In this thoughtful interview, a highly regarded former military officer, humanitarian aid worker, government adviser and spokesman on energy by Engineers Australia outlines the huge opportunities that better systems thinking on energy can offer.
Australian policy needs to move beyond the commodity view of energy to a systems view that prioritises sustainable, low-carbon energy supplies and energy demand management, according to spokesman for Engineers Australia on energy security spokesman, and former Army officer Neil Greet. The current “smokestack” approach, he says, is one that makes the nation vulnerable and creates enormous risks for our economy, society and environment.
Greet and Dr Athol Yates co-authored a recent EA report, Energy Security For Australia – Crafting a Comprehensive Energy Security Policy. The core message of the report is that adequate, reliable and low-carbon energy supplies are essential to every key aspects of Australian life, including food and water supplies, transport, commerce, social stability and national security. There is also a need for long-term thinking and an approach to energy that includes minimising consumption and demand.
A civil engineer and 2015 president of EA’s Canberra Division, Greet is a former officer engineer with the Australian Army, served in Iraq and Timor Leste and played a key role in the Army response to the Victorian Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. He is currently the director of Collaborative Outcomes, a humanitarian engineering consultancy providing services to government departments, agencies and private enterprise both in Australia and overseas.
Greet says that energy is not just about the commerce of energy generation, but about a broader approach that recognises social and environmental aspects. He says that renewable energy needs to be part of the mix of measures to provide a safe, secure and sustainable supply, and that the narrow focus on coal and coal exports is counterproductive.
“Things will change. We are painting ourselves into a corner. If we are thinking about the future there needs to be a diverse portfolio of energy sources,” Greet says.
The whole reliance on fossil fuel exports for the nation’s economic wellbeing echoes the experience of the bust of the sheep industry in the early 20th century, when a formerly booming export trade went into sudden decline, resulting in mass culling of flocks and serious economic woes, he says.
“We don’t seem to learn these historical lessons. Renewable energy offers such a level of security. Some people want to stop renewable energy for ideological reasons, but the genie is out of the bottle.”
He says the report he co-authored aims to shift the energy security discussion from a supply-side market view to a systems view, which he says is necessary if it is to be viewed as more than a commodity.
“You can only get a horizontal view across the system if you look at it as a system, not just in the stovepipe view of generation.”
The conventional coal-fired view of the energy market was predicated on the idea of ever-growing demand and a continued reliance on coal. While the growth of solar was something policy-makers and distributors could have predicted and made adjustments for, particularly in terms of the grid’s ability to absorb and utilise the electricity being generated, falling demand is something they never saw coming.
“There is evidence that demand kept going up until 2007, then it started falling suddenly. The generators didn’t know that would change,” Greet says.
Greet says energy-efficiency gains that occurred around 2007 came about through the congruence of a number of factors including the Global Financial Crisis, the increasing availability of energy-efficient technology and also an awareness on the part of energy users that they could save money by using less energy.
Energy is not just about industry – the US gets it
The governance level is a major part of the whole problem of transitioning to a systems-based approach to energy.
Greet says that the positioning of energy within the “catch-all” federal department of industry means that energy is approached only from the industry view. This is in contrast to the US, he says, where there is a strong policy position that energy is a crucial part of national security and every aspect of national wellbeing.
Change the government structures – use the energy lens for planning and development
The structure of how government positions energy within its portfolios needs to change, he says, in order to shift past the smokestack way of looking at things.
As an example of the broader view, planning and development should be using an energy lens as part of decision-making. This means looking at community as a dynamic concept, and integrating issues such as liquid fuel supplies for vehicles into the framework, which in turn leads to greater emphasis on public transport planning.
Greet says the broader view also means allowing for future disruptive technologies that enable us to use renewable energy cheaply and effectively, or the way in which battery storage will “change the way we look at energy and microgrids and distribution.”
“And it will change the way we look at community, so we move away from the empty suburb construct to [actual] community,” Greet says.
“It is hard work, and it costs money, particularly at the local government level.”
Overall, it’s a matter of seeing the big picture rather than just driving along with a business as usual approach.
The security angle – and the opportunity to build bonds with our neighbours based on better energy solutions
Greet’s military background, academic study in the area of security and humanitarian work have given him a conviction that Australia’s energy security and national security also requires a focus on dealing with energy poverty among neighbouring nations such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
He says Australia should be working to assist these nations with fit-for-purpose and appropriate energy solutions and technology. German firms, for example, have been exporting their expertise and technology to projects across the Indonesian Archipelago installing renewable energy systems and microgrids.
“Here we sit lamenting the deteriorating relationship between Australia and Indonesia, yet we don’t build bonds like that, I think for very ideological reasons,” Greet says.
However, there are forms of energy-related engagement with our neighbours that are not contributing substantially to broader social wellbeing, such as LNG projects in Papua New Guinea. Greet says a recent Lowy Institute report examines how much of the “LNG miracle” is actually going back into PNG.
“It’s the old question of exploitation and who is making the money, and we all need to understand these things,” he says.
“Strong neighbours equals a strong region, it’s just commonsense, and we are not doing it as well as we used to.”
Selfish Australia won’t work
He gives an example of Timor Leste [East Timor], where he and the other military engineers told the Australian government that one of the most important and immediate needs in terms of reconstruction was long-term infrastructure. They were not, however, given the go-ahead to deploy their expertise.
