Future fuels: moving beyond ideology to meet the sustainability imperative

Presentation to Future Fuels for Australia Forum
Customs House
Wednesday 20 July 2011
Professor John Cole
Australian Centre for Sustainable Business and Development
The University of Southern Queensland

Ladies and Gentlemen

I speak today not as a specialist energy researcher, but as one who has worked in this field for some years as public policy adviser, administrator and advocate for sustainability innovation.

Mindful of what has been said at this conference already today, I wish to lead into this session by outlining the main considerations which should shape our research endeavours in the field of sustainable energy, particularly the future of fuels.

My basic premise is that to be effective in meeting the challenge for future fuels in achieving sustainability,   we are going to have to move beyond ideological politics and prejudices in framing technology options and development pathways.

There are reasons, and many have already been cited at this conference, as to why in moving forward we have to be innovative, do new things, and explore the utility of alternative fuels.

But even as we discuss such ideas, just last evening we were reminded that the claims of technological progress are not always certain or inexorably forward moving.

Little more than 40 years ago our civilisation put a person on the moon thinking that we were at the advent of humankind’s launch into the space age.

Last night some of you may have seen the shuttle make its last flight over Brisbane and many are now asking indeed are we at the end rather than the beginning of mankind’s flight to space – was the promise of the Apollo and later shuttle program still born?

I think in the field of energy innovation we could ask similar questions and just as easily find discarded ventures that now litter university engineering precincts.

But having said that, we should acknowledge also that in meeting the challenges of our increasingly energy intensive civilisation there are a range of background drivers and shapers of the debate which essentially are not negotiable.

There are eight pointers in particular which will characterise the future of energy.

In several presentations yesterday we saw reference to population growth and the threats posed by exponential explosion in human numbers over the past 100 years.

By 2030 the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that global energy consumption will increase by 36% with non-OECD countries (mainly China) accounting for nearly half the increase.

Undeniably, too, our present economic growth globally is unsustainable in its underpinnings, quantum, and momentum.

Over the 20 years before the global financial crisis hit, world-wide employment rose by 30% but the income gap between richer and poorer households widened even further, according to the International Labour Organisation1.

Rich or poor, in the first world irrespective of income status, the energy intensity of our lifestyles has exploded in a world of plasma TVs, poorly designed housing, and urban sprawl.

For example, here in Brisbane just a decade ago only 12% of houses were air-conditioned, but now that figure has rocketed to 75% and climbing and many houses have more than one air-conditioner installed.

The local electricity utility is spending more than $3 million a day just upgrading the distribution networks so that suburbs avoid brown-outs on hot high consumption summer afternoons – and people wonder why the price of electricity is increasing!

‘Affordable housing’ also means continuing urban sprawl on the peri-urban fringe – far from public transport – where lower to middle income households will have 2-3 motor vehicles travelling the long kilometres to work each day.

In America and Australia we are boosting unsustainable oil-dependent urban design just as the world enters the era of peak oil production and consumption – confronted by the law of diminishing returns with a depleting non-renewable resource.

Not surprisingly, internationally we are beginning to see a diminishing energy return from energy invested (ERoEI), particularly in the search for scarce oil in deep difficult to get places.

And there is what a former Australian Prime Minister called rightly the “greatest moral issue of our time” – I am speaking of course of climate change and it is the most pressing lag indicator we have of the vast range of natural systems feedback that depict in mirror form the escalating patterns of unsustainable human impacts.

Indeed by any broad measure of ecological integrity, the natural systems of our planet are significantly degraded and are continuing to diminish at alarming rate.

And against all of that that we can be little encouraged by the geo-political volatility and unpredictability of our economic and political systems – from the Middle East to South America, to the Euro zone and the great debt hangover and the impacts of the global financial crisis that seemingly do not want to go away.

Who here for example in 2006 could have predicted the global financial crisis that came two years later? I did not – none of us did.

So who knows what is going to happen this year or next year other than that there will continue to be large degrees of uncertainty and volatility.

I am confident however that in addressing the issues outlined above – and we have seen it alluded to through this conference – there is almost inevitably an unprecedented convergence pathway being plotted in the way we will develop and exploit future energy technologies.

Moreover, I suggest to you that the incrementalist approach that we have seen over the past 50 years in energy R&D will not actually save us.

Indeed if the basic benchmarks of sustainable development are to be achieved in the first half of this century, we will need a level of disruptive innovation unimagined in most political and policy circles.

In talking about sustainability I suggest we park the future of the planet for a moment and focus just on the future of humanity – because “sustainability” is essentially a concept about human futures and what scientists are calling the “Anthropocene” – the era when humanity came to prevail upon the living systems of the Earth.

