Robert - Pritchard

The UN Climate Conference known as COP28 will start on Thursday in Dubai and will conclude by December 12.

COP28 has been preceded by a lot of smug talk in Australia about its potential as a renewable energy superpower. Renewable energy makes sense in sunny Australia, but it is not the only energy source that does so.

Solar energy makes a lot of sense if panels are installed on domestic, commercial or industrial rooftops, enabling on-the-spot consumption.

But the storage and transport of any form of energy imposes additional costs.

The longer the distance, the costlier the transportation and hence the energy become.

North African countries have been struggling for years with the challenge of transporting renewable energy to Europe. This year the World Bank approved the financing of a 600 megawatt undersea cable over 220km between Tunisia and Italy.

Australian investors are being urged by federal and state politicians to exploit Australia’s potential as a renewable energy superpower. Government grants are being made to the most promising projects. The choice of technologies is best left for investors to decide, however.

After World War II, Australia profited enormously from the growth of its coal exports to its energy-hungry customers in Asia. Australia exported a diverse range of energy resources including uranium and liquefied natural gas. Many of these trading partners joined Australian companies in investing in the upstream development of its resources.

In what was probably the first sign of its political smugness, Australia changed its environmental laws in 1998 to prohibit the development of nuclear energy except for medical and research purposes. The repeal of the prohibition is long overdue.

A global race to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 is now under way. Nuclear power is already used for electricity generation in 32 countries and 30 newcomer countries are now considering it.

The tripartite AUKUS initiative has guaranteed that nuclear energy will remain in focus in Australia as a future source of energy for submarine propulsion.

The development of nuclear power technologies is unlikely to suffer a setback at COP28. In the US, nuclear power is now being considered as a strategic military asset to back up onshore power supply. Options for both fixed and mobile micro-reactors are being developed.

Last year, the US Department of Defence ran a tender process for its first mobile onshore nuclear power reactor, known as Project Pele. The project was won and the first reactor is now under development by US contractor BWX Technologies.

Within a year the US military will have access to a 5MW reactor that can be transported by four ISO (International Organisation for Standardisation) containers for independent use or for connection to the local electricity grid.

Australia now should be evaluating the potential of mobile nuclear reactors for use in its mining industry. But Australia must first repeal its obsolete ban on nuclear power that it imposed as a political fix in 1998.

The Australian public will insist on reliable power that is not prone to breakdown. Members of the public already are concerned about rising energy costs and keeping their jobs – much more concerned than whether Australia may ever be a superpower.

All countries are looking for the best solutions to combat climate change but there is very little correlation between the current solutions on offer and the global climate problem they are seeking to address.

Using the most diverse technology mix is the key to bridging the gap between the climate problem and the climate solution – it is the key to the success of our energy transition.

The contemporary challenge for energy investors is to manage risk in circumstances where there is no single risk and the timing and location of the various risks are changing. Diversity is increasingly apparent as an indispensable requirement of investors. It accounts for the increasing popularity of energy venture capital in many countries.

The public will continue to rank reliability and cost of domestic energy supplies as critical in its future choice of government. The public also will look for job opportunities and will not necessarily rank emissions reduction as a decisive factor.

Despite this, federal Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen continues to reject debate about nuclear energy in Australia as a distraction.

Certainly, it will take time to develop a nuclear power industry in Australia. Nuclear power, however, would complement other technologies in our power system.

The notion of Australia being a superpower with respect to any of its energy resources is faintly ridiculous. This is no time for Australians to be smug.

Robert Pritchard is executive director of the Energy Policy Institute of Australia. He is also chairman of the St Baker Energy Innovation Fund.