With the exception of Matt Damon, who is almost certainly stranded on another planet right now, it’s impossible you’ve missed the flurry of political discussion around the future of Australian electricity.
Our newly minted Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, recently announced that coal is set to play a big part in Australia’s energy future. He was standing next to the incoming Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, who’s a big fan of solar, wind, battery storage and nuclear. Turnbull and Finkel have stepped into a debate that’s subject to a complicated and furious collection of forces. The push and pull of this modern discussion can frankly get a little tiresome. So….screw it. Let’s skip the next decade. Actually, no. Let’s skip the next century, and consider what our energy system will look like in the year 2115.
A little over 100 years ago, an article in the Sydney Morning Herald opined on the wonders of electricity.
“People are apt to talk of electricity as if it is in its infancy, but, as a matter of fact, it is a lusty giant, with a marvellous past already behind it and a still greater future before”
In addition to the amazing description of electricity as a ‘lusty giant’, it’s a rare example of an old-timey prediction that actually turned out to be (mostly) right. Transmission lines grew into existence from 1916 onwards, and the industrial revolution saw the rapid spread of large coal and gas power stations (Sadly, we’re still waiting on electric cars).
Our modern system is heavily centralised, and carbon-intensive - we rely largely on the burning of fossil fuels to distribute electricity to industrial and domestic users. I suspect today’s emerging technologies will be archaic by the time 2115 rolls around. Wind and solar will probably be unrecognisable. The unpleasant pact offered by fossil fuels, involving dense, cheap energy bound to dangerous levels of carbon emissions, will hopefully seem like an odd historical blip by the year 2115.
A Distributed Grid
This is a scenario in which we get all of our electricity from machines that we own, inside or above our homes. It’s the most contentious suggestion, but probably the most exciting, and interesting.
Australia’s electrification was changed dramatically by the implementation of the transmission network - a balm for the ‘tyranny of distance’, as it was then described. But in today’s Australia we’re seeing increasing penetration of technology that is simply planted on the rooftop of houses and buildings. Rooftop solar photovoltaic technology already contributes a decent percentage to the grid - the Australian Renewable Energy Mapping Infrastructure (AREMI) map, supported by ARENA, shows the data quite beautifully:
The CSIRO’s Future Grid forum looked into what our energy system is going to look like in half a decade, by 2050. It’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s bullish enough. As the size of generation technology decreases, the rate of change will probably increase too - the reason it’s so hard to upgrade our modern grid is because it’s dominated by single, large expensive units.
In 2115’s distributed grid, poles and wires are an absurd anachronism; the mere sight of the decaying husk of a tall, steel high-voltage transmission line is a weird reminder of the dawn of the 21st century. It’s a tantalising scenario - you control your power from start to finish, and you can upgrade your generation machine or storage machine as regularly as you upgrade your TV or your toaster. Imagine technological upgrades flowing through generation technology as rapidly as they do for smartphones - unhindered by denial of the problem or huge quantities of investment in enormous, singular machines.
Awkwardly, a decentralised grid would mean people like me, working in the utility-scale renewable energy industry would be out of a job..but, I’ll be dead by 2115, so it’s all good.
A Centralised Grid
The CSIRO’s Future Grid analysis terms this the ‘set and forget’ scenario. It’s the least controversial, and the least exciting. I like to call it the ‘forget’ scenario, because you don’t even need to set anything. Just forget about the existence of power stations and town-swallowing coal mines.
It sounds nice, but it poses two big problems. First, if we continue with this disconnect, we’re not really likely to care about the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. We’re already starting to shift away from this mode of thought(lessness), because rooftop solar technology gives us a direct and immediate experience of electricity generation.
The second conundrum is one that interests me a lot - nuclear power has been proposed as a technology that can play a major role in this centralised scenario. Turnbull’s keen, as is upcoming Chief Scientist Dr Finkel. But if it’s going to be a central pillar in this centralised 2115 grid, advocates of the technology have a long, difficult road ahead of them. The public is still nervous - Fukushima saw nearly a quarter of Australian nuclear supporters change their minds. These weren’t greens voters or anti-science zealots - they were ordinary punters.
A lot can change in a century - maybe we’ll feed the lusty giant through some unrecognisable variant of modern nuclear power. The human brain doesn’t upgrade the way our machines do, though, so the human element, and how we collectively respond to the prospect of new, large-scale generation is something that needs to be seriously picked up by advocates.
Coal Is Everywhere, Yay
If you squint at the Australian energy system hard enough, you can just make out a future powered purely by coal. This was certainly the scenario that dominated the mind of ex-prime minister Tony Abbott, who famously declared that ‘coal is good for humanity’.
This vision of Australia, with 100% of its energy needs fed on a pure, uncut diet of coal, is obviously quite unlikely. One could choose to ignore or deny the science that outlines the harms of greenhouse gas emissions (something several politicians are seriously advocating as an approach), or we could bet on ‘carbon capture storage’ (CCS) technology. So far, though, there’s only one operational CCS plant in the entire world - it doesn’t look good, so far.
A lot could change in the span of a century, but the coal utopia is a vision without vision - the idea that our technological choices ought to be protected from change for eternity. It’s unlikely, unfeasible, boring and harmful.
Something Weird, And Unimaginable
This is the idea that our electrical generation fleet will be dominated by machines that no one has yet conceived of is genuinely exciting. It could be centralised, decentralised, micro-grid dominated or some combination of these, but in this scenario, it’s dominated by something that isn’t yet twinkling in the eye of bored engineers.
Solar photovoltaics have already shown that you don’t need to spin some coils near permanent magnets to generate electricity. We might end up sourcing electricity from a fleet of airborne kites that sit above suburbs. Maybe we’ll harness sunlight using gigantic towers that emulate the baseload model of today’s fossil fuelled power station. Maybe Elon Musk’s grandson will wrap a Dyson Sphere around the sun.
This is the most enjoyable option, to me. Every early 21st century futurist turns out to have been embarrassingly off-the-mark, and we ended up powering society using some weird, inconceivable collection of bizarre technology. In any case, our friend from the 19th century will continue to be right - electricity will always be a lusty giant, and we’re going to have to figure out some new ways of feeding it, without cooking ourselves in the process.