The natural quest for sustainability is a dynamic process that American ecologist Buzz Holling describes as “panarchy” – or a universal state of disequilibrium in constant search of equilibrium or resilience.

Sustainability is neither ideology nor a dogma.

In science it is couched in systems theory and thinking and is a useful word to describe the essential aspiration of all forms of life – namely survival – and beyond that in human moral and ethical terms, the maintenance of what really matters as core human values.

While all systems aspire to survive by building greater connectedness, achieving internal resilience and resistance to threats that might contribute to decline by building adaptive capacity (including the ability to learn)  – the historical inevitability for all natural systems including humans is eventual decline, death or fortuitous rebirth and renewal.

As the laws of thermodynamics remind us, energy and entropy play crucial defining roles throughout the earth systems-sustainability cycle and are fundamental in the future fuel equation in matters as diverse as nuclear efficiency and ocean oil spill prevention.

Approaching the concept of future fuels for humanity I am reminded of the insights from a generation ago of systems engineer, Stafford Beer.

To paraphrase Beer, most of the acceptable ideas out there are not competent in meeting the challenges at hand – they are not going to get us to where we need to be – and the competent ideas that are being discussed at conferences like this are not yet acceptable by the community and their political representatives2.

The fact that we have no representative from the State Government here today epitomises the great disconnect between expert technical discussion and development and the lagging world of politics and public policy.

Talk about community engagement in future fuels; we have yet to liberate the blinkered governmental and political approaches that keep us on the global warming, petro-dollar, militarily expense roadmap we are following currently.

As long ago as 1976 Amory Lovins from the Rocky Mountain Institute showed us the soft energy pathway to the future – a cheaper, safer more efficient pathway based on energy efficiency, savings and renewable energy.

He also showed there was little linear or trending correlation between energy consumption, price and the predictability of future patterns of consumption and price – such has been the broad elasticity of consumer dependence on fossil fuels and a willingness to forego other expenditure to pay for fuels.  So much for the sanctity of market reasoning and insight!

Indeed any analysis shows there is a broad range of other factors that have to be taken account of when talking about energy consumption and price.

One thing we do know and we have to pretty much put this down to the industrialisation of China and India and the reluctance of the US to do much about its fossil fuel emissions is that over the next 20 years global humanity will put as much CO2 emissions into the atmosphere as humans have put there since 1750.

Now beyond doing that and it is the question that essentially underpins this conference remains: “Is there anything else we can do?”

And of course when you look at green innovation which can otherwise be called the global technological response to the environmental crisis, energy dominates the list of innovation fields and initiatives.

Here is a list which is by no means exhaustive but traverses the energy R&D pathways currently being explored in specialist research centres across the world:

* Algal bio-fuel
* Artificial photosynthesis
* Carbon Capture and storage
* Concentrated Solar PV
* Electric cars
* Fuel Cells
* Geothermal
* Hydrogen
* Lithium ion batteries
* Molten salt storage
* Offshore wind
* Solar Tower
* Nuclear fusionSmart Grid
* Tidal power
* Thin-film solar
* Waste to energy
* Wind turbines

What would be on your list if you had to come up with the top ten ideas to shape the future of sustainable energy in the next generation?

Interestingly, the subject matter of this conference – coal liquefaction and biomass liquefaction – is not on most widely circulated lists and so a challenge for the energy-fuels conversion technologies is to gain wider acceptance in the scientific and business media.

The funny thing about the future is that we have a fair idea of where we want to go and in what condition we want to be – and it is in the most resource efficient low impact corner of the cost-impact quadrant.

Right now the global economies are all travelling along in the bottom left hand corner – the high cost, high impact zone.

Of course we arrive at that assessment only after ensuring all the relevant costs including environmental and health impacts are factored into consideration.

The utility of the Cost-Impact Energy Scenarios Quadrant is its explicit statement of where we have to be going and its uncompromising criteria accordingly which will apply to relevant technologies.

If the technology is not going to help get us to the top right hand corner, we should not be wasting money on it.

Go out on the street outside and talk to people passing by and you will soon find that the Cost-Impact Energy Scenario is nothing more than an irrelevant abstraction.

In everyday life the focus is on one thing – ‘price at the pump’.

As a local newspaper cartoonist captured rather accurately some years ago when Queenslanders were debating the addition of ethanol to petrol – “it’s cheaper than the other stuff” determines the likelihood of product adoption.

At best the understanding of the broader implications of a product and its use is cursory.

Indeed beyond energy we see this same limited understanding and interest at play in the ideological scoping and presentation of the issues of climate change and the proposed carbon tax and emissions trading scheme.

Today former Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski, who also happens to be a former nuclear physicist, wrote a piece in ‘The Australian’ with which I totally agree.

