PEOPLE could be using "green nuclear" energy in their homes within three years as entrepreneurs rush to produce zero-emissions electricity. Geodynamics Ltd told the Australian Stock Exchange yesterday it had sped up plans to harness the heat generated by natural nuclear activity deep beneath the central Australian desert. The company plans to pipe high-pressure hot water from the granite bedrock four kilometres beneath the Queensland-South Australia border, where the slow decay of potassium, thorium and uranium generates temperatures as high as 300 degrees...The extent to which this technology is exploited comes down to its economics, relative to other energy sources:
Dr Williams expects the company to send electricity to the national power grid by 2010 and later directly to western Sydney. By 2015, it could produce as much electricity as the Snowy Mountains hydro scheme. Some scientists say hot-rocks technology could soon deliver huge volumes of economically viable power, thanks to the continent having the hottest and most geologically favourable granite deposits on earth.
The greatest impediment to the renewable energy industry is that the nation's electricity is among the cheapest in the world, thanks to huge deposits of high-grade coal. But geothermal energy is expected to be economically viable after a moderate cost is imposed on greenhouse gas emissions.So what should we do about geothermal power? Should we be investing in it? Or in solar and wind? Or in clean coal?
Geodynamic, assisted by $11.8 million in federal grants, said it would produce one megawatt of electricity for about $45 an hour - compared with coal power of about $35. The Prime Minister's taskforce on nuclear energy estimated the cost of nuclear energy at $40-$65, "clean coal" at $50-$100 and photovoltaic solar energy as high as $120.
A low risk strategy would seem to be to start putting a price on greenhouse emissions, through some kind of carbon tax or emissions trading scheme, and letting investors put their money into what they assess to be the technologies that offer the best opportunities for power that’s relatively cheap and low-emission. These could be kick-started, where appropriate, by modest grants.
Of course, you don’t actually need to put a price on emissions to encourage investors to put money into researching and commercialising these technologies. There’s no price on emissions at the moment – coal power stations can emit all the carbon dioxide they like and they don’t have to pay a cent – but investment is occurring. The reason is that everyone realises there will be a price on emissions in the future and it’s time to start investing accordingly.
I suspect this is one of the reasons we’ve seen the apparent paradox of industries that stand to lose from carbon taxes and the like actually advocating that governments introduce a clear carbon price. If they have a good idea what the price on emissions will be over the coming decades, they can plan how much to stick with coal or oil and how much to invest in alternatives. At the moment, all they can do is speculate.