Dutton’s plan to save Australia with nuclear comes undone when you look between the brushstrokes | Graham Readfearn

The Coalition leader, Peter Dutton, has been trying to paint a picture of what life in Australia will be like if it tries to power itself mostly with renewable energy and without his technology of choice: nuclear.

Towering turbines offshore will hurt whales, dolphins and the fishing industry, factories will be forced to stop working because there’s not enough electricity and the landscape will be scoured by enough new transmission cables to stretch around the entire Australian coastline.

At the same time – so his story goes – only his option to go nuclear will save Australia from falling behind the rest of the world.

But Dutton’s dystopian image, with more brushstrokes added in an interview on the ABC’s flagship Insiders program, is a picture of inconsistencies, partial truths and misinformation.

Let’s have a look between the brushstrokes.

Is it a credible plan?

The Coalition has said it wants to put nuclear reactors at the sites of coal-fired power plants, but hasn’t said where, how big the reactors will be, when it wants them built or given an estimate on cost.

The Coalition has previously said it would give more details on its plan in time for its response to the Albanese government’s budget next month, but Dutton is now saying it will come “in due course”.

Despite this, Dutton claimed in his interview with the ABC’s David Speers that: “I believe that we’re the only party with a credible pathway to net zero by 2050.”

OK then.

28,000 kilometres?

Dutton claimed the government’s plans relied on “28,000km of poles and wires being erected” to connect renewables to the grid – a distance he said was “equal to the whole coastline of Australia”.

That’s a catchy soundbite, but where does this number come from?

According to the Australian Energy Market Operator’s most recent plan for the development of Australia’s east-coast electricity market, the most likely scenarios to decarbonise the electricity grid would require about 10,000km of additional transmission lines to be built between now and 2050.

What about the extra 18,000km? That figure comes in an estimate of what would be needed if Australia chose to become a major exporter of clean hydrogen as well as decarbonising the grid.

So about two-thirds of Dutton’s 28,000km is not so much related to decarbonising the electricity grid, but rather to an export industry that may or may not happen, to an as-yet-unknown extent.

Turning off power?

Dutton claimed: “At the moment, we’re telling businesses who have huge order books to turn down their activity in an afternoon shift because the lights go out on that grid. Now, no other developed country is saying that.”

Dutton is suggesting that businesses are being routinely forced to reduce their demand for power. This is simply not true.

Dr Dylan McConnell, an energy systems analyst at UNSW, says it’s very rare for businesses to be told by the market operator they are going to have their power interrupted.

Such “load shedding” has happened only five times in the last 15 years, he said, typically occurs in extreme conditions such as storms or coal plants going offline, and only a subset of consumers are affected.

There are two main formal voluntary schemes in place across the National Electricity Market (everywhere except NT and WA) where major electricity consumers can offer to reduce their demand for electricity at certain times, but businesses are compensated for being part of those schemes. Nobody is telling any of these businesses that they have to do anything.

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Neither is it true that no other country is engaging in some sort of process where demand for electricity can be managed.

Is Australia really the only developed country engaged in what’s known as demand response? No.

The International Energy Agency lists the UK, US, France, Japan and South Korea as having large markets already in place to help their electricity systems balance the supply of electricity with demand.

McConnell said: “Demand response is becoming a common and important part of modern electricity systems. This includes countries like France and the US, which have both nuclear and demand response programs.”

G20 and nuclear

Dutton said Australia was the only G20 nation “not signed up to nuclear or currently using it”.

According to information from the World Nuclear Association, Australia is one of five G20 nations with no operating nuclear power plants, alongside Indonesia, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Turkey.

But aside from Italy, Germany and Australia, the rest do have some plans to develop nuclear power in the future. Dutton’s phrase “currently using it” allows him to capture countries like Italy that import electricity from nuclear nations.

But what’s also important to note is that among the G20 countries (actually 19 countries) nuclear is mostly playing a marginal role. Nuclear provides more than 5% of its electricity in only seven of those 19 countries.

Social licence?

Projects would need a “social licence” to go ahead, Dutton said, but there was opposition in western New South Wales where “productive” land was being sold for renewables projects.

This is a variation of a previous Dutton speech, where he lamented a supposed “carpeting of Australia’s prime agricultural land with solar and windfarms”.

The renewable energy industry’s Clean Energy Council has countered claims like this, saying even if all the country’s coal plants were replaced with solar farms, the amount of space needed would be about 0.027% of agricultural land.

The Coalition leader has been to the Hunter coast more than once where offshore windfarms are being planned, telling reporters they were a “travesty” and that they would put whales, dolphins and the fishing and tourism industries “at risk”. He told Speers the turbines would rise “260 metres out of the water”.

Quick Guide

What are offshore wind energy plans in Australia?


The Australian government has proposed six “high priority” offshore wind areas. Two – in Gippsland, in Victoria, and the Hunter, in NSW – have been declared. Another four are proposed for the Illawarra coast off Wollongong, north of Tasmania in Bass Strait, in southwest Victoria and in southern Western Australia following consultation periods.

Most zones are at least 10km from the coast. The government says creating an offshore wind industry will help the country replace ageing coal-fired power plants and reach net zero emissions by 2050.

There has been local opposition in NSW, and the South Australian government asked for the southwest Victorian zone not to cross its border.

The creation of an offshore wind zone does not guarantee development would go ahead. It is the first of five regulatory stages. Others include project-specific feasibility and commercial licences and an environmental assessment under national conservation laws. If successful, the first offshore wind farms could be built this decade.

There are different views on the role offshore wind could play. It can be a powerful source of renewable energy due to the placement and size of the turbines – at times, more than 300 metres in height – but the technology is significantly more expensive to build than onshore renewable energy. 

The offshore wind industry has struggled overseas this year, with several projects cancelled and delayed, mainly due to rising construction costs.

Thank you for your feedback.

Dutton told the ABC that Australia should be mindful of the environmental consequences of windfarms – which is, of course, true – but his past statements have sounded more like cheerleading for voices opposed to the plans than an attempt to understand the scale and legitimacy of the concerns, some of which are being stoked by misinformation.

Dutton can’t know what impact offshore windfarms will have on fishing or tourism, but is willing in any case to use labels like “travesty”.

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