His op-ed article was called “Respect the science and don’t call CO2 a pollutant”.

We have in the limited political engagement of the Australian population with the issues of climate change a Federal Government compromising the integrity of the scientific explanation of global warming by resorting to calling carbon dioxide a pollutant – almost as if to prejudice it in the public attitude so as to warrant a punitive tax to be imposed on it.

Once something becomes pollution, it must be dirty and repugnant and something to be regulated, minimised, dispersed or taxed.

So rather than engage the community in a discussion about civic responsibility and the part we all should play in mitigating the causes of anthropocentric warming – by trying to explain the heat radiating functions of CO2 molecules in the troposphere and stratosphere which exacerbate global warming – the Government (and by implication the rest of us) pass off the common responsibility for emissions to the “500 big polluters” – those corporate ogres, nameless businesses or government utilities which provide us with our essential services –  electricity, household heating, minerals processing jobs, steel and aluminium manufacturing and transport.

Such corrupted messages can only work because of the ‘scientific illiteracy’ of many in the community which consequently limits the extent of informed discussion about serious issues involving social and economic reform.

In framing a research context for future fuels we can table some basic principles.

I start with moral equity, inter- or intra generational, because we should do the fair thing by the world today and in the future. Today more than 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity and there a further 3 billion relying on unventilated and inefficient wood, charcoal, and dung cooking stoves.

The UN and IEA estimates point to solving the issues of energy access as being achievable without steep rises in costs or carbon emissions – so why is it not being done?

Secondly, no informed scientific discussion of future energy options should ignore the laws of thermodynamics, taking close account of the energy values of structured systems and the principles of entropy.

This requires also recognition of the need for system’s resilience and not just in our social and economic systems, but also in the natural systems of the planet itself without which there cannot be a future.

We should apply the precautionary principle to the work we do including in the development and exploitation of alternative future fuels.

Whatever we do should assist the adaptive capacity of existing economies, communities and businesses – that is assisting in building the capacity for further change.

Being able to change is the first requirement of sustainable systems, because without change there is eventual extinction.

And finally, future fuels that are sustainable will be developed without proponents, governments, and consumers deluding themselves about the full costs.

If there are impacts on the environment, on other industries, on our future choices, well let’s have them on the table to enable appropriate assessment and comparison with other alternatives.

Products, services and proposed technologies need the rigour of life cycle analysis applied to determine just what kind of footprint will occur as a result of their adoption.

Too many inefficient, taxpayer subsidised forms of energy and economic arrangement persist because of the entrenched and persuasive influence of powerful industry lobbies.

These will not be changed readily nor accept change without the spotlight of transparency being brought to bear on the real costs, the hidden interests, the financial churn, and the damage done to the common wealth.

Ladies and gentlemen
Be assured that incremental innovation is not going to get us to a point where the sustainability principles for future fuels are achieved in a timeframe that is meaningful to addressing the other big issues of our time – energy security, peak oil, climate change, energy poverty.

Unlike the mouse with a crash helmet seeking to steal the cheese from the  mouse-trap, or a mid-western wheat farmer with his deep sea divers helmet prepared for sea rises, successful adaptation strategies for the future will have to be creative and also risk appropriate.

Most of all they will have to be transformative to the point of being disruptive in the scale of change involved.

If we think of the future as innovation strategy then again the quadrant matrix is useful as a schematic in which to organise various pathways and conditions.

Reflecting on the discussion happening at this conference, much of our attention has been narrowly focussed on moving upwards in the left hand column beyond incremental efficiencies in existing technology to a future world of  ‘whiz bang’ technologies.

If we stay just in that column, however, we will not achieve the necessary levels of innovation for sustainable energy.

To do anything meaningful to address global warming will require disruptive innovation and transformations in performance that are unimaginable by our political leaders and other key influence groups.

Back in 2007 then Executive Director of the International Energy Agency Claude Mandil said that to avoid one billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year the world would need to replace 300 conventional coal-fired power plants with zero emission electricity generation every year, or build 150 one-gigawatt nuclear power plants or multiply US current solar power capacity by about 1,300 every year or multiply 200 times the US wind farm capacity3.

If we go the geological carbon sequestration route, the International Energy Agency estimates that to make a dent in the global warming problem, we will need 6000 CCS projects, each injecting a million tonnes of CO2 a year into the ground.

And this would be just a beginning — to bury 10 trillion tonnes of CO2 during the next 150 years would require 67,000 projects each injecting into the ground a million tonnes of CO2 each year4.

So if we are we are to scale the heights of technological and infrastructural innovation required to meet the needs of future populations and avoid catastrophe, just as important will be the processes of innovation diffusion and commercialisation which draw on all the socio-economic and cultural ingredients of international markets and governance.

