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Planning to fail: how 'percent renewables' policy threatens the energy transition

By Tom Biegler - posted Friday, 10 November 2023

There's an old adage: Failing to plan is planning to fail. Australia's clean energy policies based on a 100% renewables target are failing, demonstrably. This time there's no lack of planning. But objectives and strategy are wrong. The "100% renewables" target cannot possibly eliminate the use of fossil fuels. "Percent renewables" works for the electricity sector; for the energy transition, and for emissions as a whole, it fails.

How can this have happened?

Primarily, energy and electricity got confused. "100% renewables" works for the electricity sector. But there's more to energy than electricity. Clean electricity is most certainly part of any solution. It is versatile and has low associated emissions. But to succeed the strategy must focus on fossil fuels. Framing the objective as "eliminate fossil fuels and decarbonise the economy" immediately reveals the deficiencies of the "% renewables" target.


Clean electricity is essential to strategy but it is the means, not the end.

To eliminate fossil fuels it must be recognised that Australia's electricity supply sector accounts for only 40% of total fossil fuel consumption. "100% renewables" cannot possibly align with "zero fossil fuels" as it ignores the 60% of fossil fuels consumed outside the electricity supply sector.

There are other defects in the "100% renewables" target. Right from the start it prescribes renewables as the solution and dismisses other possibilities. What's more, it unwittingly sets the bar low. Decarbonising the power generation sector is the easiest starting point; alternatives to fossil fuels have been known for centuries. Starting off at the easy end may suit the politics. But it's bad strategy and just defers inevitable disappointments.

"Energy transition" is useful shorthand for "eliminating fossil fuels and decarbonising the economy". Climate change is the driving force. The world burns billions of tonnes annually of coal, oil and natural gas. These fossil fuels contain 75-90% carbon, which on complete combustion becomes carbon dioxide CO2 that gets released to the atmosphere at the combustion site. Global mixing follows and CO2 concentration in the atmosphere rises.

Climate science tells us that rising CO2 levels affect how radiation from the sun warms our planet, the "greenhouse effect". Some remain doubtful about this claim. But it is respectable and quite old (dating back to the mid-1800s) atmospheric physics, not to be discarded lightly.

Should any residual disagreement about emissions and climate change affect energy policy? I don't think so. We know there are clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels. Fossil fuel combustion products other than CO2 do have adverse health effects. The fuel extraction industry can be unpleasant. Huge rates of usage of fossil fuels could spell shortages for the future.


So, all things considered, reducing fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions where feasible seems an entirely reasonable ambition for a modern world.

Then why not just do it? The brake is that modern prosperity is undoubtedly the product of fossil fuels. Everything we own, everything we do, has depended not just on energy from fossil fuels but also on their use as raw materials for vital commodities like fertilisers, plastics and other major industrial products.

Our current fossil fuel base came from plant life. Over 200 million years ago, ancient vegetation was heated, compressed and metamorphosed over geological time, producing the huge bonanza of fossil fuels humans are exploiting. New plant growth cannot match this. Without a plan for alternatives we cannot simply abandon fossil fuels tomorrow. It will take time. And simply demonising the industries that extract and supply fossil fuels is a destructive and ultimately futile strategy for reducing their use.

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About the Author

Dr Tom Biegler was a research electrochemist before becoming Chief of CSIRO Division of Mineral Chemistry. He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

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