This group brings together the best thinkers on energy and climate. Join us for smart, insightful posts and conversations about where the energy industry is and where it is going.


No easy substitutes for fossil fuels

Barry Brook's picture
University of Tasmania
  • Member since 2018
  • 143 items added with 106,112 views
  • Aug 2, 2012

The following guest post is republished (with permission from the author) from Opinion Online. Tom Biegler, who wrote this piece, worked with Martin Nicholson and me on our 2010 Energy paper, How carbon pricing changes the relative competitiveness of low-carbon baseload generating technologies. Tom noted to me that he:

carefully avoided mentioning nuclear, which can do the job, only because it would deflect attention from my arguments

For the audience of BNC however, I’m sure this conclusion about nuclear as a viable and proven fossil-fuel replacement comes as no surprise!


How clear is the roadmap to a ‘clean energy future’?

Guest Post by Dr. Tom Biegler. Tom is a physical chemist and former CSIRO divisional head, spent much of his career managing technological research and development related to the resources industry. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.

To go with Clean Energy Week comes a new report from The Climate Institute telling us that Australians overwhelmingly support renewable energy but don’t understand how carbon pricing will work. Not surprisingly, they are also sceptical about the political motivations behind its introduction. I think their scepticism is misdirected. Their target should be the carbon tax itself.

Carbon pricing (of which the tax is a temporary start) is the standard economic remedy for problems like carbon dioxide emissions. As Tim Colebatch, an economist, wrote in The Age recently: “Give us a price incentive, and we find ways to reduce emissions with little damage to profits or our standards of living”.

The tax should work in two ways. It should encourage substitution of high-emission fossil fuels by lower-emission alternatives (“our clean energy future”, as the government puts it); and discourage energy usage in general (“behaviour change”) by raising energy costs. Clean energy will cost more. After all, if low-emission technologies were not more expensive there would be no need for a tax.

Fine in principle, but will it work?

I need to assert here that I am not a climate sceptic. And I see the timing of Australia’s tax and its explicit contribution to global climate change as important but separate issues.

The carbon price policy is based on two premises: the right technologies will be there when needed; and significantly less energy will be used as its price rises.

Underlying the whole matter is energy’s key economic role. Energy is the lever that multiplies the output of human personal effort to give us our unprecedented productivity and prosperity. Energy builds economies. Whatever its shortcomings, the bonanza of fossil fuels we inherited has given us our present living standards.

Both of the above premises have major problems. Firstly, in my opinion (after all, this is a journal of opinion) the expectations regarding renewable energies have been raised to quite unreasonable levels. The proposition as accepted by the public is that feeble, intermittent solar, wind, ocean energy, etc, can effectively replace intensely combustible, high energy fossil fuels as drivers of prosperity. The enormous scale and associated cost of collecting and processing this weak energy is what makes the proposition extraordinary. Extraordinary propositions need extraordinary evidence. That’s the sceptics’ slogan, and that’s why I am sceptical about renewables.

Coal. It’s cheap, abundant, polluting… and tough to replace.

The evidence is in fact very ordinary.

We have been hearing about the prospects of renewables for decades. They usually come from promoters and interested parties like environmental and renewable energy advocacy or research groups. The public has been blitzed about renewables and in particular the wonders of solar energy. Not surprising that they support it. There has undoubtedly been some brilliant inventiveness and innovation. The intrinsic weakness of the energy sources remains the big economic stumbling block. And it should never be forgotten that the promoters, the scientists and inventors, the technology developers and vendors, are people who thrive on optimism. I don’t blame them. A positive outlook goes with the territory, but all their claims have to be heard in that light.

These are not idle observations. I have been scrutinising alternative energy developments for nearly half a century. It is 35 years since my first letter to The Age attacked the myth that solar, wind and tidal energy are somehow ‘free’. I was involved for 20 years in managing R&D related to the resources industry. Taking ideas and innovative technologies to commercial success is tough. The financial discipline of the private investor is an essential ingredient, so I am especially wary when governments get involved in picking winners.

The second premise, regarding energy conservation, does not get the attention it deserves. We hear little other than it’s a no-brainer and that energy efficiency is a wonderful ‘resource’ that will respond to ‘behaviour change’. Here we need to remember that about 80% of our primary energy goes to the productive activities of industry and commerce that underlie prosperity. ‘Behaviour change’ around the home therefore cannot contribute much to national energy savings.