Only then will we see future fuels innovation delivering sustainable energy outcomes clustering at the top right hand corner again – the transformative and disruptive innovation quadrant.  That must be the aim of our research strategy and everything must be on the table as far as technology options are concerned.

There are a number of pathways to the future and at crucial points they converge, bifurcate, and diverge.

Some will hit a wall and stop.  Others will be superseded.  Building the right pathways to enable the most choices and the strongest adaptive capacity will be essential.

As our colleagues at CSIRO have already shown we will need more than any one specialisation .

Future fuels development will necessarily draw on a suite of scientific disciplines as broad as biology, genetics, cybernetics, nanotechnology, and the materials sciences as well as smart utilisation systems to ensure optimum consumption efficiency.

And our achievements will be staged in waves as one technical impulse enables or sparks another along development pathways that will see future fuel development encompassed within the broader convergence of energy sources from solids, liquids and gas.

If the 20th century and the rise of the internal combustion engine (ICE) as the medium of mobility and the predominance of fossil fuels for centralised stationary energy systems resulted in parallel worlds of liquids and solids, then the world of the 21st century and the enabling media of hydrogen and fuel cells is likely to result in a much more integrated energy system – evident in the technologies being discussed at this conference.

Back in 2007 during the closing stages of the Cooperative Research Centre for Coal in Sustainable Development, Professor Cliff Hooker from the University of Newcastle led an interesting scenario development exercise for projecting possibilities for the Queensland economy out to 2050 using back casting methodologies5.

Focussing on the uncertainties that characterise anything to do with the future, Hooker and his colleagues set out to identify potential energy development pathways to the future drawing that optimised the possibilities for future choices – or adaptive capacity.

We looked particularly at what decisions were likely to be made by policy-makers and technologists that could have flow-on effects to future developments.

In approaching the future the main idea should be to avoid what might colloquially be termed the “dry gullies” or dead-ends.

A priority should be to develop the portal or nexus media in pathway convergence technologies – diesels, gases, electricity so that the widest range of options is delivered.  Any which way we look at it, the decisions we make in the next decade will essentially shape the future of energy and fuels for the next 50 years.

For a resource rich state like Queensland that prospect should not be too daunting because an analysis of potential innovation across the spectrum of energy sources, generation, distribution and storage processes gives rise to a range of energy/fuel scenarios depending on whether the setting is rural or urban (see slide).

It’s possible, for example, that in a climate changing world our energy intensive industries might one day be located inland much closer to sources of cheap geothermal energy, away from seaboard, far removed from what is presently contemplated.

The real challenge will be not to be too wedded to any particular pathway or vested interest and ensure we have the skills, infrastructure and investment to build adaptive capacity and exploit the possibilities.

And for that to happen, importantly, ideological prescriptions and old prejudices will have to be discarded to ensure that everything is on the table when considering what further research and development can best deliver sustainable outcomes – from solar to gas to CCS to biomass and all the conversion technologies in between: they will all have a role in a more complex but integrated world of future fuels.

The final point that I will make today is that most of all in facing up to the great challenges of our time we need positive progressive vision at a personal, community and political level.

Returning to the analogy of the space program, just over 50 years ago President John F Kennedy epitomised the kind of vision we require today when he challenged the American people to launch a program that would put a man on the moon and safely return him to Earth before the end of the decade.

If we are to have the equivalent of an Apollo Program in future energy and fuels, as scientists, technologists , engineers and researchers our challenge remains to sell to politicians and the community  the benefits of building a future rather than being overwhelmed by its inevitability.

We have a choice – business as usual, incremental innovation and eventual systems catastrophe or transformational vision, inspired investment and disruptive innovation assuring social and economic adaptation before the oil runs out.

With strategic focus and the galvanised energies of another generation up to achieving a global mission, ladies and gentlemen the future of fuel can be sustainable.


1 International Labour Organisation, World of Work Report 2008
2 Stafford Beer, Platforms of Change, New York: Wiley and Sons: 1975
3 Executive Director of the International Energy Agency Claude Mandil speech to the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, Geneva, 27 April 2007

4 International Energy Agency, ‘Near-term Opportunities for carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage’, Global Assessments Workshop in Support of the G8 Plan of Action (Paris, France: International Energy Agency, 2007) p 7. Available at http://www.precaution.org/lib/iea_global_assessments_wkshop.070601.pdf
5 Professor Cliff Hooker and Dr Thomas Brinsmead “An Adaptive Energy Policy for Queensland”, Research Report no 92 (2008) Cooperative Research Centre for Coal in Sustainable Development, Pinjarra Hills.

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