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Monday, 17 August 2009
Page: 8032


Dr JENSEN (7:10 PM) —I rise to support the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Amendment Bill 2009 and related bill, albeit with some small misgivings, which I will get on to a little bit later. Clearly, it is advisable to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, not only due to the fact that they are non-renewable but also due to emissions of all sorts. This House will know that I am not particularly concerned about the carbon dioxide aspect; however, I am very concerned about sulphur dioxide, nitrous oxide and particulates, which are significant emissions from fossil fuel power stations and fossil fuels more generally. They clearly have significant adverse health effects.

My concern with this bill is that the way that renewables are viewed is fairly prescriptive and tight and that, in particular, issues such as substitution are inadequately addressed. For example, the member for Barker was talking about the potential for using wave power to directly desalinate water. This is a substitution for electricity but it is actually not included in the ‘20 per cent renewable’ which is put forward in this bill. Additionally, we need to realise that there are problems associated with many, if not most, forms of renewable energy at present. For example, if significant portions of the electricity grid have wind generated power then you have grid instability. In fact, in 2006 all of Europe went down for half an hour. The half-hour blackout was the result of problems with a wind farm in Germany which, due to the total instability in the system, propagated through the system. Additionally, you cannot generate solar power when the sun does not shine. Proponents of these forms of electricity generation will argue that not only are these forms of generation capable of providing baseload power but they are capable of providing it economically, yet when you speak to many of these proponents privately they will acknowledge that they are not capable at present of providing baseload power and, in terms of the power supply more generally, in order to be economically viable they are reliant on government legislation which benefits their industry.

As well, one of my concerns is the issue of increased costs associated with the proportion of 20 per cent renewable for our electricity. It would be a very good idea to put an increased amount of research and development money into renewable energy. We need to be very careful about betting on winners, however. Historically, we have seen so many times with scientific advances that the winners are not where we perceive them to be. Indeed, in the 1950s there was a chance for Australia to get to the forefront of the solid-state electronics industry; however, the assessment in Australia at the time was that newfangled transistors and so on did not have a future and the world was going to be reliant on valves. You do not see too many valves made these days.

What about other generation methods? The current reality in the Australian context—and here I will ignore hydro because for both environmental and resource reasons more hydro in Australia is highly unlikely—is that the only methods at present that can generate baseload power are coal and gas. My question to members opposite is: an awful lot is being bet on geosequestration; what if geosequestration does not work as advertised? It has not been completely proved in terms of the entire system anywhere in the world, and all we need is something like a Lake Nyos situation with a burp of carbon dioxide killing multiple people. That sort of situation would very quickly put the geosequestration argument to bed. Can we be sure how stable that resource would be, given that we have drilled in there and formed a plug, if, for instance, you had an earthquake?

Given that, the only other low-carbon or no-carbon technology you have that is capable of generating baseload power is nuclear power. It is rather interesting that one of the methods of generating renewable power that is being considered and potentially could generate baseload power is hot-rock technology. The interesting point is that hot-rock technology is, in fact, nuclear technology; the reason those rocks are hot is the radioactive decay of uranium in those ores. It is interesting that the government will not consider nuclear power at all, particularly given their statement that this is the great moral and ethical imperative of our age. If it is such a great imperative, you would think that everything would be considered to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But nuclear is not to be considered. If nuclear is so terrible and so dangerous, why are we exporting uranium? Isn’t that gravely irresponsible?

Another thing we should be talking about is putting money into research and development. We need to look at putting money into generation IV reactors, which have significant advantages over conventional reactors because not only, in many cases, can those reactors use the uranium resource for 50 to 60 times longer than conventional reactors but they can also use depleted fuel from conventional reactors as the fuel for these reactors, and the waste form that you are left with is literally safe to handle with your hands in a period of 300 years.

Another technology that we should invest in—and this would even be for people who are somewhat paranoid about fission power—is nuclear fusion. At present there is a great international program called ITER—it stands for International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor—in France. It is one of the largest scientific projects in the world. In effect, it is a preproduction fusion prototype. This is a very clean energy resource, and I think it is foolhardy for Australia not to be involved at the ground level. If we are not one of the major program partners we should certainly be one of the subpartners in the project, because Australia is one of the world’s energy superpowers in terms of nuclear energy, be it fission or fusion. You talk about uranium; you can talk about thorium and, indeed, about lithium. Western Australia has one of the largest resources of lithium in the world. We should be looking at becoming more energy independent, and getting involved in these sorts of areas would certainly make us more energy independent.

I will leave this debate by saying that if the government believes in the moral and ethical imperative that is reducing carbon emissions, they really should be considering nuclear energy. Certainly they should be investing in fusion energy even if they do not believe in fission energy. Having said that, I support this bill, albeit with the reservations that I have mentioned.