Last week Alan Moran, director of the Institute of Public Affairs' deregulation unit, wrote in The Australian Financial Review an article titled, “Era of cheap energy needn’t be over” (January 11). Critiquing Resources Minister Martin Ferguson’s white paper on energy, where the minister asserts that “the era of cheap energy is over”, Alan Moran concludes “we are not running out of cheap coal or gas”.
Alan’s assertion might be correct if one overlooks the staggering ecological cost associated with burning coal and gas (methane) and the economic and social impact on society as oil production plateaus. In just 100 years, mankind has released half the CO2 stored up by nature in the form of oil, contributing to a global warming trend. Now that this resource is diminishing Moran appears to suggest continuing with business as usual by burning the equivalent amount in coal – this despite the fact that coal has only half the energy of oil and releases twice the CO2.
It could be argued that the headlong rush to extract coal seam gas marks the tipping point where we can no longer extract enough oil to meet our voracious demand for energy. Renewables are in no position to fill the energy gap and as we turn to coal we must account for the fact that, weight for weight, it has half the energy of oil and releases twice the CO2, along with sulphur and particulates. Fossil fuels like coal and gas have an environmental cost that we choose to ignore at our peril. For now, however, they are our only means to fill the energy gap left by oil.
Which brings me to the issue of switching from petrol to electric cars – in particular, big electric cars. As Alan Kohler noted, “At a factory in Port Melbourne, just up the road from General Motors Holden, a group of parts makers led by Better Place and Futuris have built a Holden Commodore EV at their own expense – with some money from the government – to prove to GMH and the government that it can be done cost-effectively” (Carr's chance to rev the EV engine, January 12). This government assistance meant a total $3 million from the taxpayer.
Today those promoting big electric cars assure consumers that these cars will only use green renewable energy such as wind, solar and wave energy. However, this is a myth. Of the 80 million barrels of oil consumed world wide per day approximately 56 million barrels per day are used for transportation. Of these, 30 million barrels a day are used to move people and there is no way that renewable sources will replace this level of energy demand any time soon – if ever. Should we choose to run big electric cars like a Commodore we’ll need to burn a lot more coal, as the energy gap widens, than would have been needed had the well meaning consortium selected a smaller vehicle. Keep in mind that the best coal was burned during the industrial revolution, leaving us lesser quality fuel with associated release of sulphur, soot and heavy metals.
Big cars are attractive in terms of their comfort and safety, but we also need to consider that an electric Commodore could require in the order of 32kW hours to travel a practical 100km on Australian roads. That’s more than twice what the smaller Mitsubishi iMiev or Blade Electron require to travel the same distance. Figuratively speaking, if the roads filled with big electric Commodores, we might end up cooking the planet to run them. More likely, as we finally start to pay for the CO2 we emit, sales of an electric Commodore could quickly go in the same direction as its petrol cousin. Add to this the cost to upgrade the grid to cope with the additional demand created by EVs and in this context GMH and Minister Carr would be wise to avoid the temptation of a big electric car fix for the ailing Commodore. GMH and the planet will do better to stick with its smaller Volt.
The era of cheap energy is over and it is time, as a society, to cut back our energy consumption, not increase it – at least until a cheap non-fossil alternative is put in place. This means smaller, energy efficient housing, greater use of rail for transporting people and goods, consumer products that are made to last longer (say, 25 years) and smaller cars that require ‘less to do more’. For the next 50 years at least, the only cheap non-fossil fuel alternative to oil for our primary electricity, heating and transport needs is nuclear – preferably thorium, which is 1000 time less radioactive than uranium and which creates waste that decays in 30 years, compared to 10,000 years for uranium waste. After Fukushima, however, it is far from certain that we’ll choose the nuclear option. If we reject it, the only sustainable choice open to us is to radically cut back on our energy consumption permanently and in this context, if personal transport is to survive, it will be in the form of small electric cars.