Spotlight On: Dr Alan Finkel AO

Dr Alan Finkel AO wears a suit with his arms folded, smiling at the camera with Melbourne CBD in the background
Dr Alan Finkel AO (Image: Mark Fitzgerald)

Speaking with Energy Source & Distribution ahead of his keynote speech at EN2022, Dr Alan Finkel AO explains how he became one of Australia’s most respected scientific minds and an expert on low-emission technologies. Words by Nadia Howland, images by Mark Fitzgerald.

Dr Alan Finkel AO needs little introduction, having become a household name as Australia’s former Chief Scientist and now as Special Adviser to the Australian Government on Low Emissions Technologies.

Before our phone interview, I carefully prepared my questions, imagining the great Dr Finkel might be authoritative–perhaps even intimidating—as important people with big brains sometimes are.

Instead, I was greeted by a cheerful, warm voice, who insisted I should forgo formalities and call him Alan.

Related article: Alan Finkel: how a late-night phonecall in 2016 triggered ‘incredible progress’ on clean energy

My first question: How does someone start out as an electrical engineer, then become a neuroscientist, inventor, researcher, entrepreneur, university chancellor, magazine publisher and Australia’s Chief Scientist?

“I’m not one of those people who had a life plan,” he tells me earnestly.

“I’d never heard of a Chief Scientist. When I was young, I thought I wanted to be a doctor, but in retrospect I think that was me adopting my parents’ aspirations for me. They were post-WWII immigrants and immigrants always want their children to have terrific professional careers.

“But when I had to fill out my application form for university, my hand trembled and I thought, do I really want to be a doctor? After some thought, I realised my interest in being a doctor lay more in the technology and mechanics of medicine. So I put down engineering, and it was a good choice as it suited my geeky personality and my interest in how things work.”

After completing his studies in electrical engineering at Monash University, Alan decided to pursue a PhD. He discovered there was a biomedical engineering group in the department, and one of the researchers, Steve Redman, was studying how nerve cells work in the spinal cord to maintain motor reflexes.

“I ended up doing a PhD with Steve as my supervisor, trying to understand electrical and chemical communication between nerve cells. And it was absolutely fascinating.”

From there, Alan went on set up his own company, Axon Instruments, in Silicon Valley, which developed specialised medical instruments for neurosurgeons.

After selling the company and moving back to Australia with his journalist wife, Elizabeth, and their children, in 2005 Alan developed the Australian Course in Advanced Neuroscience (ACAN). At about the same time, he and Elizabeth co-founded Cosmos magazine, which they later gifted to The Royal Institution of Australia.

Alan took the role of the inaugural Chair of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics, and chaired the Board of the National Research Centre for Prevention of Child Abuse at Monash University for two years.

In 2008, he commenced as Chancellor of Monash University—the first alumnus of the University to become Chancellor. He held the position for eight years before deciding to give retirement a go.

Dr Alan Finkel AO (Image: Mark Fitzgerald)

“Retirement was the first thing I failed at miserably,” he laughs.

“I was weighing up my options when, out of the blue, I got a call about putting my name in the ring for the Chief Scientist job. I thought, really? I spoke to my wife, and she said, ‘Alan! Do it! Your country needs you!’

“I spoke to my business partner and he said ‘Alan, do it! You’re made for it!’

“And, lo and behold, I got the job. Going back to my earlier point about not having a life plan… I guess the philosophy that I’ve always used, and often recommend to young people, is do what you do really well. I have always had a relentless commitment to quality. I believe if you do what you’re doing really well, doors of opportunity will open around you. And you’ve got to step through.

“In terms of what being Chief Scientist meant, I had no idea going into it. And I think it unfolds differently for each Chief Scientist. The formal responsibility of the Chief Scientist, according to the contract, is to advise the Prime Minister, Minister for Science and other relevant ministers on matters to do with science, technology and innovation, to engage and represent Australia internationally at scientific forums, and to engage the public on scientific issues.”

Following the blackouts in South Australia in September 2016, Alan was shoulder-tapped to lead the review of Australia’s National Electricity Market.

“Our mandate wasn’t to review what went wrong; our mandate was to recommend modernisations of the national electricity market so that it would be fit for purpose in the presence of rampant technological change,” he explains.
“Technology was then and still is changing fast, and the rules weren’t keeping up. The National Electricity Market was established for a world of coal-fired, gas-fired and hydroelectric generation.

