Bushfires, heat waves and a decaying energy generation and transmission system is increasingly undermining Australia’s national security, the economy and the lives of every day Australians – addressing this ‘perfect storm’ of challenges will be critical to the nation’s security into the 2020s.
With growing concern about Australia’s energy security and resilience, the idea of Australia emerging as the next energy superpower may seem far-fetched, particularly as the nation's existing energy generation and transmission grid comes under increasing pressure due to growing demand and ageing infrastructure.
Further complicating the national response to energy is the growing public discourse surrounding climate change and the impact of fossil fuels on the environment, particularly that of coal, oil and liquid natural gas.
Finally, the rising demand on the grid during summer months are further to stretch and in some cases directly hinder the national energy grid's ability to meet the ever increasing energy appetite of the Australian public and economy.
These growing concerns have lead numerous government inquiries into the future of Australia's energy production, storage and transmission infrastructure when facing what Nick Toscano of The Sydney Morning Herald called a "perfect storm" of challenges to the nation's economic, political and strategic security.
"Summer in Australia means extreme weather, sweltering heatwaves and devastating bushfires. For the reliability and security of the nation’s electricity system, it’s the most trying time of the year. The hotter it gets, the more people switch on their air conditioners – hiking demand for power and placing extraordinary strain on the grid," he said.
Expanding on this, Toscano identifies the growing vulnerability of Australia's energy generation and transmission infrastructure, stating, "Compounding this pressure is the susceptibility of ageing coal power plants to sudden breakdown on hot days, stripping significant supply out of the market with little or no notice. Making matters worse still, bushfires pose the threat of knocking out key transmission lines at critical moments."
Toscano is quick to emphasise the impact of what he calls a "decade-long energy policy vacuum at a federal level" as a key factor in undermining Australia's resilience and national security in a period of renewed state-based competition across the economic, political and strategic domains.
However, Toscano fails to clearly identify the national security and national resilience implications of such 'policy failures', which should serve as the foremost focal point for Australian political leaders, not political or social point scoring.
A clean energy future and reinvigorated, green Australian heavy industries
Professor Emma Aisbett and Professor Mark Howden of the Australian National University (ANU), as part of the ANU's Grand Challenge for Zero-Carbon Energy for the Asia-Pacific, spoke at the DEFAUS '19 Forum and called for a growing focus for Australia's transition towards a clean energy economy and position as an energy superpower, as well as the global community's response to climate change.
With the Indo/Asia-Pacific expected to be responsible for 65 per cent of projected energy growth in the coming decades, Australia is in a unique opportunity to capitalise on its proximity to the emerging markets of the region, build on the vast investment in human capital that establishes the nation as a high-wage, educated labour force, and the ease of investment.
"Australia is very well positioned to become a renewable energy superpower, or power house, if you wish to be less controversial," Professor Aisbett explained to an audience of existing and future ADF leaders at ADFA.
She articulated that the nation's transition towards renewable energy also provides opportunities for the nation's traditional 'brown' industries, like steel manufacturing, with the abundance of both wind and solar energy in northwestern Australia, combined with the proximity to vast deposits of iron ore and iron concentrates in the area providing a chance for the nation to re-establish its comparative advantage in the market.
"It just so happens that in the north-west of Australia, where that fantastic solar resource is, there is also some of Australia's best wind resources and the world's largest iron ore deposits, so the co-location could have real benefits here and provide Australia with the opportunity to regain its comparative advantage and produce green steel," Professor Aisbett explained.
As part of the ANU's Grand Challenge, five interlocking projects have been identified to support the nation's transition towards a renewable energy future, supporting a reinvigorated national industrial base with a range of flow on effects for Australia's traditional strengths and emerging sectors. These include:
- Renewable energy systems;
- Hydrogen fuels;
- Renewable refining of metal ores;
- Indigenous community engagement; and
- Energy policy and governance.
Professor Aisbett added, "For example, if we can turn Australia's iron ore into 'green steel' in Australia, there are huge economic benefits for the nation, as well as huge environmental benefits as a result of avoided emissions overseas."
This focus also addresses the underlying vulnerability and weakness of Australia's energy generation and transmission infrastructure, as identified by Toscano, where he states the need "to improve battery storage to help smooth out the intermittent nature of wind and solar, as well as to upgrade transmission lines to enable states to harness favourable renewable-energy conditions in other parts of the nation. If the wind is blowing in South Australia, how can we get it to Queensland?"
Energy security as a critical part of a National Security Strategy
While Australia enjoys a virtually unrivalled wealth of natural resources, the ability to refine and produce vast quantities of steel, coking coal and now domestic agricultural produce and critical, specialised medical supplies also serves as a glaring gap in the broader national security debate.
Accordingly, any national strategic reserve policy requires a holistic approach to incorporate these into the development of any policy response.
Contemporary Australia has been far removed from the harsh realities of conflict, with many generations never enduring the reality of rationing for food, energy, medical supplies or luxury goods, and even fewer within modern Australia understanding the socio-political and economic impact such rationing would have on the now world-leading Australian standard of living.
Accordingly, it is now up to Australia's political and strategic leaders to form an integrated policy agenda as part of a broader National Security Strategy – similar to that advocated for by Senator Molan – to include the development of critical national strategic reserves to support the national economy and defence capability during an increasingly troubled period in global history.
Senator Molan stressed the importance of these developments, telling Defence Connect, "We have managed to get away with not having a national security strategy only because we have lived in a tranquil region since 1945.
"But our strategic environment is changing quickly, and we need to prepare for a turbulent future. Developing a national security strategy would be a vital first step towards building the capacity we need to face the potential challenges that are coming."