CSIRO brings science, not politics, to electricity cost debate

Electricity transmission towers against sky (rewiring australia)
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By Dr Doug Hilton AO, CEO, CSIRO

Some nuclear fans claim the agency has a position on Australia’s energy mix. That is both wrong and a fundamental misinterpretation of the GenCost report.

Two of the most profound challenges we confront are climate change and the interrelated transition of our energy system to reach our legislated net-zero emissions target by 2050.

Tackling these challenges requires both science and trust in it.

CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, brings impartial research and carefully considered evidence, models, and data to inform the community and their elected representatives about the challenges ahead. We avoid opinion and rhetoric—we do not advocate for a policy position, nor do we skew analyses to suit any political party, whether in government, opposition or on the crossbench.

The GenCost report is a live example of how CSIRO brings science to the community and informs public debate without bias.

Related article: Solar set to leave nuclear and everything else in the shade

First commissioned in 2018 and produced annually by CSIRO and the Australian Energy Market Operator, GenCost has informed multiple governments and stakeholders across the energy sector. It is technology-neutral, policy-agnostic, and provides a single, fact-based view on the cost of future electricity technologies.

GenCost is one of several techno-economic analysis documents that contribute to the planning of Australia’s energy transition. GenCost’s capital cost projections are, in turn, an input into AEMO’s Integrated System Plan, the road map for the transition of the National Electricity Market.

GenCost is updated annually in a highly consultative process and takes new, verifiable data into account each year, which over the course of the report’s history has led to new and additional analyses.

In fact, industry consultation and public feedback has refined the report and led to the inclusion of an updated methodology for calculating the levelised cost of electricity (LCOE, a metric to compare the cost of electricity generation from different technologies) and, in the latest report, costings for large-scale nuclear for the first time.

Our most recent report found large-scale nuclear is technically feasible but the levelised cost is 1.5 to 2.5 times more than firmed renewables. And it will take around 15 years to build, reflecting the absence of a development pipeline and additional legal, safety, security and community engagement steps required.

CSIRO CEO Dr Doug Hilton wearing a suit and smiling
CSIRO CEO Dr Doug Hilton AO

Looking at 2030, GenCost found solar photovoltaic and wind with firming had the lowest levelised cost range of any new-build technology at $89 to $128 per megawatt hour. Large-scale nuclear came to $141 to $233 per megawatt hour, while nuclear small modular reactors had the highest cost range of $230 to $382 per megawatt hour.

Some nuclear proponents in the media have taken this to mean that CSIRO has a view on what Australia’s future energy mix ought to be. That is both wrong and a fundamental misinterpretation of our role. Our role is not to have a view, but to use a rigorous, verifiable, transparent scientific process to show what electricity generation costs could potentially be, to help ensure investment or policy decisions are made on a bedrock of data. Nothing more.

GenCost was created because the sector sought a single set of independently derived cost inputs to enable modelling of Australia’s future electricity system. GenCost is based on the best engineering, economics and science, and verified through an industry and energy sector stakeholder consultation process.

GenCost is not a total energy sector analysis (as it has sometimes been portrayed), nor was it ever intended to be. The data used in GenCost is based on the best global information and applied to local conditions, which allows a meaningful comparison of future electricity generation technologies—whether that’s nuclear, renewables, coal or gas—in the Australian context.

Related article: AEMO says renewables “the most efficient path” to net zero

GenCost will inevitably remain part of the debate around the right road for Australia to take to transition our energy system and rigorous conversation should be encouraged as a pillar of our democracy. But distortion, disparagement, and dog-whistling rejection of the scientific process or scientific organisations to justify a particular policy position, rather than discussing the merits of policies themselves, is a race to the bottom and will hurt, not help, this important debate.

As part of the public debate, GenCost will continue to face criticism, and as the chief executive of CSIRO I welcome this because when we attract scrutiny or questions, it often signals we are addressing issues of real significance to Australians.

It means we are striving to integrate science into the critical conversations that really matter for the community, the world, and the future. It means we are advocating for science and building trust in the facts.

And that is more important than ever because if we are going to overcome the profound challenges that confront us, Australians must continue to trust in science.

This op-ed was originally published in the Australian Financial Review on July 9, 2024.

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