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Why clean energy goals go beyond politics

18 December, 2014

Researchers believe – despite the global consensus – it might not be possible to build enough low-carbon and renewable power stations to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius.

Professor Eric McFarland from the University of Queensland said significant skills and resources were needed to build large power plants.

"Every new low-carbon and renewable power generation plant of meaningful size requires large numbers of project managers, engineers, welders, concreters, electricians, technicians and all sorts of specialised tradespeople, not to mention raw materials and sophisticated manufactured goods," he said.

"This applies to solar, wind, geothermal and nuclear plants and to fossil fuel plant with carbon capture and storage.

"Even if the skilled workers were available and willing, we cannot simply extract them from their current jobs without possible costs to other parts of the economy.

"These people often take years or decades to educate and train, so we can't just snap our fingers and have them all available immediately."

Low-cost shale gas delay in US

Professor McFarland said the boom in chemical plant construction in the United States – to take advantage of low-cost shale gas – had run into limitations on skilled labour and equipment, which was driving up costs and creating major project delays.

"This is a snapshot of what might occur globally if insufficient attention is given to the logistics of major infrastructure creation," he said. 

"In reality, the transition to low-carbon and renewable power will be limited by a mix of natural resource and material availability, supply chains, people, and manufacturing and organisational limits."

Constraints and bottlenecks

Professor McFarland has been leading the four-year international Rapid Switch Project to understand what could be achieved in designing and building low-carbon and renewable power sources.

Professor McFarland said the Rapid Switch Project, a collaboration with industries that build power and fuel facilities, aimed to identify constraints and bottlenecks to help enable appropriate policy, research and planning.

"Many people seem to think that reining-in carbon emissions is simply a matter of political will, but that's only the first small step," he said.

"Even if the political decisions to reduce carbon emissions were taken today, without sufficient technical and human resources and possibly new manufacturing methods, significant reduction in carbon dioxide emissions might not be possible."

He said it was important that world leaders and policymakers considered the magnitude of the engineering and resource challenge involved in building large numbers of new low-carbon and renewable power sources.

"The Rapid Switch Project is seeking to understand what, realistically, we can and must do to change things and what happens if we delay starting," he said.

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Hayrick | Friday, December 19, 2014, 10:27 AM
This is an interesting and realistic new take on what we will face if an acceleration in our response to greenhouse gas climate change is needed. This thinking ignores the potential of crowd response to change. In Australia at least a large percentage of the population and Industry is savvy enough, and rich enough to defer other expenditures to install local energy systems. Technology is already providing clever systems that allow storage and sharing solutions and the prospect of 'Moore's law' cost reductions. Politics in Australia is largely self serving so don't look to them to lead a revolution. they will follow only when their self interest demands it, meanwhile they will support those that fund them. Prof. McFarland is also similarly establishment focussed. Bring on disruptive tech :-)
Ken Goldsmith | Monday, December 29, 2014, 4:18 PM
Wonder how old this story is? Given about 17 years with no warming, despite "record" and increasing CO2 levels, given no tropospheric "hot spot", given the "missing heat" is not hiding in the oceans, now Flim-Flam wants to stick his thermometers in the ground, it must be hiding there! No, the theoretical "signature" "hot spot" did not eventuate, so no feedback, and the limit of CO2 AGW is more like 1.2 deg. C., over 200 years. The only disaster is the money wasted already on this scam. There will be no decision to accelerate carbon reduction. Given the dramatic fall in oil prices, the shale oil/CSG industries will also slow down. "if an acceleration in our response to greenhouse gas climate change is needed." LOL.