Greet thinks Australia is becoming “selfish” in terms of aid.
“We need to have a narrative in our country about how much our region means to us,” Greet says.
“There is a tension between humanitarianism and mercantilism and we need to change the lens Australia uses. The saying ‘charity begins at home’ has been used as a justification for cutting international aid, but the rest of that quote, which is from Charles Dickens, is ‘and justice lives next door’.
“Dickens was making a connection between charity and justice.”
He believes persistent efforts to change the policy direction are required, and a galvanisation of progressive organisations and individuals.
“If you can’t change the mainstream narrative that is being exploited for political ends, you have to keep trying, and you get knocked down and you get back up, and you keep fighting for these issues,” he says.
The efforts of former Liberal leader John Hewson at ANU, who led the university’s divestment from fossil fuel investments, he says, is the sort of leadership we need.
“But it’s not the sort we’re getting.”
The engineering profession itself is moving in a more active direction, for example with the recent EA sustainability policy and climate change policy.
Key points from the Energy Security Report
On short-sighted approaches: “We cannot afford to make mistakes by assuming continuing infinite electricity demand, then gold-plate our distribution system expecting Australians to front up to the bill…. The champions of conventional wisdom speak for vested interest and preach complacency that damages our energy security.”
On non-renewable energy resources and export market dependence :“Demand may collapse for a host of unexpected reasons – we have been shocked before. Invariably, the generation that digs up the finite resources, spends the resources. In doing so, future generations do not have the opportunity to develop the resources and generate income from them. A more equitable and socially responsible approach to sharing the finite resource wealth with future generations is to allocate the resource income to a sovereign wealth fund.”
Reducing energy consumption: “Australian energy security policy makers should give far greater emphasis to reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency, reducing energy intensity and decoupling economic growth with energy use.”
Sustainable development and environmental security: The big issues over the long-term have been air pollution and carbon gas production.
“Since the late 1980s, greenhouse gas concerns have become important globally. In Australia, the largest carbon emitter is the stationary energy sector, notably coal and gas powered plants. Another growing energy issue linked with energy security is unconventional gas energy extraction such as fracking. It is controversial because of its potential affect on aquifers, agricultural production and people’s health and welfare in mining areas.”
The key sources of energy insecurity in terms of sustainable development and environmental security that arise are:
- Global damage to the biosphere due to greenhouse
- gas emissions
- Increase in water consumed in extracting and transforming energy;
- Environmental damage caused by the extraction of oil and gas
- Coupling of economic growth and energy consumption
Need for innovation: “Australia has not got a record of significant innovation in energy projects by either the private or public sector. In fact, it appears that innovation may be declining as reflected in the slowing of investment in alternative energy sources, smart grids, energy storage, ocean energy and smart cities. The lack of an innovation culture and decreasing investment in energy research and development reduces the potential for major advances in energy security.”
Economic risks: “The reliance on fossil fuel based energy because of its availability introduces a major economic vulnerability in the economy. If significant global action on greenhouse gas reductions occurs, the consequences for Australian energy exports and even Australian goods and services due to their high carbon footprints may be severe.
“The other vulnerability arising from a fossil fuel based economy is the environmental damage it causes. While Australia is a low–carbon emitter compared to other nations in terms of total output, per capita it is very high. The magnitude of the carbon emissions in comparison to others is a relevant issue at a moral level as it is important to reduce them as much as feasible. Consequently, policy decisions that do not seek to accelerate a switch away from a fossil fuel economy are undesirable.”
The role of energy efficiency: “There are two ways to reduce energy consumption – energy conservation or energy efficiency. Energy conservation involves reducing energy use while energy efficiency involves using less energy to achieve the same outcome. Of the two, energy conservation is more important as it is better to eliminate the use of energy when it generates no benefit than to reduce the amount used. Perversely, improving energy efficiency can actually increase total energy consumption and thus potentially reduce energy security if the energy supply or demand is vulnerable. The increase in consumption arises because the efficiency measures reduce the cost of a good or service, thus making it more competitive and hence more in demand and thus supplied.
“Common energy reduction measures include:
- Utilising waste heat
- Redesigning processes to eliminate transport tasks
- Preventing heat and cooling loss
- Switching off lighting, airconditioners, compressors etc. when not needed
- Introducing high efficiency machinery and fuel efficient cars
- Introducing transportation equipment with high transportation capacity and consolidating transport tasks to reduce frequency of transport tasks
- Enforcing performance and prescriptive energy codes for commercial buildings which covers insulation of the building envelope, and efficiency improvements in heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), lighting, water heating, and vertical transport or lifting equipment
- Increasing ambient temperature of airconditioned environments
- Substituting mechanical airconditioning with natural or green airconditioning
- Developing mandatory energy conservation and efficiency targets
- Providing low–interest financing for energy reduction activities
- Funding subsidised advisory services to encourage the introduction of leading–edge energy conservation technologies
- Offering financial support to those who introduce leading–edge energy conservation equipment
- Offering tax incentives to encourage investment in high energy efficiency activities
- Awarding, disseminating and publically promoting activities on energy conservation
- Implementing an energy efficiency appliance labelling system
- Promoting eco–driving
- Supporting demonstration sites and exhibitions of energy conservation technologies and systems
- The full report can be downloaded here.