink Connector between Victoria and Tasmania. Malaysia, Indonesia and most of the nations to our north are already building their own domestic HVDC lines: Australia can help link these together.
The advantages of low-loss DC lines is that they can ''average out'' power from a multitude of sources - for example wind, sun, hydro, coal or gas - and make it available to countries operating many different voltages and power systems.
The concept of an Australian energy superhighway has been advocated, among others, by the solar energy firm Desertec. Its significance is highlighted in a study by engineering firm Worley Parsons, which found all Australia's energy needs could be met by just 250square kilometres of desert solar thermal - providing, of course, the power can be delivered to the coast.
An energy superhighway is the obvious way to deliver solar or geothermal electricity to coastal cities, and make these new industries viable. Extended to Asia, it would also provide the economic impetus for other forms of energy development, including clean coal, gas, photovoltaics and wind. Connecting to Asia is simply the logical way to make the investment pay for itself quickly - as well as exporting pollution-free, climate-friendly power.
The cost of such a large piece of infrastructure is affordable. Based on European and Australian pricing, a backbone highway would probably require an investment of around $8-10billion - a fraction of what we will pay for the National Broadband Network, or to replace our ageing coal-fired power stations.
Like any motorway, the traffic on an energy superhighway will expand to fill the available capacity and demand. It will open up new energy markets, both in Asia and across the heart of Australia, making it economic to operate power-hungry industry like minerals processing, manufacturing or internet server farms and to properly develop the interior of the continent. It can carry other services, like broadband or gas (methane or hydrogen), in the same trench.
The Australian energy superhighway is a big idea, as significant in its way as the Sydney Harbour Bridge or Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme in how they linked the nation and caused it to grow.
We seem only to manage one of these ideas every half-century or so: maybe it's time for another.
It plays to Australia's strengths in engineering and our diversity of competing energy resources. It makes possible a smooth and profitable transition from existing energy systems to clean power, and it positions us for a key role in the Asian Century - as regional powerhouse, exporting electrons instead of pollution, in a cable instead of ships. If we are going to tax carbon, maybe we should invest the proceeds into something useful, like assuring our own energy supply and national income for the next few centuries.
Finally, an energy superhighway means anyone, large or small, can travel on it. While the Aussie family is at work or gathered round the barbecue, their solar home can be quietly earning export dollars, by keeping the industrial mills of Asia spinning.