Energised to ensure a
sustainable future

Opinion piece: Professor Peta Ashworth
Chair in Sustainable Energy Futures

Overcoming the energy trilemma of providing secure, affordable and low-carbon energy has never been more challenging or contested, particularly when one considers the billions of individuals without access to basic electricity or clean cooking facilities.

Unfortunately, discussions about energy too often devolve into mud-slinging matches between different groups with vested interests in one particular technology. These are most often characterised by those in support of an immediate switch to renewable energy technologies versus those favouring a slower transition away from traditional fossil fuel energy sources.

Regardless of individual positions, based on the latest projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the urgency for decarbonising our energy supply is critical. It is clear this requires multiple trade-offs at both the political and societal level. Strong leadership is essential, as is ongoing research and development into new and existing technologies.

In Australia, the criticality of electricity and its associated generation became very evident when the state of South Australia lost power in September 2016 and then again in December that year. Similarly, the recent closure of Hazelwood power station in Victoria has caused concerns about how much the price of electricity will rise, not only in Victoria but other nearby states connected through our electricity grid. It has also brought into question whether our existing portfolio of electricity generation will be adequate to meet the demands of all Australians.

Professor Peta Ashworth.

Professor Peta Ashworth.

UQ is firmly engaged in energy research predominantly under the banner of the UQ Energy Initiative. UQ’s breadth of energy expertise ranges from engineering, material sciences and mining research, to social policy, economics and environment. Our researchers work with industry, government and other research institutions to identify the range of technical, economic, social and policy solutions required to overcome today’s energy challenges.

"The urgency for decarbonising our energy supply is critical. It is clear this requires multiple trade-offs at both the political and societal level."

One of UQ’s early energy flagship projects was the UQ solar array, which resulted in more than 5000 photovoltaic (PV) solar panels being installed across four buildings on the St Lucia campus. The Gatton Solar Research Facility was also developed, and is the largest solar PV research facility in the southern hemisphere. Its 3.275 megawatt generation system comprises five arrays – a dual tracking array, a single-axis tracking array and three fixed-tilt panel arrays – totalling 36,000 individual PV modules. UQ’s solar outputs are available in real time through a live data feed, which reports on the power produced at different sites, and the dollars and carbon dioxide emissions saved as a result of this renewable power generation.

Similarly, the University’s Centre for Coal Seam Gas, funded through a membership model, has a number of industry partners including Shell, Arrow Energy, Santos and APLNG.

Since its formation five years ago, the Centre has focused on developing a broad portfolio of research projects to address the demand for new and improved scientific knowledge in relation to coal seam gas. The research program is balanced across four main themes – water, social performance, geoscience and petroleum engineering – each led by a professorial chair.

In February this year, the Centre co-hosted the fifth IEA Unconventional Gas Forum with the International Energy Agency, an event that aims to share lessons and promote dialogue on operational best practice, regulatory action and implications for the development of natural gas in general and unconventional gas in particular as a so-called ‘transition’ fuel.

UQ's Gatton Solar Research Facility.

UQ has a long track record in carbon capture and storage (CCS) research aimed at significantly reducing greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel power generation and other stationary sources.

The Energy Initiative was recently awarded several million dollars from the Commonwealth Government and the Australian Coal Association Low Emissions Technology Pty Ltd to undertake rigorous and independent scientific research on the degree to which CCS might assist in the national decarbonisation goal. The research aims to address engineering, environmental, economic, and societal factors regarding our choice of future energy technologies.

Energy storage is another technology that has an important role to play in future energy portfolios, with some suggesting that Australia is the perfect testbed for different types of storage and how they might support more intermittent renewable energy technologies.

Recently, the Australian Council of Learned Academies sponsored the project Energy storage: opportunities and challenges of deployment in Australia. UQ researchers examined the socio-economic impacts of energy storage through a series of interviews and a national survey, which identified how Australians are thinking about the opportunities for energy storage in their own households and beyond.

On a different level, UQ’s Energy and Poverty Research Group, through a number of PhD students, is researching ways to improve energy access to enhance the livelihoods of energy-impoverished people living in developing countries. With a particular focus on India, students are researching the role of gender, how transformational behaviours can be replicated across communities, and the role of NGOs and other social actors in revolutionising energy access for the very poor.

These are just some examples of how UQ researchers are working collaboratively with industry and government to help solve the energy trilemma and build a more sustainable energy future. They also provide the important foundations to link with student learning. For example, the Master of Sustainable Energy (MSE), established in 2012, is an interdisciplinary program that helps students understand the complex nature of energy and the crucial role of finance, technology and social licence to operate in developing sustainable energy projects.

The MSE is attracting a high calibre of domestic and international postgraduate students who are interested in becoming the next generation of energy leaders to help us transition to a more sustainable energy future.

To learn more about UQ's sustainable energy initiative, visit energy.uq.edu.au.

About the author

Professor Ashworth, Chair in Sustainable Energy Futures, is based in the School of Chemical Engineering.

She has responsibility for the Master of Sustainable Energy program, and is well known for her expertise in the energy field. Her research focuses on understanding public attitudes to climate change and energy technologies (wind, carbon capture and storage, solar PV, geothermal) for climate mitigation.

Professor Ashworth also co-authored The CSIRO Home Energy Saving Handbook to help Australian householders save money and reduce their overall energy use.

She has an interest in designing processes for engaging on complex and contested issues with a focus on science and technology innovations. She was awarded an EU Horizon 2020 research project – Responsible Research and Innovation Practice (RRI–Practice) – which aims to explore the drivers and barriers to the successful implementation of RRI practice in a global context.

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