“From an electrical engineering point of view, these three generation sources are wonderfully well behaved. They have characteristics, which some readers will recognise, called synchronous generation and rotational inertia and system strength, all of which are necessary to keep our AC system, an alternating current system, from collapsing.

“The traditional generators are well-behaved and they help keep the system running at 50 cycles per second, as they should. But what was happening then, through the renewable energy target, was an increasing amount of solar and wind coming into the system. Those generators are wonderful in that they produce emissions free electricity, but from an electrical engineering perspective, they don’t have the characteristics to support our AC electricity system. None. They’re not dispatchable, they do not have inertia or system strength. They cannot be dispatched when needed. They’re like highly intelligent but badly behaved kids in class. You want those kids in class, but you’re going to have to support them to overcome their personality defects.”

“After completing the National Electricity Market Review, people began saying, ‘Alan, you’ve dealt with the electricity system, now what are you going to do about hydrogen?” My answer was ‘Nothing! Leave me alone!’

But they kept on asking and, eventually, Alan relented.

“I started to think more and more about it, and realised hydrogen was going to have an important role in future. Yes, hydrogen is a high-density liquid transportable fuel, but it’s so much more than that,” he says.

“The biggest source of carbon dioxide emissions from a single industry is steel making. It turns out, you can use hydrogen as a chemical to convert iron oxide into elemental iron, which is the main ingredient of steel, and if you use hydrogen to do that, the by-product is water vapour instead of carbon dioxide.

“I got together with a bunch of experts from industry, from academia, the department of energy, and after consultation with our energy minister at the time, Josh Frydenberg, put together a vision statement that I had the honour of presenting in August 2018.

“In November 2019, I presented the national hydrogen strategy to the energy ministers and this time we aced it, with 57 out of 57 agreed actions—not a word changed.”

Alan was again asked to advise on Australia’s Long Term Emissions Reduction Plan, and Minister Angus Taylor announced a major update at COP26 in Glasgow.

“The approach of the roadmap is to help drive the price of zero-emissions technology down to the point that they become widely adopted,” Alan explains.

“We’ve seen this achieved with solar and wind, but we need to do it with other priority technologies such as electrical energy storage using batteries and other techniques, zero-emissions hydrogen, zero-emissions steel and aluminium, and then capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to store it because, at the end of the day, you have to get to net zero by offsetting the residual emissions.”

The government’s modelling in its Net Zero by 2050 plan was criticised for being reliant on new technologies to drive down emissions—an allowance Alan says is absolutely appropriate.

“When you look at the model, it says half of what we need to get to zero from today will come from the existing technology roadmap, and a lot will come from foreseeable technologies that will be incorporated into future versions of the roadmap, with 15 per cent to come from technologies yet to be invented.

“I was staggered that people criticised the government for identifying that 15 per cent of what we need to get to zero will come from technologies yet to be invented or developed.

“Of course they will. We’re talking about the next 29 years. Think back 21 years… would anyone have anticipated how solar and wind would slide down the cost curve? That lithium-ion batteries would be used for grid-scale energy storage? That homes would become net exporters of electricity, and that electric cars would become an integral part of the electricity system? These were the yet-to-be-developed technologies.

He’s not wrong. After all, two years ago we entered a pandemic and within 12 months a vaccine was developed. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention.

On that subject, while those of us not on the frontline were discovering ‘lockdowntinis’ and the joys of homeschooling, Alan led the government’s strategy to ensure Australia would have enough ventilators; developed the Rapid Research Information Forum (RRIF) for providing expert scientific evidence to the government; and led a review of the testing, contact tracing, and outbreak management capabilities of all Australian states and territories.

Related article: World’s first liquefied hydrogen carrier arrives in Victoria

“It’s been an interesting two years,” he says.

“My wife was writing articles on vaccine hesitancy and Ivermectin, and now she’s writing a book on scientific proof. We both work during the day and then sink into lockdown life at night by curling up on the couch and watching TV. Tonight we’re going to the cinema to see Dune.”

It’s a good thing retirement v2.0 isn’t on the cards yet because, as his wife once said, Australia still needs Dr Alan Finkel AO.

Dr Alan Finkel AO will present the keynote speech at EN2022 in Brisbane.

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