Australia's new chief scientist Alan Finkel to drive the country to ‘zero-emissions electricity’

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Solar panels
A solar panel is covered in raindrops in Sydney July 21, 2010. Reuters/Daniel Munoz

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced Tuesday that the new chief scientist of Australia, Dr Alan Finkel, will provide high-level advice to the government, with particular focus on science and technology innovation. An engineer and a nuclear power advocate, Finkel is aiming for an "electric planet," where Australia will start shifting to clean energy and use "no oil, gas or coal."

Finkel sits in the office after the term of Professor Ian Chubb, who was appointed by the Gillard government in 2011. The new chief scientist believes that the best way to get rid of coal is by promoting alternatives, delivering value “at a reasonable price rather than just arbitrarily turning it off.”

To remove coal from Australia’s options to generate electricity is not an "overnight" job, he added.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Finkel suggested that political determination and the right policy levers would help to achieve this goal, and make huge changes in the country’s future in science and technology.

"My vision is for a country, a society, a world where we don't use any coal, oil, or natural gas because we have zero-emissions electricity in huge abundance," he said.

Finkel added that this goal requires optimising technology to “cost-effectively introduce alternatives,” which also is not something that can be done overnight. He told the ABC that the complete shift to zero-emissions electricity would potentially only be possible in the next 20 to 30 years.

Finkel is known for his advocacy on nuclear electricity. He had previously called for debates to discuss Australia’s potential to handle such a system “at very high safety levels,” and argues that nuclear power could potentially halt global carbon emissions, the Guardian reported.

To date, there are no plans for Australia to build a nuclear power industry. The country is still using large amounts of fossil fuel to provide power. In fact, two new, massive coal mines recently received the approval of operation from the Turnbull government, including the $16 billion worth Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.

Finkel is the current president of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and chairman of the Australian Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics. He is also the head of the classroom resources company, Stile Education.

Australia's national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), praised Finkel's appointment as new chief scientist, and encouraged him to work on opportunities to strengthen Australia's innovation and science outcomes.

“His skills are just what the doctor ordered for this critical role in kick-starting Australia's innovation performance,” said CSIRO chief executive, Dr Larry Marshall.

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