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 northwest, then heading north to Java, on up the SE 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 northwest. A national avalanche of Australian electrons, headed for Asia.
High voltage direct current (HVDC) power lines and cables are not new technology, 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 6400 MW over 2100 kilometres to Shanghai. This will be surpassed next year by Brazil, with a 2500-km 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 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 can be met by just 250 sq kms 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.