17 December 2014

Researchers at The University of Queensland believe it might not be possible to build enough low-carbon and renewable power stations to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius – even if there was a global consensus to do so.

UQ researchers are 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 Eric McFarland, Director of the UQ Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation, which officially opened today (read about the opening here), 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.”

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.”

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.”

The research is led by four UQ researchers – Professor McFarland, Global Change Institute director Professor Ove-Hoegh Guldberg, UQ Energy Initiative director Professor Chris Greig and Centre for Coal Seam Gas director Professor Andrew Garnett – in partnership with Princeton University, the University of California, Santa Barbara and Imperial College London.

The Dow Centre for Sustainable Engineering Innovation is a collaboration between UQ’s School of Chemical Engineering, the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology and the Global Change Institute. Read more about the Dow Centre here.

Media: Professor Eric McFarland, e.mcfarland@uq.edu.au, or Celestien Warnaar-Notschaele, c.warnaar@uq.edu.au, +61 7 3346 3883.