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  • Writer's pictureDavid

Our infrastructure and planning priorities are energy blind

Some of my previous posts have looked at the relationship between modern cities and energy supply, especially the relationship between the modern city and oil consumption. This post looks at our current infrastructure and planning priorities relative to our plans for and limitations on our future supply of energy, with specific reference to Sydney.

It is hard to identify specially what the exact goals of our state/country are over the next 20-30 years, although I believe they could be broadly summarised along the lines of:

- Importation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants per year and settling the majority of them within the Sydney metropolitan area (and other capital cities such as Melbourne and Brisbane)

- Construction of new urban (especially underground) motorways

- The construction of a second international airport in Sydney

- Some limited plans for public transport expansion such as the construction of metro lines, although much of this money is spent converting existing double deck passenger lines to single deck metro lines and transferring them to private operators, rather than on much expansion to the passenger rail network as a whole

- Vague plans about an energy transition from a largely fossil fuel powered society to one that runs on a mixture of largely wind, solar power and batteries

This post provides a discussion of all of the above.

Almost every day, I can find an article in the media outlining visions of a utopian society based on solar and wind power and stating that fossil fuel powered energy is on the verge of extinction. Actual statistics show otherwise.

The federal Department of Climate Change, Energy, Environment and Water provides statistics on Australia's energy consumption. The Department notes that in 2020-2021, 8% of Australia's energy consumption came from renewables, 36.2% came from oil, 28.7% from coal and 27.1% from gas.

Many people confuse energy with electricity, although electricity supply is only around a quarter of total energy consumption.

About half of the above 8% renewable figure actually comes from burning wood, bagasse etc. meaning that the total share of wind and solar is less than 4% of Australia's total energy use.

Something constituting only a 4% share is not on the verge of being a significant source of our overall energy, for a long time - if ever. 4% is still little more than a rounding error.

If we double overall wind and solar by 2031, it would constitute around 8%. Double it again by 2041, it would constitute around 16%. Becoming significant - although hardly the success story that industry promoters claim.

The sprawling nature of our cities and hyper-urbanised geography of our country is largely a function of oil, which has enabled mass motoring and long distance delivery of goods by truck.

Oil at 36.2% of our total energy consumption, is arguably the most critical of the above sources. Currently, almost the entire agricultural sector, trucking, shipping and municipal waste collection runs on oil. Without continued supply, shops empty, factories close, garbage is not collected, eventually utilities stop working and then riots/mass looting commences.

Australia's oil production peaked over 20 years ago at close to 800,000 barrels per day and has declined over 50% since then. It appears that the previous peak is unlikely to ever be surpassed.

Despite declining production, actual consumption of oil is in no way matching declining production.

Diesel is the most critical of refined petroleum products, since it supports trucking, shipping, freight rail etc. and not less critical functions such as passenger motor vehicles.

Electrification of some functions eg. freight rail transport may make sense if we were making corresponding decisions to ensure greater availability of electricity (to be discussed later). Seeking to reduce reliance on imported diesel eg. encouraging switching to compressed natural gas for heavy vehicles/machinery may also make sense.

The below chart from the website Crude Oil Peak, shows that Australian diesel consumption has actually grown around 50% over the past twelve years. As almost the entire domestic refinery sector has shut down over this time period, imports have skyrocketed from less than 50% of this demand to ~90%.

It's a similar story with jet fuel, with imports having surged almost ten times over the past 20 years.

As can be seen above, actual data shows no sign of oil demand disappearing at any point in the immediate future.

The global oil export market is dominated by a handful of countries including Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates and Iran. Given closure of local refineries, this oil is then often required to be transported to third countries such as Singapore, China and South Korea for refining before being shipped to Australia. Given that the Australian Government does not appear to be friendly with many of these countries, having been at war with them or having imposed sanctions against them, we should think about their priorities in where they are likely to export their oil going forward and whether it will continue to be available to us in current/increasing volumes and at affordable prices.

Gas at 27.1% of total energy is at least not currently reliant on international imports although successive governments have approved so many export liquefaction plants in recent decades that Australia as a whole was the world's largest LNG exporter in 2021, despite not even being a second tier player when it comes to reserves. Based on US EIA data, Australia at 3,228km3, only has around 10% of the reserves of Iran for example, or 6.7% of Russia's. By seeking to export so much with relatively little reserves, we are prioritising short term export income over long term availability and security of supply.

It should also be noted that essentially all of the gas used in NSW is imported from other states, with local production being negligible. Analysts have noted that gas production in Victoria is likely to decline substantially in coming years, meaning that it is unlikely to be available in as greater quantity in NSW going forward. We saw during the covid pandemic with state border closures, that each state government will prioritise it's own interests first before that of another state.