The barrier to conserving energy on a large scale is the strong quantitative connection between GDP and energy. Energy productivity (or its reciprocal energy intensity) is the national economic indicator that links the two. The table shows energy productivities for the OECD countries, which generally have more reliable statistical data than the rest of the world, especially the developing economies. Monetary units are in constant US dollars, year 2000, adjusted to purchasing power parity. Energy is measured in gigajoules (GJ) of total primary energy supply.

OECD Energy Productivities in 2009

$ PPP (US, year 2000)/GJ

















Czech Republic








United States








Slovak Republic








New Zealand






United Kingdom






















The intent in using these units is to see how actual physical production levels are related to primary energy. Economists are generally reluctant to make such international comparisons because of the uncertainties in the assumptions. And there are some decidedly odd results in the table, though the numbers really ought to have error bars attached to underline their inherent lack of precision.

But in my view the data show clearly enough that most OECD countries have energy productivities falling within a surprisingly narrow range. That is, a given amount of energy creates around the same amount of wealth, in terms of goods and services. The average (and median) figure is around $160/GJ. At least some of the more extreme numbers can be rationalised on the basis of individual country characteristics.

My conclusion is that the physical connection between energy and living standards, as represented by GDP, constrains any reduction in energy usage unless there is a corresponding productivity rise.

The good news from these numbers is that Australia’s $128/GJ, contrary to frequent claims that its energy performance is inferior to that of other economies, puts it roughly where one would expect for its geographic size and the strength of its mining and agricultural sectors, which are big energy consumers. The bad news is that this good news extinguishes any ‘easy’ catch-up energy savings, and productivity rise, that would go with the nation’s supposed poor energy performance.

Energy productivity goes up as technical energy efficiency improves (as happens for example with modern power stations) and energy wastage declines. Both mechanisms, stimulated by rising energy prices, have probably been occurring. The question is, what ultimate productivity increase and energy savings can be expected? In Australia productivity improvement has been around 1% to 2% per annum. The official position seems to be that this will go on forever and even rise. This seems very optimistic. The OECD numbers might encourage an eventual target perhaps 20% higher than now but this is speculation. The prudent course is eventually to expect diminishing returns over time rather than the raised efficiency target that, for example, our latest government report on energy efficiency recommends. This topic could do with a lot more research.

In short, the official position on the workings of a carbon price is heavily biased towards optimism in respect of both energy technology and conservation. In my view, when the national wellbeing is at stake policy should be set with prudence and caution, not optimism. After all, every economic modelling exercise, from Stern to Garnaut, tells us that higher energy prices will permeate the whole fabric of our society and impact on our GDP.

Government should act responsibly by encouraging understanding and debate on the costs and benefits of all options, including adapting to climate change rather than abandoning present energy sources. On the balance of probabilities, relying on the carbon tax to achieve major emission reductions will likely turn out to be a mistake.


To register comments, go to the Brave New Climate Discussion Forum, here:

Rajat Sen's picture
Rajat Sen on Aug 4, 2012

Agree that we will use fossil energy for a long time and live with the warming and other pollution that comes from that. That does not mean we should not aggressively pursue cleaner energy options and government support for developing and deploying those technologies key. For example, a switch from coal to natural gas for electricity reduces the carbon intensity substantially and today in the US, fracking technology developed with government support, is making a large contribution. Other renewable technologies, may not replace fossil fuels completely, but facilitating greater market penetration of those technologies with government subsidies do help. Finally, leaving nuclear out of this argument is plain silly. We will need nuclear power and lots of it.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 7, 2012

"...mankind made a wrong turn about 1900..."

What wrong turn?

Switching from burning trees to coal?  We had no choice; we were running out of forest.

Switching from whale oil to petroleum?  Again no choice; we were running out of whales.

It's a quite natural evolution.  The only remaining question is whether to make the final switch from fossil fuel to nuclear and renewables before or after the fossil fuels run out.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 7, 2012

There are a couple of additional important things to understand about a carbon price.

First: a price on carbon will empower private industry to choose the most cost effective carbon mitigation.   One might think that governments could do this function.  But the German government brags about the success of both its solar and wind programs.  Objectively, the solar program is a colossal failure, since it delivers carbon reduction for a cost over four times higher than that of the wind program.

Second: a carbon price is only desirable if society is willing to tolerate a carbon price that is large enough to replace fossil fuel with sustainable energy.  There are easier ways to get the low hanging fruit: encourage efficiency (e.g. building codes) and regulatory obstacles to coal use.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on Aug 8, 2012

I understand the Case for Nuclear Power, but I don't see it for Renewables short of a breakthrough in Solar. And even if I like nuclear power, I am not thrilled about lack of a well devbeloped Fast Reactor technology.

