At a glance
- Australia’s goal of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 will require substantial use of resources.
- New, game-changing systems and technologies must be developed along the way to make best use of those resources.
- As a bonus, employment opportunities may emerge, requiring Australia to mobilise a significant part of its workforce.
For Australia to reach net zero by 2050, we will need to drastically change how we perceive both our land and sea use, says Associate Professor Simon Smart, of the University of Queensland’s School of Chemical Engineering.
“We’re talking about significant pieces of land being used to house solar and wind farms,” says Smart, who is also a director of Net Zero Australia and a member of the Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation.
“We have dubbed them ‘Solar Tasmanias’ because each one will be roughly the size of Tasmania.
"There will be six of them spread across the north-west of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. They will likely bring stark changes to the landscape,” Smart explains.
Net Zero Australia is a multi-year study being conducted in a partnership between the University of Melbourne, the University of Queensland, Princeton University in the US and the international management consultancy Nous Group.
Its work so far has considered models that include offshore wind farms, new onshore and offshore transmission lines, and five million hectares of new trees.
“All this work is scenario-based and is not predicting the future,” Smart says.
“But I would consider it the most detailed look at net zero pathways and scenarios for Australia.”
The project’s interim results were released in August 2022. The report is a fascinating road map of the decarbonisation pathways and infrastructure requirements to achieve net zero by 2050.
In terms of game changers, Smart says, three essentials have emerged.
1. Rapid electrification
Whether or not Australia’s north is transformed by six Tasmania-sized renewable infrastructure hubs for the export of clean energy, we will require a vast array of renewable generation to feed the grid, Smart says.
The “six solar Tasmanias” described in Net Zero Australia’s interim report would generate about three terawatts of solar and wind power – about 60 times the current national electricity market.
Why such an oversized generation capability?
“If it was for the domestic economy only, then we’d need renewable generation that is about seven to nine times the size of the current electricity market,” Smart says.
“Oversizing allows for an export market. It means we can maintain the same energy value that we export now, in terms of coal and LNG [liquified natural gas].”
The progressive adoption of more energy efficient technology and switching to electric vehicles, Smart says, will keep energy demand close to 2020 levels, even with substantial population growth – as far into the future as 2060.
2. Carbon capture, utilisation and storage
Carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) is fundamental to all the scenarios suggested in the study.
This technology essentially describes the transport, typically by pipeline, of carbon dioxide from where it is produced to a geological storage facility deep underground.
“CCUS is needed for reducing emissions in those areas of the economy that are difficult or impossible to decarbonise, such as the cement and steel industries,” Smart says.
“Another example is aviation. It’s difficult to make aviation fuel sustainably. The model finds it’s more cost effective to use fossil fuel-based aviation fuels and then offset those with carbon capture and storage.”
In one scenario run by the Net Zero Australia team, Smart says, there were no fossil fuels permitted at all.
“But we still needed carbon capture and storage,” he says.
3. Clean energy for export
“Australia has an enormous potential to produce clean energy for export,” Smart says.
“If we hope to achieve net zero by 2050, this will be an absolutely necessary element.”
Of course, Smart says, Australia is blessed in its capacity to generate renewable energy. This can be exported via undersea cables, or as green hydrogen or ammonia.
“Ammonia is good and viable now,” Smart says. “We can produce clean ammonia, predominantly from renewable resources.”
The hydrogen-dense liquid is easier and potentially safer to ship than liquid hydrogen, he says. Ammonia also contains more hydrogen than liquid hydrogen itself.
“We have the infrastructure, and we’ve known how to make and transport ammonia effectively for 100 years,” Smart says.
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The employment bonus
Transforming the economy will give rise to a diverse set of employment opportunities, the Net Zero Australia report predicts.
New technical skills will be needed in renewable generation, transmission, energy storage, clean hydrogen, and carbon capture, utilisation and storage.
In the scenarios modelled by Associate Professor Simon Smart, project director of Net Zero Australia, and his team, results indicate that Australia must mobilise a workforce of up to 1.3 million new workers.
“Two-thirds of these workers will need VET [vocational education and training] or TAFE [technical and further education] training and the other third will need a degree,” he says.
“What’s interesting is that the top 10 professions will only account for a third of the total jobs. It requires a diverse range of people and skills.”
The Net Zero Australia study offers clarity around options and pathways. What comes next, he says, will require a whole lot of community consultation.
“It’s not just about the production of clean energy,” Smart says.
“It’s also in the materials and the technologies that feed into the energy production. Plus, there’s a lot of innovation still to come in terms of business models, which we haven’t yet sorted out.”