Perhaps based on the above, an LNG import terminal is currently proposed in Port Kembla, with talk of other terminals in locations such as Victoria. Perhaps the gas imports to these terminals can be met with supply from Queensland or Western Australia, although it would be truly extraordinary and an absurd situation if NSW were to become reliant on liquefied natural gas imports from other countries.

A holistic strategy to prioritise replacement of ageing and inefficient coal generators with gas and modern combined cycle gas power plants would have delivered huge environmental benefits, although this appears unlikely given the deteriorating supply situation in southern states and so many gas export terminals having already been approved and constructed in northern states.

At a time when we continue to import hundreds of thousands of immigrants per year, construct underground motorways with 24 hour lighting, construct new high rise buildings, a new airport and metro tunnels, electricity supply is another issue that requires long term planning.

Older houses were much more modest, and did not require as much energy consumption for lighting, heating and cooling as modern houses. The below image of any area of suburban Bankstown shows the large difference in the size of the modest post-war cottages with terracotta tiled roofs against housing constructed in the past 20 years.

Electricity was formerly managed in a much more conservative way, being largely government controlled, having a clear body responsible for the system and prices being set in advance and subject to regulation relative to the costs involved. The was more incentive to promote resiliency in the system ie. having spare capacity in the event of unscheduled break downs or maintenance at other units. A competitive privatised electricity market is more centred around efficiency, faster returns on investment, with less emphasis on resiliency.

Coal still constitutes 28.7% of Australia's total energy use. While being less energy dense than oil and gas, it does have some advantages in that it exists locally in NSW, with relatively energy dense coal, of better quality than coal in many other parts of the world. It also has some benefits in terms of resiliency, being easy to transport and store and can be stockpiled at it's location, rather than relying on just-in-time delivery from far locations. It does have limited applications, however, being useful largely only for electricity production and some industrial/heating applications and not as a transport fuel.

Announcements about abandoning what constitutes a large 28.7% share of our current energy use, raises real questions about future energy supply given the limitations in the ability of wind and solar to ramp up to anything approaching this figure in less than decades and availability of gas as a backup for intermittency issues.


There is cognitive dissonance in our priorities as a society. On one hand, there is talk of "net zero", abandonment of coal and other fossil fuels, on the other hand, we continue to build larger and larger energy consuming houses over productive farmland on the edge of cities, construct new motorways to be utilised by larger vehicles, high rise buildings and airports.

Wind and solar power have something to offer. They are capable of powering a society and built environment, but not the one we have now and not the one that is articulated in our infrastructure priorities.

Petro A Prioerto is among the world's top experts on renewable energy and the author of Spain's Photovolataic Revolution: The Energy Return on Energy Investment. For a country with a similar sunny climate to Australia, he calculates that the energy return on energy investment for solar is less than 2.5:1. This return is well below the return of at least 12-13:1 needed to retain a complex civilization such as ours and more in line with pre-industrial society where cities were much smaller and most people lived in rural areas, having a more direct and labour-intensive relationship with agriculture.

Jan Emblemsvåg performed a review of wind power in Ireland and found that due to the fluctuations of the wind, grid operators cannot accept high penetrations of wind and at the same time expect to build a low-carbon grid unless large alternative costs are to be introduced and potentially system reliability compromised. Therefore, wind is renewable, but it does not provide an economical approach towards low-carbon grids. In smaller grids, such as the Irish, it is even technically infeasible because irrespective of installed wind capacity, the wind production will too often be too low.

The above is party why, despite talk for a long time of a ramp up in wind and solar power capacity, it's actual share of energy consumption is still largely negligible in Australia.

An example of energy blind urban planning priorities can be seen in the below aerial image of the Wilton "Priority Growth Area Precinct". The decision to build large detached houses in a location adjoining a motorway junction and around 10km from the nearest public transport and employment opportunities is a peculiar choice of a location for a "priority growth area" when thinking about energy and our impact on the environment.

We should think about the prospects of an energy poorer future becoming possible at some point in the future. If we did, some of our urban planning priorities may be to:

- Retain valuable agricultural land on the edge of cities, rather than building over it with new roads and large houses

- Prioritise building of new houses in higher density formats closer to public transport and locations of employment

- Urban development needs to be in somewhat close proximity to harbours or rivers

- Reallocate scarce resources away from priorities such as motorway and airport construction towards alternatives such as rail and shipping of freight, public transport and energy efficiency of buildings

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