Well I suppose the world could make do with Gen 3 reactors while awaiting the 4th Gen Fast Tech.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 9, 2012

Willem, I don't believe there is a single number that is the optimal human population.  Unlike other animals, humans are extremely versatile and adaptable in our lifestyle.  We can live sparsely in the country or very densely in the city, and do just fine either way.  We can have diets that are rich in meats, or not.  With sustainable nuclear power, we can produce the energy we need with a very small impact on the land.

In short, we can choose to protect wildlife habitats.  And doing so by mandate is much more ethical and much more plausible than population control.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Aug 9, 2012

Willem, I could not agree more.

You and I are old enough to remember families proud to own one efficient car, who shared the evening dinner.

Today, the goal is to live in a big climate controlled house, drive to separate climate controlled workplaces using climate controlled cars, then shop at climate controlled malls for climate controlled food. And young people play violent anti-social video games instead of baseball, drink soda pop, and dream of tattoos, easy sex and guns. All with debt.

I have known some of the best scientists of our time, yet it is hard to discuss any one topic with everything so messed up. I live in a tourist magnet, and I sat a visitor down to watch a PBS DVD of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, less than 150 years before our birth. This madness will stop one way or another.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 13, 2012

Sounds good, but I'm extremely sceptical of the practicality.  It seems to me that food transport is an extremely small percentage of all interstate traffic.

For the middle class, long commutes are a direct side effect of two bread-winner families.  Flexibility in work location (i.e. further from home) greatly reduces frictional unemployment since there are more jobs available (and more frequent openings) when a greater search radius is used.

Our extremely expensive (12% of GNP I think) health care system is only feasible because our per-capita GNP is so big.  Cut back on cost, and our senior citizen would die a lot younger and more young people would drop out of the workforce (and no, other medically frugal countries are not good counter examples, as they coat tail on medical technology that is funded by Americans).

Medical technology (like all technology) is dependent on large markets, e.g. large cities (or large commuting distances) to expose doctors to a greater volume of patients, so that they can specialize.  Similarly, companies can only make specialized products (in large cost effect volume) if they can sell to a broad market, hence interstate shipping.  Even seemingly low tech products like steel, lumber, and brick tend to be national resources that are transported long distances.

In summary, I don't buy the argument that we can combine the best of the modern world and that of the ancients; if we try to live like them, we become them.  The dinosaurs ruled the Earth for 75 million years, and the world has nothing to show for it except a few fossils.  The cave men ruled for 100 thousand years, and are dead too.  Let us have our turn, and we'll see how it works out.  Maybe we'll migrate into space and survive billions of years.  If we don't make it to 10 thousand years, oh well, the Earth will recover (but I think we'll do fine).


Paul O's picture
Paul O on Aug 10, 2012

The only things wrong with our current lifestyle are:

1) The source of the energy we use (carbon)

2) Lack of environmental planning (to which we have only recently become truely sufficiently sensitized).

I rarely disagree much with Wilem and I have come to strongly agree with his efficiency dogma, but I too would not advocate what he's suggesting. Besides, we'd need extremely heavy handed Gov't actions to pull it off.

The  better solutions in my mind are Fast Reactors (lots and lots of them), that burn processed/unprocessed uranium and thorium, OTEC (if it can be shown to work safely and economically), Solar power (as the PV breakthroughs come), etc.

IOTW we can/should/must replace the offending carbon based power generation. Then should work really hard through inter/intra governmental co-operation to restore the envirionment.

Mankind has come very far by virtue of technology and innovation. I certainly don't want to see the freedoms of choice and travel that we now enjoy today become a thing of the past.


Barry Brook's picture
Thank Barry for the Post!
Energy Central contributors share their experience and insights for the benefit of other Members (like you). Please show them your appreciation by leaving a comment, 'liking' this post, or following this Member.
More posts from this member

Get Published - Build a Following

The Energy Central Power Industry Network is based on one core idea - power industry professionals helping each other and advancing the industry by sharing and learning from each other.

If you have an experience or insight to share or have learned something from a conference or seminar, your peers and colleagues on Energy Central want to hear about it. It's also easy to share a link to an article you've liked or an industry resource that you think would be helpful.

                 Learn more about posting on Energy Central »