Published 27 November 2016
As many Australian readers will know, ‘energy security’ has become the latest buzzword in government and industry circles. Much of this new focus has been driven by the political fallout following October’s catastrophic storms in South Australia and a state-wide power blackout. In the political recrimination that followed, the Federal Government and some media outlets argued that state government policies favouring renewable energy were (in part) to blame. Both the Prime Minister and the Federal Energy Minister quickly labelled energy security their ‘number one priority’ and established an energy security review to be chaired by the nations’ Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel. Interestingly however, the meaning of the term ‘energy security’ is itself open to multiple interpretations. To a large extent this ‘framing’ of ‘energy security’ reflects a number of developments that are playing out globally in the areas of energy and environmental policy.
Firstly, ‘energy security’ is often linked to issues of scarcity of supply. Reflecting the fact that the bulk of the world’s energy is sourced from non-renewable and finite fossil fuel stocks, which are controlled by a small number of nations. Hence, there has been a longstanding debate around access to energy resources. This debate has been expanded to include discussion of the likely future world in which declining volumes of traditional, easily accessed, fossil fuels drive major economic and political change. We can, for instance, look to the ongoing debate around ‘peak oil’ and the significant political and economic impacts the shifting supply of oil, coal and gas can have on our globally integrated economy; not to mention other geopolitical implications.
Secondly, and related to the energy scarcity issue, we have witnessed a global move by energy companies towards non-traditional or ‘unconventional’ fossil fuel energy resources. These include the massive investments in tar sands processing in Alberta, Canada, shale and coal-seam gas fracking in the US, Australia and Europe, deepwater and Arctic oil drilling and new mega coal-mines (like the proposed Adani Carmichael mine in Queensland). These highly controversial developments have prompted significant social and community conflict over extractivism and its harmful social and environmental consequences. For instance, witness the current battle over an oil pipeline in North Dakota in which indigenous Americans are leading a fight against a development that threatens the quality of their land and water.
Thirdly, the issue of ‘energy security’ is intimately tied to the broader debate over climate change and the worsening projections of a catastrophic climate future. As climate scientists and environmentalists have cogently demonstrated, to avoid dangerous climate change over 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground – that means no new coal mines, gas fracking or tar sands and a rapid shift in energy supply from renewable energy sources. This dramatic decarbonisation of our economies needs to occur at a scale and pace that radically recasts traditional assumptions of where we get our energy from and how we use it.
We can see some of what this energy transformation might involve, evident in the significant technological and market changes now playing out in the renewable energy sector. Innovation and falling costs for solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, wind, tidal and geothermal energy technologies pose major challenges for governments seeking to transform their economies within a shrinking global carbon budget. Most recently, this energy disruption has been given a boost through innovations in battery storage with Elon Musk’s construction of the Gigafactory in the Nevada desert, a sign of what the future may hold. This offers the promise of a new distributed electricity grid and threatens the incumbent energy model of centralized power generation and distribution.
Finally, of course all of these factors have produced a hugely contested and vitriolic political debate. As we saw in the aftermath of the recent South Australian storms and power shutdown, energy has become a significant political and ideological issue. Indeed, the multiple threats now emerging to established industries have also led to a push by conservative politicians and the fossil fuel sector to wind back state renewable energy targets and promote the continuation of coal-fired power as essential to Australian national prosperity.
Last week the Balanced Enterprise Research Network (BERN) at the University of Sydney Business School, hosted a special workshop on the topic of energy security. This event had been planned some months before the current political interest in the topic and forms part of a large research project being led by Dr Jane Lê and funded by the Australian Research Council.
The workshop brought together representatives from industry, government, regulatory bodies and academia and included presentations by:
- Dr Jane Lê on ‘Energy security in Australia: The present and potential energy futures’;
- Matt Walden from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) on the ‘Role of renewables in a secure energy future’; and
- David Havyatt, Senior Economist at Energy Consumers Australia on ‘The human side of energy security’.
A panel discussion and Q&A following the presentations was facilitated by Dan Cass from the Australia Institute. Questions revolved around the varying definitions of energy security, the predominant focus in Australia on electricity supply and demand, the lack of attention accorded to transport fuels as part of the energy equation, and the politicization of energy in an era of decarbonisation. As our research on ‘energy security’ develops we look forward to hosting further events to discuss this critical topic.
Mojave Helicopters by Wayne Stadler