Powering Up by Alan Finkel

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Energy is a hot topic and the world is moving so fast that most of us can’t keep up. Our news feeds are crammed with battery technology, electric vehicle sales graphs, fuel cells and even different colours of  hydrogen, but how do we know which ones will rule the future? We hear endlessly about greenhouse targets and theoretical ways to achieve net zero, but what are the practicalities of getting there?

Enter Alan Finkel, former chief scientist and architect of several national strategies on energy. With an engineer’s sense of logic and practicality, he has set out to describe “the clean energy supply chain”.  Sound boring? Well, it’s anything but. This is a compelling read for anyone who wants to learn about our current state of knowledge of renewable energy production and the opportunities for Australia “to become the world’s electrostate superhero.” [p281]

The starting point of the book is that a major energy transition is underway – from fossil fuels to renewables – and there will be staggering amounts of raw materials and industrial processing needed. “Between 1990 and 2021, the behemoth known as global civilisation only reduced its fossil-fuel diet from 87% to 83%. Let me spell that out. We shaved off 4% in the last thirty years. In the next thirty we need to shave off 83%” [p ix].

The first chapter focusses on the “age of electricity” and introduces the supply chain from raw materials to consumers. Two chapters then survey the main raw materials that are the building blocks for producing renewable energy (such as aluminium and lithium) and creating products that use it (such as electric vehicles). There is a wealth of information here and it also serves as handy  backgrounding for the chapters that follow.

The next two chapters survey renewable energy sources and their pros and cons. Once again, the scale is huge.  For solar to meet projected capacity in 2030, “will require the deployment of 3.5 million solar panels every day[p 103]. As an aside, Finkel is careful to avoid an ideological perspective, so nuclear energy as a renewable and gas as a transition fuel, he argues, have a conditional place in the mix.

Chapter 6 is all about that misunderstood and controversial element – Hydrogen. This is a gas that has not always served us well – it famously contributed to the combustion and demise of airships in the 1930s. In this century, it is much vaunted by some as a new fuel, but rejected by others as too expensive and too dangerous. Finkel admits to once being a hydrogen sceptic, but since formulating a National Hydrogen Strategy in 2019, has become an advocate.   He sets out persuasively why it will be important, while acknowledging its shortcomings as a universal fuel. In the few years since the Strategy was written, the idea of mass exports of hydrogen has been challenged by the costs of transport and usage near the site of production is more economic. Countries that can produce large amounts of renewable energy are salivating at the prospect.

The final two chapters are about policy setting and opportunities for Australia. As the ex-chief scientist for a conservative government, he is optimistic that the climate wars have at least abated and that the new government is progressing the agenda in the right direction. Mercifully, he does not spend too much time analysing policy and politics, but is content to talk up the prospects for Australia.

“If we get it right, there will be a shift in the world order away from petrostates to ‘electrostates’ – countries that are major exporters of clean energy or major exporters of energy transition materials.” [p 23]

When quoting facts and figures, Finkel is demonstrably objective. But his occasional forays into the minds of corporations and politicians are not quite as convincing. He argues that hydrogen will be managed efficiently and safely “producers do not want substantial amounts going to waste…[and they] cannot allow it to leak…” [p174]. This sounds logical, but even mature energy industries waste huge amounts. Gas and oilfields flare (i.e. burn off) around 139 billion tonnes per year (World Bank estimate) or about 3.5% of world production – enough to supply Germany, the Netherlands and France.

This book is a goldmine of carefully woven information.  It is objectively written and has a strong whiff of optimism, tempered by appropriate prudence.  Finkel’s style makes the topic  surprisingly easy to read and his explanations – including the invention of a new energy unit , the “oziwatthour” – are clear. Highly recommended, but read it soon, before the world moves on.

Powering Up: Unleashing the clean energy supply chain

(June 2023)

by Alan Finkel

Black Inc.

ISBN: 978 1 76064 459 8

$34.99; 336pp

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